Friday, April 18, 2014

GW English Alums on the Move: Teaching Drama, the Absurd, and More!

Margaret Soltan sat down to catch up with Michael Bennett, an English alum who received his BA from GW in 2002 and went on to earn his PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The last time we caught up with Bennett back in 2010 he had just become an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater! He has recently become a tenured professor and was willing to share more about his professional growth and advice for current GW English majors!

First, congratulations on having won tenure at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater! What sort of courses do you teach there?
In our English department, I teach the two regularly-offered modern drama courses, "Survey of Modern Drama," and "US Multicultural Drama." I also teach on a regular basis, the GenEd capstone course, "World of Ideas," and "Freshman English."

How did GW's English department prepare you for writing and teaching? Were there particular professors here who had a big impact on you?
As an undergraduate at GW, I really benefited from the one-on-one relationships I developed with three English professors, in particular: Robert Combs, Jeffrey Cohen, and Robert McRuer. I took multiple courses with each professor and the effort made on both their part and my part to further the relationships led to working more closely with each professor. This fostered more of a mentor-student relationship and afforded me a better look at how to write and teach on a professional level.

You've made a success of a career in university literature studies, but this is becoming more and more difficult to accomplish. What is your advice for GW students thinking of a PhD in English?
Know the odds! PhD programs in English accept somewhere between 6-10% of applicants; only 33% of those accepted ever actually get a PhD; and then less than 33% of those who manage to finish their PhD will ever get a tenure-track position... HOWEVER, if you accept the fact that the CHANCES are that you will NOT get a tenure-track position, and you are pursuing it because you love it, then full-speed ahead... And you may even get the right breaks and land that increasingly-elusive tenure-track position!

You teach courses in philosophy as well as literature, and I assume your interest in the concept of "the absurd" has something to do with this interdisciplinary perspective. Could you elaborate?
My investigation into absurd literature led me to study Camus and Sartre. This led to my dissertation and (to what became) my first book, Reassessing the Theatreof the Absurd. Finding the field of philosophy so fertile, I continued to study it, leading to my second book (Words, Space, and the Audience) which moved past Continental philosophy, to look at late-19th century/20th century epistemology (the study of knowledge, or how do you know what you know). From there, I have continued to delve deeper and deeper into philosophy, both writing about and teaching mostly 20th and 21st century analytic philosophy (the tradition that dominates 21st century philosophy departments). I kind of realized, at some point, that "critical theory" is a watered-down version of philosophy, and that engaging in the actual philosophical debates that are being contemplated by philosophy scholars in philosophy departments is much more powerful and leads to much more nuanced readings.

Could you share some memories of life in Foggy Bottom? What has the move from a city to a town meant to you?

Life in Foggy Bottom is really life in DC... From the restaurants in Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan, to trick-or-treating on Embassy Row, to studying on a regular basis in the East Wing of the National Gallery, to interning for the late-Sen. Kennedy, my education--while mostly taking place in the classroom--was complemented by the education the city itself provided.

We wish Professor Bennett the best of luck in the future and hope he will keep in touch!

Visiting Professor Jim English was a Hit!

Professor Jim English
On Wednesday March 5, 2014, the English Department’s British and Postcolonial Cluster hosted Professor Jim English (University of Pennsylvania) for an exciting lecture entitled, “Translated from the English: British Reality on the Global Screen.” This fantastic event was co-hosted by the University Honors Program and was made possible by a generous gift from English alum Sharyn Rosenblum (BA '86).  

English, who is a distinguished scholar of modern and contemporary British writing and has published numerous acclaimed books, including The Global Future of English Studies (Blackwell, 2012) and The Economy ofPrestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Harvard,2005), spoke to a packed house of nearly 100 undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members.  

The lecture itself, which was derived from a longer project Prof. English has been working on concerning the cultural meaning of Britishness in the present, traced the ways that the British culture industry has, over the course of the past few decades, circulated numerous localizable and tremendously popular cultural formats, the ubiquity of which testifies to the enduring and even neo-imperial reach of Britain in the world.  For example, Professor English was interested in pointing out the British origins of competition show formats like American Idol and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which, although known by these names in the USA, are formats that have been circulated and become popular in many different geographical and linguistic spaces. Moreover, English proposed various ways in which we can understand these formats as a product of a much longer history of British documentary filmmaking. The documentary tradition’s longstanding interest in naturalistic depictions of social reality was convincingly positioned as part of the cultural heritage of reality TV as exported in customizable formats: American Idol, Arab Idol, Bangladeshi Idol, Chinese Idol, Deutschland sucht den Superstar, to name just a few.  

This was a great event that students really enjoyed and the British and Postcolonial Cluster is looking forward to many more such events! 

Many thanks to Professor English for taking the time to visit and Sharyn Rosenblum for her generous contribution.
Commentary on the event was written by 
GW Professor Daniel DeWispelare.

Critical Methods Undergraduate Research Symposium and Party: April 25

English majors!  Professors Tony López and Daniel DeWispelare invite you to attend the Critical Methods Symposium and Party on Friday, 4/25, at 11 am in Rome 771. 

Poem of the Day: Michael Chitwood's "The Saved"

The Saved

From cutting the nuts out of a bull calf's bag with a Barlow,
from laying case knives on a dress pattern,
from running a trotline and baiting the hooks with gone liver,
from mashing a tobacco worm into a green blot,
from crimping dough at the piecrust edge,
from whisking an egg,
from whipping a boy with a switch he fetched,
from doffing a bolt of taffeta,
from working the one arm of the adding machine,
from beating the answers out of the erasers
Oh Lamb of God, they come.
If you
would be
born again,
if you
would purge
your sin
in the scalding
blood, the blood
shed for you,
if you
would accept
the death
into the water
and the life
rising out,
Three stars inside the moon's halo three nights in a row.
When a snapper latches on, he'll only release if it thunders.
Maud Brown could blow thrush from a baby's mouth.
Phillip Amos would take fire out.
Shirleen Anderson could speak warts away.
To bring someone home, take a lock of their hair and walk backward to their door      and in over the threshold.
Lard rendered on the wrong side of the moon will go rancid.
A pregnant woman should not look at the full moon or even the full moon's      reflection.
He cried out
and asked
his father
why he was
I want you
fathers and
you mothers
to think
on that,
your only child,
nails tearing
his hands,
those hands
you held.
Spikes driven
into those feet
you washed
and kissed
when they
were dry,
think on
this gift
you fathers
and mothers.
Mud randy as a ripe corpse.
River thick brown, a liquid road, going on its own dirt and taking its path as it goes.
A canopy of green, a living, breathing roof and the light through it green.
Mockingbirds splash. Amble of the opossum. Cardinal a red thread run
     through the green warp.
Moccasin a muscle brown and blunt.
Frog all fart, all ja-rump, all slap and not a bad meal if you have a mess.
Carp nudge a drowned cow and sup.
The green buzz and crawl of it all.
Take His hand.
Come down
this aisle
tonight. Name
Jesus as your
Lord and
Hold those
bleeding hands.
He died
that you
might live,
that you
might not
know the Devil's
breath on
your neck,
a breath
like sour milk.
He feeds
on flesh,
the maggoty
flesh of
this world.
He died
that you
would not
feel the Devil's
claws in
your soft skin,
those claws
crusted and brown
with old blood.
I'm holding
the Devil off
right now,
but Old Scratch
wants you.
He wants
you to stay
in your pew.
He wants you
to think about
a new car,
that TV show,
that baseball glove,
that Barbie.
Are you thinking
about them?
If you are,
the Devil's grinning.
Poplar and gum. Some oak and maple. Sassafras and dogwood in the
Blackberry bramble white in May with blooms that by July will be fat drops
     of sweet ink.
Whippoorwills address the evening in our tongue.
And bobwhites the day. Crows laugh. Terrapins hiss. Squirrels bark and dogs bark and the groundhog whistles a tune, a tune from roots, a tune fed by timothy and purple clover, a tune from fur and yellow ever-growing teeth, a tune from sturdy little hands and their dirt-polished claws, a tune most local, a sinful tune if this world is sin.
Don't you
see him
Don't you
see his sharp
yellow teeth?
Don't you
hear him whistle
that little tune
for dancing
in the sulfurous fires?
Don't you
hear that tune,
that beautiful
little tune,
he whistles
just for you?

Born in Rocky Mount, Virginia, Michael Chitwood was exposed to Christianity throughout his life. As a poet and essayist, he drew upon the many religious dogmas of his youth and placed them in ink. In his poem “The Saved,” he explores the idea of sin, morality, and the vulnerability of man to the vices of the Devil.

He masterfully evokes images of Jesus and his greatest gift to humanity: innocence. Throughout the poem, Chitwood emphasizes Jesus’ gift, almost guilting the reader into accepting God’s son into his/her life in the most masterful way. He also makes use of the terrifying effigy of Lucifer and the ease with which he is able to disease a mind. However, the last thing this poem does is force; it intimidates in the softest way possible. Personally, I am not religious in the least bit, but I fell in love with this poem for its graceful and fearful tone.

In addition to the themes, Chitwood’s technical ability as a poet truly shines in this piece. He employs alliteration, repetition, and, my personal favorite, an unusual meter. Every stanza varies in structure, forcing the reader to engage actively in reading the poem, and gives a purposeful aura to each word; no line feels out of place or meaningless.

“The Saved” is what I strive for each of my poems to be: multilayered works that hide the largest of details in the smallest of words; poems that do not pretend to be anything that isn’t written in the black and white before a reader; poems that, despite how distant the subject matter is, leave a lasting impression on its reader.

                                                                                                                     — Peter Kim

Peter Kim is a sophomore majoring in political science. He uses poetry to remind himself of his human self and as an anchor to always never stray from what he is. He is an avid fan of hip-hop and his favorite artists are Big L, Kanye West, Freddie Gibbs, and Jay Electronica.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Poem of the Day: Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman"

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,   
The stride of my step,   
The curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,   
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.   
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,   
And the flash of my teeth,   
The swing in my waist,   
And the joy in my feet.   
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,   
They say they still can’t see.   
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,   
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand,   
The need for my care.   
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

(Malika also suggests embedding this video ( of Angelou reading this poem with her response essay.)

“Phenomenal Woman” is a poem by the amazing Maya Angelou. The poem features a proclamation of love from the speaker, but the love is for herself. The poem starts off making sure that the reader knows this is not a poem that knocks the beauty of other women with the collectively “pretty women.” Each stanza of the poem, except the third, starts off with an observation from the speaker, whether it be recognizing that her beauty is not conventional to society in the first stanza or the effect she has on men in the second stanza. The poem separates the words “I say” to make the reader pay attention and listen, as the speaker makes her proclamations.

Most of the proclamations are about her physical appearance. Lines like “the sun of my smile” and “it’s the fire in my eyes” let the reader know that the beauty she finds in herself is all encompassing and irrepressible, and that she is phenomenal no matter who recognizes or doesn’t recognize it.

This poem has always been one of my favorites. Growing up, I had a hard time finding a ton of images of people who looked like me in media, whether it be books, movies, or magazines. I had an especially hard time finding those images portrayed as being beautiful. So when I did come across representation like that, I clung to it. This poem was no different. The speaker doesn’t apologize for finding herself beautiful. She doesn’t care that she's not conventionally “cute” or that she doesn’t fit a certain size or that men don’t really know what they see in her. All that matters is that she finds herself to be phenomenal. And with the ending lines of “Phenomenal woman, that’s me,” the use of “me” helps the reader do the same for themselves.

                                                                                                         — Malika Searcy

Malika is a junior at GW, majoring in journalism and mass communications. Her middle name is Maya, which her grandma chose because of Maya Angelou. Malika thinks that’s pretty cool.