Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Featured alumna: Caren Calamita

Caren Calamita graduated from the department in winter 2004 and is fondly remembered by her former professors. We caught up with her in China, from which she writes:

I’m currently living in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China, with my fiancé, teaching English to middle school students at a boarding school of 3000 students. Living and working in China has been one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my life. Being in China has given me a completely different perspective on what it means to be American. In addition to working with students, all 1000 seventh graders, on their grammar and pronunciation I am also often the only foreigner they have met which means I often must dispel, or try to at least, the stereotypes they have about America and Americans. My teaching is as much a cultural exchange as it is about relaying textbook knowledge.

Coming to China was, and many times still is, a huge culture shock. Chinese is nearly impossible to learn if you don’t have the benefit of a classroom setting; many people still live in abject poverty; access to clean water or adequate food is also a problem for many people. Most people, especially those who live outside of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, have only seen foreigners on TV so their curiosity (read: being stared and shouted at) is often difficult to deal with. For many Chinese people their jobs come before all else, even their family, and when we are asked, always at the last minute, to do something more for the school or have our teaching schedule changed, the differences between the cultures is very clear.

When we decided to come to China I knew these things, and more, would be something I would have to deal with. We are often asked why we didn’t go to one of the “Big Three” and it’s because we came to China to get to know Chinese people and China; if we wanted to hang out with Americans all the time we would have stayed in D.C. Granted, Zhengzhou’s not as developed as Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou but it still a city filled with wonderful people and really cool things to do and see. I still laugh when I say that to friends back in the States because it makes it sound like I’m living in a town of 30,000 people, not a city of 8 million.
Sometimes being one of the few representatives, there are only 700 foreigners in Zhengzhou, of “all things American” can be a bit of an overwhelming responsibility but it also has its rewards. We have become very good friends with a handful of the Chinese English teachers, some of our students and the owners of the one of local restaurant we frequent. It is these relationships that make the difficult days, being homesick unsure how to cope with “cultural” differences at work, easier to bear. I would highly recommend coming to China to any student who is thinking about it. If you do decide to come to China think of going to a city other than Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, you’ll experience a whole different side, the one that the majority of the Chinese live in, of China. Plus there’s more than enough time to travel. And I know it will sound cliché but it really is an experience of a lifetime.

I often think about the wonderful classes I took while at GWU and sometimes wish I could go back and take them again. I’ll always be grateful to Profs. Jim Miller and Judith Plotz on their wonderful insights on literature and encouragements on my papers.

Thanks for keeping us up to date, Caren, and good luck in your noble endeavors!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


[x-posted from In the Middle]

The saddest piece of our job as professors involves the number of farewells that teaching requires.

Just when you've grown fond of a student, just when you think This person has really grown intellectually, is astoundingly smart, is becoming someone wonderful -- this is a person I could converse with in class and outside for a very long time -- well, that's when the student completes all credit hours, up and leaves you. Good-bye. You will write, won't you?

One of my new responsibilities as chair of the English Department is to give each graduating student a personal valediction at the reception we have for majors and their families. I then don my festive regalia and lead them in a solemn line into the athletic center where we stage our college celebration. I sit with them, and watch them smile and laugh. They whisper nervously to each other about how frightened they are to be at the end of four years at the university. They know that this ceremony marks an important transition, but they are rather bewildered about what verge exactly they stand upon. Late in the program a dean reads the name of each senior by major. At the announcement of her or his name, the proud English student walks across a stage, shaking hands and posing for photos that I assume will be sold to them after some obscene mark up. At the end of this little gamut I stand, one hand outstretched to congratulate, the other clasping a beribboned medallion for them to wear at the big commencement on the Mall the next day.

We have nearly a hundred majors this year. As each strode towards me, I caught him or her in my unnerving stare. Even the shyest I made look me in the eye before I clasped their hand. After I had glimpsed their soul -- and in most cases, after I had beheld a very good soul that filled me with an indescribable hope -- I gave them my biggest smile and my most heartfelt commendation. It felt like one of the most important things I had ever done.

I like the fact that in the United States we call our "final" day of undergraduate life "commencement," beginning. So forget my melancholy at farewells. My prediction now, shortly after seeing some beautiful glimpses of the future: there is much in this world that is good.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Congratulations class of 2007

What a pleasure it was to meet your families at our reception, to hear about your future plans ... and to shake your hand as you were recognized at the CCAS Celebration.

Best of luck in whatever comes next, and please keep us informed.

For the English Department,

Jeffrey Cohen


Friday, May 18, 2007

Featured Alumna: Rati Bishnoi

We asked GW graduate Rati Bishnoi to let us know what she has been doing since finishing her degree. She writes:

Presently I work as a defense reporter here in DC. After graduating in 2003, I set out to pursue a job in journalism and publishing. Before landing at the independent publication “Inside the Pentagon” in September 2005, I worked as a subsidiary rights assistant at Penguin publishers (describing what a subrights assistant does will require another blog entry!) and a news assistant at a newspaper. Over the last year and a half, I’ve been covering U.S. national security and defense policy issues. I find and develop stories by talking to defense sources within the Pentagon, congressional defense committees and the defense industry. I work with the editor in chief to come up with story ideas and to write three to five articles for the weekly publication. I enjoy being a defense reporter because there are always new stories and topics to discover. One day I could find myself working on the need for renewable energy systems to help save the lives of soldiers in Iraq and the next day on how Afghans are training with Colombians to control drug smuggling. My work is challenging and often exposes me to issues and problems I’ve never faced before. At the end of the day, I most enjoy being in a job that allows my brain to chase new ideas.

Being an English major has prepared me well for my life as a reporter. Knowing how to structure arguments and using language to clearly describe my point were two skills I picked up while at GWU. More importantly, having a strong liberal arts background has helped me develop skills to better analyze situations and pick up trends that may affect the lives of readers. Somehow, being able to read Proust has helped me observe subtle details in defense!

I have great memories from GWU and from the English department. I appreciate the enthusiasm, helpfulness, quirks and, above all, the knowledge of my professors. I’ll never forget discussions on Byron’s view on love with Prof. Plotz or being continually amazed by Prof. Ganz!

Thanks for writing, Rati, and congratulations on your post-GW success.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"American Girls" by Jane Shore

from the latest edition of the GW student publication le culte du moi

American Girls
by Jane Shore

The first of the dolls she asked for
was Addy, a Negro slave escaped from the Civil War.
Addy arrived at Emma’s sixth birthday party
wearing her historically accurate dress,
drawers, stockings, cap-toed boots,
and carrying a paperback copy of Meet Addy.
But Addy’s kerchief, her “half-dime
from Uncle Solomon,” her cowry shell,
her authentic Underground Railroad maps
and what the catalogue calls “the traditional
family recipe for sweet potato pudding,”
and the hardcover book—they cost extra.
Our daughter didn’t get them, and she didn’t get
the wooden hobnailed trunk to store them in.

Catalogues were coming every month now.
We didn’t want to spoil her,
but on Emma’s seventh birthday
a Victorian orphan joined the family:
Samantha, who’d lived in a mansion and slept
in an easy-to-assemble brass-plate four-poster bed.
Samantha let Emma remove her checked
taffeta dress and slip her into her pink-ribboned,
lace-ruffled nightgown and matching bloomers,
and tuck her into her bed—
on the floor at the foot of Emma’s bed—
beside Addy’s authentic rope bed
that cost more than any actual Addy’s actual bed
would have cost, if Addy’d actually had one.

The next morning, poring over the catalogue,
Addy and Samantha started fighting
just as real sisters might.
Fought over who should wear the Kwanza outfit,
who would wear the genuine sterling silver
Star-of-David necklace,
tearing each other’s hair out over
the red silk Chinese pajamas, and who’d get to keep
the brass gong and pretend firecrackers
after the Chinese New Year’s celebration was over;
they fought over the ballerina tutu,
hula skirt, Girl Scout uniform,
items introduced to the catalogue
when the “American Girl of Today” was born.

For her eighth birthday, Emma’s father and I
custom-made ourselves a “Girl of Today.”
We chose from (blonde, red, brunette, black)
(straight or kinky) hair to brush
and braid, wash and set, chose
her eye color and skin tone from the
(Hispanic-American, African-American,
Asian-American, Caucasian) models shown,
and created a brown-eyed, brown-haired,
huggable, “unique one-of-a-kind original.”
Just like Emma, our own little girl.
The minute she got her doll, Emma
named the new doll “Emma,” and typed
her “life story” on her mini make-believe Mac.

But soon Emma grew tired of “Emma”
as she’d grown tired of her other “girls,”
leaving them on their respective beds,
where they closed their variously-shaded brown eyes
and slept the half-sleep of the undead—
toys on their way to becoming heirlooms—
only to be roused for a makeshift tea party
when a younger child came to visit.
Yet I often long to play with “Emma,”
who was such good company, after all,
and who lies unkempt, ear to her “boombox,”
on the top bunk of her bunk bed.
I wish I could brush her life-like hair,
wipe her face and dress her up again.

New catalogues keep arriving in the mail.
Though Emma has lost interest, I can’t resist
paging through things to buy (camisa, mantilla)
for Josefina (with a Spanish J)
who lived on a rancho in New Mexico in 1824,
and comes with her own line of furniture…
I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on her
and on all future “Girls of Tomorrow,”
who have yet to step onto the assembly line’s
long Fallopian tube of Time;
the girls my daughter’s daughter’s daughters—
whose faces I’ll never see,
whose names I can’t imagine—
will carry—as I once carried mine.

Jane Shore is a professor of English at GW, a world renowned poet, and a popular teacher of creative writing.

Monday, May 7, 2007

It's that time of the year...

The faculty of the English Department extends its very best wishes to our undergraduate majors as they finish their term papers and prepare for final examinations.

For those who are completing their stay at GW, we look forward to seeing you at the CCAS Celebration, at Commencement ... and especially at our annual reception for graduating majors and their families in Rome Hall 771 at 1.30 on Saturday May 19.