Tuesday, June 30, 2009

GW MEMSI in the news

From the latest By George!

New GW Institute Brings Together Scholars in Medieval, Early Modern Studies

Jeffrey J. Cohen, chair of GW’s English Department, leads the University’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute.

By Julia Parmley

Faculty across departments in GW’s
Columbian College of Arts and Sciences have been individually engaged in medieval and early modern
scholarship for years. But now their expertise has a home in GW’s newly created Medieval and Early Modern
Studies Institute (MEMSI).

The first major humanities initiative funded under the University’s Research Enhancement Fund, MEMSI brings
together faculty and students in history, English, French and Italian to foster new research, exchange ideas and strengthen partnerships between GW and other scholarly organizations. MEMSI scholars are engaged in myriad topics of study spanning the sixth to 18th centuries, including community formation, violence and cultural differentiation, consumption and trade, and the interactions among Christians, Jews and Muslims.

The institute is also supported by faculty and scholars from American University,
Georgetown University, George Mason University, the Folger Shakespeare Library,
the Shakespeare Theatre and the University of Maryland.

“We wanted to create a structure in which everyone, from advanced scholars to
undergraduates, could form a community and create cutting-edge scholarship that
will change the way we think about the past,” says Jeffrey J. Cohen, chair of GW’s
English Department and MEMSI director.

In fall 2007, Dr. Cohen says he and other interested faculty members organized
seminars around medieval and early modern studies that garnered a “fantastic”
response and made clear the need for an institute housed at GW. Last November, more than 60 scholars from GW and major universities nationwide attended MEMSI’s first event, a symposium titled“Touching the Past.” In January, MEMSI received its official charter and has been hosting seminars, lectures and events ever since, including supporting the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual conference in April. “The energy that has come out of the seminar has kept going,” says Dr. Cohen.

“By its nature, scholarly research and work in medieval and early modern studies is
interdisciplinary,” says Associate Professor of History Marcia Norton, who joined
MEMSI at its inception. “The institute also allows local scholars to come together
around common interests.”

MEMSI’s 10 core faculty members meet twice a semester for discussion and planning and often invite each other to give talks to classes and groups. Recent publications from participating faculty members include Dr. Cohen’s book about England’s
multiethnic past titled Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages: Archipelago, Island, England; Dr. Norton’s book on tobacco and chocolate in the early modern Spanish Atlantic world titled Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures; and Professor of English
Jonathan Gil Harris’s Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare, which explores material objects and their meaning in Renaissance drama.

Dr. Cohen says there has been significant undergraduate participation in the seminars
and lectures and says MEMSI is an especially helpful model for graduate students of how to conduct scholarship. “Too often, scholars practice as isolated individuals and are needlessly competitive,” says Dr. Cohen. “It can be eye-opening for graduate students to see that there can be a community of experts who collaborate like this.”

MEMSI’s goals include fostering partnerships with local institutions, presentations of undergraduate research and raising the University’s research profile in the field. “We have a world-class faculty here at GW in medieval and early modern studies,” says Dr.
Cohen. “With MEMSI, we now hope to form a community that advances their research
and adds to GW’s prestige.”

Dr. Cohen also stresses that the issues of the medieval and early modern era remain relevant to today’s world. “In many ways we are still haunted by events that occurred during the time period,” he says. “For example, we are still dealing with issues of race, community formation and cultural competition. When we study the past attentively, we look at our own times differently.”

Department Annual Report 2008-09

Every year the English Department reports on its progress and achievements to the university. I thought readers of this blog might enjoy the glimpse it yields of the year that was.

CCAS Department Annual Report 2008-09

IA Undergraduate studies

* Majors, minors, double majors
Majors: 191 in English, 10 in English and Creative Writing; minors 26; double majors 3 (fall 2008)

* WID courses offered
We taught 58 WID courses in the fall, and 48 WID courses in the spring, many at the introductory level. The classes range in size from 15 to 90. The English Department is clearly a university leader in WID.

Dean’s Seminars offered
1. Kathy Lawrence, “American Coming of Age”
2. James Miller, “D.C. Renaissance: Black Culture”
3. H. G. Carrillo, “Evil”
4. Ormond Seavey, “Inquiries, Stories, Histories”
5. Tom Mallon, “Abraham Lincoln”
6. Maria Frawley, “Jane Austen, Literary Icon”

Undergraduate research (Luther Rice, Gamow)
• Rajiv Menon, “Regionalism and South Indian Lit. in English (Judith Plotz)
• Edward O'Neil "Henry James and the City of Boston" (Kathy Lawrence)
• Samantha Barry, “Inquiry into Victory Garden Culture” (Gayle Wald)

*Independent study and capstone enrollment
Honors seminar: 12 students
Honors thesis: 12 students
Independent study: 6 students
Creative Writing Senior Thesis: 4 students
5 year BA/MA: 5 students

Other undergraduate research
• Reed Cooley presented a paper at the DC Queer Studies Symposium at the University of Maryland
• Rajiv Menon published two articles (“Unheard Protests and Silent Acceptance: Modern Indian Cinematic Representations of Subaltern Women, Wide Screen (April 2009): 1-9; “Gaining Imperial Paradise: Reading and Rewriting Paradise Lost in Colonial Bengal,” Nebula: A Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholarship). Rajiv also presented two papers and has one more accepted for October (“Scripting Ethnicity: Indian Film and the Concept of ‘Regional Races,’” 2009 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Meeting, New Orleans, April 2009; “Hindutva 2.0: Hindu Fundamentalism and User-Driven Internet Media”, “States of Violence: Representations of Conflict in The Film, Fiction, and Media of South Asia”, University of Washington, Seattle, February 2009; "Regionalism Outside of the Region: Postcolonial Nationalism and Diasporic Indian Tamil Identity", 2009 Conference on South Asia, University of Wisconsin, Madison, October 2009)

Undergraduate accomplishments
• Josie Price won the Academy of American Poets College Poetry Prize ($100) and the GW Student Poetry Prize ($500)
• Nada Shawish was fully funded for the PhD program at Michigan State
• Amy Katzel was accepted into the MFA program at the University of Maryland
• Taylor Brown was accepted at Columbia University and Northwestern in English
• Beth Lattin, Columbia University M Ed Program in Math
• Leah M. Webster, MA Creative Writing Temple
• Hayley Mirek, University College London MA International Public Policy
• Michael Fauver, MFA program at Iowa (most competitive MFA program in US)

We had twelve internships during the year and one more over the summer. A sampling:
• Emily Anderson, internship at Heinemann Publishing
• Laura Henry, CQ Press
• Carolyn Kerchof, Congressman Arthur Davis’s gubernatorial campaign in Birmingham, Alabama (received GW’s Shapiro Public Service Award to do this)
• Andrea Jo DeWerd, Summer Youth Program at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis
• Emily Ziobrowski Corcoran Gallery
• Georgia Bobley Washington Life magazine
• Caitie Craumer National Geographic
• Julie Braunschweiger VH1 studios
• Laura Masterson Sanford J. Greenburger (literary agents, New York)
• Hayley Mirek National Portrait Gallery

Unique offerings
• Fifteen students took an advanced creative writing course in fiction with Pulitzer prize winning novelist Edward P. Jones
• Twelve students participated in a one credit, one month book club with Mr. Jones, in which he read his favorite novels with them
• Twelve students participated in a one credit, one month book club with Suhayl Saadi, our GW-British Council Writer in Residence
• Six students enrolled in the GW-Folger Undergraduate Research Seminar on the History of the Book
• Fifteen students took a course in screenwriting comedy with alumnus Jason Filardi, who wrote Bringing Down the House and Seventeen Again. The course was visited by Hollywood directors and actors.
• Twelve students accompanied alumnus Malcolm O’Hagan on a tour of the Library of Congress’s rare books collection
• Robert McRuer introduced a new course on Transnational LGBT Film that included a week’s stay in Prague for the students
• The GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute offered an undergraduate-directed speaker series integrated with English 40W (“Myths of Britain”) that enabled students to hear famous scholars speak about the new work they were doing on the texts read in the course
• David Bruce Smith funded Faye Moskowitz’s “Jewish Literature Live.” 35 students had the chance to meet six contemporary writers whose books they read as part of the course. Three of the authors also gave evening readings open to the public: Michael Chabon, Art Spiegelman, Anya Ulinich. The course has been funded for 2009-10 as well.

IB Graduate studies (doctoral, overall)

* Applications, admissions, enrollments, with GRE scores
• 77 applied, 32 accepted, 10 matriculated
• GRE: GREV 665, GREQ 612, GREW 5.1

* GTA support
• 8 GTA packages

*Tuition credit awards
• Nothing beyond GTA awards

Other graduate support
• Two students secured WID support
• Three students are Writing Preceptors
• One student supported from the Violet McCandlish fund
• One student held a Women’s Leadership fellowship at Mt. Vernon

Graduate student research
• English graduate students are doing research in Early Modern literature, African American literature, Post-Colonial Literature, British and American 19th century literature, and trauma studies.

Graduate student accomplishments
• Amber Vasquez presented at "Bodies in Motion," an inter-disciplinary grad conference at the University of Rhode Island in March.
• Julia McCrossin was co-chair at the National Popular Culture of America Conference of 6 panels on fat studies scholarship; contributor to The Fat Studies Reader, which contains her paper "The Fat of the (Border)land: Food, Flesh, and Hispanic Masculinity in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop” (NYU Press, 2009); book reviewer of Elena Levy-Navarro's book The Culture of Obesity in Early and Late Modernity: Body Image in Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Skelton (The Journal of Popular Culture); has an accepted essay "Supersize Fetish" for the inaugural issue of Prefix, the online journal edited by GWU graduate students; has a paper "The Ectoplasmic Endomorph, or the Secret Tale of Kathy Bates' Queer/Disabled Misery" accepted for an anthology entitled Spilling Over, exploring the intersection of queerness and fatness, edited by Jessica Giusti.
• Maureen Kentoff has a chapter for inclusion in the forthcoming Seeds of Change: Critical Essays on Barbara Kingsolver (University of Tennessee Press)
• Julie Donovan published Sydney Owenson and the Politics of Style.
• Three students presented paper at the APCS Conference at Rutgers October 26 2008. They presented together on a panel entitled “The Ethics of Recognition in Clinical and Social Processes” (Anton Trinidad, Duc Nguyen, Natalie Carter)
• Marilena Zackheos co-founded and set up "Prefix," an academic/literary journal for GW English grad students, and presented a conference paper at NeMLA.
• Rachel Vorona had a paper on Moll Flanders and gender accepted for the Defoe Society conference taking place this September.
• Natalie Carter’s paper “A Voice of One’s Own: An Analysis of Maria’s Voice and Silence in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls” won Honorable Mention for Outstanding Paper Presented by a Graduate Student at the College English Association conference
• Elizabeth Pittman and Constance Woodard became members of the Bouchet Society – a National Honor Society for PhD students working on African-American topics
• Lowell Duckert, Gabriella Wyatt, and Nedda Mehdizedah presented at the prestigious Shakespeare Association of America conference

Placement of graduates
• One student finished a doctorate this year and was hired by Saint Anslem College Vermon as a tenure track Asst. Professor in Post-Colonial literature.

IC Academic programs, signature programs

* US News and World Report ranking
• 71 (we rose 8 places)

Other national/international rankings

Media coverage
• Our media coverage has mostly been limited to in-house, GW media. We were in the Hatchet frequently, and had feature stories on our programs in Research magazine, in the alumni magazine, and in By George.
• Jane Shore appeared three times on NPR
• Gayle Wald interviewed twice by BBC

Participation in interdisciplinary initiatives
• The English Department is the guiding force behind the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute; the Folger Undergraduate Research Seminar; and the GW-British Council Writer in Residence. We also sponsored a series of public readings in the spring in tandem with the Edward P. Jones residency and the Jewish Literature Live course. Two of these readings attracted 300 audience members.

II Graduate professional education programs (Masters)

* Applications, admissions, enrollments
• 22 applied, 10 admitted, 1 enrolled (NOTE: this year we have five new MA students via our new BA/MA program)
• GRE: GREV 621, GREQ 646, GREW 5.1

Graduate student accomplishments

Placement of graduates
• One MA to Berkeley PhD program, fully funded (she also had offers at Northwestern, Berkeley, Michigan, NYU, Rutgers)

IIIA Faculty

* New hires
• Gregory Pardlo, an accomplished African American poet, will join our faculty in the fall
• Novelist Edward Skoog is our new Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Residence

* Promotion and tenure
• Promotions to full professor: Tara Wallace, Maria Frawley, Robert McRuer

* Retirements, resignations

Faculty accomplishments
• Professor Herman Carrillo read from his fiction at the Folger as part of the PEN/Faulkner reading series opening gala. He taught in an all-day format at the Smithsonian as part of a Resident Associates’ program called “From Memory to Memoir: A Writer’s Guide.”
• Patrick Cook was nominated for the Trachtenberg prize in teaching
• Jeffrey Cohen is giving three keynote lectures: “Bodies in Motion / Mandeville, Defective” (plenary lecture Bodies, Embodiments, Becomings: The 34th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association. Saint Louis, 2008); “Between Christian and Jew: Orthodoxy, Violence, and Living Together in Medieval England” (keynote lecture. International Medieval Conference, Leeds 2009); “The Future of the Jews of York” (plenary lecture, The York Massacre of 1190 in Context: Reassessing Relations between Jews and Others in Medieval England, York, England, 2010).
• Jane Shore has three times been featured on NPR

Faculty publications
• H. G. Carrillo’s “Andalucía” was published in Conjunctions as the final piece in “The Death Issue: Meditations on the Inevitable.” The story is ambitious, layered, allusive, rhythmical, jumpy, earnest, self-aware and generous. It explores and resuscitates a once frequently-treated topic, the death from HIV/AIDS of a gay man’s lover, and it is firmly set in Washington and environs.
• Jeffrey Cohen, “Time out of Memory.” The Post-Historical Middle Ages, ed. Sylvia Federico and Elizabeth Scala (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
• Robert Combs, three book reviews
• Kavita Daiya published Violent Belongings (Temple University Press)
• Holly Dugan, “Shakespeare and the Senses” appeared this year in Literature Compass 6 (2009).
• Maria Frawley, a book review and a dictionary entry
• Robert Ganz, several book reviews in the Washington Times
• Jennifer Green-Lewis, “Teaching Victorian Literature in the Context of Photography,” Victorian Review 34
• Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009)
• Jonthan Hsy, book review
• Jennifer James, essay on Gwendolyn Brooks in Feminist Disability Studies (University of Illinois Press, 2009)
• Kathleen Lawrence, “Tragedies Upon Tragedies,” Ateneo Veneto (2007) and “Where’s Waldo?” The Journal Sculpture 2009.
• Antonio López, “Cosa de Blancos: Cuban-American Whitness and the Afro-Cuban-Occupied House,” Latino Studies (2009)
• Robert McRuer, “Shameful Sites: Locating Queerness and Disability,” Gay Shame, ed. Halperin and Traub (Chicago 2009).
• Kim Moreland, “Teaching Gtasby as American Culture-Hero,” Approaches to Teaching ‘The Great Gatsby’ (MLA, 2009)
• Gayle Wald, “Same Difference; Racial Masculinity in Hong Kong Cop Buddy ‘Hybrids’” Chinese Connections (2009)

Faculty national and international leadership
• Jeffrey Cohen is on the Advisory Board of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies
• Pati Griffith serves Board of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
• Gil Harris serves as an MLA delegate and on an MLA divisional committee. He is also the associate editor of Shakespeare Quarterly.
• Evelyn Schreiber is Secretary of the Toni Morrison Society
• Gayle Wald composed an essay on Soul! for the WNET website

IIIB Research/scholarship/creative endeavors

* New research awards
• GW MEMSI is supported through the REF at $40,000/year for three years

Awards to faculty
• Gil Harris received the NEH Fellowship to spend a year at the Folger working on a book project
• Kathy Lawrence received the American Academy of Rome Visiting Fellowship
• Four faculty members have UFF awards for 2009-10: Jeffrey Cohen, Gayle Wald, Jennifer James, Antonio Lopez

Research culture: seminars, etc.
• Thanks to the new Wang Endowment, we have funding to bring visiting scholars to GW to present their work. We had two such visits this year and will start the series in earnest next year with a big lecture in disability studies tied to our second Wang Visiting Professor in Contemporary English Literature

IV Partnerships/community/alumni

Significant partnerships: DC and international
• We maintain partnerships with the Folger Library, the Corcoran, and the British Council

Alumni events
• We sponsored two successful alumni events: “Literature in a Global Age” with Suhayl Saadi in the fall (80 attendees) and “Knowing The Known World” in the spring (43 attendees). Alumni were a significant presence at the Edward Jones inaugural reading and the Michael Chabon reading as well.

Alumni newsletter (attach)
• We will likely do our first newsletter in the fall. Mainly we rely upon our popular blog and Facebook page.

V Infrastructure

Centers/institutes involving units
• The English Department houses the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute

Space changes
• Using an endowment created by an alumnus, we are renovating Rome 771 (our seminar room) to enhance the technology and renew the space

VI Financial base

Development activities and accomplishments
• This year we put to use the Wang gift and saw an initial gift to fund the Jewish Literature Live course renewed.

Use of donor money
• Donor money funded the Wang Visiting Professor of Contemporary English Literature (Pulitzer prize winning novelist Edward P. Jones) in the spring, and will bring Latino studies scholar José Muñoz here in the fall
• David Bruce Smith funded a very successful run of Faye Moskowitz’s “Jewish Literature Live” course. He has pledged a second gift to fund the course again.
• Some money from the Wang Endowment will be used to bring a major lecture on disability studies to campus next year
• The Rose Memorial Endowment is being used to renovate our seminar room


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What to Do with an English Major 2009

Every year we ask our graduating seniors what their post-GW future looks to be: the class of 2008 reported here, and 2007 here. Here are some of the replies we've received from the class of 2009. We are very proud of our majors, and wish them the best of luck no matter what the years ahead bring.

Next year I will be working as a Staff Writer for the Washington Business Journal to pay the bills while I continue to submit short fiction pieces and my Honors Thesis for publication ... MFA program at Iowa ... I hope to work for AmeriCorps' Community Health Corps program in a city to be determined. Seattle and San Francisco are top choices. Following that, ideally I will get an MS in Disability Studies from University of Illinois Chicago, an idea inspired by my work with GW English Profs Robert McRuer and Todd Ramlow. And then perhaps a law degree and work in disability advocacy ... Law school! I was accepted to five ... I'm doing an Americorps program in Boston called "Cityyear" where I tutor inner city elementary school children in the crowded public school system. It's a year long program, after which I'll hopefully decide what I would like to pursue next ... I was hired by Samuel French, Inc., one of the largest play publishers in the world. I am currently working in their New York City Office, assisting the contracts manager, the managing editor and, occasionally, the accounting department (they apparently didn't get the memo that I was an English Major.) I'm drawing up contracts, speaking with agents and authors, and I'm also working on putting together a book of monologues for the company ... MFA program at the University of Maryland ... Ultimately I want to be able to have a job where I'm excited to go into work [nearly] every day, and still have the time I need to be able to write. Eventually I hope to be able to just write. And not starve ... Temple grad school, M.A. Creative Writing ... As for the future, I may return to GW for another degree, and I have a secret dream/research project that may someday become a class at GW. I'm in DC for life, I love it here and everything that the city has to offer. Being a GW student opened my eyes to many opportunities in my own home here and I hope to share that love and sense of adventure and make a difference in the world. I'm not sure what I want to do yet but I am confident that I will figure it out ... I will be a teaching assistant and residential camp counselor at University of Virginia for a high school writing program ... Columbia University! ... I'm working for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth as a Resistant Assistant (I heard about the program through the wonderful English listserv!!). Then, in the fall, I'll hopefully be working at a boarding school...teaching English!! After that, I plan on getting my Master's in Rhetoric and Composition (ideally at U. of Wisconsin-Madision). This will help me get into publishing...(fingers crossed!) Hopefully, all goes well! ... I'm going to Michigan State University for an MA-PhD program in English, fully-funded It's interdisciplinary (a.k.a. way cool) and I'll get to research American literature and Politics of the Middle East, and hopefully will get to learn better Arabic in the process ... Right now, it looks like I will be going to University College London to get a masters in International Public Policy. But, yesterday I found out that I made it to the last round of the foreign service exam, the oral examination, so if by some grace of God I pass it, that's what I'll do! ... I will be doing Teach For America next year; I am teaching secondary English in Prince George's County, Maryland ... I have been accepted into law school and so three years of studying intellectual property are ahead ...

Ann Romines Publishes Scholarly Edition of Cather's "Sapphira and the Slave Girl"

From the University of Nebraska Press website:

Willa Cather’s twelfth and final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, is her most intense fictional engagement with political and personal conflict. Set in Cather’s Virginia birthplace in 1856, the novel draws on family and local history and the escalating conflicts of the last years of slavery—conflicts in which Cather’s family members were deeply involved, both as slave owners and as opponents of slavery. Cather, at five years old, appears as a character in an unprecedented first-person epilogue. Tapping her earliest memories, Cather powerfully and sparely renders a Virginia world that is simultaneously beautiful and, as she said, “terrible.”

The historical essay and explanatory notes explore the novel’s grounding in family, local, and national history; show how southern cultures continually shaped Cather’s life and work, culminating with this novel; and trace the progress of Cather’s research and composition during years of grief and loss that she described as the worst of her life. More early drafts, including manuscript fragments, are available for Sapphira and the Slave Girl than for any other Cather novel, and the revealing textual essay draws on this rich resource to provide new insights into Cather’s composition process.

Ann Romines, a professor of English at the George Washington University, is a well-known Cather scholar. She is the author and editor of several books, including Willa Cather’s Southern Connections: New Essays on Cather and the South.
Charles W. Mignon and Frederick M. Link are both professors emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and textual editors of the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition series.
Kari A. Ronning is a research associate professor of English, assistant editor of the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition series, and codirector of the Willa Cather Journalism project at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Congratulations, Ann! You may read an excerpt from the work by following the link to the UNP website, above.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Jane Shore @ Slate

Check out Jane's poem "Last Words":

Once the patient stops drinking liquids, he's got
up to 14 days to live. If he takes even a sip
of water, you reset the clock.

Eleven days without a drop. The rabbi
made his rounds. They stopped her
IV and her oxygen. I asked them
to please turn off the TV's live feed
to the empty hospital chapel, lens
focused on the altar and crucifix—
it seemed like the wrong God watching
over her, up there, near the ceiling.
And because hearing is the last
sense to go, the nice doctor spoke
to me in a separate room. He said
it's time to say good-bye. Next day,
he returned her to her nursing home
to die. Her nurses said just talk
to her; let her hear a familiar voice.
I jabbered to the body in the bed.
I kept repeating myself, as I'd done
on visits before, as if mirroring
her dementia. I rubbed her hand,
black as charcoal from the needles.
I talked the way a coach spurs on
a losing team. Suddenly she opened
her eyes, smiled her famous smile,
she knew me, and for the first time
in a year of babbling, she spoke
my name, then, in her clearest voice
said, "I love you. You look beautiful.
This is wonderful." I urged her
to sip water through a straw. Then
two cold cans of cranberry juice,
she was that thirsty. Her fingertips
pinked up like a newborn's.
I wanted the nurses to acknowledge
my miracle, to witness my devotion
although I'd been absent all spring.
They reset the clock, resumed her oxygen.
I was like God, I'd revived her. Now
I'd have to keep talking to keep her alive.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tour of the Library of Congress in GW Magazine

From the latest edition:

Touring a National Treasure

Alumnus shows students Library of Congress’ riches

A tour of the Library of Congress allowed students to admire the building’s remarkable artwork and architecture. Photo by Rick Reinhard

As they perused the personal collection of one of our nation’s founding fathers, GW students took a break from their textbooks to learn another kind of literary lesson.

Stacked in the Library of Congress’ brimming bookshelves are the eclectic volumes of Thomas Jefferson, whose nearly 6,500 books—which explore everything from political philosophy to beekeeping—were purchased in 1815 to begin what has become the world’s largest library.

“Jefferson wasn’t a collector,” the docent says as students peer through the preservation glass. “He had a curious mind. He was truly interested in everything.”

Just a few miles from the Foggy Bottom campus, about a dozen GW students tapped into a uniquely Washington experience in March as they toured the Library of Congress. They strolled through the magnificent domed reading room, gazed at its art-filled halls, and examined one of its most prestigious rare book collections.

Their guide, alumnus Malcolm O’Hagan, Doctor of Engineering ’66, a docent at the library for about two years, organized the two-hour visit to share the library’s gems. A retired lobbyist for the electrical manufacturing industry, Dr. O’Hagan now audits GW English classes and says he wanted to connect an unparalleled world resource to the classroom.

“It’s such a treasure here,” Dr. O’Hagan says. In class, students may read old works, “But here they get to see rare books, they have a chance to look at the beautiful illustrations. I was hoping it would pique their interest.”

The Library of Congress, which occupies three buildings on Capitol Hill, boasts more than 138 million items on about 650 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 32 million books and other print materials in 470 languages; more than 61 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music, and sound recordings. As if that’s not impressive enough, the library’s halls and its reading room are artistically stunning. The Thomas Jefferson Building, constructed in 1897, is considered one of the most remarkable pieces of architecture in the nation’s capital.

GW English students got an exclusive look at a rare book collection during the tour. Alumnus Malcolm O’Hagan, Doctor of Engineering ’66, (back row, second from left) was their guide. Photo by Rick Reinhard.

When they weren’t admiring the colorful hallways and mosaic ceilings, students stepped into the reading rooms reserved for members of Congress and got an up-close look at the donated rare book collection of American businessman Lessing J. Rosenwald. In an exclusive viewing, Library of Congress curator Daniel DeSimone showed GW students some of Rosenwald’s most prized volumes, using the woodcuts, engravings, and sketches to explain the evolution of text illustration. A rare edition of a book from Dante’s Divine Comedy included original engravings by Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, while a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem The Raven displayed the artistic work of French painter Édouard Manet.

The participants—mostly undergraduate English majors, one PhD student, and one English alumna who signed up for the trip through an announcement on the English department’s blog—say the tour reminded them of their unique opportunity to explore in a resource-rich city.

“Sometimes it’s so easy to stay on campus,” senior Madeleine Starkey says, “but this was a way to connect students to the resources that D.C. offers.”

“I think a lot of people assume Washington’s resources are for international affairs or political science majors,” senior Rosemary Tonoff adds. “But this was a perfect example of what is out there for those in the humanities.”

Dr. O’Hagan, who focused on science and engineering in college and graduate work, says he is now reveling in his GW English courses, where he has deep discussions with other students about literature. After the Library of Congress tour, Professor Jeffrey Cohen, chair of the Department of English, believes the students will have even more to talk about.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity. It’s one thing to say to students, ‘Read the poems of William Blake,’” Dr. Cohen says. “It’s quite another to see the text up-close as a work of art.”

—Jaime Ciavarra

Edward P. Jones Residency in the GW Magazine

From the latest edition:

Renowned Writers Share Their Craft

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones began his GW professorship in January with a public reading of his novel The Known World.

Last fall, English professors compiled a wish list of sorts: If they could have any modern literary great join the faculty, who would it be?

After careful consideration, the professors hashed out their top two choices—Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Washington, D.C., resident Edward P. Jones, and José Muñoz, a professor of performance studies at New York University with expertise in Latino studies and literature.

The GW English professors got their wish, and now both writers will take a semester-long turn as a visiting professor.

The new position, the Wang Visiting Professor in Contemporary English Literature, was made possible by a gift from Albert Wang and his family. The gift, of which the professorship is a part, is one of the largest philanthropic commitments to the English department. It also includes support for the Wang Endowed Fund in English Literature and Literary Studies, an annual series of lectures by prominent authors and scholars.

The selection process to fill the two professorships wasn’t made public, says Professor Jeffrey Cohen, chair of the Department of English. Instead of a call for applications, the department members crafted an A-list of possible visitors. “We wanted to choose the very best people to fill the two positions,” Dr. Cohen says, “and we wanted a creative writer and a literary scholar.”

“The possibilities were endless,” he continues, but once they narrowed their focus to an emphasis on diversity within contemporary English literature, Jones and Muñoz were the clear top choices. Luckily, Dr. Cohen adds, the authors both said “yes.”

Jones, who won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World, began his spring semester residence in January with a full schedule. He led a literary reading group for undergraduates, gave public readings, and taught an advanced creative writing course, offering students one-on-one suggestions on short stories or novel chapters before they presented to the larger writing workshop group. Jones says he doesn’t make assignments. “If you want to be a writer, you go out and write,” he says.

The soft-spoken author says he is honored to be sharing his craft. “I’ve never been given this title [professor] before; It’s a distinguished position,” Jones says.

Cohen hopes the addition of Jones to the English faculty will emphasize the strengths in African-American literature. He believes Dr. Muñoz, who will be in the position this fall, will do the same for building strengths in Latino studies. Jones’ residence on campus has already “brought an excitement about writing and about literature,” Dr. Cohen says. “For his inaugural reading there was standing room only.

“Not only is Jones a world-renowned writer, but he also is a part of our own city of Washington, D.C. He is the most celebrated novelist we have had in residence at GW,” Dr. Cohen continues. “Studying with him will provide our students an invaluable experience—one that we hope they’ll remember long after they graduate from GW.”


Jane Shore in GW Magazine

From the latest edition:

Life, in verse

By Jaime Ciavarra

Poet Jane Shore is moved by ordinary moments.

The GW professor of English captures life’s everyday details with lyrical language and colorful verse. When she drives her daughter to the hair salon or reminisces about a piece of furniture in her mother’s home, Shore finds a poem.

“Being a writer means that you’re living your life, but you’re also watching yourself living your life,” she says. When an event stirs her, “it’s like going to a museum and falling in love with a painting. You don’t know why you love it, but you can feel something percolating inside you.”

For more than three decades, Shore has transformed those palpitations into print. A prize-winning author and a professor at GW since 1989, Shore creates poetry that is accessible, carefully constructed, and almost always deeply personal. In 2008, she published her newest collection, A Yes-or-No Answer (Houghton Mifflin-Harcourt), in which she explores both the past and present—from childhood memories, to complicated family relationships, to grappling with middle age.

Poet and GW English professor Jane Shore says that readers shouldn’t be intimidated by poetry or bogged down by literary interpretation. “Go to the poetry section and just start reading. Don’t worry about understanding what you’re reading or what it means,” she says. “Find what’s appealing to you.”

“What makes me think that you’re interested in my life? I think that’s a fair question,” says Shore, who includes assorted pieces of autobiography in her fifth book of poetry, the same threads that are woven throughout the fabric of her other acclaimed collections. Shore writes about personal events, she says, because she believes readers connect with the commonality of the human experience: Watching as her daughter reads her old diary, remembering the mischief she had with a Jerry Mahoney dummy, struggling with the loss of parents and affirming, as she writes in the poem “Body and Soul,” to

Think of it as a bon voyage party —
A soul at last at liberty
To make its own plans.

“Writing poetry helps me understand the world,” she explains. “It allows me to discover things I didn’t know that I knew.”

Shore, who graduated from Goddard College in Vermont and received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, says she was always drawn to the arts. She passed up opportunities to focus on music or dance when a college professor shared with her “the gift of poetry.” Today she imparts that enthusiasm for the written word in creative writing and modern and contemporary poetry classes. Shore calls GW her safe haven, a place where she continues to learn and discover the craft from deep discussions with her students.

“I think students come out of my classes with much better poems, and I hope they also gain a better sense of who they are as people and what they’re capable of doing in areas other than poetry,” she says. “Writing a poem is very hard. You’re asked to be honest and to share something of yourself, and you have nothing to hide behind.”

Shore’s ability to open up her life has won her prestigious accolades. Her first book of poems, Eye Level, won the 1977 Juniper Prize, and her second, The Minute Hand, was awarded the 1986 Lamont Poetry Prize. A decade later, she was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award for Music Minus One.

Although she believes in the organic relationship that occurs between the mind and the writing hand, Shore today uses technology to tell her tales. Stored in her computer files are more than 300 poems that she works on periodically. Sometimes it takes her a few hours to compose a poem that she’ll revisit and revise for five to 10 years. Time allows her to test words and phrases for precise meaning and durability.

To appreciate the language, don’t just skim over a poem once, Shore suggests. Read it again and again.

“I try to make a poem look smooth, but I hope when you’re done reading it, you’ll see that it’s like a pond. It has a smooth surface,” she says, “but also an undertow pulling you down to a deeper and darker place.”

Two Poems by Jane Shore

The Streak

Because she wanted it so much, because
she’d campaigned all spring and half the summer,
because she was twelve and was old enough,
because she would be responsible and pay for it herself,
because it was her mantra, breakfast, lunch, and dinner,
because she would do it even if we said no —

her father and I argued until we finally said
ok, just a little one in the front
and don’t ask for anymore, and, also,
no double pierces in the future, is that a deal?

She couldn’t wait, we drove straight to town,
not to our regular beauty parlor, but the freaky one —
half halfway house, half community center —
where they showed her the sample card of swatches,
each silk hank a flame-tipped paintbrush dipped in dye.

I said no to Deadly Nightshade. No to Purple Haze.
No to Atomic Turquoise. To Green Envy. To Electric Lava
that glows neon orange under black light.
No to Fuchsia Shock. To Black-and-Blue.
To Pomegranate Punk. I vetoed Virgin Snow.
And so she pulled a five out of her wallet, plus the tax,
and chose a bottle of dye she carried carefully
all the car ride home, like a little glass vial
of blood drawn warm from her arm.

Oh she was hurrying me! Darting up the stairs,
double-locking the bathroom door,
opening it an hour later, sidling up to me, saying, “Well?”
For a second, I thought she’d somehow
gashed her scalp. But it was only her streak, Vampire Red.

Later, brushing my teeth, I saw her mess —
the splotches where dye splashed
and stained the porcelain, and in the waste bin,
Kleenex wadded up like bloodied sanitary napkins.
I saw my girl — Persephone carried off to Hell,
who left behind a mash of petals on the trampled soil.

A Yes-Or-No Answer

Have you read The Story of O?
Will Buffalo sink under all that snow?
Do you double-dip your Oreo?
Please answer the question yes or no.

The surgery — was it touch-and-go?
Does a corpse’s hair continue to grow?
Remember when we were simpatico?
Answer my question: yes or no.

Do you want another cup of joe?
If I touch you, is it apropos?
Are you certain that you’re hetero?
Is your answer yes or no?

Did you lie to me, like Pinocchio?
Was forbidden fruit the cause of woe?
Did you ever sleep with that so-and-so?
Just answer the question: yes or no.

Did you nail her under the mistletoe?
Will you spare me the details, blow by blow?
Did she sing sweeter than a vireo?
I need an answer. Yes or no?

Are we still a dog-and-pony show?
Shall we change partners and do-si-do?
Are you planning on the old heave-ho?
Check an answer: Yes No .

Was something blue in my trousseau?
Do you take this man, this woman? Oh,
but that was very long ago.
Did we say yes? Did we say no?

For better or for worse? Ergo,
shall we play it over, in slow mo?
Do you love me? Do you know?
Maybe yes. Maybe no.

“A Yes-or-No Answer” and “The Streak” excerpted from A YES-OR-NO ANSWER by Jane Shore, copyright © 2008. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

From Prison to Stage

The following was sent by faculty member Pati Griiffith, who is helping to edit the plays.

Highlights of Kennedy Center "From Prison to the Stage" Show 2009
On September 5, 2009 the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC will explode with the finest plays and music written by prisoners across America. This year's edition of "From Prison to the Stage" will be the best yet with the help of faculty and theater students of the George Washington University Theater and Dance Department, under the direction of Jodi Kanter, author of "Performing Loss" about prison theater. The following plays have been selected for presentation this year at the Kennedy Center. Mark your calendar so that you won't miss this FREE evening of riveting theater. If you are a justice professional or part of a justice organization who would like to participate in the program in some way, including being on stage to introduce one of the plays or having your materials at our literature table, please email Staff@PrisonsFoundation.org or call 202-393-1511.
Here are the plays that will be presented:

1. The Love That Divides by Hakim M. Abdul-Wasi, Music by Inner Voices
"A man returns home to his Christian family after converting to Islam while away, only to find his family upset and unaccepting of his new beliefs."
2. One Fine Day in Inferior Court by Alex Friedman
"A wacky judge, a clueless defense attorney, a bloodthirsty prosecutor and a hapless defendant trip over each other in this courtroom farce."
3. I Am a Woman on Death Row by Kathleen O'Shea, Music by Lorri Carter
"Not one woman but dozens on death row in America today tell their story as a collage of experiences." 4. Reading Slim by Raymond McGee "A hostile prisoner resists taking advantage of educational opportunities in his prison to hide his inadequacies, including a shameful secret from his past."
5. Homeward Bound by Richard Dyches, Music by Dennis Sobin
"About to leave his correctional institution, a prisoner finds that his shortcomings are still in need of correction as he prepares to face his wary wife and confused son."
6. Time In by Judy Dworin Performance Ensemble and the women of York Correctional Institution.
"Story, song and dance about the heartaches and triumphs of women in prison.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Part Five: Featured Alumnus Mark Olshaker

To mark the beginning of June and as a nod to our 2009 graduates, this week GW English News will feature a five part interview with alumnus Mark Olshaker. A 1972 graduate of the English Department, Olshaker has put his B.A. in English to good use as a writer, Emmy-winner, theatre-goer, and intellectual. His experiences and opinions have been the subject of this week’s blog posts. The fifth and final post in our series covers Olshaker’s recent activities in D.C. and final reflections on his time at GW. If you’ve missed any of our previous posts on featured alumnus Mark Olshaker, you can find them here:
Monday: Student Protests and Student Journalism
Tuesday: Author of True Crime
Wednesday: Success in Film & Theatre
Thursday: Lessons from a Professional Dilettante

Part Five: Current Activities & Final Reflections
“There are very few things that I haven’t done once, and I’m not sure how many things there are that I’ve done twice.” In 2007, Olshaker became Executive Director of the English-Speaking Union of the Nation’s Capital. “Part of our mandate is to create international understanding through English, so being in Washington we’ve taken that to mean that we should try to find out what other people around the world think of us. We’ve started a program with various embassies around town, where we’ve sent our members… to embassies to hear what the ambassador or high official says about their position relative to the United States and relative to the world.”

The English-Speaking Union also collaborates with the Shakespeare Theatre Company: the groups jointly sponsor a competition among high school students to highlight the best recitation of the bard’s work. “We like to think that that helps keep alive the writer who’s certainly the most reliable guide to the human condition and the greatest practitioner of the English speaking language that we’ve ever had.” Olshaker’s love for Shakespeare can be traced back to GW professor Milton Crane. After having cultivated that love over the years, says Olshaker, “I now comfortably work with both the Shakespeare Theatre and the Folger. I’m sure a lot of that came from my English majordom.”

In addition to working with the ESU, Olshaker is chairman of the Cosmos Club Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Cosmos Club. “We give out grants to graduate students in various fields, and also bring in notable speakers in literature, in the arts and humanities, and in the sciences. Again, in a way that’s been an extension of my writing career, because I’ve gotten to meet and encounter some very interesting people… Wole Soyinka, from Nigeria, who is the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. A brilliant man, and I got to spent three or four days with him just because of my position.”

GW is another D.C. institution that has benefitted from Olshaker’s involvement. “I’ve emceed a couple of Hatchet events over the years at the National Press Club, and I’ve certainly kept in touch with a lot of my professors over the years and, as long as they were alive and healthy, continued relying on them for advice and wisdom.” He thinks it is important for faculty to reach out to alumni, who are not educators by trade, and let them know how they can be a part of the educational process. “They asked Red Auerbach––who’s probably the greatest professional basketball coach in history and was an undergraduate at GW––‘How come you haven’t had more to do with the GW athletic department?’ And he said, ‘Nobody asked me!’”

“Jeffrey Cohen has reached out and asked me to participate, as has Tara Wallace, and I’m happy to do it when they ask… The cliché is that the only time we as alumni hear from the university is when they want money… but the people I went to college with, a lot of them became very accomplished and very interesting people, and I think a lot of them would be willing to get involved on any number of levels if they were asked.”

This month, Olshaker will fly to London to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in Waiting for Godot––a play that reminds him of his time at GW. “I’ve worked with both of them a couple of times, and the last play I was ever in was Waiting for Godot here at GW in the experimental theatre program. I was Vladimir, and I went on to nothing after that. The guy who played Estragon is named Lenny Wolpe… and he’s currently on Broadway in Wicked. He’s had a very long, good career in acting, so I guess he used the drama department in the same way I used the English department. I told Patrick I’m looking forward to seeing it; I’m anxious to see if he’s as good a Vladimir as I remember myself being many years ago in experimental theatre. He may even be better, most likely; if he’s not, there’s something wrong.”

While Olshaker’s fondness for Beckett’s play might not have waned over the years, his opinion of other works has not remained constant. “Part of liberal arts is being open-minded enough to know when your mind changes… When I was in school here, of the people that we read seriously, two that I could not abide were Henry James and Anton Chekhov. I just found them both hopelessly tedious. Today, forty years later, I still find Henry James remarkably tedious, whereas Anton Chekhov, the longer I’ve lived and the more family involvement I’ve had… I realize how profound and great a writer he is.”

Olshaker’s final recollection from his undergraduate experience should appeal to current English majors. “I managed to get through four years of English majoring here at GW without writing a paper with a single footnote. I just decided that wasn’t interesting to me, that’s not the way I was going, and I… just convinced each professor that what I had to say would be more interesting if it were my own opinion rather than somebody else’s. Looking back on it, it seems kind of a dubious proposition, but it sounded good at the time and I got away with it.”

“Not to be too flippant about this, but part of being in college is finding out what you can get away with, finding out what the shortcuts are, finding out how you do a body of work on your own terms, rather than just having the teacher tell you exactly what to do. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Thank you for reading our five part series on Mark Olshaker. For more about distinguished alumnus Mark Olshaker, you can also view his profile at the Internet Movie Database and read a 1998 article about him in the Washington City Paper. Or, learn more about the projects and people Olshaker has worked with by following the hyperlinks I’ve provided throughout the series.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker (’72) Part Four

To mark the beginning of June and as a nod to our 2009 graduates, this week GW English News will feature a five part interview with alumnus Mark Olshaker. A 1972 graduate of the English Department, Olshaker has put his B.A. in English to good use as a writer, filmmaker, and self-proclaimed dilettante. If you have read Parts One, Two, and Three in our series, then you know about Olshaker’s collaborations with FBI profiler John Douglas, television producer Paula Apsell, and actor Kenneth Branagh. In Part Four, Olshaker shares some of the lessons he has gleaned from his professional life.

Part Four: Lessons from a Professional Dilettante
“I’m a professional dilettante. I mean, that is really what I do. I do things that interest me, and then I write about them, and I’ve been fortunate enough that in a lot of cases people have been willing to pay me for it. That is the benefit of an English major and a liberal arts education, but like everything else I think it is what you make of it.”

As an author, Olshaker hopes that his works will inspire others and inform public debate––but he recognizes that such goals can be difficult to accomplish. “Every writer wants to think that he’s changing things, and probably very few of us are. All we can hope for is… to inform people and communicate with people about what we think is right and wrong with things. Does writing actually change anything? Probably not. In W.H. Auden’s great poem ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats,’ he has a line that says ‘But poetry makes nothing happen.’ This is probably true.” At best, writers are commentators and communicators. “What we try to do at our most effective is join the public debate, and try to steer it in the direction we want.

For his part, Olshaker has participated in the public debate by advocating for the rights of crime victims. “I’ve spoken a lot to victim’s groups… and I try to get that [issue] out before the public and make clear how important it is. When I hear people say, as I have at many forums, that... ‘victims shouldn’t have any say in the criminal justice system’ and ‘the effect on the victims shouldn’t affect sentencing,’ I disagree with that strongly… Once an offender commits a crime, he creates a relationship, and that’s not a relationship the victim wanted, but is there… and so that victim absolutely has a right to take part in the justice process, in my opinion.”

Having adapted his own novel for the silver screen and others’ books for television, Olshaker recognizes the benefits and limitations to adapting art from one medium to another. An author who starts from scratch, for example, has complete storytelling freedom but must “figure it all out” without the aid of a guide. Says Olshaker, “You sort of know where you’re going, but you have to figure it out along the way.” To illustrate his point, Olshaker offers a quote from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

In contrast, Olshaker remarks, “If you’re doing an adaptation… you have the advantage that you know what’s going to happen; you can pick out the best scenes and use them and throw away the rest.” Writing for film is particularly challenging. “You have to figure out how to get a four or five hundred page manuscript into a 120 page screenplay (with a lot of white space in it).” The successful screenwriter must continually refine the original story, and portray it “as much as possible in a non-verbal way, by scene and setting and action.”

All this without the ability to point a camera, which depends upon the film’s director. “What you lose from novel writing is the novelist’s camera, if you will: point-of-view. The novelist can direct the reader’s point-of-view anywhere he or she wants; you lose that when you’re writing screenplays.” So adapting a story is all about “problem solving… figuring out a different way to tell a story.”

Olshaker is attracted to fields where he can find a narrative, or at least fields in which he can “imaginatively come up with one to impose on the situation.” In most cases, a narrative thread is easy to find. “It’s not coincidental that the professions that interest me to write about––whether we’re talking about detective, or lawyer, or doctor––these are professions that have to be good at storytelling. I mean, for a detective to be effective, he or she has to be able to take a set of facts and put them into a coherent story. In the same way, for a doctor the absolute tentpole of medicine… is still the medical history. You have to be able to hear a collection of symptoms and be able to tell a coherent story in order that makes sense. Probably three of the great forms that we have come up with in western culture––the drama, the mass, and the trial––are all about storytelling.”

Although Olshaker has embraced the storytelling potential of film and television, he considers a foray into “new media” unlikely. Largely due to a generational gap, he says that blogging, podcasting, and text messaging are “just not natural for me.” He particularly disparages Twitter. “I don’t understand why it’s interesting, why anybody would bother with it, it just strikes me as so much navel-gazing. Why do I care what you or anybody else is doing at a given point in the day?… It just seems like a huge, monumental waste of time and effort. But, again, I’m not part of this generation and I don’t understand it… My generation is going to be left behind on this, I mean we still read newspapers on paper and things like that.”

Despite doubts over his own participation in new media, Olshaker is hopeful for what he sees as the future of media. “When I was your age, there was network television and network radio and independent stations, and––strange as it may seem now––if you wanted to watch something on television, you had to watch it when somebody else told you to. Now I think we are getting to the point where the media are all merging together, the computer and the internet and radio and television, so that there will come a point where you can have your own studio just like CBS does, and if your stuff is more worth watching than CBS’s, you are going to have your own network.”

“Because of the means of dissemination, it does seem like media is becoming more and more democratized. Now that can be good or that can be bad: obviously it’s good in that everybody has access to it and everyone has equal means of expression; what’s bad is that a lot of the stuff on the internet is bogus, it’s phony, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell what is authoritative and what’s not. So like everything else, there are positives and there are negatives to it.”

In the end, Olshaker would prefer a good book over the latest videogame. “The real magic is taking a page of words and just looking at them and being able to conjure up this imaginary world… That’s the great parlor trick, and I don’t think that will ever change.”

To learn about Olshaker’s current activities in D.C. and his ongoing involvement with GW, visit the blog Friday afternoon for Part Five of Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker (’72) Part Three

To mark the beginning of June and as a nod to our 2009 graduates, this week GW English News will feature a five part interview with alumnus Mark Olshaker. A 1972 graduate of the English Department, Olshaker has put his B.A. in English to good use as a writer, filmmaker, and self-proclaimed dilettante who has collaborated with notables including John Douglas, Paula Apsell, and Kenneth Branagh. Before reading about Olshaker’s successes in theatre, film, and television, read about his experiences as and undergraduate in Part One and his career as a professional writer in Part Two.

Part Three: Success in Film & Theatre
Mark Olshaker’s career as a writer has often overlapped with his interests in film and theatre. First nominated for an Emmy Award in 1992 for the Nova episode “Mind of a Serial Killer,” he won the award for Outstanding Animated Program in 1994 as writer on “The Roman City.” Based on a book by David Macaulay, the program was hosted by Macaulay and featured the voices of Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen.

That same year, Olshaker published a foray into crime fiction, The Edge, set in Washington, D.C. It was later bought by New Line Cinema and Olshaker was hired to write the screenplay. “It hasn’t been filmed, as most screenplays are not, but it was a very good experience for me both financially and as an experience. I do have plans to try to write more screenplays… It’s a form that definitely interests me: it’s essentially trying to figure out what are the hundred best minutes of a story, and trying to render them thus.”

Olshaker is a man not only interested in creating, but also in the creative process. Having studied the creative process at GW under the guidance of Professor Claeyssens, Olshaker decided to investigate the rehearsal process of the most famous play in the English language: Hamlet. In 1990, prior to his writing of crime fiction, he directed the hour-long special “Discovering Hamlet” which followed acclaimed thespians Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh.

“I thought taking a play that everybody knew, like Hamlet, and a director who had played Hamlet very successfully, Derek Jacobi, and a new young actor playing it for the first time, Kenneth Branagh, that this would be a very interesting rendition of the creative process. We started the film at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England, on the first morning of rehearsal, and ended it when Ken steps on stage on opening night. So we semi-facetiously say that our film ends where all the others begin.”

With his experience in both theatre and crime fiction, Olshaker has observed surprising connections between the two fields. While filming “Discovering Hamlet,” Olshaker spent about five weeks living with these very fine actors; shortly thereafter he worked with the FBI’s behavioral science unit on the Nova show. “What was very interesting to me was, that the actors and the detectives… were doing a lot of the same things. An actor comes to a scene in a script and he or she has to figure out what is actually happening in the scene, what is the actual transaction between the characters.” This subtext forms the basis of any good play. In comparison, “detectives will come to a crime scene––so it’s not a scene in a book it’s a physical scene––and instead of subtext what they call it is evidence. What does the evidence show us was the transaction between the participants in the scene, the offender and the victim? In both cases, before the practitioner––be it actor or detective––can tell us what happened, they have to understand the subtext of the scene.”

Three years ago, Olshaker was nominated to be a judge for the Helen Hayes awards, recognizing outstanding theatre in the Washington, D.C. area. He is grateful for the opportunity to be exposed to new theatre, but the position has its drawbacks. According to Olshaker, “A lot of what you see if very good, and a lot of it s real crap; you certainly learn to distinguish it, and it gives you an appreciation for the range of theatre in this town… I’m convinced that certain theatres are open merely because the people who run them like to put on plays, whether they have an audience or not… but you have to give people credit for wanting to try.”

He finds some theatre more audience-friendly than others. As a Helen Hayes judge, he sometimes reviews Spanish theatre that is presented with surtitles. “Just having to struggle for the meaning, I miss a lot of the nuance of what’s going on onstage.” Different cultural conventions can also be surprising. He recalls, “At the Kennedy Center years ago I saw a production of kabuki. I was told that it was very good, but I found it boring because I just didn’t get the convention… things that were deeply emotional and meaningful to people who understood it just passed over me.” Olshaker is generally suspicious of productions that alter Shakespeare’s original words or intention. “I think when you tamper with Shakespeare, you better have a pretty good reason for it.”

In more recent years, Olshaker has continued to write and produce films. He was consulting producer for the 2003 series “Avoiding Armageddon” and in 1995 wrote the “Stormchasers” IMAX film. In 2000, he wrote “Bridges,” the opening program of the Peabody Award-winning PBS “Building Big” series. Says Olshaker, “The more I do, the more similarities I find between the things that interest me.” For example, “an architect has a plot of land to work with, the client tells him what he wants, and the mystery is figuring out what kind of building to build on that site.” Although he has no academic background in architecture, he has explored it via the fields in which he does have professional expertise. By working on films and television programs, “I’ve been able to pursue and encounter some of the great architects of our time… same with acting, same with history.”

Although Olshaker might claim that his specialties are true crime and public health, he has enjoyed considerable success in the realms of the theatre and film. To read Olshaker’s thoughts on the liberal arts, writing adaptations, and the future of media, visit the blog Thursday afternoon for Part Four of Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker (’72) Part Two

To mark the beginning of June and as a nod to our 2009 graduates, this week GW English News will feature a five part interview with alumnus Mark Olshaker. A 1972 graduate of the English Department, Olshaker has put his B.A. in English to good use as a writer, filmmaker, and dilettante who has collaborated with notables including John Douglas, Paula Apsell, and Kenneth Branagh. Before reading about Olshaker’s career as a professional writer, catch up on Part One of the interview in which he describes his formative experiences at GW.

Part Two: Author of True Crime
Olshaker’s undergraduate experiences as an English major prepared him well for a career as an author. “For me, ending up as a professional writer, being an English major at GW was something of career training. Not that I became a great literary writer as the people we studied, but certainly studying the best gives you a sense of who you’d like to be, and who you’d like to emulate.”

“Like a number of people in my era I was a disciple of (the now either forgotten or legendary, depending on your perspective) A.E. Claeyssens, who was a professor here. A tremendous charismatic and cult figure, he certainly influenced me in profound ways… He made literature come a live and made writing seem like a very exciting thing to do.” Claeyssens, who passed way in 1990, is remembered fondly by members of the English Department; a prize in poetry is named after him, as is a prize in playwriting.

“I’m a good advertisement for a liberal arts education, because I’ve pursued things that have interested me. Given the structure of my work in film and in books and even in journalism, it’s allowed me to do that.” Olshaker considers his specialties to be criminal justice and public health, although they developed “unexpectedly.”

In retrospect, he has identified two commonalities between those fields that might explain his interest in them. “The commonality in the first case is the idea of the mystery. In both crime and in medicine, and particularly in public health, you are trying to solve mysteries for the greater good. Who committed this crime, who killed this person, who robbed this person, and why? How did it happen? And of course the same thing is true with disease: what’s wrong with this group of kids, why did it happen, why did it happen to them? … The other commonality, I would suppose, is in both cases you’re looking at the human condition writ large. You see people in the extremes of passion and emotion, love and hate and fear and anger and suffering and distress and joy, and all of these things. And you see the human condition at its extremes. To a writer, that’s very interesting.”

Olshaker traces his involvement in crime fiction to two now-famous novels by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. In 1992, while writing for the PBS television show Nova, Olshaker saw an opportunity to tell the story of the real people behind Harris’ novel, such as FBI profiler John Douglas. “I actually parlayed The Silence of the Lambs to my own advantage. I’d been doing some work for Nova and I went to the executive producer Paula Apsell and said, ‘Look: I read this book, I really like the book, I understand they’re making a movie of it. If the movie is half as good as the book, I think it will get a lot of attention.’ I had no idea how much attention it would get. I said, ‘why don’t we try to get in on the ground floor, let me do a film about the real people behind this.’

Apsell was initially hesitant to back the project, but Olshaker continued to pursue it. “I called the FBI out of the blue––in those days, those pre-9/11 days, it was much easier––and they said ‘Come down and we’ll show you around the academy at Quantico’… I went back to Paula and said, ‘Let me do this.’” In October of 1992, the Nova episode “Mind of a Serial Killer” aired based on Olshaker’s research, with narration by Patrick Stewart and interviews with FBI profiler John Douglas. It was met with strong ratings and an Emmy nomination.

A few years later, Douglas contacted Olshaker when he was retiring from the FBI. “He called me and said, ‘Do you think anybody would be interested in my story?’ I said, ‘Well I certainly would! I’ll take you to New York, we can talk to my agent, and we’ll see… We ended up writing seven books together.” These books included the 1995 New York Times bestseller Mindhunter, The Anatomy of Motive, and 2000’s The Cases That Haunt Us. The duo have been on hiatus since then, but Olshaker hints at possible future collaborations. “When we stopped writing books together, which was about 2000-2001, I really felt that we had exhausted the major things I had to say in those regards… But if the right story comes along, and there’s one were actually considering right now, I would definitely work on that again.”

Today, Olshaker is developing a new fiction series focusing on the crime victims’ movement. The novels “will still be mystery oriented and thriller oriented,” but Olshaker wants to keep them grounded in reality. “I think one interesting thing about writing true crime is that your tolerance for the phony stuff, or fiction, goes down… How many times have you see a book jacket that reads: ‘The hunter becomes the hunted in a dangerous game of cat and mouse in which everything is on the line and nothing is for sure’? I’ve seen so many of those now.”

Olshaker disparages the cliches and misconceptions that plague contemporary crime fiction. Book jackets also like to advertise ex-FBI or ex-police authors who “have the rare gift (or is it a curse?) to be able to get inside the mind of criminals and think like criminals.” According to Olshaker, “this is a bunch of hooey too, because if you are a detective, if you are an FBI agent or a police officer, you better be able to think like a criminal… that’s the least of it; if you can’t think like a criminal, you’re in the wrong business.” Although criminals do hold advantages over police in terms of avoiding detection and capture, crime fiction ignores how stupid most criminals are. “That doesn’t come across in crime fiction; they’re all these great geniuses of crime, masters of disguise, and that’s not true. I remember ten or twelve years ago, when Andrew Cunanan was on the loose, the killer of Gianni Versace. He was being made out by the press as this master of crime, master of disguise, this arch serial criminal who was going to go on a rampage… John Douglas and I knew, just from the type of crimes they were, that this was ridiculous; this was a desperate, stupid man who was coming to the end of this rope. We wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal and we said, he’s either going to be captured, or set up a suicide by cop situation very quickly. It actually happened that night; the night that the article appeared Cunanan was cornered. If I can do anything in fiction, it is try to be more realistic than most of the writers out there, and still be entertaining, because of course that’s what the job is.”

For more about Olshaker’s jobs in theatre and film, check back Wednesday evening for Part Three of Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker (’72)

With the class of 2009 now safely out of GW’s hallowed (and under construction) halls, now is the perfect time to provide departing English majors with reassurance in the form of another Featured Alumnus blog post. Our subject this week is Mark Olshaker, a 1972 graduate of the GW English Department. As you’ll find, Mr. Olshaker is a poster child for the liberal arts education, having put his English degree to good use as a writer, producer, filmmaker, and philanthropist. His career has spanned best selling novels, Emmy awards, and collaborations with notables such as John Douglas, Paula Apsell, and Kenneth Branagh. My interview with Mr. Olshaker was so rich with advice and anecdotes that it is being split into four parts, running the length of this week in recognition of the beginning of June and the beginning of the careers of our 2009 graduates.

Monday: Student Protests and Student Journalism
Tuesday: Author of True Crime
Wednesday: Success in Film & Theatre
Thursday: Lessons from a Professional Dilettante
Friday: Current Activities & Final Reflections

Part One: Student Protests and Student Journalism
Although it has been over 30 years since Olshaker matriculated at GW, the campus is still familiar to him. “I walk through the same streets here and see many of the same buildings, and it sure doesn’t seem like very long ago… The four years that I was here at GW were a very exciting time; an usual time. A lot of what people my age remember is simply being young; whatever time it is that you’re young you look back at with nostalgia.”

In the autumn of 1968, Olshaker became a freshman at GW and joined a campus marked by protest. Student protests, inspired by those at Columbia University by Students for a Democratic Society, had spread to the nation’s capital. “It was very dynamic. GW, being the closest university to the White House, became the staging ground for a lot of protests and a lot of action. Very few people my age do not recognize the smell and feel of tear gas as a result.”

Olshaker admits to participating in the protests, but considers himself a liberal, not a radical. “There was a certain amount of radical sheik at that time, and I was somewhat on the oust because I considered myself––and still do, interestingly enough––a liberal. In fact, one of the great informing experiences of my reading life was here at GW, reading Lionel Trilling’s book The Liberal Imagination. But most people considered themselves radicals, and if you were not a radical, there was something almost déclassé about you… I kind of strode the fence, as did a lot of people in those days.”

Though life at GW might have centered on student protests, the world outside Washington, D.C. saw little of this. Olshaker recalls commuting to Frederick County, Maryland during his freshman and sophomore years for a job as a disc jockey at a country-western radio station. “During that time, I was living a very schizophrenic existence: the radicalism on campus was very cutting edge, and it was what everybody was reading about; on the other hand, when I would repair to the mountains of rural Maryland, it was as if nothing had changed from the ‘50s. The two worlds I inhabited really didn’t understand each other and had almost nothing in common with each other.”

Olshaker also covered the protests while working for The Hatchet, though his regular position was as Arts Editor. “In those days everybody pitched in whatever needed to be done. A lot of the reporting was very spontaneous because of what was happening… So I ended up doing a fair amount of regular reporting as well.”

The beginning of Olshaker’s senior year, fall 1971, also saw the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Due to his experience at The Hatchet, he was asked to help promote and develop the Kennedy Center’s new American College Theatre Festival. Olshaker credits this experience with enhancing D.C.’s theatre community, not to mention his own love for the art form. “Washington is certainly the number two theatre town in the United States, and... it was already showing some strong signs of that back in the ‘70s.”

Olshaker enjoyed many successes with The Hatchet, but only dabbled in journalism after leaving GW. He worked briefly for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before becoming a “generalist writer,” who has since gone on to write for the small screen, the big screen, newspapers, and publishing houses. For more about Olshaker’s best-selling crime fiction novels, check back Tuesday for Part Two of Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker.