Tuesday, December 22, 2009
For a recent profile, see this article in the Washington Post. Edward P. Jones was the inaugural Wang Visiting Professor of Contemporary English Literature at GW in the spring of 2009. We are thrilled to have him return as a professor of English.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
It has been my pleasure to serve as chair of the GW English Department for the past three and a half years. Now that my term of service is coming to an end, I want to thank you for the support you've given me to make this time in office so enjoyable -- and so affirmative. I will leave in a way that I never could have predicted when I accepted the position: missing deeply the chance I have had to serve you and GW.
Much has changed since I moved to my new office on June 1, 2006. The English Department adopted a mission statement that gave us cohesion and a better sense of shared endeavor. Famous writers have visited our campus: Nadeem Aslam, Michael Chabon, Art Spiegelman, Suhayl Saadi, and Edward P. Jones, to name a few. We tried to connect better with our amazing alumni, and to give our undergraduates a better sense of community. We founded a blog and established a Facebook page. We've offered courses that no other university can match: an undergraduate research seminar at the Folger Shakespeare Library; a screenwriting course with a renowned screenwriter who happens to be an English Department alumnus; a Jewish Literature Live course in which students meet six novelists whose work they read; a transnational film class that includes travel to Prague. Several outstanding teachers have joined our faculty: Gregory Pardlo, H. G. Carrillo, Jonathan Hsy. We founded a Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute and initiated the GW English Distinguished Lecture in Literary and Cultural Studies. We created exciting gateway courses and revised the curriculum of the undergraduate major.
Few of these initiatives could have succeeded without the support of our department's generous donors. Anyone who wrote us a check for $25 or $50 or $500 over the past few years enabled this list of achievements to unfold. THANK YOU. My deep and lasting gratitude extends especially to the Wang family and to David Bruce Smith, who changed our department forever through their extraordinary philanthropy.
Challenges remain. Our graduate program is underfunded, a major impediment to gaining in our national ranking. The economy remains uncertain even as our ambitions remain unabated.
But the English Department will be in exceptionally good hands. My friend and colleague Gayle Wald takes over as chair on January 1, 2010. In her role as deputy chair, Gayle and I worked have worked in long partnership. She will, I am certain, lead us to ever better places. If she has the same support that I have enjoyed from colleagues, students, alumni, the university, and friends, she cannot go wrong.
I am not going anywhere: returning to my teaching, directing GW MEMSI, and continuing to work to support the department. I hope that you will stay in touch ... and I look forward to being slightly less breathless all the time!
With all best wishes for the holidays and new year,
Thursday, December 10, 2009
For alumna, Katy DiSavino, being a playwright was not really a choice, it was in her blood. As the daughter of parents who own a theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, DiSavino has been acting since she was child. Determined to breakout of theater once she went to GW, DiSavino sat her parents down for the long hard discussion of her break up with theater. She recalls telling her parents, "'Listen guys, I'm done with the Theatre. Forever. I'm going to be a serious English Major.' That lasted all of six minutes," she said. DiSavino soon found herself in the student theater group the 14th Grade Players, an English and Creative Writing major with a concentration in Dramatic Writing, and an intern at the play publishing house, Samuel French, where she is now employed full time. "I can't escape!" she jokes, however this is a good thing.
DiSavino cannot saddle all of the blame on her parents, but her GW professors as well. Always intending to be a Creative Writing major when she applied to the university, DiSavino found her real niche within the department during a class. "I first started toying with the idea when I took Intro to Dramatic Writing with Ally Currin," she said. "I started to understand more about my writing with that class, and seeing Ally - a successful playwright - doing what she does, and listening to her insight and feedback - I don't know. It really made me want to try to do that, too."
Just as DiSavino recognized potential in dramatic writing for herself, her professors spotted a spark there too. Throughout various creative writing courses, she learned her writing process. However, it was really what her professors pushed her to do outside of the classroom that has led her to where she is today. She said, "Pati [Griffith] was a huge influence on me, and I was incredibly fortunate to have her as a professor and mentor. She encouraged me and pushed me and really shaped a lot of what I've written."
It was because of her professors encouragement that DiSavino applied for and got an internship at Samuel French in the summer of 2007. Working in the Editorial Department throughout her internship was a fundamental career breakthrough for DiSavino. "It was the first time I realized I could maybe get a job in a field I actually cared about," she said. Samuel French hired her to assist the Contracts Manager when she first graduated, but since then DiSavino has moved to the Marketing Department. She does not just work for Samuel French however, but is soon to be published by the company!
The play Nana's Naughty Knickers was written for Griffith's class. It is a farce about a grandmother who runs an illegal lingerie boutique from her rent-controlled apartment in New York City. When her granddaughter lives with her for summer, she is predictably shocked, but then helps hide her grandmother's business from both her potential suitor, a young cop, and the landlord hell bent on evicting her grandmother. DiSavino was initially nervous about writing her first full-length play in a tough genre. "Farce is probably the hardest sort of comedy to write because it's so technical - it requires a lot of outrageous things to happen in a completely believable way," she said. Her second hurdle came when she envisioned potentially negative reactions to the subject matter. She said, "I was worried what I thought was freakin' hilarious (c'mon, an 80 year old selling naughty outfits to other 80 year olds?) might not come across the same way to someone else - but the feedback I've received has all been really positive."
This is an understatement. DiSavino's play is not only being published, but staged in two different theaters. One will be at her parents theater, the Rainbow Dinner Theatre, from February to April 2010, and the other at the Barn Dinner Theatre in North Carolina in the fall of 2010. DiSavino is not overly involved in the staging process, but has been doing some rewrites for the Barn Dinner Theater's smaller set. She has no qualms about this however. "It's actually a pretty solid writing exercise, and it means that, in the long run, my play will be more marketable to theaters of all shapes and sizes because I'll be fixing one of the biggest hurdles of the production for them," she said.
Although DiSavino has a few ideas for other plays, she is so busy finishing up the final draft of her play that there has not been much time for writing. She would not trade the busyness for anything else though. "It still amazes me because being an English Major is a pretty risky (but totally satisfying) business - you never know what exactly you'll end up doing," she said. "But to be able to take my degree and then go on to work in a publishing house? It's more than I ever hoped for."
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
We have 200 copies of the novel in the English Department Office (Academic Center, Rome Hall 760). We are giving them away for free to anyone who would like a copy (one per person, please). Now you can have something wonderful to read over the winter break ... or now, if you want to procrastinate studying for that exam that you don't really want to take.
Monday, December 7, 2009
VP Chalupa is also a lover of novels. He will be auditing Faye Moskowtiz's "Jewish Literature Live" course this spring. He told us that he realized the synergy created by research and excellent teaching through an experience he had as an undergraduate. He said to look for the anecdote in the Hatchet ... and here it is today.
Can I say for the record how happy I am to have a VP of research who actually gets what humanities research is all about? Bravo, VP Chalupa.
(from the Hatchet)
To me, research involves the generation of knowledge. It is the process by which we replace ignorance with a new understanding based on rigorous methods established by scholars in a given field.
I can actually pinpoint the precise moment when I recognized the broad nature of university research. As an undergraduate I had a dual major in biology and psychology, so I had to take my share of courses involving test tubes and other paraphernalia of the science laboratory. One day I attended a required office hour with my English professor. I found her typing furiously - on a typewriter, not a PC, since these were yet to be invented. She motioned for me to sit while she finished her work, and then exclaimed: "That's it. My paper for the Shakespeare conference is done!" She must have noticed my confused look. Why would an English professor go to a conference on Shakespeare; wasn't that for actors? In the ensuing hour she explained to me that she had spent her summer in England tracking down the original drafts of one of the Bard's sonnets to establish how his writing progressed with each new version. Through this brief interaction I grasped for the first time there was more to research than test tubes and beakers. Consequently, I view my job as vice president of research as supporting and promoting all research efforts at GW, whether in the law school or in microbiology, in religious studies or computer science.
A natural question for GW students is: How will the new emphasis on research at GW impact teaching? I am convinced that raising GW to a top tier research university will enhance the teaching and learning experience for all of our students.
The fact is, taking a class from a first-rate scholar is a different experience than learning the same material from a good teacher who is not an active researcher. The former has a perspective on the field that can be shared with students in a unique way. In a real sense, gaining knowledge from a top practitioner in any field is much like being a part of the research endeavor itself. At its best it can be a "you are there" experience. Not every student may appreciate this distinction, but for many, as it was for me, this can be a life-changing event. What turned me on to science was the passion of an assistant professor in one of the required classes I took. Even though I was not particularly interested in the subject matter, the fact that this instructor seemed completely enthralled by his research intrigued me. We have many such professors at GW today, and at a top tier research university such individuals are the norm.
Moreover, top tier research schools attract the best student applicants at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and that is the case even when high school student applicants have little interest in pursuing research careers. That's because top tier research schools have reputations for general excellence, and that often pays dividends in future employment prospects irrespective of the student's major.
That leaves the question of whether teaching and other programs will get less financial support in our quest to become a top tier research institution. I would argue that the opposite is the case. There is a positive correlation between the research standing of institutions and the amount of money they are able to generate from grant overheads, foundation funding and development gifts: The higher the research standing, the more funding from sources other than tuition dollars. As everyone knows, correlation does not mean causation. But there is evidence that the two are in fact causally related. For instance, at the University of California, where I spent my entire academic career, fundraising spiked both at UC-Irvine and UC-Santa Barbara in the years after faculty at these campuses won Nobel Prizes. What's more, this had a lasting and widespread effect - more funds were received not just for research, but also for student financial assistance, classrooms and even sporting facilities. People are inclined to donate more to institutions that are perceived as being among the front ranks of research.
Finally, research universities provide multiple opportunities for students to participate in faculty projects. Many GW students are taking advantage of this by working with professors in various departments across our campus. This is a particularly worthwhile benefit of attending an institution that emphasizes research. I will soon announce funds from my office for the support of undergraduate research. There will be five annual awards of $2,000 each provided for this purpose. Stay tuned for pertinent details.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
The course's official title is "Studies in Contemporary Literature" and its CRN is 35750. The course is not as stuffy as this sounds: really, it is a free flowing book club that allows you to get to know a major British author well. This is a once in lifetime opportunity.
Books are available at the GW bookstore and include: Jane Austen's Persuasion, D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, and Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Students should read Samuel Johnson's History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia before the first meeting of the class on Tuesday Feb. 9. The remaining three meetings are 2/16, 2/23, and 3/2. The class meets 6-7:30 PM in Rome Hall 771.
Registration for the course is open. Please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any questions.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
We get excited about many things in the GW English Department. Our objects of affection range from guest lecturers to free copies of books being doled out. So naturally our enthusiasm has only doubled with the addition of the British novelist Howard Jacobson to our staff next semester as a visiting professor. Not only do we have an entire semester for him to wow us with his wit, but we are giving out free copies of his novel Kalooki Nights next week (more details to come). To celebrate this addition to both our faculty and bookshelves, Jacobson kindly (and very charmingly if I might add) responded to a few questions. It would be a travesty to paraphrase him, so here is a direct Q&A.
1. How did your visiting professorship come to be?
I would like to think that a higher force is guiding me to Washington, but the facts are a little more prosaic. As I understand it, David McAleavy heard me speaking at a British Council conference in Cambridge a year or so ago and thought the students at GW might find me entertaining and, on some subjects, maybe even illuminating. So if they don't, he's the one to blame.
2. How do you think your previous teaching experiences will shape your experience at GW?
To be quite truthful I don't know. Apart from occasional guest lectures and conversations about my work, I haven't been inside a university let alone taught in one for over 20 years. My first novel was a campus novel and the moment it was published I thought it prudent to leave the campus on which it was (loosely) based, and I haven't been back since. But I do enough speaking outside universities for me not to have lost - I hope - whatever skills I had. In a way you could say I have done more teaching since I stopped being an academic than I did when I was one. I am aware, though, that students who have degrees to get can be more demanding than the people who turn up to a literary evening to pass the time and get a book signed. So I am not without trepidation.
3. What are you most looking forward to at GW?
Two contradictory things: being back and being somewhere I have never been before. Being back talking to students, which I always liked, but talking to students I don't know. Universities have changed in the time I have been away, and American students are not the same as English students, or indeed Australian students whom I encountered when I was lecturing at Sydney University. I was only 22 when I sailed across the world to teach in Australia and I feel again, preparing to come to GW, exactly as I did then - like a traveller on the brink of an undiscovered world. Undiscovered by me, at least.
I also look forward to making Americans laugh. Don't ask me to explain it but in my experience they laugh differently to the English; they give more of themselves to the laughter; it surprises them more. But first, of course, they have to find what I write and say funny.
[Note: Jacobson will be teaching a 1 credit course (English 192) next semester on Tuesday evenings. Texts include Jane Austen's Persuasion, D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, Charles Dickens Great Expectations, and Samuel Johnson's History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.]
I am a more English writer than people sometimes realise or expect. Because many of my novels have Jewish themes it is assumed my antecedents are writers such as Kafka or Joseph Roth, and more recently Heller, Bellow and Philip Roth to whom I am often compared. But in fact, whatever my admiration for these writers, I consider myself to be working in a wholly English tradition, my Jewishness a sort of intrusion into its assurances, a quarrel with them but not a fatal quarrel. I have called myself a Jewish Jane Austen, without quite meaning it. I am more, in ambition at least, a Jewish Dickens who would like to have been born a Jewish Dr Johnson. A Jewish D H Lawrence is just about a contradiction in terms, but I did try it when I was young - without, needless to say, the slightest success.
Hence the books I have chosen - all ones I love, and all of which, one way or another, illustrate for me the peculiar genius of the English imagination, some aspects of which are too little regarded today. I hope the tension I feel between these books I so admire, and the other Jewish (and non literary) influences to which I'm subject, will provoke interesting discussion. On the occasions I have spoken in America I have found that an English Jewish writer is a strange being, so few of them do Americans meet. Rest assured that they are strange and rare beings in England too.