Thursday, April 29, 2010

19th-Century Seminar Event May 7

On Friday, May 7 at 3 p.m., the University Seminar on 19th-Century British Histories will be gathering at the Corcoran for its last meeting of the academic year. The meeting will feature an illustrated talk by Prof. Barbara Gates (University of Delaware) titled "Of Fungi and Fables: Beatrix Potter and the Science of Storytelling."

The lecture is in honor of Professor Judith Plotz, on the occasion of her retirement and in thanks for her many contributions to nineteenth-century studies, and will be followed by a short wine-and-cheese reception.

The auditorium at the Corcoran has plentiful seating, and all are invited, but please RSVP Amber Cobb Vasquez [] so that the organizers can plan for the reception.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

English Major T-Shirt Day: This is What You Missed

[Bagel photos by Tess Malone. Photo of Connie Kibler & Tess Malone by Jeffrey Cohen]

Shouldn't you be in Rome 760 right now? You should be sitting in that third chair in the photo. Enjoying a delicious bagel provided by the wonderful Gayle Wald, wearing your incredibly dorky, but awesome English t-shirt, and generally reveling in the fact you majored in the best subject at GW. Yeah, we do not understand why you are not here either. Of course, you can still come in to have a bagel and please do wear your t-shirt with pride. If I spot any of you on campus wearing your shirt today expect to get your picture taken. We have to spread the English major love.

Sign Up for 42W Next Fall: Myths of Britain

Professor Jeffrey Cohen writes to tell you about his fantastic Myths of Britain course next fall. There are still a few spots left, so make sure to sign up. You are guaranteed an amazing semester. This was the course that affirmed why I wanted to be an English major!

The English Department recently gave my "Myths of Britain" course a new number, 42W (it had been 40W). It still counts as a gateway to the major, just like 40W did; it also counts towards the GCR as a WID class.

"Myths of Britain" is meant to be a more exciting and engaging version of the venerable "Introduction to English Literature" class that every university has long had on its books. The course gives English majors a useful background to the field and will challenge you (I hope) to think deeply about how we analyze any text from any period, as well as what tends to vanish when we talk about literary history. We read books slowly and carefully; the class gives you time to linger over rather than skim what's on the syllabus. Everything we read is also quite engaging, from Shakespeare's Tempest to Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf.

I am pasting the course description below. The class has room in it for the fall semester, and I would love to see some more of our English majors in it! The class meets on Mondays at 11.10 for lecture and then breaks into smaller sections Wednesdays:

Please let me know if you have any questions.


Much great English literature turns out not to be so English after all: the action of the epic Beowulf unfolds in Scandinavia; King Arthur was a Welsh king before he was an English monarch; Shakespeare's Tempest takes place on an island in the Mediterranean, but the play is also about the colonization of the New World. "Myths of Britain" looks at the early island within a transnational frame. We explore literature as a way to imagine collective and individual identities, and -- as art -- a vehicle for escaping their constraints. Among our recurring keywords: heroism, monstrosity, community, travel, enjoyment, beauty, creation, art, authorship, sexuality, death.

The mission of this course is threefold:

(1) to give you the chance to hone your writing through the careful analysis of literature within its historical context

(2) to introduce you to contemporary scholarly methods of studying early England within a transnational frame

(3) to explore the relation between narrating the past and bringing about a desired future, paying close attention to who is excluded from this emergent community

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Poetry Out Loud Finals Tonight at Lisner Auditorium

Our very own Jane Shore will be judging, along with writer/radio personality Garrison Keiller and actor Alfre Woodard. Host is John Leguizamo. The poetry recitation competition gets going at 7 p.m., but Prof. Shore notes that it's better to get there EARLY.

Monday, April 26, 2010

G-PAC, Language Learning, and English

Today's Hatchet featured a front-page article about the new general curriculum passed recently by faculty in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. As many of you know, the G-PAC curriculum (the "PAC" is for "perspective," "analysis," and "communication"), which affects students entering GW in the fall of 2011, does away with the current General Curriculum Requirements regarding foreign language and culture. Right now, students are required to take six to eight hours of foreign language or culture courses. The new G-PAC will not allow lower-level language courses to count toward CCAS graduation requirements, although upper-level language courses, including literature courses taught in languages other than English, will count toward the G-PAC.

Where does the English Department stand on all of this? Most of our faculty were supportive of the new G-PAC, and grateful to our colleague Prof. Jonathan Hsy, a scholar of multilingualism in medieval London (ask him to wow you with his command of Old English and Old French ), for putting in time on the G-PAC committee.

That said, we are also invested in language learning. In fact, English has long had a language requirement that exceeds, in rigor, the language requirement of the College. To be an English major, you need "second-year proficiency in a single foreign language, as demonstrated by completion of our semesters of college-level language study or the equivalent. (In the case of Latin, Latin 3 is sufficient.)"

The current GCR may encourage students to take a foreign language, but from our department's point of view, two semesters of study of a language is not sufficient. That's why we require four semesters or their equivalent. Moreover, under the current GCR, students may opt out of language-learning by taking "culture" courses--a vague category that, to our minds, doesn't always serve students well. To be an English major, students must show proficiency in language.

In English, we think that learning a second--or third or fourth--language is vital, and not just because of the current faddishness of labeling all things "global." Language learning is not merely about learning about the "foreign" (one reason I don't love the phrase "foreign language"); it's also about learning about our selves and our "native" languages and cultures. And while it's a pleasure to read literary works in translation, we value the level of skill that allows someone to work through a Goethe poem in the original German. "American" literature has always been a multilingual literature, as I tell students in ENGL 41: Literature of the Americas. It includes works written in Spanish, Yiddish, Polish, Navajo, and various Creole languages. Some of our greatest writers have also been translators: take, for example, Langston Hughes, who had a rich relationship with his Cuban peer Nicolás Guillén. So learning languages other than English is also a way into our national past and national imaginary. (Our own Prof. H.G. Carrillo writes about some of these issues beautifully in his novel Loosing My Espanish.)

The new G-PAC can signal the values of the College at the present moment, but requirements rarely, if ever, tell the whole story. Case in point: although we do have requirements to ensure that English majors become familiar with literature from different historical eras, English does not require a Shakespeare course, and probably never has. Does this mean that our students don't know Shakespeare, or that we don't value Shakespeare as a canonical figure? Not at all. If you're a sophomore or a junior, you know how hard it is to get into ENGL 127 or 128, the two Shakespeare courses which are among our most popular offerings.

So we'll continue to require four semesters of a language other than English, even while conceding that four semesters only scratches the surface. For most of us, second (or third or fourth) language learning is a lifelong process, undertaken over a period of decades, not just years, ever energizing, and ever a worthy and important challenge.

T Shirt Day is Wednesday

T Shirt Day is back this Wednesday, April 28, and you won't want to be the only one in Critical Methods or lurking around the departmental candy bowl not proudly sporting a "We are Prose" shirt. There will be special treats in the English Department office (Rome 760) all day Wednesday for everyone wearing a GW English T Shirt. We will even share said treats with those who were too slow to order through Zazzle, but who wear GW English T Shirts of their own, custom design.

Don't forget to stop by the Department office at 10:30 on Wednesday for a group photo. And, finally, don't forget to submit photos of yourself wearing your GW English T Shirt so we can share it on our blog and Twitter.

Friday, April 23, 2010

ELEW in Concert: Tuesday, 4/27 at 11 a.m.

This just in from Prof. Tina Daub, who teaches ENGL 81, Introduction to Creative Writing. On Tuesday, April 27 at 11 a.m. in Phillips B-120, the acclaimed pianist known as ELEW is coming to her class to perform, and his concert is open to the public. This is the same ELEW who performed at the White House recently, so catch him in this free performance while you can!

Here is what Tina Daub writes:

What we do in poetry is riff. We wander down alleys of words and surprise ourselves with what we find there. Riffing and revising, what could be better? How else to make a word sing and dance across a page, its notes better than birdsong? We return words back to themselves fuller, at times bursting, rhythmical, whispering, shouting, weeping and laughing. We want to transcend and be transcended, to render the invisible visible, to shake your mind, heart, memory, your very bones . We are poets, musicians of language, the written word made to be spoken, to be sung from the rafters, chanted, breathed back into the very invisible we drew it from.

Pianist ELEW knows all about this. He does it with notes. He does it with tone. Where we have the almighty eraser, the backspace and delete keys, he has to keep playing. Keys, strings, whatever it takes.

ELEW is cutting edge. He fuses rock, pop and jazz into his own electrifying genre which he calls rockjazz. Classically trained and jazz-infused having toured for years with Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, and other jazz legends, ELEW (formerly Eric Lewis) takes the guitar line of such popular bands as Coldplay, Nirvana & The Killers and translates it into poetry: poetry of the 88 keys, poetry wrenched out its forms and made to shine and sometimes bleed.

Gotham magazine calls ELEW a genius. Others say he channels the divine. Paul Carr of The Guardian writes ELEW “doesn't just play the piano. Rather he owns – owns – it. Reaching inside the lid, he pulls and pounds at the strings, creating a magic eye pictures of sound – walls of noise that suddenly snap into focus as you realise you're actually listening to the opening bars of Evanescence's ‘Going Under,’ or The Knife's ‘Heartbeats’ or Nirvana's ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ And just as you've worked out what's going on with the strings, Lewis starts on the keys – reinventing songs you've heard many times before in ways that you'll probably never hear again.”

Another reviewer from YRB magazine writes, “Lewis has completely flipped the jazz world inside out, chewed it up and spit it out as a reformed rock entity. Today’s ‘Basquiat on the Keys’ is not just a pianist; he is a piano seducer and, at times, a piano murderer, and it’s all part of his signature style.”

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CCAS Dean Peg Barratt and Executive Associate Dean Roy Guenther are already fans. Come hear for yourself.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Final Reading of the Year: Ramola D & Gina Welch

The room was packed. Students watched as the head of the Creative Writing Department, Faye Moskowitz, ran around trying to find enough chairs to seat all 225 people who came to last night's final reading featuring professors Ramola D and Gina Welch. The event is a record in not just the Creative Writing Department's history, but also the English Department's. The turnout has not been this amazing since Michael Chabon's reading last spring, but with these two talented and well loved women on our faculty, it is almost no surprise that their "fans" came out in full force yesterday.

The event was also special because it featured the students of these two popular creative writing professors. Freshman Juliana Stern introduced the eloquent Ramola D. Stern noted how much her writing has improved within this one semester since she has taken a class with Ramola. "Ramola successfully brought out the best writing I could ever write," she said. Ramola's collection of short stories Temporary Lives (Univ. of Massachusetts Press) has won many prestigious awards, including the AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. Naturally, she read the title short story in the collection, one that expressed a startling revelation in her family's history, the discovery that her Christian grandfather had converted to Islam and had a second wife. The story was a shock to Ramola, who said, "I knew my grandmother as very stoic, long suffering, and very giving. Her life seemed to revolve around the household and family. I wrote this story in an attempt to understand her and her life." Ramola's story was heartbreaking and beautiful and its discussion of religious identity fit well with Welch's book.

Senior (and English Department secretary) Sasha Moss proceeded to introduce Welch. After listing Welch's many accomplishments--including having her recent publication named book-of-the-month by Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine, Moss related her personal relationship with the writer. "I know her more as a professor and a friend," she said. Moss remembered the day the two met in the department office when she accidentally mistook Welch for a student. "I thought, who is this woman who looks like she is 22 telling me what to do," Moss said. Today Moss sees Welch differently. She said, "Gina taught me how to really appreciate individuals for who they are... She is who I look up to and to whom I am honored and humbled to sit next to." Moss and Welch hugged as Welch came up to the stage to discuss her book In the Land of Believers, about her time spent at the Evangelical church, Thomas Road Baptist Church.

Welch noted she was honored to go after Ramola and then contrasted her religious upbringing with Ramola's. "I come from a long proud line of atheists... My normative gaze was thinking atheists were in the right," she said. Welch grew up in the Bay Area of California with absolutely no religious people in her life. However, when she moved to Virginia for graduate school, she was taken aback by the Christian presence she felt. "I was surprised to find that I felt antagonistic toward them. I was afraid of them. I was surprised this was coming from me, a Berkeley native," she said. So Welch undertook a two-year undercover project in Jerry Falwell's church in Lynchburg, Virginia. She read three snippets from her book, garnering laughs and hard hitting questions from the audience.

Last night was the final reading for the year and it is safe to say, it could not have gone better!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ramola D & Gina Welch Reading TONIGHT

Come see creative writing professors Romala D, author of a collection of short fiction Temporary Lives, and Gina Welch, author of In the Land of Believers, a book that follows Welch's own journey into the Thomas Road Baptist Church TONIGHT. The final reading for the year will take place at 7pm in the Marvin Center 310.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Prof Plotz is AMAZING"

This photo was photoshopped for this blog, but only because I took it with my cell phone last year. (It's still a bit blurry, as you can see.) Remember the wall of Post-It Notes we had on the 7th floor of Rome Hall last year? Well, this is an authentic note that an anonymous student posted. "Prof. Plotz is Amazing." Need we say more?
* * *
I. Prof. Plotz's Retirement

As some of the readers of this blog will already know, Prof. Judith Plotz, a recipient of this year's George Washington Award and a beloved member of this department since 1965, will be retiring this spring. It's with decidedly mixed feelings that we approach this news of Prof. Plotz's retirement: happy for Judith that she is making room for long-deferred plans--for writing, travel, study (a book on Rudyard Kipling), and grandchildren; sad that we will no longer have Judith as a colleague, friend, and mentor.

Judith Plotz has been a pioneering scholar and teacher in English, beginning her career at a time when few women were considered equal to men as professors. She quickly acquired a name for herself as a 19th-century specialist, and was one of the first women ever to be tenured in English. She has been a pioneering scholar of children's literature, both nationally and at GW, and is author of Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood, among other works. Prof. Plotz was also instrumental in introducing courses in postcolonial literature, especially literature of the British Empire and the Indian subcontinent, and Jewish American literature. She won the CCAS Dean's Teaching Excellence Award in 1990, was department chair from 1991 to 1994, and won the Trachtenberg Award for University Service in 2000.

II. Thanking Judith: A one-day conference in October

These quantifiable achievements only begin to speak to Judith's contributions to English, the College, and GW, however. To thank Prof. Plotz for her dedicated service to generations of GW students, faculty, and staff, the English Department will be hosting a one-day Conference on 19th-Century Studies: In Celebration of Professor Judith Plotz on Friday, October 22, 2010. The conference has six confirmed speaks, all eminent scholars of Victorian literature, children's literature, Romanticism, and/or postcolonial literature and theory: Carolyn Betensky (University of Rhode Island), John Plotz (Brandeis University); Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (New York University), Margaret Higonnet (University of Connecticut), Ulrich Knoepflmacher (Princeton University), and Richard Flynn (George Southern University). Look to this blog for more information as that conference approaches.

III. The Future

Her retirement does not mean that Judith will be severing her connections to GW English. She will be Emerita Professor of English, and in that capacity will continue working with Ph.D. students who have begun their dissertations under her mentorship, and will teach occasional undergraduate courses (look for her next spring).

The English Department hopes very much to initiate a search for Prof. Plotz's successor in the fall. We're still waiting on College and University approval for that search to go ahead, but we're cautiously optimistic. No one can replace Judith Plotz, of course, but we can honor her legacy by ensuring that our students and faculty continue to benefit from the contributions of a 19th-century scholar of like intellectual acumen, energy, and compassion.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Grad Students Debut New Journal

A group of English graduate students has just announced the debut of a new online open-access journal Prefix. The journal has a clean, sleek look and a cool logo (see above). According to its mission statement, Prefix provides an open forum for graduate student work, including work-in-progress, and encourages reader interaction with its postings. It publishes peer-reviewed articles, essays, creative work (including poetry, fiction, art, photography, and music), and reviews, as well as "meditations, grievances, reveries, and announcements."

The journal has 5 evocatively titled sections: Multiplicities (for scholarly articles), Pork Chops and Jouissance (for "musings"), On the Couch (for faculty/student interviews), Wunderground (creative work) and -Ings (for announcements). The editorial board includes Ph.D. students Jennifer Cho, Marilena Zackheos, and Theodora Danylevich, and the debut issue includes work by Lowell Duckert, Julia McCrossin, and Elizabeth Pittman.

To submit work, you first have to register, and then upload your document. Would it be too corny to say that we hope that Prefix becomes a frontrunner in its field?

Get to Know Your TA: Lowell Duckert

We hope you have enjoyed the Get to Know Your TA feature. This will be our third and final post in the series. It was a lot of fun getting to know these three TAs and we hope now that you have read the posts, you will feel free to stop by their offices for more than just discussing your paper for Myths of Britain.

Get to Know Your TA: Lowell Duckert

How many times have you walked through campus only to find a duck wandering around the bricked Kogan Plaza? Most students stare in befuddlement; clearly Washington DC is not hospitable to nature. However, Lowell Duckert sees it differently. "You can really find nature everywhere from the ducks on the Potomac to hiking the Billy Goat trail. There are degrees of nature always around us and acting on us," he said.

Duckert has always been most comfortable in a nature setting. He grew up in the other Washington, Washington state. Duckert said, "I'm from the Northwest, where we tend to be much more conscientious. I never took the landscape for granted where I grew up." Nature and the landscape are what motivate Duckert's studies. "Whenever I go out into nature, there is much more of an interconnectedness I feel with the surroundings and that feelings is one that I am trying to theorize in my work in Early Modern studies," he said.

Duckert has always been interested in English, but it took him a long time to discover his own voice within eco-critical studies. He received his B.A. in English from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, where his family was. Although Duckert intended to go to graduate school immediately after getting his B.A., he did not get into graduate school the first time he applied. "It was probably a good thing for me to take that year off," he said. "I thought maybe it was a sign I should not go to graduate school, but I just put a lot more effort in."

After working at a community college in Bellingham for a year, Duckert was accepted into Arizona State University. Duckert's sister had just moved to Arizona and although he appreciated having his family around and the great education he received there, he had to leave the state after his two years were finished. "I needed to get out of Arizona. I love green things and the outdoors, so Arizona was not for me," he said. "The entire two years I was down there I sweated everyday." Obviously Duckert did not just apply to GW for "meteorological studies" as he joked, but because GW was so welcoming. He said, "They were very accommodating saying 'this is why we want you to come here' and they gave me a mentorship." So Duckert left Arizona for DC, starting GW in the fall semester of 2007.

Since he arrived at GW, Duckert has found his a love for eco-critical studies within Early Modernism. He studies "the interactions between nature and culture and then thinks about ways in which figures move through the landscape as much as by the landscape." Duckert reads a lot of Sir Walter Ralegh and some William Shakespeare (such as The Merchant of Venice.) "I see the landscape as more of an actor and I am retheorizing it as well," he said. "A lot of science and philosophy of science to kind of question that privileging of the subject over the landscape. I am trying to reinvigorate the green movement." If Duckert's research were to have a catchphrase it would be, "putting more movement in the green movement."

Fittingly, Duckert enjoys camping and hiking as a pastime. He traveled to Maine last summer and just got back from a trip to the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky (yes, that is a twelve-hour drive from DC.) He attributes his research to his hobbies. He said, "I use my work to help me explore my own passion for nature and the outdoors. It is a symbolic relationship in itself, sort of eco-critical and it's empowering--where nature takes me, not where I take it." Duckert also explores nature through his pleasure reading of John Krakauer and other authors. Duckert is invested in all forms of art, however. "I love music, especially classical music and the opera. I used to go to the Met," he said. When he is not listening to music, he is playing it on the guitar and harmonica. He also enjoys Shakespearian theater, of which DC has an abundance. You can find Duckert hiking or at the theater, but for now he is happily TAing at GW.

The graduate program here at GW has let Duckert find what really matters to him. For the past two years, he has TAed for Myths of Britain. "I will say that just going into a graduate program has allowed me to find my own voice and interest," he said. "Teaching has developed in its own way. It reaffirms a lot of the reasons why I am here." Duckert believes teaching empowers him and inspires him with a sense of gratitude. This fall he will teach his own class. "I feel like it is more growth and new experiences and new ideas and more of those moments of 'this is why I do what I do," he said.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Patricia Chu's Cross-Cultural Journey

Every English major walks through her door at one point in their academic career here at GW. She had 208 meetings with students last year. In a sense, Prof. Patricia Chu could be seen as the gatekeeper to the English department. As the Director of Undergraduate Advising she meets with students to discuss majors, minors, and credit transfers. However when Chu is not meeting with students, she is also the department's go-to professor for Asian American literature.

Asian American literature is now a staple in most major English departments, but when Chu was in graduate school at Cornell it was just being discovered. "I was in graduate school at a moment when there was funding available to create a course in cultural studies. So I studied Asian American Cultural Studies," she said. She was able to teach a freshman seminar in Asian American studies and publish an article on Maxine Hong Kingston. Chu elaborates that the article explored Kingston's take on, "the problem of creating a Chinese American self in opposition to heroines of romantic novels. The question of American and Chinese narratives of slotting women into marriage."

Kingston was only the start of Chu's love of Asian American literature. Now she cites Heinz Insu Fenkl, David Henry Hwang, Shyam Selvadurai, Lydia Minatoya, and Philip Michael Ondaatje as her main interests. However Chu's writing is on more specific topics. She said, "My first book, Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America, thought of Asian Americans in terms of claiming Americanness. I argued that the process was different for women and men."

Chu's latest book-in-progress is much more personal. "It focuses on narratives of return," she said, "and the cultural work Asian Americans do when they go to visit their ancestral homelands in Asia." Chu has first-hand experience with this topic. As a second-generation Chinese American, she has strong cultural roots to China. However, when her parents left China after WWII they did not keep in touch with family. After her parents' deaths, it was up to Chu and her siblings to track down their long lost relatives. "We're in a process of figuring out how to have a relationship with people we've been out of touch with for decades," she said. "During the Cold War and the Cultural Revolution they [Chu's parents] could've gotten the family in China in trouble by sending money directly."

Interestingly enough, Chu's first trip to China was in 2007, a trip she finds essential both as professor and an Asian American. (Chu notes that many American-born Asian American authors tend to go right before or after the publication of their first book.) "I would call myself second-generation Chinese American, but your parents' home country is deeply in your psyche," she said. "Even though reality is different than what your parents told you." She says she does not feel that out of place in China despite the changes in the country since her parents left. "My parents spoke Chinese to me when I was growing up. I feel kind of at home when I visit because I hear the language, I see Chinese people, and I like the food."

However, Chu would like to make China feel even more like home, by reconnecting with her relatives. "I would like this reunion to somehow connect me with some aspect of my parents I never knew," she said. "My parents did not talk much about their youths and childhoods. To see my aunts and uncles, it's a second chance or compensation for my relationship with my parents." Chu's dream is already on course. On her first trip to China, she was able to contact her relatives two weeks into her time in China and was able to visit for long on her second trip.

Although Chu looks forward to keeping in touch further, she is still very much connected to the American part of her Asian American identity. Chu does not just teach Asian American literature, but Gender and Literature, a class that reads everything from American female slave memoirs to Gertrude Stein and Gloria Anzaldua.

When she is not teaching, she is busy reading the latest fantasy novels to her daughters, Eleanor (who is 13) and Sophie (age 10). Turns out she can discuss credit transfers and all of the Harry Potter or Tamora Pierce novels as well. So make sure to stop by her office for more than just declaring your major, for Chu loves to keep in touch with all students.

Chu will co-chair a meeting of the 19th Century American Women Writers Study Group at American University on Saturday, April 19.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ariel Sabar: The Ever Unfolding Story of Jewish Survival


A few years ago Ariel Sabar quit his day job as an award winning journalist in order to work on a book. The shift from journalism to book writing was a challenge, but even more challenging was the subject of his book My Father's Paradise, his father and his father's history as Kurdish Jew. Those who knew Sabar when he was growing up as a California surfer boy were shocked by this topic, especially his father. Sabar recalls that he deeply resented his father, Yona, as a teenager. "I saw him as this burden whose association held me back from all I wanted to do," he said.

Ironically Yona himself was a man who could not be held back from his destiny. Yona Sabar came from the Jewish part of Kurdistan, a corner of the world where "the Jews were written off as goners from the Lost Tribes of Israel," Sabar said. Yet in the course of a single generation Yona went from being born in a mud hut to being tenured as a professor at UCLA. It was a rich past that Sabar never cared to learn about, but when his own son, Seth, was born in 2002 he realized everything he did not know about his own father. "I was not only doing a disservice to my father, but my children a disservice because they would grow up only knowing they were American without any history," he said. "We have a sense we are free of history, but when you have a child it is very clear that is a myth. Instead I was the in the middle of an ever unfolding story of Jewish survival in lands not our own." It was at this point that Sabar knew he had to write this book, as a writer, a son, and a father.

Writing about Kurdish Jews required Sabar to develop a closer relationship with his father than he had ever had before. The research involved hundreds of interviews and also trips across the globe, eventually landing him in Iraq with his father. Sabar said, "Maybe 2005 was not the best time for a sentimental return back to Iraq. I was going to a place with my father where I needed him for everything." Yona acted as Sabar's translator throughout the trip for language was a matter of survival in Kurdistan. As a child Yona was a polyglot. "He spoke Hebrew in the synagogue, Aramaic with the Jews and Christians, Kurdish with the Muslims, and Arabic when he traveled," Sabar said. Language was what kept Yona connected to his hometown of Zhako even after he left as a boy of thirteen. "My father never stopped seeing Zhako through a child's eyes," Sabar said. "He knew he could never return to Zhako the physical place, but he could preserve it through studying language and culture."

Yona has always been attached to Zhako even as he has succeeded in the United States as a teacher of his nearly lost language, Aramaic. "He's been really successful at reinvetning himself. I always thought you cannot reconcile the past and present, but he does write his past into his future," Sabar said. Learning his father's story has allowed Sabar to understand him better than he ever could before. "The book gave us a common ground and a common vocabulary," he said. "There's always this place I can steer back to because when you write a memoir you are connecting with people." One of the most profound connections for Sabar was the one between his own son and his father. "Seth has opened my eyes to a side of my father that I forgot about. So much of who you think your parents are is the folks we see when we are defining ourselves against them," he said.

It is this multi-generational story of Jews who survived against all odds that makes Sabar's book both fascinating and moving. As one of Sabar's former newspaper editors used to tell him, "People don't curl up at night with a great set of facts. Even if you're writing nonfiction you should write if it is fiction...The best kind of stories grab you by the throat the same way a novel does." The book is certainly gripping, not just for Jews, but for everyone. Sabar sees himself as tangent to the group of Jewish writers who are reclaiming their own stories. However reclaiming one's history is not something only Jews do. "As Jewish authors we do not have to reflect the Jewish experience back to Jews only. The best books are transcendent," Sabar said. "We should not have to write a book that only speaks to Jews, but we can take that and use it as a lens to look as universals."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

We are Green(er)

These days, you may see a lot of English professors walking around with coffee mugs and reusable water bottles. At our last faculty meeting, the English Department welcomed visitors from the GW Office of Sustainability, part of the University's Sustainability Initiative. In addition to promoting research on sustainability, the initiative seeks to ensure that GW does as it says, by promoting green practices in campus facilities.

With the support of Office Supervisor Constance Kibler, English agreed to be one of the first units in the College to participate with the Sustainability Office's Green at Work program. Here are the results of our Green Office Assessment.

Here's what we're doing well:

- most faculty members use reusable mugs, cups, bags, containers, plates, etc.
- many faculty use surge protectors
- some faculty members double-side our printing jobs
- we turn off our office lights at the end of the day

Here are some action items for improvement:

- use natural light in offices when possible
- make better use of recycling bins
- set printer defaults to double-sided
- turn off electronics during breaks and vacations
- start printing to a central printer

The recycling bin issue a no-brainer, we realize, and so we've ordered blue bins for each of our individual offices. We hope to move to a central printing station in the main office soon.

Speaking of sustainability, did anyone catch the amusing paragraph in Monday's Hatchet story about the planned demolition of the residence hall at 2034 G Street to make room, in part, for a parking garage? According to the paper, "the University hopes to begin construction on the [new] parking garage as soon as possible, so that when the University Parking Garage on H Street is knocked down to construct the proposed Science and Engineering Complex, there will be another place for parking on the Foggy Bottom campus."

(Thanks to Creative Writing Prof. Tom Mallon for catching this!)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Writer Ariel Sabar Speaks Tuesday, April 13

The English Department welcomes Ariel Sabar, author of the prize-winning My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Past, for a reading Tuesday night, April 13, at 7 p.m. in the Marvin Center Grand Ballroom. A Washingtonian, Sabar is a seasoned journalist. He covered the 2008 presidential campaigns for The Christian Science Monitor, and has published in the New York Times, the Washington Monthly, and many other publications.

Sabar brings his journalist's skill for fact-finding and storytelling to My Father's Paradise, his first book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, as well as the Roda Book Award, given by the Church and Synagogue Library Association once every three years. My Father's Praradise tells the fascinating story of Sabar's father, a Kurdish Jew who grew up in Iraq as the member of a small population speaking the ancient language of Aramaic. When Sabar's father was a child, his family emigrated to Israel, escaping persecution and increasing violence in their native country. Sabar's father eventually became a linguist, one of the few scholars in the world capable of translating among Aramaic, Hebrew, and English.

Ariel Sabar grew up in California, where his father was a professor of Near Eastern languages. His autobiography also details his own struggles to understand his family and come to terms with his immigrant father's "strangeness."

We hope to see many of you there for this last reading of this spring's Jewish Literature Live class taught by Prof. Faye Moskowitz and generously supported by English department alumnus and GW Trustee David Bruce Smith.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Sunday "Treme" Event Cancelled

Busboys and Poets has had to cancel this Sunday's "Treme" event, featuring a screening of HBO's new TV series based in New Orleans, so GW student blogger Sarah Kuczynski won't be reading.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

English Department Faculty, Students Garner Honors and Awards

These days, I can barely keep up with the accolades being garnered by English Department faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. Yesterday, we got the great good news that Prof. Judith Plotz is a winner of this year's George Washington Award, one of the highest honors the University confers. I'll blog more about Prof. Plotz, who is retiring this spring, in the weeks ahead. Here is a list of past GW Award recipients.

In other news, Ph.D. student Nedda Mehdizadeh, whom we recently featured here, won a fellowship to join the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) summer seminar, "Re-mapping the Renaissance: Exchange Between Early Modern Islam and Europe," at the University of Maryland, College Park. As Prof. Gil Harris, Director of Graduate Studies, notes, "Nedda's fellowship is an extraordinary accomplishment. It is all the more extraordinary in that there are only two places reserved for graduate students in the seminar, which brings together top scholars on relations between early modern Europe and Islam. There were an enormous number of applicants for the seminar; we are fortunate indeed that Nedda will be representing GW, and our graduate program, at it."

Ph.D. student Dora Danylevich has also landed, with funding, a place in Cornell University's summer School of Theory and Criticism. Admission to the STC seminars are highly competitive, as these are open to academics of all levels. Congratulations to Dora!

And Assistant Prof. Jonathan Hsy has won a prestigious NEH Summer Stipend. According to the NEH, "this year’s grant was highly competitive. We received 1,023 applications but, given available resources, were able to fund only 85 awards, so receiving this grant is indeed a significant achievement." Indeed, by my calculation, only 8 percent of this year's applicants won stipends. We know that GW is getting more selective, but the NEH is another league altogether! Prof. Hsy will use the Summer Stipend to work on his book-in-progress about merchants and literary production in medieval London.

We are so proud of all of these well deserved accomplishments. Please keep me posted if you have news to share.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sarah Kuczynski, your 2010-11 blogger, at Busboys & Poets this weekend

The English Department is thrilled to announce that Sarah Kuczynski, GWU class of 2012, will be blogging for us beginning in fall 2010. Sarah is an English/CW major from New Orleans.

Last week, Sarah read a poem about her hometown at an open mike event at Busboys and Poets, one of our favorite hangouts, and was asked to read her poem again at an event this Sunday there celebrating the debut of Treme, a new HBO show from the creators of The Wire.

The event is being hosted by Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit that rehabilitates homes, especially for elderly people and people with disabilities. The event is at 8 p.m. and features a screening of Treme. Location is Busboys and Poets, 5th and K Streets, NW.

And (drumroll, please)... here are Sarah's musings about how and why she switched to an English major from International Affairs. Welcome Sarah!

It took a few months for me to come out with it to my parents; they had the faces of two people who might in minutes witness their dearest daughter lift up her shirt to expose a “Thug Life” tattoo inked across her ribs. I let it out: “I switched to English.”

After I swtiched majors, I enrolled in English courses for the first time without feeling a guilty satisfaction reminiscent of the qualms that hit me in high school as I snuck out to reconnoiter Pyramus and Thisbe style. I began to rationalize.

So, here’s the barebones edition of what I use to justify my betrayal of International Affairs for a life in English and Creative Writing...

*Because I was once fed the synopsis to “The Little Mermaid” (Disney version) in one of my mother’s far from clandestine moments...I had only read the original fairy tale.

*Because much of my early childhood was spent speaking extemporaneously to the tattered bindings of books, the barrier between my thoughts and my parents.

* Because for years following the publishing of my mother’s guide to the short stories of Henry James, my brother and I could not find a sheet of paper that did not bear on its back some portion of this manuscript.

*Because it was a privilege in my family to tap away at the prehistoric typewriter, no matter the broken “back space,” and the consequent, constant need for correction fluid.

*Because my family ignored the advent of the Internet, making each puzzling word into a struggle with the ominous O.E.D that loomed on the corner bookshelf.

* Because never once in an International Affairs lecture was I provoked to pummel a girl in the head with a Norton Anthology of American Literature, as I had once done in high school English.

*Because when my mother sent me away to college, she slipped pages and pages of grainy paper on which she scrawled poems, not the standard toaster oven or towel set.

*Because, though my childhood was far from Dickensian, I flinch as I use a needless
abbreviation, and get a nervous twitch as I mercilessly edit a routine email.

***Finally, because this list is hardly inclusive, I crossed over. Let creativity reign.

Monday, April 5, 2010


Due to popular demand, we are bringing T-SHIRT DAY back!

Let it be known that Wednesday April 28, 2010, aka the last day of regular classes for the spring 2010 semester, will be our second annual T Shirt Day. Click here for an overexposed photograph of a few of the department's best-looking faculty, staff, and students sporting their T shirts in '09.

Directions for participation are as follows:

1. Purchase the official GW English T shirt via Zazzle. Although you have the option of customizing, the preferred color is black. All profits made from the sale of these shirts support activities for majors, such as future T-Shirt Days (an endless loop).

2. Keep your T shirt neatly folded and safe. This will be easy, because the cotton is rather stiff. Wait patiently for April 28, 2010.

3. On T Shirt Day wear your GW English T Shirt proudly. Remember: by supporting T Shirt Day, you are also demonstrating your impeccable taste. Don't be surprised when strangers stop you on the street excited to know where you got your T shirt.

4. Treasure your souvenir of what may turn out to be the very best day of your life.** (For seniors, there might be a grain of truth in this.) Consider passing it along to your children, so that they too can someday participate in T Shirt Day.

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** p.s. Embarrassing as it is, I STILL have my college English major T shirt. It says "We're going for broke"--a joke that no one has ever seemed to understand. While you can take comfort knowing that the lame "What are you going to do with an English major?" question is as old as the hills (we know better!), you can also rest assured that "We are prose" is far more clever and will not evoke curious stares.