Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Alexa Huang's Testimony to Congress on Behalf of the Humanities

     Following on the heels of GW President Steve Knapp and Folger Shakespeare Library director Michael Witmore who advocated for funding for the NEH at a congressional hearing, Alexa Huang recently testified in front of Congress on behalf of the humanities on May 16, 2013. The event on Capitol Hill was called “Briefing on the Humanities in the 21st Century: Addressing National Security and Other Global Challenges through Cultural Understanding,” and was co-sponsored by the National Humanities Alliance in cooperation with the Congressional Humanities Caucus; it was chaired by Eva Caldera, Assistant Chairman for Partnership and Strategic Initiatives of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Founded in 1981, the National Humanities Alliance advances national humanities policy in the areas of research, education, preservation and public programs. Other panelists included Eli Sugarman, Senior Director at Gryphon Partners LLC, and Carter Findley, Humanities Distinguished Professor in the History Department at Ohio State University.
Alexa’s congressional briefing was very well received by the bi-partisan audience. Speaking to a full house (standing room only!), she drew upon her teaching experience at GW to advocate for the humanities. Today’s college students understand globalization better through the humanities!
Below is a fuller transcript of his presentation before Congress.
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Globalization and the Humanities in the Twenty-first Century

      Congressional Briefing by Alexa Huang, May 16, 2013

Some people register a sense of place through sweet memories of taste and sounds, others through scent and smell, and still others through images in their mind’s eye. To me, the world is made up of stories. Stories full of sound and fury. Great stories are often strangers at home. They defamiliarize banal experiences and everyday utterances while offering something recognizable through a new language and form.
And stories, like people, travel and move around. Stories connect us to other times and places. When Shakespeare’s plays move through different cultures, they reveal unexamined assumptions about human nature and tell surprising stories about globalization. Take, for example, a slice from Hamlet’s inquisitive mind: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” The versatile verb “to be” is as ambiguous in English as it is in many other languages. It has been translated into Russian, German, and Arabic as “to do,” “to die,” and “to have” (but to have or not to have what!?). Translating this speech into Japanese will require substantial rewriting, because Japanese does not have the verb “to be” without semantic contexts. Working with Japanese, a language more complex than English from a sociolinguistic point of view, a translator would have to wrestle with more than 20 first- and second-person pronouns to maintain the ambiguity.
Literary ambiguity is our friend. The ambiguity is a welcome gift for the uninhibited mind, for it has been an ally of oppressed peoples in the Soviet Union, Tibet, South Africa, Poland, and elsewhere. The ambiguity allowed them to express themselves under censorship. When history is held hostage by politics, when human rights are violated, the humanities help restore dignity to what it means to be human. When ambiguity is deliberately eradicated, when things are painted black and white, it is usually during a dark moment of history: the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, lynching, the Scottsboro boys incident in the post-Reconstruction South of the Unites States. Hamlet in a foreign language compels us to rethink what we assume to be familiar about our own culture. The humanities in a global context enrich our mind as we pause to ask some fundamental questions. To be whom? To do what?
I was born to Taiwanese parents in a farming village outside Kaohsiung and was raised in Taipei. On sultry summer evenings on the subtropical island of Taiwan, my grandmother would tell me fairy tales under a starry sky, stories about her life story under Japanese colonial rule, and stories of the stones, crickets, and the village. This is how I developed an insatiable appetite for stories—historical, fantastical, political, heroic. As a college student at Tsinghua, I majored in the practically impractical major known as literature. I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to study abroad as an exchange student in Germany, where I discovered that the most frequently performed playwright in that country is not Goethe but William Shakespeare. As I would find out later, Shakespeare was an important figure that helped establish a unified German cultural identity and literary tradition in opposition to French classicism. I soon learned that all over the world Shakespeare has been a common cultural touchstone for centuries. A Renaissance poet associated with a theatre called the Globe, Shakespeare had become a global author long before globalization became a catchphrase. There are now Globe theatres in Germany, New Zealand, Japan, the Unites States, Canada, and elsewhere.
My curiosity set me on a path of studying cultural globalization that took me to Strasbourg, France, Oxford, England, and several other countries. When I visited London in 1996, work was under way to reconstruct Shakespeare’s renowned Globe Theatre near its original site on the South Bank that would open in July 1997. I gleefully donated a brick to the project. In the mind of an undergraduate student from a small island nation that has not been recognized by the U.N. and most countries since 1971, that brick was a material connection to the West beyond international politics, to a fascinating historical space, and to the intangible cultural heritage of a “brave new world,” as Miranda would say in The Tempest. Storytelling is in fact the foundation of Prospero’s magic. The magician frames the world he and his daughter live in with stories that help them heal from the experience of exile and forgive their enemies.
What I was not aware of as I stood at the construction site of the great theatre in London in 1996 was that globalized art means business. The modern Globe is not only a sign of cultural rebirth of London’s once-shady South Bank but is also a perfect example of how the humanities can lead to economic prosperity and transform communities. The number of visitors to the South Bank and the Bankside Cultural Quarter (where the Tate Modern and the Globe are located) jumped from an annual average in the tens of thousands in the 1990s to 13 million in 2011. Another example of this principle is how the humanities informed the core strategies used to market London during the 2012 Olympics. This strategy is being repeated for the 2016 Olympic Games: a reconstructed Globe Theatre is being planned in Brazil to coincide with the games and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Beyond economic implications, we can also learn a great deal about another culture through stories its members tell, and we can always learn about ourselves by comparing how another culture reads a story we know, such as Hamlet.
Shakespeare’s stories and the stories different cultures tell about Shakespeare eventually led me to California in 1999. American humanities education plants seeds for great changes in people’s lives. As a wide-eyed graduate student at Stanford, I learned from an inspiring, international faculty and cohort of students how to ask probing questions and take history to task and how to find a path through a dark forest of conflicting ideas. To achieve these goals, I studied a number of languages, including Latin, classical Chinese, modern Japanese, German, and French. I learned how to read closely and contextually for both information and untold or silenced stories and how to build sustainable intellectual communities through effective written and oral communication. When it came time to choose a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I initially wanted to stay with a conservative, safe topic in a more established subfield in Renaissance studies. I am thankful that instead I discovered and participated in the creation of global Shakespeare as a new field of study. I am forever indebted to Professor Patricia Parker, whose relentless pursuit of perfection pushed me to take the road less traveled and answer my calling to tell stories. After I earned my doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford, I moved to the east coast and became a scholar of globalization.
As my students at George Washington University’s Department of English and Elliott School of International Affairs tell me, the humanities and especially imaginary literature helps them put human faces on globalization. There are social implications of the fact that today’s college students understand globalization better through the humanities. There are clear benefits to being able to relate to international trade partners and strategic allies on a human level with compassion and not treat them as statistics. Knowledge of cultural globalization can help us avoid cultural imposition and move towards cultural sharing and building common ground.
Story-telling makes us human because it helps us understand the human condition in different contexts.
Recent history has shown that the humanities are greater than the sum of its parts. An eccentric topic for an obsessed researcher may not seem to matter in light of national security or to the general public until we are caught off guard in a crisis when, as in the wake of September 11, we are pressed to learn about who we are, how to come to terms with atrocities, where we as a nation are headed, and why. The humanities are not a luxury; they are the very foundation on which meaningful lives are built. Skills in critical thinking, civil debate, and understanding narratives are vital to American values of liberty and social equality, and a democratic society founded upon the government’s accountability and rational citizen participation. This is why public support for the humanities is crucial.
It is a privilege and a unique responsibility to teach Shakespeare and globalization in downtown Washington, D.C., three blocks from the White House. My international and local students alike take pride in studying in the nation’s capital. The American nation was founded upon basic principles of humanistic thought, including the concepts of justice and universal humanity. Capital Hill is a proud host to institutions that foster these ideas, including the Supreme Court, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Library of Congress, the oldest federal cultural institution. America clearly values humanities thought: its Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. Today its collection includes over 155 million books and a vast collection of photographs, sheet music, sound recordings, and films on over 838 miles of shelves. The library provides a record of how people lived and expressed themselves in daily life and through the arts.
Shakespeare has helped shape powerful thinkers around the world, including the founding fathers of this nation. Thomas Jefferson kept a commonplace book that featured Shakespearean passages. Abraham Lincoln could recite soliloquies from Richard III. Language becomes literary when it acquires the power to motivate people and move nations.
In our age of globalization, understanding other peoples’ stories means the difference between being a window shopper and being an informed decision maker in international arenas. Here are two inspiring stories of Shakespeare in South Africa and in China.
A smuggled copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare inspired Nelson Mandela while he was in the Robben Island jail. The South African prisoners there signed their names next to passages that were important to them. The passage Mandela chose on December 16, 1977, was from Julius Caesar, just before the Roman statesman leaves for the senate on the Ides of March in act 2, scene 2:
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
These lines taught Mandela how to dream and how to rise from the ashes. Through imaginary literature, we, like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Mandela, are able to rehearse multiple scenarios and histories without having endure the costly consequences of going to war or taking one’s own life in a political prison. The humanities can show us the future of the history we are making.
We are defined by our stories. At the same time, stories liberate us from the prison house of a relatively short life span in the infinite universe. Great stories can also give us courage, insight, and vision. In one of my classes, I discuss with my students the impact of the joint project of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense to tour the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s production of Macbeth to thirteen U.S. military bases in 2004. Indeed, what does it mean to read Shakespeare through peace and war?
Wu Ningkun has a moving story to tell. The mainland Chinese intellectual returned from the University of Chicago to join Mao Zedong’s New China in 1951. A decade later, he was sent to reform himself in a labor camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution because of his alleged association with the capitalist West. Although he was under close surveillance, he still managed to smuggle a copy of Hamlet into the camp to read whenever “the prisoners had to spend the day cooped up in a cell when a blinding blizzard blew from Siberia” in northeastern China. Of this experience, he later wrote in his memoir A Single Tear: A Family’s Persecution, Love, and Endurance in Communist China:
Hamlet was my favorite Shakespeare play. Read in a Chinese labor camp, however, the tragedy of the Danish prince took on unexpected dimensions. . . . The Ghost thundered with a terrible chorus of a million victims of proletarian dictatorship.
The real question I came to see was neither “to be, or not to be,” nor whether “in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” but how to be worthy of one’s suffering.
It is interesting to note what Wu elides from the Hamlet quote: “or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” On the one hand, it could mean that he wishes to counter the unfortunate condition of Cultural Revolution by not taking on a Hamlet-like passivity. On the other hand, it could imply that Wu seeks justice on a more transcendent level and is not seeking revenge upon those who unjustly imprisoned him. Shakespeare helped Wu survive in the labor camp, and reading Wu’s story helps us understand a crucial moment in the making of post-Mao China as the nation emerges from the Cultural Revolution.
Thinkers and leaders such as Lincoln, Mandela, and Wu have drawn inspiration from their reading and built stronger, interconnected communities through the humanities. There will be no national security without an in-depth understanding of our own culture and the cultures of others. Statistics and numbers give us only a partial picture of international affairs. Thoughtful and engaged citizens are the foundation of a democratic, civil society. The humanities enrich the creativity of the business world, enhance the adaptability of workforces, and promote crucial cross-cultural understanding.

Great stories instruct and delight, comfort and inspire. Because you provide public support for the humanities in America and allow us to continue to discover and tell powerful stories to the next generation of Americans, you play a major role in securing the leadership role of the United States. For that, I thank you. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

GW English Alums on the Move: Sarah Perillo Writes about Her Publishing Job

On the heels of Graduation 2013, we continue our new series "GW English Alums on the Move."  We want to hear about your accomplishments and adventures!  Professor Margaret Soltan is the new Alumni Relations Coordinator for this blog; if you're a GW English Alum, please don't hesitate to send Professor Soltan your news at margaret.soltan@gmail.com

An added bonus of letting others know about what you're up to when you leave GW: you help us reinforce the message that there are many different things that you can do with an English major.  We're very proud of the many different paths our majors have taken.

When you send in your stories, don't forget to include pictures!

GW English Alum Sarah Perillo
Class of 2013
On her way to New York City, Sarah Perillo, who just graduated as an English major, describes her new job:

Starting on May 29, I will be working as the "Foreign Rights Assistant" at Curtis Brown, Ltd., a literary agency in Manhattan. Basically this means I'll be assisting the director of the translation rights department. My responsibilities will include some mundane things like tracking royalty payments and helping authors fill out their tax forms, but I'll also learn how to negotiate contracts with foreign publishers. Eventually I'll be attending the international book fairs in Frankfurt and Bologna. At the same time, I'll probably be assisting other agents by going through their queries, writing reader's reports, and providing general editorial feedback.

I got the job through the translation rights director at CB, for whom I interned last summer when he was an agent at Folio Literary Management, also in New York. His assistant is leaving to become a literary agent herself, so he contacted me and asked if I was interested in the job (I was, of course). The job seems to have a lot of growth potential. Curtis Brown is a reputable company, and the skills I'll gain from working in foreign rights will allow me to pursue future jobs in almost any other area of the publishing industry. I could become an agent, or an editor, or I could continue to work in foreign.

I would recommend that anyone interested in book publishing learn how to read a publishing contract and branch out from doing just editorial work. Editorial jobs are much more competitive, and applicants with experience in marketing, digital publishing, or foreign rights in addition to editing usually have better luck finding a job. Unfortunately, it's also still very much an apprenticeship industry, and people with connections are much more likely to be employed. I can't overstate the importance of internships. Most of them are in New York, but there are also many opportunities here in the Washington area. 

Excellent advice, Sarah.  All the best in your new venture!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Introducing Professor David Mitchell

GW English Professor
David T. Mitchell

GW English is already well known for work in Disability Studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry examining the meanings of disability in culture and history, interrogating ideas of normality, and continually imagining what a more accessible world might look like.  We were thus very excited to search this year for a senior scholar in Disability Studies.  Professor David T. Mitchell, whose groundbreaking work with Sharon L. Snyder includes The Body and Physical Difference, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, and Cultural Locations of Disability, will join us this fall.  Professor Mitchell was present this past weekend for the celebration of our undergraduate majors.  We asked him a few questions about his work as part of our Introducing New Faculty series.

Tell us about your research.

Most of my research has focused on representations of disability in literature, film, and art.  I understand this domain as important because most of us interact with the greatest range of disabled people in imaginative realms such as fantasy, romance, horror, suspense, and memoir.  While the disability rights movement has focused on the critical question of social barrier removal in order to achieve more integrated public space, my research has sought to intervene in the more ephemeral arena of belief, attitude, and stigma.  Essentially my work has tried to discover ways of countering the historical sequestration of people with disabilities; the cultural denial of the prevalence of disability as human variation rather than deviance; the inaccurate assumption that our own historical moment has thought more deeply and effectively about the place of disabled people in our midst; and, most importantly, the ways in which knowledge of disabled peoples’ points of view have the potential to play a critical role in improving the world in which we live. 
            This last point is pivotal to my current research.  I have a new book manuscript under development titled, The Bio-Politics of Disability.  The work focuses on contemporary subjectivities of disability developing within late liberalism (neoliberalism).  What happens to our understanding of disability when those living in late capitalist cultures experience transformations as subjects of embodied vulnerability?  Our bodies are increasingly segmented between good parts and bad parts and an increasingly commodified medical/pharmaceutical industry promises to shore up the problem zones through various forms of supplementation -- the democratization of prosthetics, medications, and products sold to soothe beleaguered late capitalist bodies.  We increasingly experience ourselves as embodied beings through encounters with deficiencies we didn’t even know we had, or with respect to disorders surely on the horizon.  How does this more diffused sense of vulnerability for all impact people with disabilities in particular? 
My research asks questions about what happens to those bodies interpreted as outside norms of health, capacity, functionality, and appearance.  What does disability have to do with neoliberal regimes of intensified body maintenance?  If the eugenics period approached disability as deviance in need of radical segregation, what differs under neoliberalism when disabled bodies are increasingly treated as data into which medical, rehabilitation, pharmaceutical, charity and public relations industries can tap?  Is this an opportunity for a resuscitation of disability’s marginalized social status or paths to further levels of degradation even when compared with the radical institutionalization campaigns of early 20th century eugenics?

We notice you're teaching Disability Studies in the Fall.  Although there have been courses in Disability Studies in the department before, this is the first time this new slot (English 3910) has been used.  What do you plan to do with this new course?

One of the qualities that most attracted me to the GW English department was the already-established history of Disability Studies scholarship and course offerings.  When I visited as a candidate in March 2013, graduate students told me of their exciting research projects related to Disability Studies (DS).  I was excited by the ways in which departmental courses in the Early Modern period and Queer Studies, for example, were already making disability integral to their materials.  I’ve served in several administrative roles regarding the development of Disability Studies programs in the past and my belief is that students primarily generate the future research agendas of departments.  Thus, I look forward to how students will help me identify the materials and questions they’d like to study following my arrival at GW.  This is an important aspect of further deepening DS’s relationship to historical and theoretical movements already richly-positioned in the department and the university at large.
            For next fall, I plan to offer a course that focuses on the movement in DS from a rights-based advocacy movement (i.e. social model and identity-based approaches) to one increasingly interested in questions of materiality and subjectivity (what Tom Shakespeare calls “embodied ontology,” Robert McRuer refers to as “the turn to the body,” and Tobin Siebers identifies as “complex embodiement”).  The course will focus on interpreting cultural products created by disabled people in a variety of global locales.  We will discuss how disabled people living in various parts of the world depict their lives, needs, desires, and alternative social worlds.  Often these ways of living are markedly different from those pursued in normative contexts.  DS has richly portrayed the ways in which disabled people (of all socio-economic backgrounds) experience radical exclusion, architectural/attitudinal barriers, and historically-layered stigma regarding acceptable bodies.  However, what is only recently developing is a way of imagining how disability subjectivity – the queer modes of experience developed by disabled people surviving alongside other marginalized communities – further nuance interdependent options for living with others. 
Consequently, the fall course will give students some grounding in social model approaches to disability, identity theory, and the forwarding of media representations to effect social transformations in public attitudes.  To accomplish this goal we will look at a variety of disability cultural productions including: novels (Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Richard Powers’s The Echo-Maker), films (John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and Jenny Livingston’s Paris is Burning), art (the figural portrayals of Riva Lehrer), and internet spaces (cybernetic communities seeking ways of directing medicine toward interventions and supports more sustaining to themselves). How does life in alternative (i.e. normatively-rejected bodies) result in creative ways of navigating the world?  In what ways does a more developed understanding of disability enhance our knowledge of the fiction of normative practices and beliefs about bodies in general?  How do early 20th-century modernist exchanges about ways to exclude disabled people impact the making of contemporary global disability arts and culture movements on a geopolitical scale at the outset of the 21st century?

You've been in a number of innovative, interdisciplinary locations over the years; what made you want to join the GW English Department?

The one unfortunate thing that I’ve learned over the course of my career in “interdisciplinary departments” is that they are not, by-and-large, interdisciplinary.  There’s a significant amount of rhetoric at universities regarding the importance of interdisciplinary work – teaching, scholarship, cross-disciplinary collaboration – but the reality of implementation is much different.  At GW there is already a substantial amount of interdisciplinary work underway.  The English department is full of amazingly diverse, cross-disciplinary faculty; the graduate students openly address their research within interdisciplinary contexts; even the Disability Support Services Office imagines its role as much larger than integration and accommodation of students with disabilities and diverse learning styles.  This is a rich tapestry in which to bring my own work and one that I believe will continue to feed my future interests.  When I applied to GW I was looking for a location that valued Disability Studies as something other than an addition to existing diversity initiatives.  The disability historian, Catherine Kudlick, puts the question most succinctly, “why do we need another other?”
            This is an incredibly important question in my decision to come to GW.  I don’t think we need another other, and, even if we do disability should not be it.  These concepts of neoliberal diversity tend to water down the more substantive contributions of meaningful integration.  Instead, what I would like to help bring to the department is an investment in making disability integral rather than merely integrated into human social orders.  This entails a parallel project that has been underway in Queer Studies wherein scholars have asked what use is an LGBTQ movement without particular discussions of acts constituting queer lifestyles?  I take this question to mean, what if we gain a degree of acceptance of LGBTQ people but change nothing about the culture based on their alternative ways of being/living/surviving?  How do we bring a more peaceful concept of co-existence with others into existence if we’re not going to forward the content of artful, creative ways of being that queer lives (including disability) entail?
            So the opportunity at GW appears rich in possibility to me at this stage of my career and will prove as significant to the development of my future thinking as it will serve as a new home into which to bring my own ideas.  I have many colleagues already in the department and new faculty entering alongside me who promise to make the intellectual, social, and working atmosphere stimulating for a teacher/scholar such as myself.

What are you most looking forward to about moving to Washington, DC?  What are your thoughts on disability culture and/in DC?

The Metro -- the luxury of having access to the most accessible public transportation system in the country, plain and simple.  I lived in Chicago for eight years and the brown line train stop on my block did not become accessible to those in wheelchairs until the day I moved to Philadelphia!  What a terrific, terrible irony.  In Philadelphia the trains were technically accessible but you had to ask a conductor to get a ramp out to board and then make a 90 degree turn through a narrow doorway to enter the passenger car (only the front row of course).  Two years later Septa (the Regional Railroad) began purchasing new passenger cars – based on years of activism by the disability rights movement – that had double sliding doors and an onboard ramp that could be operated from inside the train.  However, within a month of purchasing these more accessible train cars the SEPTA administration sent out a notice disallowing the use of the internal ramps because “someone drove off the edge of the ramp while disembarking.”  Thus, years of waiting for accessible replacement train cars went for naught within a month and the system went back to providing grudging assistance by making conductors get out of the train to set up the manual ramps for egress and egress.  So the Metro in DC will prove very liberating; it’s as if one has to move to a city with systemic access built-in already in order to effectively pursue one’s career, lifestyle, and ability to interact with others outside one’s home.
            My partner, Sharon Snyder, and I are enthusiastic museum-goers and we plan to take full advantage of the amazing art and history on display in the city and surrounds.  I told my 17-year-old daughter (who also has a disability and uses a wheelchair) that living in DC is like turning everyday into a field trip, rather than looking forward to the one day in your junior year when you get to load into a bus and drive to DC with your classmates.  I hope that vision of the city will prove meaningful for all of us. 
            Finally, I’ve worked with many government and non-governmental organizations in DC for many years – DRC (Disability Rights Council), NiDRR (The National Institute for Rehabilitation and Research), DOE (Department of Education), OPSE (Office for Post-Secondary Education), TASH (the national association for assistive technology), and AHEAD (the national association of higher education for people with disabilities).  Living and working in DC will allow me to more easily continue work with these important policy groups into the future.

Some of your films have been shown at GW in the past -- are you and Sharon Snyder still making films?  Are there any that are in process right now?

My research and filmmaking partner, Sharon Snyder, has included me in some of the most important work about disability; namely, our co-creation of four documentary films about the culture, art, and history of people with disabilities.  Despite our collaborative work on books, book series, edited collections, journal publications, etc., it has been our films that have made the greatest impact on the dissemination of thinking about disability in higher education.  So this is a media we will continue to use as a primary means to perform our work as public translators of academic ideas into opportunities for public engagement.
            Right now we are working on two documentary films: the first, begun in 2007 with our friend and artist, Riva Lehrer, details the history of a school built for physically disabled children on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. Condon School was funded by philanthropists in 1921 to provide a centralized educational experience for children with chronic conditions otherwise restricted to living in hospitals.  In addition to providing k-6 schooling, Condon also provided medical, rehabilitation, and dental services.  Ironically the school had to add grades 7, 8, and 9 when their students “outgrew” the elementary school offerings.  I guess they were supposed to die before reaching their high school years.  Over the years, as the school was threatened with funding cuts, administrators expanded the school’s mission to include children with intellectual disabilities and, ultimately, autism, “retardation,” and severe behavioral disabilities.  By the 1990s neighborhood demographics had shifted dramatically and the surrounding community became increasingly African American and Latino.  Residents argued that having a school for disabled children in their neighborhoods further stigmatized those who lived on the margins of Cincinnati society in predominantly lower class neighborhoods.  The school was torn down in 2007.  The documentary will chart this ambivalent history of disability-based segregated education and racialization in the U.S. 
The second film involves our personal history of medically and socially managing esophageal atresia (EA) with our daughter, Emma.  EA results in an esophageal anomaly that involves a complex surgical intervention for successful repair.  Over the past 17 years we have met many parents/caretakers of children with EA; nearly all have come from medical contexts that botched the repair surgery because, currently, there is only one surgical solution for a viable correction of the problem but few pediatric surgeons trained in the appropriate technique.  This film will discuss the ways in which medical cultures fail to disseminate lifesaving information about surgical interventions on behalf of patients due to corporate healthcare profiteering and lack of medical training about the disorder. The film will also focus on the lack of discussion about how to manage one’s social life with a severe, highly medicalized, digestive condition.

 What do you hope your first class for graduate students might be?

            I like to tie graduate seminars into current research topics just beginning to be  investigated.  If I get the opportunity to teach a graduate seminar in Spring 2014, for instance, the course will cover a series of themes on the intersections of Disability, Cross-Species Identification, and Environment.  The seminar materials will open up an examination of the shared interests of disability with environmental movements.  Both activist agendas require direct redress of the widespread destruction of the planet by global capitalism.  In undertaking questions of materialism and disability I hope seminar participants can begin to re-think ways in which marginalized communities (such as migrant workers and lower income communities) and disabled people’s everyday lives involve significant levels of exposure to toxic environments -- lives of “slow death” (Lauren Berlant’s key phrase for the toxic experiences of under-privileged communities under neoliberalism).  The seminar will also address questions of environmental toxicity with recent theories on the porosity of bodies wherein animate and inanimate particulate matter inevitably cross the semi-permeable encasements within which humans and animals exist.  In short, we are the environments we inhabit.

Some important theoretical works I'm thinking of using as reading for the class include excerpts from: Donna Haraway's Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science; Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation; Stacy Alaimo's Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self; Mel Chen's Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect; Martha Nussbaum's Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership; Elizabeth Povinelli's Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism; Tobin Siebers's Disability Aesthetics; Alison Kafer's Feminist, Queer, Crip; and Michel Foucault’s The History of Madness.  Likely the seminar will include a novel serving as centerpiece such as Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits, and/or a memoir such as Dawn Prince-Hughes’s Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism.  We will also view select international disability films including: "Sang Froid" (Cold Blood) [France], "Outcasts" [Australia], "Berocca" [United Kingdom], and "Self Preservation: The Art of Riva Lehrer" [U.S.].

Welcome to GW English, Professor Mitchell!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Doctoral Candidate Lori Brister Awarded 2013 Summer Dissertation Fellowship

PhD Candidate Lori Brister

Doctoral candidate Lori Brister has been awarded a 2013 Summer Dissertation Fellowship by GW’s Office of Graduate Student Assistantships and Fellowships. This fellowship will allow her to travel to several notable libraries and collections, including the New York Public Library and the GeorgeEastman House/ International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY. Throughout the summer, Lori will be combing the archives for travel photographs, postcards, luggage labels, and other tourist ephemera. This research will be invaluable to her dissertation which explores the interstices of tourism, travel literature, and visual culture. The forth chapter is a study of tourist ephemera tentatively titled “Tourism in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 

Lori is completing her dissertation under the direction of Professor Jennifer Green-Lewis.

Congratulations Lori!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Reflections from a Graduating Senior

Eva Hansen reflects on her time
with the GW English Department

The Practicality of Impracticality;
Or, Why Being an English Major 
Was the Best Decision
I Made in My Undergrad Career

Eva Hansen

         “Oh... what do you plan to do with that?” This question, along with the skeptical intonation, is one that I am commonly asked when I explain that I am pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in creative writing.  The conversation normally continues with me trying to justify my decision to pursue the study of literature, explaining, “I figure there’s nothing more important than knowing how to write well and formulate a persuasive argument.”  Well, I only have a few days left until I am no longer merely “pursuing” my degree, and while I still stand by my memorized one-line defense of my decision to study English, if I could have these conversations all over again, there are a few more things that I would add.

           I would add that I was always instilled with the belief that education is not only a privilege, but something with which I have the ability to do what I will-- meaning, it is up to me to embrace my educational opportunities.  I initially started out in the GW School of Business and while both the facilities and the courses offered were great, after one semester I decided that business school was not for me.  I still remember the nervous phone call home telling my parents about my decision to switch from the “practical” School of Business to the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.  I remember my dad on the other end of the phone assuring me, “It’s your education.  You’re going to be there for four years, so it’s important to study what interests you.  You’ll make of your education what you decide to put into it.”  


We <3 F. Scott Fitzgerald

         Well, I put in hundreds of pages of writing.  I purchased over 150 books.  I cried in the library when I felt like I couldn’t manage to possibly write one more sentence about Shakespeare or Chaucer.  I even created a Today In Lit Class Tumblr as a means to joke about it all.  


         But I wouldn’t change a thing.  Being a student within the GW Department of English has allowed me the opportunity to meet authors, to take courses from award-winning writers, to write a paper supposing a time-transcending relationship between Morrissey and Oscar Wilde, and to form bonds with other 20-somethings who also share an unhealthy obsession with Margery Kempe and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

         Now that I have a job lined up for my life post-graduation, it’s far easier to reflect back and stand by my decision to pursue the study of literature.

          I am thrilled about my new job, and while it doesn’t require knowledge of Victorian Literature or the evolution of the American play, I can contend that the skills I gained from my English undergraduate courses will be used everyday after I graduate.  The sixteen English courses I have taken during my four years here at GW have instilled in me a stronger compassion for others (both fictional and real) and the ability to make my passions and thoughts known through the written word.

          I guess the point of this all is to say that if you’re hesitant to take the “impractical” route and pursue a degree in English literature, do it-- it will be the most practical decision in your life.

Congratulations to all of our graduating seniors! We wish you luck and hope we changed you as much as you changed us.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Introducing Assistant Professor Jennifer Chang

GW English Professor Jennifer Chang

As we continue our Introducing New Faculty series, we're excited to introduce you to Jennifer Chang, who will be joining us in the fall, in the Creative Writing Program, as an Assistant Professor of Poetry.  Listed by former poet laureate Rita Dove as one of the young poets she is "following with great hope," Professor Chang joins us with one book of poems completed and a manuscript under revision.  Her poetry has appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, New Republic, Boston Review, and other venues.  You can read Rita Dove's full list and see Professor Chang reading her poetry here.

Tell us about your poetry -- what you've written so far and what you're working on.

I have one book of poems, The History of Anonymity, and I’m currently revising a manuscript for my second book of poems, Some Say the Lark. I write about nature – how nature affects the construction of a self, how culture shapes one’s perception of nature, and how very small and insignificant we measure against nature.   Of course, by stating that, I feel I’ve left out so much out! I’m compelled by the emotional landscapes one can experience through forms poetic and otherwise – from elegy to epistle, lyric fragment to lyric sequence, sentence to séance – and a poem’s form often reflects on and refracts off the physical spaces I’m writing about it, even when the poem’s just about Frank O’Hara or the story of Hansel and Gretel.  While writing my first book, I was very much preoccupied with deflecting narratives of childhood, like fairy tales and myths, and sought alternative approaches such as a performative voice or syntactic fragments to convey event, experience, and meaning.  To me, getting lost in language is like getting lost in a forest.  In my second book, the poems are more conversational, as I found myself frequently writing about (and to) women in literature and literary history – Dorothy Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft, Willa Cather, Perdita in A Winter’s Tale – and how their voices reflected on natural environments and yet were often submerged by their cultural environments.  A lot of these poems arose out of conversations with friends and with texts that moved me, and for that reason I think of it as a more personal book.

What poets have you been reading lately?

I’ve been re-reading Bhanu Kapil’s Humaninimal: A Project for Future Children and Joe Brainard’s I Remember. Neither is recognizably poetry, though, like lyric, each charts the unpredictable, yet surprisingly patterned machinations of the mind in motion. Humaninal follows Kapil’s investigation into two little girls who were found in the jungles of India raised by wolves in the nineteenth century: it’s prose poetry that’s influenced by ethnography, documentary film, postcolonial theory, and fairy tales, and it’s fragmentary and digressive. A true investigation.  I Remember is a list of sentences beginning with “I remember…” I love that the discipline of Brainard’s monomania lets the poem be silly, boring, and stunningly poignant.  This suits my life well at the moment, as my husband and I recently had a baby, and life with a newborn follows the same random emotional trajectory as the book.  I read favorite poems out loud to the baby, too: he likes Hayden, hates Eliot. 

We notice you're teaching advanced poetry in the Fall.  What are some of the things you plan to do with this upper-level course?

We’ll divide the semester up into weekly workshops and the close study of three forms: self-portraits, blank verse, and lyric sequences.  I thought beginning with self-portraits would be a dynamic way for the students to introduce themselves to me, while honing their imagination and language for self-representation.  I also want to introduce them to my workshop pedagogy, which focuses not only on the craft of writing but also on how the poems we write and read are in conversation with work from other historical periods and genres.  We’ll read contemporary examples, as well as Dickinson and Ashbery, and look at literary and visual self-portraits by poets like Plath, Williams, and Brooks.  And we’ll try to close read and steal techniques from artists like Velazquez, Van Gogh, Kahlo, Alice Neel, and Cindy Sherman.  I’m still considering what I’ll teach for the blank verse and lyric sequence units, but I hope the first weeks set the stage for much creativity in how students approach writing, thinking, and talking about poems. 

What made you want to join the GW English Department?

At every step of the interview process with GW, I’ve had the kinds of rich, provocative conversations about literature, teaching, and community that make me truly excited to be a writer, scholar, and teacher.  I was already impressed with the excellence of the faculty and the students, but everyone’s willingness to engage with each other and the department’s incredibly generous spirit signal, to me, a happy and intellectually vibrant place to work. 

What are you most looking forward to about moving to Washington, DC?

I grew up in NJ, a three-hour drive up 95, and so many field trips and family vacations involved the museums, various monuments, and/or cherry blossom season.  I have great memories of these times and I look forward to knowing DC more intimately as an adult.  But I’m especially thrilled to be living in a city with a professional basketball team.  So the Wizards aren’t great, but they have John Wall and maybe they’ll get better?

Is your new baby excited about the move?

Baby Henry (aka Hank) is so excited about the move that he arrived three weeks early, on April 15th, ready to go! 

Henry, age 3 weeks
And what a beautiful baby he is!  So happy to welcome you and your family to DC and to GW English.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Introducing Professor Ayanna Thompson

GW English Professor Ayanna Thompson

We are happy to roll out a new series for this blog, Introducing New Faculty.  Over the next few weeks, you'll meet everyone who will be joining us in Fall 2013.  The Department of English is ecstatic to have three new faculty members joining us in the fall, along with a fourth faculty member who will be with us for the year (our 2013-2014 Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Washington).  Watch this space for an introduction to each of these new members of our community.  Today we're introducing you to Professor Ayanna Thompson, a leading scholar of Shakespeare studies, performance studies, and race.  Professor Thompson has been Professor of English and Associate Dean of Faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University.  We recently had a chance to chat with Professor Thompson about the year ahead.

Tell us about your research.

            Although I am frequently labeled a “Shakespeare scholar,” a more adequate label is something closer to “performance race scholar.” My work explores the development and cultural legacies of racial constructions in seventeenth-century England. Because of my interest in the formation and perseverance of racial constructions, my work is both historically and theoretically informed, encompassing texts from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first century.
            In my first two books, my work moved from being historicist to being theoretically and practically focused. For instance, Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage (Routledge, 2008), was essentially an historicist project that reevaluated the development of racial constructions in seventeenth-century England. This book provided the first sustained reading of Restoration plays through a performance theory lens and exposed how race was initially coded in a paradoxical fashion as both essentially fixed and socially constructed. My research also examines the important role performance continues to have on constructions of race. Thus, Colorblind Shakespeare (Routledge, 2006), analyzed the complex relationship between modern Shakespearean productions and the controversial practice of nontraditional casting (that is, casting actors of color in roles that were originally written for white actors). The essays in this edited collection explored both the history of nontraditional casting in cultural terms and the theoretical implications of this practice for reading Shakespeare in a contemporary context.
            More recently my work has been focused on Shakespeare in different American cultural/historical moments. For example, in Passing Strange (Oxford University Press, 2011) I examined the ways Shakespeare and race have been and should be constructed in popular American culture. The book begins with the premise that notions, constructions, and performances of race continue to define the contemporary American experience, including our conceptions, performances, and employments of Shakespeare. The book’s guiding questions are: How is Shakespeare’s universalism constructed within explicit discussions and debates about racial identity? Do Shakespeare’s plays need to be edited, appropriated, revised, updated, or rewritten to affirm racial equality and relevance? And, do the answers to these questions impact our understanding of authorship, authority, and authenticity?
            My interest in analyzing American Shakespeares is also apparent in Weyward Macbeth (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) (co-edited with Scott Newstok). This collection of essays provides innovative, interdisciplinary approaches to the various ways Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been adapted and appropriated within the context of American racial constructions. Although many practitioners assume that they are the first to situate Macbeth in an African-American landscape (or perhaps the second after Orson Welles), this collection demonstrates how frequently this appropriation occurs and theorizes why the history of appropriation is so often forgotten and erased.
            I have several new book projects that are diverse in nature: one on revenge (see below); one on teaching Shakespeare; and one on the practical aspects to nontraditional casting (for theatre practitioners). Although I did not always feel this way as a graduate student, I love writing; it makes me happy!

We notice you’re teaching a Dean’s Seminar on Revenge in the Fall. Is this part of your new work? Why revenge? What do you think will be appealing about this seminar for incoming, first-year students?

            The first course I ever designed on my own—when I had a visiting position at Bowdoin College—was a class on early modern revenge narratives. Because I was writing a dissertation chapter on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, I was reading a lot of revenge tragedies and thought they were incredibly fun. Since that first teaching experience, I have refined my revenge tragedy class over the years, and I am finally writing a book about Shakespeare and revenge for Oxford University Press. Like my other book projects, I hope to create fruitful dialogues between the early modern constructions of revenge and our current historical moment. For example, I am interested in exploring the relationships between early modern notions of debt and credit and the twentieth-century concept of reparations; retributive justice since 9/11; the rising fear of black vengeance after the election of Barack Obama; and the enduring fascination with the Western genre. In this Dean’s Seminar I think first-year students will enjoy the mixture of literature, history, cultural politics, film, and gore, lots of gore!

What made you want to join the GW English Department?

            The faculty! I can’t begin to express how impressive the faculty in GW’s English Department are. In fact, GW has been on my radar for a while. I advocated for my best M.A. student of all time—Lowell Duckert—to go to GW for his Ph.D. Well, he thrived working with the MEMSI faculty, and now he is an assistant professor at West Virginia University. Plus, my work intersects with three key areas of focus in the department: Medieval and Renaissance; African American; and postcolonial. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to join such a vibrant department!

What are you most looking forward to about moving to Washington, DC?

            Honestly, everything! I can’t wait to explore all the museums, parks, and monuments. But I am also looking forward to living in a vibrant art city: lots of professional Shakespeare theatre companies; lots of music venues (the 9:30 Club is legendary!); and lots of visual art. On top of that, there is the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is vital for my research. Sometimes I can’t believe my good fate because DC is my dream city.

You’re leaving a dean’s position—what did you like about administration? Are you eager to return to teaching? We’ll be welcoming a new dean ... any words of wisdom for him?

            I have been in the dean’s office at ASU for two years, and I have learned a lot about how academic institutions run. I love gaining this new knowledge sets so the job has been incredibly rewarding in that sense. Now I have immense respect for the individuals who serve in these incredibly taxing roles: they work a lot harder than faculty and students know. Nonetheless, I really love teaching and writing, and those activities were getting squeezed. I can’t wait to return to the classroom and to write the books that I have promised to the publishers (instead of feeling guilty that I haven’t written them fast enough).
            GW is very fortunate to hire Dean Vinson. I think he will be an incredibly strong advocate for the college, and I look forward to getting to know him. I hope he can continue with his research because he is a gifted scholar whose work has made a significant impact.

What do you hope your first class for graduate students might be?

At this point, I don’t know what my first graduate class will be. I usually like to tailor my classes to the needs of the current Ph.D. students. For example, I had a lot of graduate students at ASU who were working on/around issues of adaptation so I created a course on American Shakespeares that really dug deep into adaptation theory. Therefore, I want to get to know the GW graduate students first, and then start thinking about courses that will benefit their research and scholarship. But I have lots of ideas…

We're excited to hear those ideas and excited to have you here with us!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Graduate Student D Gilson Wins Larry Neal Poetry Award

D. Gilson (center) with graduate students
Maia Gil'Adi (left) and Rachel Obenschain (right)

On Friday, PhD student D. Gilson won the Larry Neal Writers' Competition in the poetry category. Each year, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities presents these awards to commemorate the artistic legacy and vision of cultural understanding of Larry Neal - a renowned author, academic and former Executive Director of the DCCAH. The competition recognizes the artistic excellence of emerging and established DC writers with monetary awards for submissions in poetry, essays, dramatic writing and short story.  The finalists were announced in April and the awards ceremony was on May 3.

The awards reception was held at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital on Capitol Hill and co-sponsored by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. Actress Katy Richey served as master of ceremonies, DC commissioner Lavinia Wohlfarth presented the awards, and 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award winner Benjamin Saenz delivered the welcoming address. Actors Theodore Snead and Dawn Ursula performed two of Gilson's poems, including "Confessional Poem, Age 7," for which he won the Larry Neal Award. That poem appears below.

Confessional Poem, Age Seven

Uncle Dennis is the entire state of Texas,
expanse of great prairie and oil-rigged

skyscrapers all contained in the rotunda
of his five-foot-eight frame.

But when my parents bring him home
from Houston, it is 1990. My uncle

does not wear his Stetson,
does not hug me into the cowboy

flank of his new-fangled body.
Uncle Dennis is skinny, is not

Uncle Dennis until I walk beside
his wheelchair, down

the long, bleached hallway
of the nursing home, when he turns

to me, says, Howdy, cowpoke.
Months pass. On the playground

that is being seven years old,
I kiss my best friend Eric Schmitt

behind the dugout. He shoves me
into the dirt and runs away

as my uncle’s radio moans,
If you wanna know, if he loves you so,

it’s in his kiss. That’s where it is.
But I am a child, one who never

learns quick. That night we visit
Uncle Dennis. When Mother whispers

into my ear, Give your uncle a kiss
on the cheek, the KS lesion flowers

above the neckline of his pale blue
hospital gown, a blossom that creeps

like ivy across the distance
of starched sheets between us,

into the garden, fertile, that is
my boy body, and I refuse him.