Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On the Road: GW English Professors in Macau

GW English Professors Daniel DeWispelare and David McAleavey (back row)
and Jennifer Chang and Patty Chu (front row) flanked by
University of Macau graduate students

Four GW English Department faculty recently met with colleagues from the University of Macau’s English Department’s literature section to share expertise and experience, in the hope that further areas of collaboration might emerge.

This fall, Professor David McAleavey is teaching full time as a GW Global Humanities exchange professor at the U of Macau; in the spring, Professor Patty Chu will fill the same role. For a 3-day symposium in Macau last week, Professors Jennifer Chang and Daniel DeWispelare met with both Professors McAleavey and Chu.

As part of the experience, several University of Macau graduate students gave the Americans a brief tour around old Macau, including a chance to admire the façade of the church of St. Paul, a relic from the time when Macau (also spelled Macao) was a Portuguese colony.

This faculty exchange, organized by Dean Ben Vinson of CCAS and his counterpart at the U of Macau’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, brought a Portuguese instructor, Ana Luisa Leal, to GW for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

GW English Alums on the Move: Gabe Muller

Gabe Muller (GW English Minor, '13)
with Diane von Furstenberg
Gabe Muller, English Minor, Diane von Furstenberg Intimate

Okay, maybe not intimate; but Gabe's job at Atlantic Media certainly opens doors.  He talks about it with Margaret Soltan.

So, how did you go from being a humble English minor at GW to a guy who hangs out with famous fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg? 

wish I could say I regularly hang out with her, but the truth is a bit more low-key. I interviewed DVF for an immigration-themed multimedia campaign I oversaw at work. After graduating from GW in 2013, I began a fellowship with Atlantic Media — they publish The Atlantic, Quartz, and others. My job there involves conceiving and executing big editorial projects for clients. This particular campaign was done for the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a wonderful foundation that's made a lot of positive change in the world — including being a vocal proponent of immigration. Part of our campaign involved conducting interviews with famous immigrants, and, luckily for me, DVF was eager to participate! Needless to say, she was fabulous, super professional, and magnetic. Maybe one day we'll actually hang out — but I'm not holding my breath.

In what ways did your GW education prepare you for this sort of multimedia work?

I'm a proud and involved alum of The GW Hatchet. While other students had their fraternities and sports teams, I had the newspaper. I served as the web and multimedia editor at The Hatchet for a while, and that's where I really picked up my video storytelling skills. We were a hard-working team and we thrived on the tight deadlines and creative debates associated with this sort of work. Aside from The Hatchet, I also developed storytelling skills by taking lots of English classes and doing a whole lot of reading. What makes a good narrative? What does the viewer need to see to feel emotion or empathy? How does one interview flow into the other? These are questions I started asking back at GW and am still working through today.

Do you see yourself as primarily an editor, or a writer, or something else?

It's a tough question, but I'm tempted to say "something else." My day job is less about writing individual articles or editing specific videos and more about planning and executing big creative projects. But because I still love writing and editing, I try to do some work on the side. This includes freelancing articles whenever I have the time and inspiration, and, more recently, coaching other writers through their own projects. There's nothing more gratifying than helping somebody else find their writerly voice through a one-on-one professional relationship. It's intimate, trusting, and intellectually rigorous.

You've been talking about writing for The Hatchet when you were a student here.  Do you think that's good training for an English major?  Do you have any advice in general for our majors?

I raved about The Hatchet in a previous question, and I will rave about it here as well. It is a tremendous training ground. No other group on campus will discipline and hone your untethered creative energy quite like The Hatchet. Plus, it's given me a lifetime of wonderful friends. As for general advice for the English majors: Think broadly! I combined my English education with a history major and philosophy minor, and was floored by the intellectual connections I was able to uncover among the disciplines. Take courses in critical theory, in art history, in Victorian literature, in Tudor politics and watch how all the pieces come together.

Do you have any other trendy high-profile cultural outings in the works?

Yes, I'll be strutting the catwalk at New York Fashion Week in a few days. Just kidding. I'll likely be sitting on my deck, welcoming the fall with a cool beer and a couple of friends after work. That's about as high-profile as I get.

[ALUMS! Please contact Professor Margaret Soltan with your own high-profile story.  We'd love to include you as part of this blog series.]

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

GW English Alums on the Move: Professor Jennifer Nelson

Professor Jennifer Nelson
GW English BA, 1988
The Challenges of a Bilingual Campus:  Jennifer Nelson Talks about Life at Gallaudet University

Jennifer Nelson (BA, '88), Chair of the English Department at Gallaudet University and an English major during her time at GW, talks to Professor Margaret Soltan about the unique nature of Gallaudet, 

Margaret Soltan: Let's start with the immediate present.  I see that Gallaudet is about to host a conference on "Shakespeare and the Visual," and that you're running the show.  Can you tell me more about that?

Jennifer Nelson: That got changed to a Symposium with a narrower focus dealing with American Sign Language Shakespeare and Visual Dramaturgy.  One of your colleagues, Jonathan Hsy, is presenting something. What's important to note here is that this Symposium is only one small part of the First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare exhibit from the Folger Shakespeare Library, coming to Gallaudet during the month of October 2016. We applied for the grant and won it for the DC area; Dr. Jill Bradbury is the Director for this project and I was assistant Director until recently, when I took on the English Department Chair position.

We have these things planned: a lecture series, a Family Day, a K-12 workshop, a play, the Symposium I mentioned, and other things such as workshops on Titus Andronicus in ASL, Interpreting Shakespeare, Deaf Theatres and Shakespeare, and so forth.

If you join us on Facebook at "First Folio at Gallaudet," you'll get information about that; you also might want to check www.gallaudet.edu/SHXGallaudet. You may also email firstfolio@gallaudet.edu for more information.

MS: This conference is one of your many activities now that you're chair of the English department at Gallaudet.  Are there ways in which running an academic unit at Gallaudet is significantly different from that job at other universities?

JN: I think for the most part we operate like any other university, although we have a bilingual focus. We do ASL and English both. We operate via two languages and modalities as a Department and as teachers. We have more of a focus on the visual and cultural Deaf aspects of departmental life and teaching, such as conducting classes and meetings in a circular setup as opposed to row seating.

We are used to dealing with various languages across the spectrum, such as ASL versus more English-ified sign language or print English. We sign ASL, and we write in English for the most part, though we do have creative writers in the department and our classes who play with English by writing in a more ASL-like register.

I think the Deaf community is more used to language play and bilingual issues than most, and as a Department we are the same way. I think we are very culturally and linguistically sensitive and flexible, and perhaps not quite so stuck on one way or one language or one mode of expressing ideas.

MS: In what ways did your years as an English major at GW prepare you for grad school, and then for your position at Gallaudet?  Were there particular professors here who helped set you on your path?

JN: I took a graduate class in theory (Margaret Soltan's) when I was a junior--yes, you actually let me into the class, and it was quite the fascinating eye opener.  That was quite the introduction to literary theory and it set me up well for graduate life at UC Berkeley  two years later. I also got Departmental English Honors via Gail Paster's Honors Proseminar, and these two things and people are what influenced me to go on to graduate school in English and eventual professorhood.

Dr. Paster in particular changed my life direction, in that I was a double major in English and biology all the way to my senior year. She somehow convinced me to drop the Biology major so that I could do the Honors English option (it was my last year and I couldn't work out doing both biology and the Honors English option schedule-wise); I ended up going to graduate school in English, where my field was 19th century British literature. I'm not quite sure anything prepares anyone for becoming chair, however, other than years and years within the department "living" with your colleagues, and hands-on experience via committees dealing with different areas such as evaluation of faculty, assessment, accreditation, and so forth. 

MS: Do you have any advice for our undergraduate majors and our graduate students in regard to advanced literary study?  Was your own path relatively smooth?

JN: Expect the unexpected. Welcome changes in your life. Many things cannot be planned. And these sentiments fit well with the ideas and approaches of advanced literary study and theory. I was going to go to veterinary school as late as my senior year at GWU when Dr. Paster changed everything for me. And here I am--I'm a full professor in the English department at Gallaudet University, and am currently doing a departmental chair stint, for better or for worse! 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Introducing Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Residence Melinda Moustakis

Jenny McKean Moore
Melinda Moustakis
The Jenny McKean Moore Fund was established in honor of the late Jenny Moore, who was a playwrighting student at GW and who left in trust a fund that has, for more than 40 years, encouraged the teaching and study of Creative Writing in the English Department, allowing us to bring a poet, novelist, playwright, or creative non-fiction writer to campus each year. While in residence, the writer brings a unique experience to the GW community, teaching a free community workshop for adults along with Creative Writing classes for GW students.  

This year we are pleased to welcome Melinda Moustakis, our 41st Writer-in-Residence.  Professor Moustakis is the author of Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Maurice Prize.  She was a 5 Under 35 selection by the National Book Foundation; you can watch a Vimeo interview about that award here. Professor Moustakis received her MA from the University of California at Davis and her PhD from Western Michigan University. Her story "They Find the Drowned" won a 2013 O'Henry Prize and her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly ReviewKenyon ReviewNew England Review, and American Short FictionWe caught up with Professor Moustakis as she settled into campus to ask her a few questions.  Join us on September 23, when she kicks off our Jenny McKean Moore Reading Series for the semester.

What attracted you to the position at GW, and as Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington?

I have previously taught at two other private liberal arts college and had wonderfully engaged students there. Most recently I taught at Kenyon College, which is about an hour and twenty minutes outside of Columbus, in a small town, or village really, surrounded by green rolling hills and one has to watch for buggies and horses on the road as there is an Amish community nearby. It's a great place, but I was really hoping for a change of pace, to live in a city, and I'd always enjoyed my visits to DC.

Tell us a bit about your debut story collection, Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories.  The linked stories are all in some way connected to a family of homesteaders in Alaska – can you describe this setting for us?  What sets this location apart from other settings in contemporary U.S. literature?

My focus is mostly south-central Alaska-- the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage and surrounding areas. The book covers three generations of one family because I was thinking about my grandparents, who homesteaded in the fifties, and my parents who both grew up in Alaska, and then my relationship to their ties to this landscape as well as my own. The characters in my book hunt and fish and tell stories, ones best told around a campfire or at the bar. But more importantly, I wanted to reveal the stories that these characters try to keep hidden, perhaps even from themselves. There's so much mystique surrounding Alaska and often people in the lower 48 imagine this beautiful and majestic place they want to visit before they die and they call it the last frontier. But my goal is to write beyond the beauty and to reveal the complexities, the ugliness, the knife-edgeness of this place and its inhabitants. I like to call my writing Northern Gothic. Alaska, like Hawaii, is a state literally set apart from the rest of the U.S. The sheer scale of the wilderness and the harshness of living are added elements to any story I write. A couple could be having a disagreement, which happens anywhere, but at any moment a moose could walk into their yard. I'll never tire of making a moose-in-the-yard moment an important part of a story. 

What were some of the challenges you faced writing about this location?  Violence of various sorts, for examples, seems a constitutive part of this locale – what are some of the challenges of writing about the often-violent conditions under which characters are struggling to survive?

One challenge was to move past my experiences and my family's experiences to find the fiction. Anecdotes are not a story and so there was a process of warping and stretching and allowing the characters and their stories to surprise me. 

The book does illustrate cycles of violence and alcoholism in families and the violence of trying to survive in the wilderness. I find I scare myself as a writer when I know I need to write something gut-wrenching and there's a keen sense of vulnerability and responsibility that comes with trying to make sure I get it right, making sure these moments of violence are integral to the plot and to the character and that the depictions are truthful, not gratuitous. 

Tell us what you’ve been working on.  Will you be presenting from Bear Down Bear North as well as some of your new work when you open the JMM reading series in a few weeks?

I'm working on a novel based on some of the characters in the collection. I might read a newer, published story or one from the collection. I try not to read from works in progress as a general, but breakable, rule. I never want to read something unpolished to an audience. Reading is serious business-- people are kind enough to take time out of their schedules to come hear you.

Who are some of the short story writers you have been reading lately?  

I read Lost in the City by [GW English Professor] Edward P. Jones a few months ago and I'd been meaning to read it for a long time and now I'm angry I didn't read it sooner. Right now I'm reading Get in Trouble by Kelly Link and Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah. 

Welcome to GW English, Professor Moustakis!