Category Archives: Reading and Writing

On Staying Alive

As I look back at a productive sabbatical year, and ahead to my new role as professor emeritus, I have been thinking about staying alive: of coming to terms with the “Mark Long project”–whatever that might turn out to be. Recently, too, a friend asked for a link to my essays in The Staying Alive Project, and I thought it would be useful to pull together links to the twenty short essays I wrote on the promises and perils of academic life.

The Staying Alive Project began as a conversation with John Tallmadge in 2006. Our conversations led to a workshop for academic professionals at the Biennial Conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the summer of 2007, and then in ASLE sessions and panels at the biennial conferences through the 2019 ASLE gathering in Davis, California.

Over the years, we also led conversations about the challenges of academic life with colleagues at colleges and universities across the country, and invited guest posts on our Staying Alive Blog, including John Knott, Michael P. Branch, Sarah Jaquette Ray, and Stephen Siperstein. I have also published a series of essays on academic departments and institutions in academic journals and essay collections.

The grounding premise of the Project is spelled out on our web site: “Like other learned professions, academia offers a model career path that holds out the promise of a fulfilling life. This organizing fiction begins with graduate school and proceeds through temporary and tenure-track jobs to the watershed of the tenure review, and thence to tenure, promotion, and retirement with honors. While many careers do indeed unfold along this path, many others diverge to a greater or lesser degree. But at every point along the way, one’s experience reflects the interplay of three fundamental factors: the person, the profession, and the institution. And much quiet desperation arises from ignorance of their nature and influence. We are interested in a conversation about these factors and how they operate across the phases of an academic career.

“Drawing inspiration from Eric Erickson’s life stages, we define three major phases of academic life across three dimensions of experience.  Each of these phases—graduate school, junior faculty, and senior faculty—offers payoffs that are also challenges or costs. At each stage, people experience seduction followed by betrayal-or, in more benign circumstances, disillusionment. Our vision is to cultivate a life practice for academic people guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration.”

Now that I am in transition to a new phase of life and work, I may be turning again to reflect on these questions.

On Staying Alive: Occasional Essays on the Promises and Perils of Academic Life (2009––2019)

A Writing Prompt

When a Sense of Place is a Sense of Motion

Some Thoughts on Identity and Integrity

Contingency, Collaboration and the Justification of the Humanities

The Value of Professional Mentoring

Preparation and Strain

Endings and Beginnings

Striking a Balance

The Bureaucratization of the Imaginative

Tenure Talk: Thinking Again

The Warrior Phase

Rethinking (Academic) Success 3

It Don’t Come Easy: Thoughts on the Citizen Phase of Academic Life

Contingency, Irony, Solidarity

It Gets Better—and Other Enabling Fictions

Neither For Nor Against: Notes on the Institution

Continuing the Conversation

The Question of the Opportunities: A Postscript to ASLE 2015

Only Connect

Redefining Service

Teaching the Prose of William Carlos Williams

For many teachers, particularly those less familiar with modernist writing, Williams’ prose is, to quote a 1966 assessment by A. Kingsely Weatherhead, “to a great extent, hit or miss. There are on the one hand the brilliant perceptions” and there are on the other hand, he writes, “the kind of floundering around, the compulsive repetition with variations of a word that has a kind of numinous appeal to him, found for example in ” The Poem as a Field of Action'” (SE pp. 280-291), where he doesn’t rightly know what he’s about at all.” In 1969, however, Linda Welshimer Wagner articulated a more sympathetic approach, calling attention to Williams’ improvisational prose style. “The personal and “idiomatic quality” of Williams’ prose—including his essays, The Great American Novel, the Autobiography, and the letters—present the reader with a difficulty. “Instead of logic,” Wagner concludes, Williams gives us truly personal improvisation.” The example she gives is from Marianne Moore:

Surely there is no poetry so active as that of today, so unbound, so dangerous to the mass of mediocrity, if one should understand it, so fleet, hard to capture, so delightful to pursue. It is clarifying in its movements as a wild animal whose walk corrects that of men.

For Wagner, the numerous qualifying phrases and the esoteric simile illustrate some of Williams’ weakest stylistic practices. The control he achieves in much of his fiction is less evident when the poet himself speaks. Williams’ painful honesty, his groping, sometimes obscures rational progression, but never the effect of genuine speech—terse, emotional, stubborn, perceptive (140). I want to suggest, more specifically, that the moments where we miss rational progression are the moments when the literary qualities of Williams’ prose are most acute. “There is no confusion—only difficulties” Williams admonishes in Spring and All. To follow improvisational moments in any form of experimental art is to follow the mind recognizing itself as it intervenes in the familiar.

My claim in this essay is that there may be no more productive space for the practice of literary and cultural studies than the prose writings of William Carlos Williams. In the undergraduate classroom, in particular, Williams’ prose invites students to wrestle with practical questions about reading, thinking, and writing. His prose is alive with the theoretical questions that arise in practice as well: questions about linguistic forms, language and thought, the relations between ourselves and the world.

The pedagogical value of Williams’ prose follows from my recognition that my most productive experiences as a teacher have roots in what I have learned from Williams and what Williams has made possible for my students. In first-year writing courses, general education humanities electives, historical or thematic surveys in the major, or project-based work in upper-level courses, Williams has proven a generous, challenging, and provocative companion. For the students I teach at a public liberal arts institution—with over forty percent who are the first in their families to attend college—Williams’ generous and vital commentaries on reading, thinking, and writing have been extraordinarily useful in both English and general studies courses.

There are places to go when considering Williams’ pedagogical values and strategies. But “(A Sketch for) the Beginnings of an American Education” is perhaps the most instructive place to begin. The sketch, near the end of The Embodiment of Knowledge, is a provocation. “A good beginning,” Williams insists, “would be to abolish in American schools (at least) all English departments and to establish in [their] place the department of Language” (EK 146). The fault with education, Williams will say in the section “The Beginnings of an American Education,” is not the students at all “but with those to whom it has been asked to look: to its elders, the leaders, the professors. . .” (3). Anyone who has become weary of general comments by teachers about the poor preparation or skills of their students, or who, like me, has found a response that goes something like “the problem with student writing is not the students,” will understand what Williams is getting at here.

The department of Language that Williams might envision follow from the examples he provides of what we might today call “student-centered” learning, or pedagogical methods organized around promoting student agency. In the department of Language professors would be less concerned with disciplinary knowledge or skills and inclined toward the approach to language in Gregory Ulmer, Nancy Comley, and Robert Scholes’ Textbook: An Introduction to Literary Language—a reader that, as it happens, includes in the section on narrative Williams’ “The Use of Force.” First published in 1988, and revised and expanded in 1995 and 2001, Textbook opens with a letter to the student

As you enter this book you will find all kinds of texts: some are usually called ‘literary’ and some are not. This mixture is essential to our method. We do not want to offer you a collection of ‘master’ works that ask for your passive submission, but a set of texts that you can work and play with, increasing your own understanding of fundamental textual processes and your own ability to use the written word. We hope to help you feel more at home in the house of language, and we are confident that a better command of written language will contribute to a better life.

This emphasis on texts—poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, fragments and more completed work—and the invitation for students to play with language and become more aware of textual processes aligns well with Williams’ department of Language.

The department of Language Williams might envision can be further imagined through a comment on the practice of modern writing in “The Modern Primer,” in which Williams asks “What is meaning of Gertrude Stein’s work?” His answer—“Language is made up of words, the spaces between words and their configuration” (17)—offers a useful reminder when a classroom of students engaged in a close reading of a text laments that if only they could read “between the lines” or “more deeply.” It is useful because these metaphors imprison students in a misconception. For when one actually reads between lines one finds white space. Similarly, when one reads “deeply” one lands on the next page. Williams’ prose writings offer touchstone sentences that demystify the ways people trained in the humanities engage with texts. Furthermore, in “The Embodiment of Knowledge etc.,” Williams observes that “The basis of all bad reasoning is in the beginning” (41) and of the necessity “to conceive clearly the materials of our thought” (42). The focus on language must also address the challenge of students who appear to have learned in their English classes that meaning is something that can be found in words—students who have essentially ceded the active process of making meaning to the authority or the commonplace understandings that replace the experience of reading with the conclusions of other readers.

The essays in The Embodiment of Knowledge are rooted in a tradition of thinking about education and institutions that runs from Emerson through Dewey to the robust scholarship of teaching and learning that circulates mostly in the pedagogical domains of rhetoric and composition. Ron Loewinsohn’s introductory essay to The Embodiment of Knowledge provides a summary of these roots. “Implicit in Williams’ notion of the reader as the center of the writing in his own present as he reads,” Loewinsohn writes, “is the assumption that discovery is a process, that education and knowledge are on-going activities in which we create ourselves from day to day” (xii). Across the early and late prose writings—and of course in the poetry and poetics—one finds this broadly humanistic understanding of attention to engaged inquiry, an active imagination, and self determination. Williams’ prose is useful as we learn to empower students—encouraging them to become more aware of their place in the developmental arc of late adolescence and supporting them as they struggle with authority, perspective, and autonomy.

At the same time, Williams’ concern with language, history, and culture, as Brian Bremen has demonstrated, comprise a “cultural diagnostics” that, in Bremen’s description, is surprisingly congruent with the literary and cultural work we routinely ask of our students. Williams prose writings, in particular, offers students clear insight into the purpose of humanistic study. Bremen notes that Williams’ poetics embrace ideas about literature, history, medicine, gender relations, and politics. And Bryce Conrad, especially in his 1990 book Refiguring America: A Study of In the American Grain, offers teachers an incisive description of William’s historiographical method—what Conrad calls Williams’ “open” history focused on the active process of making historical knowledge.

What does this active process of making historical knowledge look like in an undergraduate classroom? Reading and reflecting on literary and cultural history with Williams, in a course I taught in American Studies and Women’s Studies, a student decided to write about the book, In the American Grain, and two essays, Williams’ 1934 “The American Background: America and Alfred Stieglitz” and Adrienne Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as (Re)Vision” that was published in a 1972 issue of College English dedicated to Women, Writing and Teaching.

The student quoted Rich’s description of awakening that opens the essay—”It’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful”— and found in Williams’ description and critique of history a method not unlike Rich’s material and feminist critique. The student argued that both Williams and Rich insist that we examine, in Rich’s words, “how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us; and how we can begin to see-and therefore live-afresh.” The modernist William and the feminist Rich share an imperative for what Rich describes as “re-vision”: “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.

This example, and there are innumerable others, have shown me some of the ways Williams’ prose writing enter the minds of and inspire our students. Most recently, I have taught Williams in the tradition of the essay from Montaigne—discovering that Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French, in fact, include Williams’ “An Essay on Virginia” in their sourcebook Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. (It is one of four selections from the 1920s, Williams appears between Virginia Woolf and Hilaire Belloc.) In an essay on the text, Stuckey- French reminds his reader that “the genteel essay was under siege by 1925, but it was not clear what would replace it” (105), For Williams, Stuckey- French argues, “the debate over the future of America and the future of the essay were linked by the question of form, for he believed that the transformation of American culture rested on the transformation of the forms of that culture” (98). Stuckey-French points out that Williams “was unique among American modernists in his decision to write an essay on the essay” (100), arguing that “Williams develops and demonstrates his theory of the essay, arguing that the formless form of the essay mirrors the form of American democracy, which rests on an unresolvable tension between individualism and conformity” (97).

Williams is exquisitely aware of the need to imagine ways of writing beyond cultural and discursive commonplaces. And his prose writings unsettle distinctions between the personal and the academic, between lived experience and the thinking of others. As Loewinsohn writes in his introduction to The Embodiment of Knowledge, “Implicit in Williams’ notion of the reader as the center of the writing in his own present as he reads is the assumption that discovery is a process, that education and knowledge are ongoing activities in which we create ourselves from day-to-day” (xii). Williams notion is that when students learn the pleasures of experiencing higher standards than what they are used to, they become aware of these standards and enlarge their own sense of what can be done.

Works Cited

Conrad, Bryce. Refiguring America: A Study of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1990.

Cardozo, Karen M. “Essaying Democracy: The Post/Modern Intertexts of Kingston, Rodriguez, and Williams.” William Carlos Williams Review 27.1 (Spring 2007): 1–23

Kinnahan, Linda. Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Moore, Daniel. “Trauma and “The Use of Force”.” William Carlos Williams Review. 29.2 (2009): 161–175. Project Muse

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as (Re)Vision.” College English 34.1. Women, Writing and Teaching (October 1972): 18–30

Stuckey-French, Ned. “‘An Essay on Virginia’: William Carlos Williams and the Modern(ist) Essay.” American Literature 70.1 (1998): 97–130.

 Wagner, Linda Welshimer. “The Unity of His Art.” The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 2.1. Poetic Theory/Poetic Practice (1969): 136–144.

Weatherhead, A. Kingsley. “William Carlos Williams: Prose, Form, and Measure.” ELH 33.1 (1966): 118–131

(Re)Reading Close Reading

This past spring I found myself rereading the introduction to The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau. The book describes a “pedagogical awakening” he experienced, early in his teaching career, when he realized that as long as he was “engaged in the task of teaching [students] what my efforts to construct meaning had yielded for me, all I could do was show them what I had learned” (2). The paradox in Blau’s anecdote is that “as long as teachers are teaching, students are not going to learn, because the kind of experience teachers have that enable them to learn what they have to teach is the experience that students need to have, if they are to be the ones who learn” (2–3). Decades of empirical research into patterns of instruction and experiences of students in the classroom affirm “that insofar as instructors teach interpretations to students, they are not enabling those students to learn either how to acquire a valid and accurate experience of a literary text or how to produce such interpretations for themselves” (“How” 270). The persistence of this pedagogical challenge suggests that disciplinary debates about reading are less engaged with the assumptions about inquiry that structure the shared classroom experiences of teachers and students.

The exception are debates about close reading, especially when centered around interpretation, that engage the challenges students face with complex literary works. But although close reading is concerned with interpretation, Barbara Hernstein Smith reminds us, “the New Critics—certainly the first generation of them—were concerned less with establishing the meaning of a text than with understanding its operative machinery” (60). Jonathan Culler underscores that for the New Critics, the work of close reading was not “primarily to resolve difficulties but above all to describe them, to elucidate their source and implications” (“Closeness” 22). Culler suggests that even today, “close reading need not involve detailed interpretation of literary passages (though there is plenty of that around in close reading, especially when the texts in question are difficult to understand), but especially attention to how meaning is produced or conveyed.” Indeed hermeneutics (in contrast to poetics) is most often privileged in academic settings—whether as a preferred method for teaching reading in secondary or post-secondary institutions. Students are encouraged to generate “readings” of texts to demonstrate evidence of competency, critical literacy, and literary sophistication. A general term, as Peter Middleton puts it, “for a heterogeneous and largely unorganized set of practices and assumptions” (5), close reading remains the name for an organized framework of assumptions and practices.

This framework of assumptions and practices is useful in exploring some of the ways close reading has been used in the disciplinary work of interpretation. This association of close reading with interpretation has determined how we think about not only reading but literary and cultural transmission. More recently, close reading has been debated in critical studies concerned with both the radical discontinuity between past and present ways of thinking about nature, “the end of nature,” and in studies preoccupied with scales of time, for instance, in Jonathan Sachs’ concern with “temporal dissonance” (317) in Romantic writing, the “paradoxical temporality” David Farrier explores in Anthropocene poetics (6)—or what I am calling in an essay I wrote this past spring, “close reading the end of time.”1 As it propagates new vocabularies for reading in the Anthropocene, this critical discourse is testing the strengths and the limits of close reading while grappling with the fragility of disciplinary formations in the humanities.

In the forthcoming essay, to be published in a book of essays by Routledge press, I suggest that the future of close reading depends on a deeper questioning of the protocols of scholarly reading if not the hermetic institutional structures that reward particular ways of reading. The promise of close reading in the Anthropocene, I argue, begins in accepting the limited social value of demonstrative reading and embracing the constitutive power of close reading as a collective pedagogical practice.

In the editorial process, we decided to drop a brief summary of close reading. I include the brief summary below as it may be useful for other readers and writers.

A Brief History of Close Reading

The history of close reading makes visible complex theoretical and practical questions that preoccupy a disciplinary field organized around the study and interpretation of texts. Close reading took shape during the formation of English studies and contributed to the rise of literary criticism during the first half of the twentieth century. A concern with aesthetic theory and practical criticism informed the applications of close reading for a range of pedagogical, disciplinary, and institutional initiatives—most notably changing the subject matter of English from language to literature and the method of study from scholarship to criticism. The New Critics consolidated the field, explains Catherine Gallagher, “they promised to integrate English studies, overcoming the disjunction between graduate and undergraduate curricula, between specialized knowledge and general educational service; and they promised simultaneously to differentiate English even more sharply from its neighboring disciplines” (135). Close reading proved an effective method for teaching an expanding population of postsecondary students as well. It “benefited from being eminently teachable,” Andrew DuBois argues, “and the entrenchment of its methods, first in universities and then in secondary schools, attests to the amenability of that practice to practitioners of varying sophistication” (2). It is therefore not surprising that general principles and protocols for close reading are ubiquitous both in literacy instruction in K-12 curricula and in college-level courses in reading, writing, and literacy.

The general principles and practical protocols of close reading proved indispensable to both the rise of criticism as well as the need for a specialized practice for scholarship in the rapidly expanding field of literary studies. When “literary studies broadened into cultural studies,” Jane Gallop explains, “it was precisely through the power of this move to close-read nonliterary texts” (183). The result, N. Katherine Hayles observes, was that the “expansion into diverse textual realms meant that literature was no longer the de facto center of the field” (“How” 63). Scholars in literary and cultural studies “found a replacement in close reading, the one thing virtually all literary scholars know how to do well and agree is important.” However, in the professional debates about reading that followed—what it is, and what it is for—it is striking that the debates did not depend on knowing exactly what close reading entailed. Literary scholars “generally think they know what is meant by close reading,” Hayles points out, “but, looked at more closely, it proves not so easy to define or exemplify” (ADE 64). Though Smith makes the case that close reading has actually been exemplified in a number of ways, “from a New Critic unraveling Shakespearian puns in the 1930s to a Marxist scholar exposing the political unconscious of Victorian novels in the 1980s or, today, a first-grader ‘analyzing’ a book by Dr. Seuss in accord with the directives of the American national Common Core Curriculum” (57). Smith adds that the “texts varied from presumed literary masterpieces to works of popular culture and documents of manifest oppression; the discourses that directed their examination varied from Christian humanism to structuralist linguistics to queer theory; and the spirit in which they were examined.” Thus considered in retrospect, across the twentieth century, “whatever the mood, motive, or materials, if one was teaching literature or doing literary criticism in the Anglo-American literary academy, one was likely to be reading at least some individual texts closely” (58). These exemplifications of close reading—as well as the various moods, motives, and materials of literary scholars—demonstrate the persistence and adaptability of close reading.2

At the same time, according to Miranda Hickman, skepticism about the values of particular critics, and their institutional and cultural work, led the New Criticism (and close reading), to be “regarded as superseded in literary studies” and to be dismissed “as emblematic of the apolitical, ahistorical practices of the discipline that had to be overcome through the revolutions in theory, historical scholarship, and politically engaged criticism of the last four decades” (vii). Catherine Devereux, elaborating this association, adds that within “an academic discipline that itself foundationally and pervasively reproduced a system of social and political inequity, then, the New Criticism and its practice of close reading came to be understood as instruments for maintaining that system” (219).3 This understanding was reinforced by a rejection of the literary, and the associated formalist practice of close reading that, while expedient, made it difficult to assess the contributions of New Criticism to the educational project of literacy and as well as critical reflection on the purposes and values of literary and cultural studies.4

It is fair to wonder, then, whether a (re)turn to close reading as a shared practice may be useful, as it was for the New Critics in the early twentieth-century, in furthering the disciplinary preoccupations of scholars in the twenty-first century. For if a return to close reading is associated with what Devereux calls the “exclusionary, and deeply biased notion of the literary and of the discipline” of the New Critics—and close reading is associated with formalist readings of decontextualized aesthetic objects—then it may be time to move along. But for Devereaux, “if literature is not to be differentiated from any other kind of cultural production, the point of a discipline whose purpose is the study of literature becomes unclear (224). Indeed, as it turns out, the perennial debates over the inheritance of close reading are most often about the legacy and coherence of literary studies, the literary practices of reading and writing, and the critical and philosophical problems these practices quite naturally raise across the humanities and social sciences.


1. The encounter is between human time (at its end) and deep time. I am also thinking here of Bruno Latour’s description of the present condition in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, in which he elaborates “an entirely new situation: behind us, attachments; ahead of us, ever more attachments. . . . End of modernization. End of story. Time to start over.” Latour goes on to say that “‘Gaia,’ the ‘Anthropocene’ era, the precise name hardly matters.” The point is cancelling “forever of the fundamental distinction between Nature and Society by means of which they were establishing their system of coordinates, one step at a time. Starting from this event, everything has become more complicated for them” (10).

2. John Guillory makes a distinction, however, between close reading and reading closely, in “Close Reading: Prologue and Epilogue.” Close reading “as a modern academic practice” does not mean the same thing as “reading closely, which arguably describes many different practices of reading from antiquity to the modern era” (8). The literature on close reading as an academic practice is extensive. Lentricchia and DuBois argue that “paying attention to the literary text in and of itself may or may not seem a given; at any rate, it is a notion which, whether or not necessary in the collective mind of our critical era, seems nonetheless natural to scholarship” (4). Examples include Jane Gallop, “The Historicization of Literary Study and the Fate of Close Reading Profession” and “Close Reading in 2009”; John Guillory, “Close Reading: Prologue and Epilogue”; and Jonathan Culler, “The Closeness of Close Reading.” Also see Paul de Man’s account of Ruben Brower’s influence at Harvard in the 1950s ‘‘Students,’’ writes de Man, “were not to say anything that was not derived from the text they were considering. They were not to make any statements that they could not sup- port by a specific use of language that actually occurred in the text. They were asked, in other words, to begin by reading texts closely as texts and not to move at once into the general context of human experience or history. Much more humbly or modestly, they were to start out from the bafflement that such singular turns of tone, phrase, and figure were bound to produce in readers attentive enough to notice them and honest enough not to hide their non-understanding behind the screen of received ideas that often passes, in literary instruction, for humanistic knowledge” (23).

3. Devereux’s description of the fate of New Criticism appears in “‘A Kind of Dual Attentiveness’: Close Reading after the New Criticism,” in which she explains that in some of the “late-twentieth-century debates about the destructive implications for English studies of race theory, feminist critique, postcolonialism, queer, class, cultural, and popular culture studies, close reading came to be represented by scholars outside the theory camp as the whipping boy of various leftist agendas” (331). The New Criticism’s “role in an unequal workplace had to be assessed, and its effects on the discipline had to be addressed. Also see Jane Gallop, who writes, “The time was ripe for . . . a course correction: ahistoricism had been persuasively linked to sexism, racism, and elitism; attacks on the canon had called into question the notion of timeless works; literary studies had been ahistorical for too long” (181).

4 Brenkman, “Extreme Criticism,” provides a polemical account. For a more generous reassessment of New Criticism, see Miranda B. Hickman and John D. McIntyre, Rereading the New Criticism. They write in their “Preface” that the strategy of the New Critics “in order to establish the distinctness of the literary–critical endeavor also contributed to this widespread understanding of their criticism as dismissing what was beyond the text: they turned decisively away from approaches in the field of English that focused on literary history, read literature for philosophical insights, or appraised literature through overtly moral criteria.” As Hickman and McIntyre explain, their polemical move “to define and legitimize criticism during an era when criticism was widely regarded as a slight endeavor that ‘anyone could do—often suggested that the work of these other approaches was less worthwhile than that of literary criticism. But according to New Critics such as Ransom and Brooks, New Critical distinctions between the ‘work itself’ and what lay beyond it, and between criticism and other kinds of work with respect to literature, never implied that commentary that engaged extratextual matters was without value, nor that they themselves ignored such matters altogether” (26).

A Nice Place to Visit

“Virtual space is a place to explore identity.”

—Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2018)

The other day my friend Marie visited this blog, The Far Field, and then sent me an email. “You always make the reader feel welcome,” she wrote, “and on your site it’s as if the world had slowed down. It’s a nice place to visit.”

I’m interested in this description of the practice of writing on a web log as a way of slowing down–of thinking aloud, learning through exploration, making connections, and organizing the activity of the mind at work. This creative discipline of forming sentences and paragraphs, with perhaps the incorporation of other media, brings me back to one of my digital inspirations, the Hoarded Ordinaries project. “Writers, like children, are not dissuaded by the uselessness of hoarded ordinaries,” Lorrianne observes”; instead, we cultivate a collector’s sense, trying to capture mundane moments on a string of words.” After all, reading and thinking, observing and writing, are deliberate activities. They slow us down.

At the same time, Marie’s comment has me thinking about the writing I do with my students—short-form essays on my course blogs  written to create time and space to slow the fast-paced obligations and responsibilities of my professional life. In thinking and writing it is as if time indeed slows, as if eddies form in the flow, capturing  an ordinary, or maybe extraordinary, happening in teaching and learning. Might a course blog, too, be a nice place to visit?

Increasingly our minds are less focused—or so we tell ourselves. We are distracted, we say, by technology and the hyper-pace of modern life. Our attention to the things happening outside of our heads leaves us less attentive to the ways that attention shapes us. More importantly, our attention is increasingly appropriated in public and, more and more, in digital space. As Mathew B. Crawford writes in a fabulously interesting book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, “our predicament is that we engage less than we once did in everyday activities that structure our attention” (23). Crawford is interested in skilled practices that establish what he calls “ecologies of attention.” His larger claim is that our environment constitutes the self and that attention to the world beyond our heads is at the center of this formative process.

What I find most useful in this line of thinking is a potentially more capacious and generous approach to our increasingly mediated lives. Blaming technology for appropriating our attention simplifies what is a far more interesting and enduring idea that the self is autonomous and striving to free itself by controlling the external world. Crawford calls this “autonomy talk,” with roots in Enlightenment epistemology and moral theory

which did important polemical work in their day against various forms of coercion. Times have changed. The philosophical project of this book is to reclaim the real, as against representations. That is why the central term of approbation in these pages is not ‘freedom’ but ‘agency.’ For it is when we are engaged in a skilled practice that the world shows up for us as having a reality of its own, independent of the self. . . . (27)

One of Crawford’s interests is how when someone is engaged in a skilled practice the world shows up, as it were. Skilled practices are deliberate, and even when fast-moving, or dynamic, depend upon a kind of slowness. The ways we frame our relationship to the world in terms of freedom and constraint are as persistent as they are debilitating.

When we write, too, we are attending to the world. But if we think with the fiction of writing as a solitary practice or private act, we are thinking again with the idea of the self is autonomous and striving to free itself by controlling the external world. Sitting and writing in solitude we obscure writing as an embodied practice at once socially and historically situated.

Before Marie wrote to me I had a vague idea that the writing I was doing on my course blogs was what some people call a “flipped” classroom. But the flipped strategy flops as a description of what is actually going on when I write with my students about the literary and cultural materials we are studying together. For the challenge is to understand the social and rhetorical activity of writing through asking students, as well as myself, to to think with these materials on the open web.

If writing is a way of learning, and we are asking our students to write in the open, then we should be writing to learn about the practice of teaching, and we should be doing so in the open as well. If in fact virtual space is a place to explore identity, then we should join our students in this exploration.

Writing on the open web begins with the very real possibility that the words you are putting together might actually be read. When we write we are always writing for particular purposes (even though we may not always be clear what those purposes are) and in shaping words we are putting together for imagined or unanticipated audiences; and we are always writing with the words and ideas of others, using existing strategies and genres and tools. In addition to understanding writing as a collaborative activity there is important work in understanding what writing does—or can do. The idea that writing is a way of one’s sharing understanding of one thing or another underscores writing as a constitutive activity. Writing is poetic in the fundamental sense that when we write we are building and constructing ideas through the act of thinking. And because writing is a cultural activity that mediates the process of thinking, writing might be understood as a way of claiming the contents of one’s mind.

Thinking aloud about ideas and materials with students—for me most often the words of a poem, a sentence or paragraph of student writing, a surprising turn in class, or a reflection following a class meeting—has become a practice of thinking about what I am doing, and why, in medias res. Might a teaching philosophy emerge in the network of relations of each unique group of students rather than a statement written antequam aliquid incipit? Might methods of teaching be predicated less on mastery and expertise and more on discovery? Might we resist habit and routine by implicating ourselves more fully in the activity of teaching as learning through writing with our students about the subject we profess?

In so doing, teachers build networks of connections beyond the timelines generated by algorithms that filter and present virtual reality in a ready-made stream. Teachers model for students learning beyond the closed design of learning management systems. And teachers guide their students in understanding their complicity in the accelerated streams of social media platforms designed to surveil and to sell. If we are going to argue for a poetics of digital identity, fluency, and citizenship as necessary elements of twenty-first century learning then teachers should be building their own identities, fluencies, and citizenship.

In Medias Res

“Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Montaigne, or the Skeptic,” Representative Men: Seven Lectures (1850)

A couple of years ago my friend Tony, a retired colleague, mentioned a singer and songwriter, Greg Brown, who he thought I would be interested to know. Tony told me that in “Two Little Feet” Brown sings of a writer I began reading in my late teens, John Muir. When I followed up on his suggestion, I heard Brown singing these words:

John Muir walked away into the mountains
In his old overcoat a crust of bread in his pocket
We have no knowledge and so we have stuff and
Stuff with no knowledge is never enough to get you there
It just won’t get you there

Then this fall a student coming to terms with the work of Gary Snyder titled one of her essays, Tumble us Like Scree. Well, I first thought, scree is the name for an unpredictable and shifting surface where I have spent a good deal of time and where I am quite comfortable. Because Anna included in her blog post an embedded link to You Tube I was able to locate the phrase in the lyrics of Greg Brown’s Two Little Feet: 

Tumble us like scree let us holler out our freedom like a wolf across a valley like a kid lost in a game
No time no name gonna miss that plane again

We were reading Gary Snyder’s 1974 book Turtle Island. Anna started by saying that “the distinction between the ‘natural’ and ‘human’ worlds is complex.” She then added, “It is often completely accepted that humans exist above the rest of the world. People do not question the hierarchy of being. Gary Snyder’s book, Turtle Island, addresses that distinction as one that is a complete social construct.”

So far so good, I most likely thought to myself. For one of organizing ideas in Turtle Island is that we are a part of the natural world. “We are it— / it sings through us” is Snyder’s way of explanation in lines from the poem “By Frazier Creek Falls.” Nature is not a place we visit. It is home. What Anna noticed was that he exemplifies this message in The Bath, a poem that she describes asa description of an inherent, instinctive act that spans species–bathing.” She adds, “Most animals bathe their young, and that is exactly what this family is doing. He and his wife are cleaning their son, taking care of him in the most primal of ways.”

Already anticipating Snyder’s essays in The Practice of the Wild that we would read together later in the semester, Anna pointed out that “Snyder always comes back to the body.” This is because, she writes, “the body is the best way to see that humans are natural. Our discomfort with sex, nakedness, and our general relationships with our bodies come from this idea that we are somehow removed from the natural world. A body is a constant, physical reminder that we are a part of the rest of the earth.” Even better, I most likely thought as I read these words.

But then the essay gets really interesting. The full post lives on Anna’s blog. But I will quote from it here as I am not sure that her course blog will remain active once she moves on from college:

In the poem “The Bath,” the fifth stanza reads,

Or me within her,
Or him emerging,
this is our body

These lines are so simple, and yet they encompass a human being’s physical relationship with the world and with her own body. These three lines–the act of sex, the birth of a child, the acceptance of a physical place in the universe–are incredibly written. The simplicity of Snyder’s writing is an insightful nod to the obviousness of our relationship with our earth and all the rest who live here. He can make a hugely profound statement just with three lines. It is the circle of life shown through the female body. It is two bodies becoming one and creating another. This is one of the most natural actions that exists–reproduction as a connection between us and the rest of the world.

These are sensitive and insightful comments—the kind of comments that remind us why we read poems. She continues:

Snyder describes bathing his son, “through and around the globes and curves of his body.” I have to admit that when I first read this poem, all the vivid description of the body of the child and his mother definitely took me off guard and left me feeling uncomfortable. However, after talking over the poem in class and thinking a lot more about it, it has come to be one of my favorite poems in the book. I think that moving past that discomfort is the point of this writing. The only reason that this blatant description of naked bodies makes us uncomfortable is because of society’s collective decision that we are not animals. This delusion that we are not only so far removed from, but that we are better than the non-human world does not allow us to see ourselves for what we really are–animals with bodies. We stigmatize anything that connects us to nature, especially our own bodies.

In this series of disclosures is a lesson in self-awareness and recognition that leads to a deeper awareness: that the sexual language of the poem is in no way gratuitous but an essential part of a whole. The commentary continues:

The last stanza in this poem reads,

This is our body. Drawn up crosslegged by the flames
drinking icy water
hugging babies, kissing bellies,

Laughing on the Great Earth

Come out from the bath.

These last few words of Snyder’s writing tie up the poem with a blatant connection to the earth. In the first two lines of this stanza he combines a natural element with a human action. He writes of sitting next to a fire and consuming water. By making these active statements about fire and water, Snyder smoothly connects people with the earth itself. Then he moves on to more active statements, this time about human bodies. This transition makes it clear that there is no existential difference between us and the elements–we all exist in this world. He invites us to ‘come out’ and see what he sees.

The repetition of the question, “is this our body?” and of the answer “this is our body” echo Snyder’s commentary on our connections with our physicality. By repeating these lines throughout the physical description of the naked act of bathing, he addresses the fact that this poem is probably making the reader uncomfortable. He knows that it will, but by asking the question of whether or not this is our body, he draws the reader into the issue. Everyone who will ever read this poem will be able to connect with it on a physical level because we all have bodies. We are all made up of matter and atoms. We all exist in the same world no matter how much we may have convinced ourselves that we do not.

The most rewarding part of this pedagogical story is that the story does not stop here. For in the upper-level class I am teaching this semester I have the privilege to once again be working with Anna. And in a recent essay she returned to that moment when she was coming to terms with the poem “The Bath.”

She is retelling of the story of picking up Turtle Island as she is commenting on Snyder’s presence in The Practice of the Wild:

At first, it confused me. Before reading any of his essays, I delved into the poetry in his book of collected works, Turtle Island. His poem, The Bath, was my introduction to the voice of Gary Snyder.

Honestly, it was a little shocking. Because of how strong and strange of a reaction I had to reading it, I decided to write an essay on that very poem. I was so utterly confused about how I felt about the poem that I remember reading it aloud to one of my friends. She was not a fan. I reached the end of the second stanza, a line which reads, “the space between the thighs I reach through, cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind, soapy tickle,” and she told me to stop. I believe her exact response was something like, “that is some freaky shit.”

Well, it is some “freaky shit.” But the route from confusion and discomfort–from sharing to the description of the lines of the poem as “some freaky shit”–leads to another place:

The more I thought about his words and the distinct choice to include a vivid description of bodies, the more I realized that it was my own, personal bias that was creating this block between me and the poem. As I read it again and again, each time trying to distance myself from my gut reaction, the more I began to like the poem. I could hear Snyder talking and I came closer to understanding what he was saying. The key part of this poem is the line, “this is our body.” Throughout most of his writing, poems or prose, he is concerned with the divide between human beings and ‘nature’–our own nature, the idea of the ‘wild’ that we are so removed from.

The story might have ended here. But last week we discussed this piece of writing in a workshop on the essay in my upper-level seminar this semester. We were talking about writing on the open web, and I said that “open access to your writing can bring to the surface insights we might not otherwise see: for reading a writer thinking with (in this case, a poem) can help us move through the process of learning together.” One example of collaboration, I went on to say, is

Anna’s thinking in her post Connections. What I value are connections she is making, the chronicle of her developing understanding (of the writing of Gary Snyder), and her sharing this story in a draft version of her essay. Her essay makes visible for us dimensions of collaboration. In fact, when I read her piece, I found myself collaborating with her on what turned into the most recent Teacher Talk page post called The Generosity of Art. 

And so here we are, in media res. I am writing about myself writing about a student who is writing about her own writing on the writing of Gary Snyder—and you are reading the words she has written, the words I have written about her words, and the writing about the words about words.

Where do we go from here?

Photo credits: Mark C. Long

Seeing and Being Seen

For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet

In part because I am not satisfied with the conclusion of my thinking about social media, and because the conversation about social media platforms has been peaking in the news cycle, I am writing a third post in what is most likely my ill-fated mini-series, Why I don’t use Twitter.

My decision not to use Twitter, as I have explained from the beginning, is that I don’t have the time. I am in love with language, and what language lovers call discourse; and I devote a good deal of time to reading and writing—reviews and commentaries, articles and essays, and books. And, for over ten years, I have been writing on web logs. My practice writing on blogs has modulated between sharing what I have experienced or might know, delivering something to a reader, and seeking or acquiring understanding of one thing or another. Writing helps me figure things out (or not), including what I think, at best on the way to discovering what my thinking might actually mean. The other reason I have chosen not to use Twitter is rooted in a deeper concern about the particular ways the platform shapes forms of expression and social engagement.

Over many years, I have used blogs and wikis, feeds that aggregate content, and social media. Indeed I can say without hesitation that my personal and professional life has become richer as a result of the social and cultural changes digital technologies make possible. It has been breathtaking, to put it another way, to be engaged in literacy and education as digital technologies have proliferated. My doctoral work centered around theories of inquiry, and how the literary activities of reading, thinking, and writing have constituted democratic literacy and culture. And working in a writing center and co-directing a large university writing program put teaching and pedagogy at the center of my intellectual development during graduate school. Sure, my mind was entangled in the beautiful intricacies of intellectual history, theory and criticism, and poetry and poetics; at the same time, I was deeply engaged with teachers and students in heady conversations about teaching and learning–and technology.

The tidal flow of technology felt inevitable: typing up a research project using a word processor for the first time; the first experiences with the graphical user interfaces that began replacing the MS-DOS text commands typed on a keyboard, such as “dir” to list the files in a directory and “del” to delete a file, all taking place with students in the “computer-integrated classroom” in which I volunteered to teach; the department bulletin boards, the local area networks, electronic mail; file transfer protocol, html, web browsers, and the web log; then the proliferation of web 2.0 applications, Friendster and LinkedIn and MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, Google+ and then later applications such as Snapchat and Instagram; video sharing platforms like YouTube and music services such as Spotify; and the integration of live stream technologies in Facebook and Twitter.

When I began working full-time as an assistant professor of English digital technologies had taken shape in teaching and learning management systems. Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas were presented to educational institutions as products to manage learning through a modern conception of system management. The history of learning management is a history that includes Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Midvale Steel Works in Pennsylvania, specifically his 1911 treatise Principles Of Scientific Management in which the systematic laws, rules, and principles to improve manufacturing processes sound all too familiar in an age of standardized testing and learning assessment regimes designed to manage and improve educational outcomes. “In the past Man has been first, in the future the system must be first,” Taylor asserts in his brief introduction.

The design and uses of digital platforms are haunted by Taylor’s vision. The learning management system, or LMS,  put the system at the center of learning: it encouraged the use of so-called best practices, created efficiencies for teachers, standardized learning, and facilitated pathways for knowledge transfer. These proprietary systems are designed to monitor student learning in and across courses as well, creating increasingly flexible and “responsive” learning environments. Teachers and administrators have readily incorporated the LMS into their classrooms and institutions. And, if you read Taylor, it is not difficult to understand how the LMS has taken hold. But in this acceptance of the system–that is, once the domain of management becomes the conceptual framework for the domain of teaching and learning–then it becomes all the more difficult to work with a different metaphor. The concept becomes inseparable from the technological and administrative routines of the institution. Teaching and learning is management.

My point is that conceptual metaphors determine the way we think–in this case, how we think about and experience the Internet through the various networks of web pages and sites and services we call the web. To describe the Internet in terms of a stream rather than a network, to take another example, normalizes the increasingly sophisticated algorithms that stream information and news, to provide users more of what they like, and that conveniently construct a personalized information stream.

Nicholas Carr offers a parallel commentary on the metaphors we use when we are thinking about data. As he explains, the terms “mining” and “extraction” are indicators of a conceptual metaphor that determines the limits of our thinking. The problem, he explains, is that data “does not lie passively within me, like a seam of ore, waiting to be extracted”:

Rather, I actively produce data through the actions I take over the course of a day. When I drive or walk from one place to another, I produce locational data. When I buy something, I produce purchase data. When I text with someone, I produce affiliation data. When I read or watch something online, I produce preference data. When I upload a photo, I produce not only behavioral data but data that is itself a product. I am, in other words, much more like a data factory than a data mine. I produce data through my labor — the labor of my mind, the labor of my body.

Carr then turns to Taylor, which surprised me at first, for I had made the connection to Taylor in my attempt to make sense of the LMS. But then my surprise turned to a wider recognition:

The platform companies, in turn, act more like factory owners and managers than like the owners of oil wells or copper mines. Beyond control of my data, the companies seek control of my actions, which to them are production processes, in order to optimize the efficiency, quality, and value of my data output (and, on the demand side of the platform, my data consumption). They want to script and regulate the work of my factory — i.e., my life — as Frederick Winslow Taylor sought to script and regulate the labor of factory workers at the turn of the last century. The control wielded by these companies, in other words, is not just that of ownership but also that of command. And they exercise this command through the design of their software, which increasingly forms the medium of everything we all do during our waking hours.

Once conceptual frameworks become visible we are able to imagine other ways of describing the problem. “The factory metaphor makes clear what the mining metaphor obscures,” Carr explains. “We work for the Facebooks and Googles of the world, and the work we do is increasingly indistinguishable from the lives we lead. The questions we need to grapple with are political and economic, to be sure. But they are also personal, ethical, and philosophical.”

Personal. Ethical. Philosophical. . . . On the one hand, the digital tools are useful for building and sustaining a democratic culture–for sharing information, accessing new dimensions of experience, building community, and bringing people together for forms of social engagement and action. At the same time, these platforms require user consent—to the collection, transfer, storage, manipulation, and disclosure of user information. In Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms Chris Gilliard explains how

a web based on surveillance, personalization, and monetization works perfectly well for particular constituencies, but it doesn’t work quite as well for persons of color, lower-income students, and people who have been walled off from information or opportunities because of the ways they are categorized according to opaque algorithms

Questions about how the web works are always already questions about who the web works for. And the implications for educators should be clear. For when “persistent surveillance, data mining, tracking, and browser fingerprinting”  become normative practices we easily overlook the same strategies at work in the learning management systems at work in the digital infrastructures of our colleges and universities.

An article by John Hermann, a technology reporter for the New York Times, offers a useful description of the business model that has determined the design and use of these platforms in the digital ecosystem—that is, the tools we use to express ourselves and to connect with others:

Since 2012, online platforms have moved to the center of hundreds of millions more lives, popularizing their particular brands of social surveillance. Services like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are inextricably tied to the experience of being monitored by others, which, if it doesn’t always produce “prosocial” behavior in the broad psychological sense, seems to have encouraged behaviors useful to the platforms themselves—activity and growth.

The model is successful precisely because it is predicated on expanding, on finding “new ways to monetize the powerful twin sensations of seeing and being seen by others.” These sensations have become a distinct feature of digital experience—so much so, in fact, that they have become ubiquitous beyond social networks as well. If one reads digital editions of New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, for example, retargeted ads appear in margins or the middle of articles. As these modes of surveillance become more visible we might consider that we are being watched and that we have agreed to being watched.

The broader consequences of accepting the terms of this agreement, of seeing and being seen, are, Hermann claims, “a social-media ecosystem that has annexed the news and the public sphere.” Indeed it is unsettling when one becomes aware of the “nascent but increasingly assertive systems of identity and social currency that seek to transcend borders while answering only to investors.” But what really concerns me are the constitutive features of the experiences we identify in terms of identity and social exchange; for as Hermann explains“having constructed entire modes of interaction, consumption and identity verification that are now intimately interwoven with our lives,” these modes become so all-encompassing that they’ve practically become invisible. In fact, to “stop using these products,” Hermann concludes, “is to leave the Internet, and these companies made it their mission to make sure there isn’t anywhere else to go. Of course, this is the deal we have entered into with such services: our data for their products.”

The question social media platforms such as Twitter raise have everything to do with what we mean by community: for social media platforms shape the freedom to define community through surveillance technologies. The invisible but intricate tools for online data collection are monetized for sure. But as April Glaser points out in an article on digital privacy in Slate, “corporate data collection feeds into government surveillance—and it hits people in real ways, too.” And, in a provocative piece that should be required reading for anyone “building communities” online, Carina Chocano’s What Good is ‘Community’ when someone Else Makes all the Rules?

The digital platforms where we fall into all our different groups make us a similar offer, presenting the communities they host as rich, human-built spaces where we can gather, matter, have a voice and feel supported. But their promise of community masks a whole other layer of control — an organizing, siphoning, coercive force with its own private purposes. This is what seems to have been sinking in, for more of us, over the past months, as attention turns toward these platforms and sentiment turns against them.

This is precisely what I have been arguing about the bargain we negotiate when we participate or, through our teaching, invite students to build community online. By framing the use of social media platforms in these terms, especially when using these platforms for teaching and learning, we acknowledge the dilemma.

As anyone who has actually read Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks will tell you, hegemonies exist. More importantly, consent (or resistance) to a coercive cultural regime or institution does not preclude acknowledging that cultural regimes and/or institutions can also do good. More importantly, these structures are by definition fluid, and so can change.

The questions, then, may be more large, terrifying, and unpredictable: is social media good or bad for democracy? This question is posed in a January 2018 commentary posted in the Facebook Newsroom, of all places, by a professor of law, Cass R. Sunstein:

On balance, the question of whether social media platforms are good for democracy is easy. On balance, they are not merely good; they are terrific. For people to govern themselves, they need to have information. They also need to be able to convey it to others. Social media platforms make that tons easier.

There is a subtler point as well. When democracies are functioning properly, people’s sufferings and challenges are not entirely private matters. Social media platforms help us alert one another to a million and one different problems. In the process, the existence of social media can prod citizens to seek solutions.

Sunstein’s commentary Is Social Media Good or Bad for Democracy? is part of a series called Hard Questions: Social Media and Democracy comprised of an introduction by Samidh Chakrabarti of Facebook’s civic-engagement team, Sunstein’s essay, as well as essays by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, and Ariadne Vromen, a professor of political participation at the University of Sydney.

As Sunstein concludes, “Social media platforms are terrific for democracy in many ways, but pretty bad in others. And they remain a work-in-progress, not only because of new entrants, but also because the not-so-new ones (including Facebook) continue to evolve.” As such, may be room for imagining new uses, hacking, or performative interventions: for “they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better,” to borrow apposite terms from Emerson’s commentary on social and political institutions. For the most part I find these kinds of ameliorative outlooks quite congenial.

Though such an outlook in no way resolves the ethical dilemma facing any person who makes use of social media platforms in their current forms. Indeed, to ask a student to create any online presence, or to use any online tool, is a personal, ethical, and philosophical choice: it is a form of consent to both the good and the bad–the ideal and the reality of democratic life.

“What would the web look like if surveillance capitalism, information asymmetry, and digital redlining were not at the root of most of what students do online?” asks Gilliard. In part because we do not really know the answer,  “when we use the web now, when we use it with students, and when we ask students to engage online, we must always ask: What are we signing them up for?”  The asymmetrical relationship each of us has with digital platforms is a consequence of the powerful economic forces that structure the web.

In the end, Gilliard’s ethical questions are the questions I am left asking:

Technology platforms (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and education technologies (e.g., the learning management system) exist to capture and monetize data. Using higher education to “save the web” means leveraging the classroom to make visible the effects of surveillance capitalism. It means more clearly defining and empowering the notion of consent. Most of all, it means envisioning, with students, new ways to exist online.

The use of social media platforms in the classroom, and the use of learning management systems, are choices we make. They are ethical choices. And they are choices that have everything to do with the ways we have chosen to define digital identity, fluency, and citizenship.


Further Reading on Social Media, Digital Ethics, Education, and Democracy 

This post is one of three in my mini series that begins with Why I Don’t Use Twitter. The second Post is More on Twitter and the third post is Seeing and Being Seen. Should you be interested in further reading, below is an incomplete and unscholarly reading list—some of the material I was reading as I was writing these posts.

Carina Chocano What Good is ‘Community’ when Someone Else Makes all the Rules?

Carr, Nicholas. I am a data factory (and so are you)

Collier, Amy Digital Sanctuary: Protection and Refuge on the Web?

Cottom, Tressie McMillan Digital Redlining After Trump: Real Names + Fake News on Facebook

Dwoskin, Elizabeth and Tony Romm Facebook’s rules for accessing user data lured more than just Cambridge Analytica

Eubanks, Virginia Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities

Gilliard, Chris Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms and Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy

Glaser, April The Dogs that Didn’t Bite

Hermon, John Cambridge Analytica and the Coming Data Bust

Johnson, Jeffrey Alan Structural Justice in Student Analytics, or, the Silence of the Bunnies

Kim, Dorothy The Rules of Twitter

Leetalu, Kalev Geofeedia Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg: The Era Of Social Surveillence

Locke, Matt How Like Went Bad

Luckerson, Victor The Rise of the Like Economy

McKenzie, Lindsay The Ethical Social Network

Noble, Safiya Umoja Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

Noble, Safiya Umoja and Sarah T. Roberts Engine Failure

Shaffer, Kris Closing Tabs, Episode 3: Teaching With(out) Social Media and Twitter is Lying to You

Stoller, Matt Facebook, Google, and Amazon Aren’t Consumer Choices. They are Monopolies That Endanger American Democracy

Stommel, Jesse The Twitter Essay

Walker, Leila Beyond Academic Twitter: Social Media and the Evolution of Scholarly Publication

Watters, Audrey Selections from Hackeducation

Zeide, Elana The Structural Consequences of Big Data-Driven Education


Nota bene: If you have been reading my blog of late you might wonder whether I had just discovered the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson. What is actually the case is that I have spent the past two years with his writing, as well as with the history of commentary on his works, and a good deal of my unscheduled hours in March and April copyediting the proofs—and now compiling the index—for our forthcoming book of essays on teaching Emerson.

Extravagance and Possibility

Mark C. Long. Upstream: Selected Essays. By Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016. Cloth. $26.00 and Felicity. By Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016. 81 pp. Cloth. $24.95. Published in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2017)

A child went forth in Mary Oliver’s new book of essays, Upstream. The child was alone in the woods. She was wandering upstream, away from difficulties, the “sorrow and mischance and rage” (14) around her that she felt deeply but was powerless to change. One day the little girl walked the wrong way, and was lost, but was “slopping along happily in the stream’s coolness. So maybe it was the right way after all,” Oliver surmises. “If this was lost, let us all be lost always. The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats; pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again” (5). And, as this child went forth, her heart opened, and opened again, in the world of books. She read by day and into the night. She built bookshelves. She thought “about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes” (15). And she took solace in friendship among writers. “I never met any of my friends, of course, in a usual way—they were strangers, and lived only in their writings,” she admits. “But if they were only shadow-companions, still they were constant, and powerful, and amazing” (9), Oliver writes, in the essay, “My Friend Walt Whitman.” These writers, she admits, “changed the world” (9).

From these childhood experiences is fashioned a lesson to share, “that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart” (14-15). Drawing on the earlier collections Blue Pastures, Winter Hours, and Long Life, Oliver gathers essays on some of the writers who made a difference. She recalls the moral purpose of Emerson, who refused to turn away from the world; Wordsworth’s praise of both the beauty and the strangeness of the world; Poe’s rushing forward with the “wild courage of despair”; and Whitman’s unshakeable, egalitarian belief in an “existence in which man’s inner light is neither rare nor elite, but godly and common, and acknowledged” (100). For Oliver, the books of these authors are alive with extravagance and possibility, “the opinions, the rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self–quarrels, his own predicament” (68-69).

The poems collected in Felicity are songs of extravagance and possibility— and their opinions and persuasions have designs on the reader. The title of the first section, “The Journey,” and the epigraph from Rumi, “You broke the cage and flew,” suggest what will follow. In “The World I Live In,” Oliver writes, “I have refused to live / locked in the orderly house of / reasons and proofs. / The world I live in and believe in / is wider than that” (11). In “Leaves and Blossoms along the Way,” Oliver challenges her readers to live and believe in this wider world. “To understand many things you must reach out / of your own condition,” she insists (18). And in the final line of “Whistling Swans” Oliver explains to her readers her hope that in reaching out a person can become open to a world of possibilities beyond the self: “So listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly. / Take from it what you can” (29). These poems, like so many Oliver has shared with her readers over the years, offer invitations, or opportunities, to reach beyond the self, wherever one might happen to be.

The sequence of lyric poems in the second section of Felicity traces the “invisible / and powerful and uncontrollable /and beautiful and possibly even /unsuitable” experiences we call love. This section, entitled “Love,” opens with an epigraph from Rumi. “Someone who does not run / toward the allure of love / walks a road where nothing lives” (41). In the poem “The First Day,” Oliver recalls the “warm sting of possibility,” the opening of the heart, “the spreading warmth of joy” (45). In “No, I’d Never Been to This Country,” she acknowledges the risk and embraces the commitment we undertake in loving another person: “I didn’t know where the roads / would lead me. No, I didn’t intend to turn back” (49). A group of short poems celebrates a life moving along its journey and the discovery, in its unfolding, of abiding happiness. “Everything that was broken has / forgotten its brokenness,” she explains (61). And “Pond,” a sunny-summer-August-day poem, concludes with the lines, “All my life I have been able to feel this happiness, / except whatever was not happiness, / which I also remember. / Each of us wears a shadow” (67). The poems at once acknowledge the weight of our inescapable shadows, our “self-quarrels and predicaments,” and the beautiful and mysterious ways love enters into, and shapes, our lives.

Like much of Oliver’s work, Upstream and Felicity explore the challenges and opportunities we face amidst transformation and change. In the essay of gratitude that concludes Upstream, “Provincetown,” Oliver celebrates the “perfect sufficiency,” the sweetness and simplicity of the place she would call home for fifty years. At the same time, she describes “the terrible change,” the “slow but harsh” transformation of her beloved home. “The tourist business was in,” she adds, and the town “became a place to live for a while, and to spend money. Not so much in which to live a life” (174). What Oliver makes of these changes is neither bitter nor sentimental. “This town had to find another way to live,” she decides. “It was just, well, different” (175).

And so it goes—I guess. The world changes. You change. You make your way the best you can. You use the resources you have. What I can say, with more confidence, is that one of those resources, as these books once again remind us, is the writing of Mary Oliver.

Advance Access publication March 31, 2017doi:10.1093/isle/isx017
VC The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. All rights reserved.
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“Now comes good sailing”

Today is the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. It is good to see Thoreau celebrations and stories of Thoreau in the news, including an exhibit at the Morgan This Ever New Self: Thoreau and his Journals. Happy birthday Henry!

Last week I picked up a copy of Laura Dassow Walls’ just released biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life. I am now reading the chapter “Transcendental Apprentice,” that covers the years 1937-1841. Working for the past two years on a Emerson project has prepared me well for this delicious summer reading.

As it happens, about two weeks ago, I spent some time with Laura and friends in Detroit at the twenty-fifth anniversary conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. One evening we dropped in on the storefront of Shinola, where Laura and I shared a moment of pleasure when we ferreted out from an employee the origins of the phrase “shit from Shinola.” We then enjoyed pizza and beer on a deck at the Motor City Brewery, and took in music by the Mongrel Dogs, before huddling under two small bumbershoots with Jim and Julianne as we were thoroughly soaked on the way back to our hotels by a heaving Michigan downpour.

In the “Preface” to her biography, Laura writes that “Thoreau struggled all his life to find a voice that could be heard despite the din of cynicism and the babble of convention.” She then points to the strange but explainable story of Thoreau’s life that has set up shop in our cultural imaginary:

That he was a loving son, a devoted friend, a lively and charismatic presence who fill the room, laughed and danced, sand and teased and wept, should not have to be said. But astonishingly, it does, for some deformation of sensibility has brought Thoreau down to us in ice, chilled into a misanthrope, prickly with spines, isolated a hermit and a nag.

Reading Laura’s story about Thoreau’s life I am recognizing the Thoreau I have come to know as a devoted reader of his work–whether in reading and teaching the more widely circulated publications, or in my own saunters through the journals and manuscripts over the years. “Today, two hundred years after his birth,” Laura writes,

we have invented two Thoreau’s, both of them hermits, yet radically at odds with each other; one speaks for nature; the other for social justice. Yet the historical Thoreau was no hermit, and as Thoreau’s own record shows, his social activism and his defense of nature sprang from the same roots: he found society in nature, and nature he found everywhere, including the town center and the human heart.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “Thoreau,” “The country knows not yet, or at least in part, how great a son it has lost.”

“All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most. Thus each wind is self registering.” Henry D. Thoreau’s final journal entry, dated November 3, 1861. The Morgan Library & Museum; purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909.

What is remarkable, to me at least, is how the in inventions of Thoreau persist, both in the scholarly and the cultural spaces in which these versions of Thoreau appear. Perhaps Laura’s story–sharply detailed, sensitive, alive–will do its little part in reanimating a more holistic vision of our place in the world. Thoreau saw, Laura notes,

the end of one geological epoch and the beginning of the next, and the unease he felt is rampant today, infecting the headlines and blocking our own imagination of the future he believed he was helping to realize. Thoreau could see the ground was shifting, and, in the sheer audacity of his genius, he decided it was up to him to witness the change and alert the world.

As Thoreau is reported by his sister Sophia to have said on his deathbed, at forty-four years of age, “Now comes good sailing.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every detachment prepares a new detachment. Of course, prophecy becomes habitual and reaches all things. Having seen one thing that was firmament enter into the kingdom of growth, the conclusion is irresistible, there is no fixture in the Universe. Everything was moved, did spin, and will spin again. This changes once and for all his view of things. Hint of dialectic: Things appears as seeds of an immense future. Whilst the dull man seems to himself always to live in a finished world, the thinker always finds himself in the early stages; the world lies up to him in heaps and gathered materials;—materials of a structure that is yet to be built.

from “The Relation of Intellect to Natural Science” (1848)

Few men know how to take a walk. The qualifications of a professor are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence, and nothing too much. If a man tells me he has an intense love of nature, I know, of course, that he has none. Good observers have the manner of trees and animals, their patient good sense, and if they add words, ‘tis only when words are better than silence. But a loud singer, or story teller, or vain talker profanes the river and the forest, and is nothing like so good company as a dog.

from “Country Life” (1858)

Last week I received in the mail  “The Best Read Naturalist”: Nature Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Michael Branch and Clinton Mohs. When I was asked to review the manuscript of this book for the University of Virginia Press, I was teaching the biologist E. O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). Reading Emerson and Wilson I was intrigued by the congruence between the questions both authors are asking. “Does humanity have a special place in the Universe? What is the meaning of our personal lives? Where are we going? Why?” These are Wilson’s questions, presented in the spirit of reasoning about what he calls “the relation between science and humanities.”

It strikes me that this is precisely the line of reasoning that Emerson enacted with his audiences in the lyceum. Branch and Mohs build on this connection between Emerson’s fascination with natural science and his humanistic exploration of our place in the world, arguing that Emerson “illuminates the importance of nineteenth-century natural science to the evolution of American ideas about the environment” (ix). For example, in one of the talks included in this anthology, “Humanity of Science” (1836), Emerson writes, “In a just history, what is the face of science? What lesson does it teach? What wisdom will a philosopher draw from its recent progress?” (140). This series of questions offers teachers and students access to Emerson’s engagement with the social and cultural history of natural science.

As it happens, about the same time I read the manuscript of “The Best Read Naturalist” a student showed up in one of my classes prepared to talk about an essay by Emerson. The student raised his hand. He then asked a question. “How do I begin to talk about the essay when I have highlighted every word in the opening paragraph?”

This is the same student who, in an essay I had asked him to write on his experiences with reading and writing in school, described his belief that the purpose of the academic essay “is to break the illusion of false knowledge.” He then pointed out, “of course essays are assigned so teachers can assess a student’s understanding, but they also allow students to assess their own understanding. For me,” he concluded, “the written word has become a way to audit my thoughts from a neutral point of view so that I may realize the flaws of my thought process.”

Then, a few weeks later, we read Emerson’s essay “Illusions” from The conduct of Life:

There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snow-storm. We wake from one dream into another dream. The toys, to be sure, are various, and are graduated in refinement to the quality of the dupe. The intellectual man requires a fine bait; the sots are easily amused. But everybody is drugged with his own frenzy, and the pageant marches at all hours, with music and banner and badge.

In the introduction to the book I recently co-edited with a colleague who teaches at Maryland’s Washington College, Sean Meehan, Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, we remind our readers that ever since F. O. Matthiessen made him a founding figure of the “American Renaissance,” Emerson has remained a staple of undergraduate surveys in American literature and seminars on the “Age of Emerson.” We go on to describe the wide-ranging global, not just national, presence of Emerson’s writing, across the Atlantic and around the world. Our collection of essays demonstrate the multiple ways contemporary students encounter Emerson’s works—in courses on Transcendentalism, Romanticism, environmental literature, literary theory and philosophy, rhetoric and composition, media studies, and genre courses in poetry and the essay, and in upper-level seminars.

Not only was Emerson a leading figure of American Transcendentalism and transatlantic Romanticism, prominent nineteenth-century poet and literary mentor. For he is one of America’s greatest essayist, and students frequently encounter his writing alongside Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, James Baldwin, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Ralph Ellison, Mary Oliver, and Annie Dillard, to name a few. Emerson was also America’s first public intellectual. His addresses, essays, and poems were deeply engaged with the social and political issues of nineteenth-century America.

Teaching a seminar on Emerson, and working on our forthcoming book, I found myself spending more time with Emerson’s writing. Work had just been completed on the ten-volume scholarly edition of all of Emerson’s works published in his lifetime and under his supervision, The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The culmination of a half-century of vigorous textual editing, I now had access to the full range of Emerson’s writing and thinking. The publication of this textual scholarship—beginning with The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sixteen volumes of The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, extending to The Complete Sermons, The Poetry Notebooks, The Topical Notebooks, the four-volume supplement to The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Selected Letters, Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, The Later Lectures and Selected Lectures—reintroduced me to Emerson and to the ways that Emerson worked and thought through his ideas in the medium of writing.

Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson recognizes Emerson’s continuing presence in the curriculum and offers instructors a pedagogical resource to guide and inspire the teaching of Emerson. The Table of Contents for the book that will be published later this year offers a preview of the contexts and the range of scholars engaged with Emerson’s work.


Editions and Texts
General Reference
Biographical Resources
Critical Reception
Critical Studies
Intellectual and Critical Contexts
Digital Resources


Introduction: Learning from Emerson
 Mark C. Long and Sean Ross Meehan

Approaching Emerson as a Public Intellectual

Emerson the Orator: Teaching the Narratives of “The Divinity School Address” David M. Robinson

Emerson the Essayist in the American Essay Canon 
Ned Stuckey-French

Politically Ethical Aesthetics: Teaching Emerson’s Poetry in the Context of U.S. Diversity
 Saundra Morris

Teaching Emerson’s Philosophical Inheritance Susan L. Dunston

Emerson and the Reform Culture of the Second Great Awakening Todd H. Richardson

The Turbulent Embrace of Thinking: Teaching Emerson the Educator Martin Bickman

Emerson the Author: Introducing the Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson into the Classroom
 Ronald A. Bosco

Teaching Emerson’s Essays

Once More into the Breach: Teaching Emerson’s Nature
 Michael P. Branch

“The American Scholar” as Commencement Address
 Andrew Kopec

The Divine Sublime: Educating Spiritual Teachers in “The Divinity School Address” Corinne E. Blackmer

Experimenting with “Circles”
 Nels Anchor Christensen

Beyond “mendicant and sycophantic” Reading: Teaching the Seminar “Studies in American Self-Reliance”
 Wesley T. Mott

The Ideals of “Friendship”
 Jennifer Gurley

In Praise of Affirmation: On Emerson’s “Experience” Branka Arsić

Teaching Emerson’s Other Works

Emerson in the Nineteenth-Century Poetry Course
 Christoph Irmscher

Teaching Emerson’s Antislavery Writings 
Len Gougeon

Approaching the Practical Emerson through the Sermons and the Early Lectures Carolyn Maibor

Emerson, Gender, and the Journals 
Jean Ferguson Carr

A Natural History of Intellect? Emerson’s Scientific Methods in the Later Lectures Meredith Farmer

Emerson Across the Curriculum

“These Flames and Generosities of the Heart”: Emerson in the Poetry Workshop Dan Beachy-Quick

Between the Disciplines and Beyond the Institution: Emerson’s Environmental Relevance
 T.S. McMillin

Emerson in Media Studies and Journalism
 David O. Dowling

Emerson and the Digital Humanities
 Amy Earhart

Emerson Around the World

Emerson’s Transatlantic Networks Leslie Elizabeth Eckel

Translating the Latin American Emerson Anne Fountain

Emerson and Nietzsche Herwig Friedl

Emerson in the East: Perennial Philosophy as Humanistic Inquiry John Michael Corrigan

NAPLA Project

The year I began graduate school at the University of Washington the department of English began the Computer-Integrated Courses (CIC) Program. The idea was that students in 100-level writing courses would benefit from new learning technologies. From the inception of the Computer-Integrated Courses (CIC) program in 1990, the program’s philosophy was built around “the idea that the computer has become a ‘natural’ part of the reading, writing, research, and critical thinking processes.”

Meeting with co-faculty member Cole Wilcox and Project directors Jeff McClurken and Ellen Homes Pearson at a summer 2016 COPLAC Digital Research Faculty Development Seminar at the University North Carolina Asheville, North Carolina

Sixteen years later this idea continues to shape my teaching and pedagogy. In the fall of 2016 I offered a digital humanities course called “Public Access and the Liberal Arts A Narrative History.” Designed and co-taught with Dr. Cole Wilcox, professor of English at Truman State University, the course enrolled students from the University of North Carolina Asheville, The State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo, and Keene State College.

The idea for this course was born in a COPLAC Digital Humanities Workshop at the University of Mary Washington that included faculty from Sonoma State, University of Montevallo, USC Aiken, Midwestern State, and Truman State. Our course documented the 1944 G.I. Bill and public access to higher education and, later, increasing public access to the liberal arts. The students documented the experiences of students, alumni, staff and faculty at the campuses at which they were studying and used digital technologies to capture the history and the prospects of the public liberal arts.

Keene State College story of Abby Shepherd’s project on the Women of Keene State

Our class met synchronously on Tuesday and Thursday (EST) from 2-3:20. The students worked in teams to build an online archive of oral histories by alumni, faculty, staff, and current students— layered, web-based narratives that include audio and video stories, images, maps and timelines, and documentary evidence of their home campus.

If you are interested in one version of the idea that digital technologies have become part of the reading, writing, research, and critical thinking processes, have a look at our course site, Public Access and the Liberal Arts: A Narrative History, and the Student Sites:

Foundations of Knowledge at SUNY Geneseo
UNC Asheville: An Educational Narrative
The Women of Keene State

You might also have a look at the full College Profile of Abby Shepherd.



Right and Wrong

This morning I read Michelle Navarre’s “Cleary The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar” in The Atlantic magazine. The essay takes up the question whether grammar lessons must come before writing or the learning of grammar through writing (and reading). Navarre, an associate professor and associate dean at DePaul University’s School for New Learning, notes the decades of study that demonstrate how teaching rules outside of context or use does not work well for most writers.

These kinds of conversations inevitably bring up approaches to teaching writing, and the ways that teaching writing in schools does and does not result in better writing. What we have discovered in more than a decade of work at Keene State College is that developing writers requires a sustained focus on writing—across all four years, and in as many classrooms and fields of study as possible. If we value writing, we need to give students authentic and challenging writing at every turn. This philosophy of teaching writing, it should follow, needs to shape elementary, secondary and post-secondary classrooms. Have a look at another essay in The Atlantic series, Peg Tyre’s 2012 essay “The Writing Revolution” for a case study at New Dorp High School focused on teaching analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class.

Finally, and not incidentally, The Atlantic series includes an essay by a secondary teacher, Andrew Simmons, whose “Facebook Has Transformed My Students’ Writing—for the Better,” offers a first-person anecdotal case for the value of social media in developing skills associated with storytelling and emotional authenticity in personal writing.

Digital Compost

“Something startles me where I thought I was safest”

Walt Whitman, “This Compost”

It is exciting to be a professor of English right now: for the archive of materials we use in our professional lives has undergone (and is undergoing) fundamental and lasting change. The conditions for literary production and reception are being radically transformed and the work of teaching and research are, as a result, changing. While scholars will necessarily travel to libraries for research, scholars and their students now have access to (and, in a number of cases, are building) an expanding archive of materials that were only a decade ago only available to those with the resources and time to travel to research libraries or to more modest holdings in public or private collections.

For a decade my students and I have been using the Walt Whitman Archive, an electronic library of written materials, including the six editions of Whitman’s major work, Leaves of Grass. The archive makes accessible Whitman’s notebooks, manuscript fragments, prose essays, letters, and journalism, as well as the ongoing historical and critical commentary on his work. So, for example, my students can access all the volumes of Horace Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden and we can easily call up page images of Leaves of Grass Imprints in class. Students reading in the historical commentary on Whitman’s writings and current criticism, moreover, now have access to electronic versions of essays and more than twenty full-length books. The co-editors of the site, Kenneth M. Price (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and Ed Folsom (University of Iowa), have created a beautiful thing.

Also, in my American Studies courses, the Library of Congress web portal that supports the Library’s mission “to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people” has helped my students do much more interesting work with a greater range of materials and artifacts. Finally, my colleague at the University of New Hampshire, Siobhan Senier, is building a digital archive/anthology of materials, Writing of Indigenous New England, with the help of students, tribal historians, and local historical societies. you can learn more about this work at Siobhan’s Indigenous New England Literature site.

Then, this year, I became aware of two new projects that have, to be honest, startled me. The first, more useful to me in thinking more clearly about the fundamental changes that are taking place in my professional field is the monograph Literary Studies in the Digital Age: an Evolving Anthology ,a part of the MLA Commons project. Here is the description of the anthology by the editors:

We began the process of creating this anthology with the intention of providing a primer to core tools and techniques for computational approaches to literary studies. Yet, since literary studies represents a confluence of fields and subfields, tools and techniques, and since computational approaches come from a great variety of sources, it became clear that any primer would have to be dynamic and capable of incorporating a rich and growing array of methodologies.

What is interesting is that the anthology is evolving using the tools of social computing made possible by web 2.0 technologies. In their Introduction, Introduction, Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens make the following claim:

The field of literary studies is being reshaped in the digital age. Texts have acquired a new kind of malleability, and they are often encountered in large aggregations, allowing for a scale of research far different from that in the past. At the same time, new possibilities as well as limitations for publishing are changing how, what, and to whom texts are disseminated. These changes require us to reexamine assumptions and to adopt altered research methodologies.

The introduction is worth reading. It can help to moderate the rhetoric that surrounds what some have called the digital turn. They return to 1963 and the founding of the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at Cambridge University by Roy Wisbey. They also mention the period between 1966–78 when professional organizations were established and publications developed to explore possibilities of using computers in the humanities. They call attention to Computers and the Humanities (1966), the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC, 1973), and the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH, 1978).

The other project is more ambitious, and delightfully so: The Digital Public Library of America is working to make available (the beta version launches April 18 2013) an enormous amount of archival materials. The material and conceptual implications of this project are staggering. The blog entry called “What is the DPLA?” is a helpful place to start. There is also a very good overview of the conception of the project in the April 25 2103 edition (vol. LX no.7) of The New York Review of Books by Robert Darnton.

To take just one example of a DPLA “service hub”: The Mountain West Digital Library (MWDL) is a search portal for digital collections about the Mountain West region with free access to over 700,000 resources from universities, colleges, public libraries, museums, historical societies, and government agencies, counties, and municipalities in Utah, Nevada, and other parts of the U.S. West. The MWDL will help to accelerate the preservation of materials in these local sites while reaching out to provide access to those interested in the mountain west. For someone who teaches at a small, centrally isolated liberal arts college, the materials available in the Mountain West Digital Library collections will give me the capacity (and help me imagine) new ways to do my own research as well as help me teach courses using primary documents that would otherwise be unavailable to my students.

Swimming with the Current

Among the ways college professors stay alive is by swimming in the current with their intellectual peers. Meaningful exchange with students and colleagues beyond one’s home institution strengthens one’s scholarship and teaching. And it contributes to a more productive institutional culture. In fact, a good deal of my scholarship and teaching has its origins in these intellectual streams of thought; and in this post I trace some of my intellectual activities beyond Keene State College during the 2010-11 academic year.

Wall mural in Cincinnati by Rosalind Tallmadge, et alia

On Sunday I returned from a week in Bloomington, Indiana, at the biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE). The week began along the Ohio River, in Cincinnati, with my friend, colleague and collaborator, John Tallmadge, whose book The Cincinnati Arch had prepared me for this look-and-see tour of the city.

Author and Mentor, Collaborator and Friend, John Tallmadge, on a tour of Cincinnati

When we arrived in Bloomington I made may way to the ASLE Executive Council meeting. No longer a member of the Council, I do try to attend these meetings as a program coordinator. Sitting in reminded me of the ongoing collaborative efforts that have built and sustain  this organization. Our organization has grown in size, to 1400 members, and in breadth, with members from 41 countries and with 24 affiliations with scholarly groups both in and outside of the United States. The close to 800 participants seemed a natural fit with the Brobdingnagian scale of the Bloomington campus. The  buildings are enormous, and the campus spreads far and wide. The grey-white Indiana limestone buildings, some of which date back to the late nineteenth century, loom over the Dunn Woods, the Arboretum, and the rather Lilliputian Jordan River. The wooded areas on campus are littered with downed trunks and limbs from a storm on May 25th that took down over 300 trees across this nearly 2,000 acre campus.

Art Museum at Indiana University

I kicked off the week co-facilitating (with John Tallmadge, Rochelle Johnson, Tom Hillard and Sarah Jaquette Ray) a pre-conference workshop “Staying Alive: A Workshop for Academic Professionals.” ASLE’s tradition of mentoring graduate students and building community has evolved to include the Staying Alive Project, a vision that includes building mentoring relationships with one another across all phases and dimensions of academic life. The workshop that John and I offered at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 2007 and in Victoria, British Columia in 2009 seeks to initiative honest conversations about the challenges and rewards of academic life. During the conference, as the coordinator of the ASLE Mentoring Program, I also organized mentoring meetings between graduate students and faculty members outside their home departments; and talked with other members of the organization about ways to promote international scholarly exchanges in the field of literature and environment.

Academic Building at Indiana University

My conference days revolved around attending concurrent sessions, sharing meals with friends and collaborators, and attending plenary talks. The people who make ASLE their professional home, and with whom I enjoy spending  time when we gather every two years, include John Tallmadge, Mike Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Ian Marshall, Megan Simpson, Randall Roorda, Nicole MerolaAnne Raine, Arlene PlevinAnnie Ingram, Scott Slovic, John Lane, Jim Warren, Dan Payne and Tom Hillard.  The people who find themselves gathering in this biennial eddy in the intellectual stream share a love for thinking, talking, eating, making music and drinking beer.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. . . .” near the Wells Library on the campus of Indiana University

During my week in Bloomington I found myself preoccupied with getting right the argument I had been trying to pin down in the presentation I would give on Saturday, “Frames of Rejection: Frames of Acceptance: Environmentalism in the Classroom” on the panel “Green Without Guilt: Pedagogy and Scholarship for Teaching Environmentalism in the Disciplines.” But most of the week had me moving from session to session, absorbing and discussing ideas, as well as attending plenary sessions by Una Chaudhuri (professor of English, Drama and Environmental Studies at New York University), Helen Tiffin (recently retired professor of English at the University of Tasmania), Zakes Mda (poet, novelist and critic from South Africa), Robert L. Fischman (professor of Law at Indiana University), Marc Bekoff (professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado) and Rubén Martínez (professor of Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles). I also attended an evening reading and performance, Wilderness Plots, that began as a book, by Soctt Russell Sanders, of brief tales of the settlement of the Ohio Valley between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The spirited evening performance by Sanders, and musicians Timm Grimm, Krista Detor, Carrie Newcomer, Tom Roznowski and Michael White, was recorded for Indiana Public Television. There were also two receptions honoring senior colleagues in our field: for Lawrence Buell, who is retiring from the English department at Harvard University, and for John Felstiner, from the department of English at Stanford. I list these names and performances to suggest the tributaries that feed into the mainstream intellectual work of the organization. At the same time, I am suggesting the ways that an intensive week of intellectual exchange with students and colleagues  feeds my teaching, scholarship and service at Keene State College.

“Truth is the Daughter of Time,” aphorism and and relief, west wall of Ballantine Hall, Indiana University

Our panel on Saturday afternoon was well attended. I talked about my upper-level undergraduate elective designed to help students understand the social movement we call environmentalism, as well as explore the ways environmental concern shapes the development of a genre of writing. Using Kenneth Burke’s writings from the 1930s to reflect on my course, I offered an overview of the kick-ass books we read: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island, Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms, Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge and T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. I argued essentially that environmentalism needs environmental literature. But not to affirm the environmentalist agenda. Nor to pursue its agenda by other means. Rather my conviction is that environmental literature, like most literature worth reading, should remind us that genuine thinking is  less dogmatic and more provisional, less universal and more situated, less earnest and more alive. Environmental literature should encourage us to re-imagine how we think the environment—even as, in some cases, those books are working with the inherently reductive language and discourse of environmentalism.

American Literature Association, Boston, Massachusetts

In late May I spent a day at the annual American Literature Association Conference in Boston. In addition to attending discussions of the work of the nineteenth century American authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I chaired a session I organized called “American Literature and the Ecological Thought” framed around recent theoretical work by Timothy Morton, professor of English at the University of California Davis, and author of Ecology without Nature (2007) and The Ecological Thought (2010). Cathleen Rowley, from Stony Brook University, presented “An Ecological Reading of Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables,”  Amy Campion, University of Minnesota, presented “John Cheever and the Ecological Thought,” and Heather Houser, University of Texas at Austin, presented “Visualize or Describe? The Contemporary Novel, Visualization and Environmentality.”

Emerson was right. . . . books are for a Scholar’s idle times

Modern Language Association Convention, Los Angeles, California

In January I traveled to the Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles, California, where I presided at the session I have been organizing for a number of years, “Teaching in the Small College Department,” an annual event sponsored by the Association of the Departments of English. I centered the 2011 small college session on the small college department and the curriculum. The central question I asked the panelists to address was how small college departments are (re)configuring the English major, designing courses and doing collaborative work around courses in the major or in the general studies curriculum, especially in light of the mission of smaller institutions—as well as in relation to the profession-wide conversation about the English major, for instance, in the 2008 Report of the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature.

In smaller institutions and departments, faculty and students routinely work together in collaborative and cooperative endeavors. And the session suggested that much of this work is devoted to rethinking the English major. It is not surprising that faculty in smaller settings have been generating innovative ways of thinking about English, as the 2003 special issue of the ADE Bulletin on “The English Major” demonstrated. The faculty in small college departments, focused primarily on their mission of undergraduate education, tend to be more broadly involved in teaching at levels of the curriculum, and hence are more able to create opportunities to rethink and refashion the undergraduate major in English. The 2011 session features faculty from institutions that are part of the Council on Public Liberal Arts Colleges, COPLAC, a consortium of colleges seeking to offer high-quality, public liberal arts educations.

Lunch at the Runcible Spoon, Bloomington, Indiana

Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland

In the fall of 2010 I spent two days at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, where I was invited to present the annual Sophie Kerr Lecture and to lead a college conversation for faculty on writing and the curriculum. My Kerr Lecture and slide presentation, co-sponsored by the Center for Environment and Society, was entitled “John Muir and the Mountains of California: Prospects for Environmental Thinking and Writing.”

My first talk on writing was a standing-room-only workshop for faculty in the Global Research and Writing Seminar Program called “Thinking, Writing and Research in the Undergraduate Writing Classroom: A Case for Sustained Writing Projects.” I also presented a college-wide workshop for faculty and students, “Thinking about the Values of Writing.”

One of many opportunities for cultural exegesis in the scholarly stream

The Natural History of Reading, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

The 2010-11 academic year began for me in June of 2010 when I traveled to the University of Washington to speak at an undergraduate honors conference at the University of Washington.  Seattle entitled “The Natural History of Reading.” The conference, organized by Leroy Searle under the auspices of the Simpson Humanities Center, was the culminating event in a course designed to examine the activity of reading as an essential component of learning and inquiry. The course and conference began with the historical tropes pertaining to ‘The Book’—or, as Leroy framed it, “the Book of God, the Book of Nature, and the productions of Man”—in literature, philosophy, and science, art, photography, and architecture. Students read The Bible  (King James version), The Qu’ran  (Abdullah Jusuf Ali translation), Gerald Holton: Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought, James Gleick: Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, Lee Smollin: The Trouble with Physics, Charles Sanders Peirce: The Essential Peirce, vol 1, William Blake: Complete Poetry and Prose and William Faulkner: Light in August. They also discussed Plato, the Phaedrus, Johannes Kepler, The Six-Sided Snowflake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, selections from Biographia Literaria and The Friend, Louis Sullivan,  Selections from Autobiography of an Idea and Kindergarten Chats and Nathan Lyons, Selections from Photographers on Photography.

I was one of three invited speakers whose work on the activity of reading would contribute to this course of inquiry. Each of the undergraduate students presented a talk at the conference and there were social events to continue the conversations that emerged in the academic session. My talk, “The Problem of Reading, the Practice of Writing,” began with a theoretical question: what is the relationship between reading and writing? As I reminded the audience of undergraduates, graduate students and professors, the problem with asking this question is that most responses immediately call on a set of commonplaces about the practice of teaching writing in school. For students in primary and secondary grades are to be introduced to the practice of writing mostly through routine tasks that promote mastery of a discrete skill set; college undergraduates are asked to produce essays, for the most part, that demonstrate whether or not they have a working understanding of course content; graduate students produce readings of books that apply ready-made protocols to generate arguments as a quantitative measure for professional advancement; and professors, having internalized the imperative to publish, produce reams of writing that very few people have reason to read. (The situation, as I explained, is a perfect case of what the critic Kenneth Burke once called the beauracratization of the imaginative—a phrase, as he put it, as bungling as the situation it seeks to describe.) I then when on to talk about how at most colleges and universities our first-year students therefore find themselves writing essays with little to no intellectual investment; how their teachers find themselves reading essays that no one should ever be asked to read; and how most tenure-stream faculty have abandoned the first-year course while quietly ignoring the working conditions of the contingent faculty they hire to teach it. Is there a better way? My essay drew on my own study of theories of reading and writing as well as the pedagogical  experiment underway at Keene State College with the first year course. My argument was that when students are actually thinking and writing, the activity of reading becomes, quite naturally, a central intellectual activity in the course. My essay was later published in the fall in the conference proceedings, The Natural History of Reading.

The Real Work

“Knowing that nothing need be done, is where we begin to move from”

-Gary Snyder, “Four Changes,” Turtle Island (1974)

Refuse bin, Mahabalipuram, India, February 2008

How do we address the social needs and demands of an economy, the natural constraints of ecology and the political imperatives of democracy? How do we think about the environment in historical, political, historical, sociological, economic, technological, and moral terms? And how do we reconcile the democratic freedoms at home with the imperialism abroad that feeds the greed for resources to feed our insatiable consumer economy? These complicated questions—at the center of the social movement (and discourse) we have come to call environmentalism—have motivated a range of writers whose cultural work begins with the paradox that the scientific, industrial and technological advances of the modern world have inexorably created an ecological catastrophe of massive proportions.

This semester I’m teaching a course in American and Environmental Studies that takes up these questions. Our focus is

US Forest Service campaign to prevent fire

environmental writing and its relationship to the discourse of environmentalism. I’m interested in the ethical claims of environmentalism as a framework for considering how writers (and writer-activists) seek to foster reflection and transformation of personal assumptions and attitudes, beliefs and behavior. My course, “Writing in an Endangered World,” is an interdisciplinary course and therefore designed to address program outcomes in Environmental Studies (critical thinking and problem solving skills, communication skills, skills associated with moral and character development, an understanding of the ethical implications of environmental issues) as well as in American Studies (understanding historical and contemporary American cultures, responding resourcefully to texts, integrating forms of scholarship from more than one discipline, and the ability to write an effective documented essay that includes a thesis that integrates interdisciplinary approaches). To these ends, the course makes visible the assumptions, frameworks, and methods of the disciplines that study natural and human history, the relationship between ecological and human systems, and the history and values of environmental engagement in North America during the 20th century. In addition to reading Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism: A Global History, students are reading Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Gary Snyder, Turtle Island, Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Linda Hogan, Solar Storms, Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild: Essays, Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge and T. C. Boyle The Tortilla Curtain. The course has also have considered the cultural presence of environmental concern in visual images, advertising campaigns, popular music, as well as other forms of cultural discourse.

The politics of environmental concern

I’m primarily interested in students thinking about how environmental writers use language as a primary vehicle for exploring the human prospect in an age of environmental crisis. Wendell Berry’s essays in The Unsettling of America, for example, ask students to consider the commonplaces that make possible our thinking about environmental questions. Berry enumerates the faults and contradictions of a system—call it what you will, capitalist, exploitative, free-market or global economy. Indeed Carson, Snyder, and Abbey all work from these commonplace ways of thinking. What makes this writing worth reading is that it moves beyond the limits of the language we make available to ourselves to address the problems we are being asked to think about. Imaginative writing takes many forms—including the writing we include in the genres of nonfiction, fiction, poetry. The language of this writing—its arguments, demonstrations, anecdotes and stories—serve as a counterpoint to what Wendell Berry calls our failure to reason about moral questions. “Public discourse of all kinds,” he insists in The Unsettling of America, “now tends to pattern itself either upon the arts of advertisement and propaganda (that is, the arts of persuasion without argument, which leads to reasonless and even unconscious acquiescence) or upon the allegedly objective or value-free demonstrations of science” (230). Berry’s claim about moral ignorance in The Unsettling of America is a provocation: a reminder that we are at once inheritors of a culture as well as stewards of that culture, and that the current state of the world is ultimately our responsibility. What do the current practices of agriculture, he asks, say about us? My case in the course is that Berry is not interested in the thinking that reinforces the opposition between saints and sinners (we are all both, he points out) or righteously pointing to the shortcomings or faults of someone else or some system or another. He is interested in the ways that we might move beyond thinking that begins “with a set of predetermining ideas” toward thinking that begins with “particular places, people, needs and desires” (233). He elaborates on this idea in chapter two, where he points to the problems of more ambitious institutional solutions that narrow and simplify as they propose particular actions or objectives.

Our focus on writing about particular places, people, needs and desires was enriched by a class visit by the writer Mark

Mark Kurlansky

Kurlansky. Mark was on campus for one of the spring Keene is Reading program events. (We had selected his book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and he was in town to give a talk at the Colonial Theater on the long and complex history of the cod fishing and the depleted fishing stocks and the people’s lives who are linked to the great fisheries of the North Atlantic.) He talked with the students about the work of a writer; and, given the focus of the course,  he addressed what it might mean to be a writer in an age of environmental concern. At one point he asked the students whether any of them had read Darwin. When he saw that none of the students had, he suggested that anyone interested in understanding contemporary environmental  problems could do no better than to read and consider what Darwin makes visible in his work. The teacher of the course (me!) could not have asked for a more timely and apposite recommendation.

Know Thyself


What is English? This question is at the center of a conversation that has been unfolding since I arrived at Keene State College in 1998. Provisional answers to the question, as well as the multiple ways the question can be answered, have motivated changes in how we conceive and deliver our undergraduate program. How do we cultivate careful reading and the use of literary vocabulary? How do they experience the process of writing about literature and culture and learn to use writing for a range of expressive and persuasive purposes? How do wehelp students understand the ways historical, social, and cultural contexts shape literary works?  In what ways are students introduced to those works in literary and expressive traditions produced by cultures whose collective humanity and aesthetic identity have been historically devalued, denied, or dismissed? How do students come to understand literary genre? How literary works relate intertextually? How the history of language has affected the development of literature? In what ways arestudents exposed to the history of criticism and critical theory, its application in literary analysis as well as current scholarly debates in the field of English studies?

For the past ten years our thinking about (and as) a program has been motivated by a desire to improve conditions for ripinski.5student learning and, at the same time, ameliorate the difficult working conditions faculty face. New members of our department have invigorated this discussion in collaboration with those who have been at the College for some time. And College-wide curricular changes (that English, in part, initiated) have transformed the work that we do.  As a result, we now share the responsibility for a program that grows out of the ongoing and ever-present questions about English as a field of study.

I’ve been thinking about all of this over the summer as the primary author of the English department’s Self Study. For those reading who are not aware, college and universities undertake a self study every ten years or so. The University System of New Hampshire policy requires the Academic Overview Committee (AOC), which reports to the Keene State College Senate, to oversee and facilitate program review on our campus. The purpose of the academic overview process is to evaluate the strengths and challenges of the academic programs and its current and projected resource needs. Program review includes self-analysis by members of the program, external peer review, evaluation by the Academic Overview Committee, and response from the administration.


So, what is English? Well,  The StoryI tell in this attached excerpt from the forty page document gives an overview of who we say we are and the history of the program, and might be of interest to anyone curious about English at Keene State College. The conversations around our central question are intense, ongoing, and deeply engaging. While we may not have a definitive answer to the question (in fact, we might want to question the value of such a thing), we are always working to articulate the reasons why we have the program we have–among ourselves, with our students and to the others who support the work that we do.


Skater Boy

Last month the Times reported that Andy Kessler died at the age of forty-eight. Kessler, as the obituaries page explained, brought skateboarding to New York City in the 1970s, and was a member of a community of skateboarders and graffiti artists named the Soul Artists of Zoo York.


Mark Long at 8000 feet in the Easter Sierra, circa 1979

It is fascinating to watch skateboarding organizing itself into the landscape of twentieth-century cultural history. The mythology in the Times, according to the writer of the obituary, is that New York skateboarding was neither the sport nor the cultural phenomenon as it was in California, “where scrappy, expert skateboarders like Jay Adams and Tony Alva created a style, ultimately a legend, that came to be called Dogtown.” Of course this is the Times, and it is New York, and the day after Kessler’s obituary appeared something else offered itself up: the acclaimed young fiction writer Bret Anthony Johnston—author of the internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer and a veteran urban skateboarder—published a brief essay titled “The End of Falling.”

By now you are probably wondering why a professor of English at Keene State College is writing about skateboarding. Well, it may have something to do with my years as a teenage rider in the 1970s, my sense of a larger cultural story about our generation, or simply species recognition: for here is an English professor (an award winning author, and current Briggs-Copeland Professor of Fiction position at Harvard, at that!) writing about skateboarding.

In “The End of Falling” Johnston admits that while he never knew Kessler, his life story was legendary among skaters in the city, a figure who pioneered a style of riding that Johnson calls a “gritty, dirty, and beautiful, the shadow-version of the breezy West Coast surf-style.” For this English professor, a one-time professional skateboarder, the image of a hip young professor of fiction at Harvard carving “gritty, dirty, and beautiful” turns on a sidewalk once walked by the likes of William James and W.E.B Du Bois sits well.

Kessler had a rough time, it seems. His story reminds me of a contemporary of mine in California, Jay Adams, whose unfortunate life path is featured in Stacy Peralta’s recent film Dog Town. Yes, drugs were a part of the skateboarding culture East and West, and it seems Kessler himself ended up hooked on heroin. He then turned a corner and led an effort to build a park for skateboarders and roller-bladers in Riverside Park—recruiting a group of disadvantaged youths to build it. The story resonates, at least for Johnston and perhaps his editor, as it falls into the broader contours of a story some of my generation appear to want to tell themselves. “Kessler’s great and lasting contribution to skateboarding,” Johnston intones, “was recognizing its transformative and transcendent qualities, the myriad ways in which a highly individualized endeavor invited, not precluded, community.”


Mark Long, Carlsbad, California, circa 1978

Well, sure. I guess. Skateboarding is more than not a crime. More to the point, though, is that it is really hard to grow up, especially when the flimsy façade of privilege or youthful freedom breaks down and you find yourself struggling with the brutal facts of a flesh-and-blood life. My hunch is that the narrative Johnston is working with resonates for the over-forty crowd whose life revolves around scenarios predicated in the conceit that things are not what they used to be. And they are not, of course. Johnston deftly holds up the Kessler story as a counterpoint to the commodifaction of skateboarding and the skating culture, “the ubiquitous television presence, the department store displays of designer skater apparel, and the proliferation of free municipal skateparks around the country.” All this is rather dispiriting for a so-called breezy guy from California. But I can’t help but wonder about the cultural nostalgia that animates these kinds of stories. “For most of Kessler’s life,” Johnston goes on to say, “years of which were mired in violence and addiction and the existential angst that torments many a non-conformist, skateboarding wasn’t merely a sport or pastime or even the artistic expression of his soul. It was the path to his soul’s salvation.”

Johnston is a good enough writer to know that this kind of language is a stretch. So he excuses himself on his way to an almost passionate defense of skateboarding against those who still think of it as, well, criminal. “For all of their perceived destructiveness,” he writes, “for all of their purported unthinking and lawless mischief, skateboarders are a creative and compassionate breed. Often, especially when Kessler was nurturing what would become the East Coast scene, the kids who gravitated toward skateboarding were misfits and malcontents, the shy outcasts who’d been intimidated and sullied by the complex pressures of social interaction. Skateboarding gave them an identity and voice, and Kessler, by example, gave them the confidence to declare themselves to society.” Johnston here, appealing to his audience, rhetorician at large.

Mark Long, Logan Earth Ski Catalog, Carlsbad, California, circa 1978

Mark Long, Logan Earth Ski Catalog, Carlsbad, California, circa 1978

For me all of this is mildly reassuring. In northern San Diego, the California skate scene, as I experienced it in the 60s and 70s, was a natural extension of surfing—a way of biding time when the surf was not up. It was also a business, and a few found themselves with a lot of money. Still, the convening of young boys (and a few girls) seeking refuge from the complications and confusions of a post-60s culture was fueled by a deep sense of purpose—though I’m pretty sure none of us really knew what that purpose was. There was a powerful sense of freedom as we navigated our young lives in a slippery, drug- infested counterculture that in retrospect seems far less glamorous or important than people seem to want it to be. It was important as a relatively non-violent and mostly affirming path through adolescence and we tried to find a way to becoming adults.

When urethane wheels and grease-packed bearings appeared new things became possible. We gathered in the streets and school playgrounds to practice turns on imaginary waves and we discovered wheelies and spins and tricks that led us into garages to cut new shapes of boards that would help us twist and turn in the California sun. When we were a bit older, we gathered on the wide, black asphalt hills of what would become the resort La Costa, barefoot and with no pads or helmets, testing our equipment and ourselves at forty and even fifty miles an hour. When the extended drought set in during the mid-70s, reservoirs, empty pools and huge concrete drainage pipes offered terrain to match our skills and imaginations. Empty pools at abandoned hotels and forty foot concrete drainage pipes in the desert became the scenes of our young lives. We were a portable culture of athletic kids that would set itself up in any backyard pool we could find. The D-Town boys were, in fact, one of many groups who were defining the contours of modern skateboarding. Much to our surprise—to mine, at least—a genuine sport developed, and a few of us found ourselves sponsored—with equipment, clothing and even small salaries provided by our sponsors. We found ourselves riding fresh concrete in new skate parks, competing against one another, and doing demonstrations for catalogs and magazines.


Mitchell Long, San Clemente, California, circa 1978

For whatever reason, I walked away at the peak of it, abandoning the sport just as I had the chance to go on an East Coast exhibition tour. Life moved, and I moved with it, and hence I never found myself in a empty pool or skate park with Kessler. By the time he managed to get the skating park open at Riverside Park at 108th Street in 1995, I was nearing the end of graduate school, completing a doctoral dissertation and teaching writing, poetry and fiction. And while I had spent part of a year living in Manhattan, I missed the opportunity to ride the brick banks under the Brooklyn Bridge, carve a Wall Street handrail or drop into the drained pool in Van Cortlandt Park.

On Writing about Questions

This semester I am once again immersed in Emerson. My students are reading and thinking about his language in my introduction to the major course, English 200. Too, Emerson’s thinking, and his use of language, offered a space to think about being named the 2009 Distinguished Scholar at Keene State College and the keynote address I would be giving to faculty, students and their families at the annual Keene State College Academic Excellence Conference.

While I am skeptical of the discourse of excellence–as anyone who has read Bill Reading’s book or the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu should be–I am an enthusiastic supporter of the goals of the annual event:  to give undergraduate te students the opportunity to share their intellectual work with a broad audience and to work closely with students beyond the classroom. In any given year over 350  students and family members, faculty, staff, community members, area legislatures and university trustees attend the gathering. As I was trying to figure out what to say to such a diverse audience, and how I might approach the occasion, I found in Emerson’s essay “The Poet” a formulation that proved to be useful in organizing the second part of what turned out to be a three-part essay. Emerson says, “We know that the secret of the world is profound, but who or what shall be our interpreter, we know not. A mountain ramble, a new style of face, a new person, may put the key into our hands.” It was the mountain ramble part that helped.

And so I was thinking: where questions come from, why we take them up, how they move us from where we are to someplace new. My talk began by asserting that whatever the academic field, most research and scholarship can be traced back to a question. However my interest was really how intellectual work is motivated by questions that transcend academic fields, professional identities, the very idea of academic excellence. As a humanist, I explained to my audience, I am preoccupied with these deeper questions. But, as I went on to say, any certainty that I might have had about where questions come from had been unraveling since late February when I was skiing across a frozen lake with my five-year-old friend Ben and he asked, “What is more importanter, living or being loved?”

Another significant moment in mywriting process was discovering something unexpected in a familiar poem by Mary Oliver.  Her poem offered a beautiful way of describing the scholarly process. It also helped me find my way to the three parts to the essay I was trying to write. The gist of it all, she says, is that we keep looking, one question leads to another question, we think again. (That “we,” it turned out, also resonated with me.) If you are interested, here is what I ended up saying to the hundreds of people gathered for lunch in a talk I titled “The Trouble with Scholarship.

What are English Majors Saying about Thinking and Writing?

In the first part of our two-course introductory sequence to the English major I ask students to write an essay about their experiences with academic writing. Their five-page essays allow me to see how students think about writing; and their thinking provides the occasion for an extended discussion about motivations for doing intellectual work in English. Their essays also make visible some impressions of our new first-year course, Thinking and Writing (ITW).

Not surprisingly, thirty-four of the forty essays on academic writing I’ve read this year mention the ITW course. The students who mention ITW confess that the opportunity to write about something that mattered to them is both exciting and terrifying. They express uncertainty about completing a 15-20 page essay. They describe hours of work in the library and their surprise that in fact others have thought about their areas of interest. And they point out how skeptical they are that the area they are writing about is interesting enough for a semester-long project.

If anything, we can count on students coming out of ITW with a vocabulary to talk about thinking and writing as a process. (More so than the students who completed our essay writing course.) Writing in a substantive intellectual context, they tell me, has taught them that good thinking takes time. Moreover, they understand that persuasion requires curiosity and careful reading of, in the memorable words of one student, “interesting people with different views on a topic.” Another student is able to say it this way:  “The most effective essays are written by those who truly believe what they are saying, have a well rounded knowledge of the subject, and have put a lot of thought into how to address opposing claims.”

In addition to understanding writing as a process these students have experienced the challenge of being asked to think about something. Again and again, they point to the unexpected freedom of being asked to write about something they care about. Describing her experience with the semester-long essay, one student excitedly describes developing a “tone of authority combined with credibility, a strong format and use of language.” Another student confesses that he now goes into an argumentative essay believing that he will come out of the process “with a whole new perspective.” And yet another student, writing about encountering adulthood, comments that she was able to “share her experiences with love, death, happiness, and sorrow, and connect it all back to show how these experiences helped me grow and mature.” And in doing so, she concludes, “I learned a lot about myself as a person, and was able to explore “my beliefs, my opinions, and my biases.”

In listening to these testimonials we begin to hear the kinds of changes that take place as students navigate the difficult transition to college-level writing. These changes-as longitudinal studies of student writers confirm time after time-do not necessarily appear on the page. Rather the changes take place in the writer. The most lasting of these changes, it follows, are those that involve the experience of being challenged to think on one’s own as well as receiving support to meet those challenges. One student writes, “I put an extreme amount of effort into this essay, and the final product was a huge success.” Another student, however, says something that has stayed with me. “At the end I did not get a really good grade. But I was interested in learning. And I found out a lot about the modern world.”

Such comments may speak to the dedication of those who of us teach the thinking and writing course. But these  student, more importantly, make visible the kinds of changes students experience in their first college-level writing course. One question is whether a curriculum that takes thinking and writing to be one of the primary pathways across the four years is a curriculum will measure up to the more ambitious goals our students may now be setting for themselves. The question is whether we are ready to meet them where they are.

The Ecological Thought

Someone asked me the other day about my scholarship and I promised to post something about my recent writing. Here is a summary of my contributions to ongoing conversations about American poetry, environmental writing and the profession of English.

American Poetry
williamsI began writing about American poetry with two peer-reviewed journal articles: one on the poet Denise Levertov and one on William Carlos Williams. In 2004, my work on Williams continued with “Ideas as Forms of Beauty: William Carlos Williams’s Paterson and A. R. Ammons’s Tape for the Turn of Year,” an essay that appeared in  the book Rigor of Beauty: Essays in Commemoration of William Carlos Williams. More recently, my work in American poetry and poetics has contributed to the emerging field of ecopoetry. My essay “William Carlos Williams, Ecocriticism, and Contemporary American Poetry” appeared in the book Ecological Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Two additional essays were published this fall: a 10,000 word overview of the life and writing of A. R. Ammons, commissioned by the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and a 10,000 word critical history of the relationship between poetry and ecology that appeared in a multi-volume anthology entitled Reading in Contemporary America. In addition, since 2003, I’ve published shorter reference entries on the American poets William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, W. S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, and Denise Levertov. I also regularly review new books of American poetry for ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. My most recent review is Mary Oliver’s book of poetry Thirst.

Environmental Writing and Ecocriticism

tnaelcover1Four years of work with co-editors Laird Christensen and Fred Waage has resulted in the publication of Teaching North American Environmental Literature (MLA 2008). Our book provides a center of access to the range of pedagogical possibilities for teaching environmental literature. The collection includes over thirty contributors and features essays on the environmental literatures of Canada as well as Mexican and Mexican-American environmental literature. The book includes a section for further reading, “Resources for Teaching Environmental Literature: A Selective Guide.” Before my last promotion I published the essay “Education and Environmental Literacy: Teaching Ecocomposition in Keene State College’s Environmental House” that appeared in Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. This publication has led to a series of publications on environmental writers and ecocriticism. In 2004 I published a 12,000 word entry on John McPhee in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Nature Writers: Prose. My essay “Ecocriticism and the Practice of Reading” appeared in the fall of 2006 special issue of the journal Reader: Essays in Reader-Oriented Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy that I guest edited. Reader is a semiannual publication that generates discussion on reader-response theory, criticism, and pedagogy. My essay, and the special issue, is focused around the relationship between reading and ecological thinking.

My sabbatical offered me the time to write and present a plenary talk at an international conference in Hyderabad, India, “Shifting Ground: The Emergence of the Bioregion and the Watershed in the Teaching of North American Environmental Literature.” A revised version of this talk appeared this fall in the inaugural 2008 issue of the Indian Journal of Ecocriticism. I’ve also written a review of the first collection of essays on environmental literature and theory published in India, Essays in Ecocriticism, that will appear in ta forthcoming issue of  ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.

The Profession of English Studies

aculturescoverFor over ten years I have been writing about the profession of English. As a graduate student, while co-directing the Expository Writing Program at the University of Washington, I co-wrote and published the essay “Graduate Students, Professional Development Programs, and the Future(s) of English Studies” in the journal WPA: Writing Program Administration. Since arriving at Keene State College, my work in this area has focused on the intellectual work of English in particular institutional sites. In 2004, a Keene State College Faculty Development Pool Grant enabled me to travel to the Association of the Departments of English (ADE) Summer Seminar to broaden my perspective as a scholar interested in the profession of English. Moreover, serving for three years as a member (and for one year as Chair) of the MLA Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities (CAFPRR) furthered my understanding of the general conditions of the field of English studies and the professional lives of teachers and scholars. My subsequent inquiry into graduate training, the professional identity of faculty, and the small college department has been disseminated in a series of publications, book reviews and conference presentations. In 2005 I was invited to write a featured “Commentary” on the small college department, that I titled “Where Do You Teach?”, for the fall 2005 issue of the journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. And my essay “Reading, Writing and Teaching in Context,” appeared in the book Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life (MLA 2008). This essay takes as its subject the representation of faculty work in terms of research and teaching as separate activities. My argument is that this pervasive subplot in the narrative of the profession is rooted in a representation of faculty work that transcends the local institution and the ways that departments and institutions define intellectual work.

From the Editor’s Desk

It is difficult to  sustain a writing project during an academic term. Hence the interval between semesters is the time when ideas and outlines and notes find their way into written form. I also find myself, during my idle time between semesters, preoccupied with ongoing editorial tasks.

Working scholars are often asked to review and offer comments on manuscripts under consideration for publication. Most recently, I have served a a reviewer for PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association; Paideuma: Studies in American and British Modernist Poetry; Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and CultureJAC: A Journal of Composition Theory; 5) IJE: Indian Journal of Ecocriticism; 6) ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and Indiana University Press.

In 2004 I was appointed associate editor of the journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. This profession-wide journal—the winner of the 2001 Best New Journal Award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals—was founded to reverse the longstanding marginalization of teaching and the scholarship produced around it and instead to assert the centrality of teaching to the work of scholars and professionals across the field of English studies. As associate editor, I am responsible for the book review section in our three issues published each year. I read a range of new books relevant to the readers of our journal and then recruit reviewers, solicit reviews, edit individual and roundtable reviews, and serve as a liaison with book publishers. Currently, I am completing an introductory essay for a special issue of Pedagogy I have been invited to guest edit dedicated to the small college English department. The issue will foreground the ways the small college department continues to generate its own conditions for innovative pedagogy, curriculum development, and the integration of the professional activities of reading, writing and teaching.

From the Classroom

I’m back at the College after our six month sabbatical in India, teaching three courses this semester, and already thinking about book orders for the spring. I’m teaching a section of Thinking and Writing entitled What is Nature? that explores the concept of nature. I’ve asked students to consider how definitions of nature reflect human values and beliefs, and to reflect on how these definitions organize our understanding of ourselves and our responsibilities in the world. Students have read the essays in Nadia Tazi, Keywords: Nature and Noel Castree, Nature (Key Ideas in Geography). We are also discussing parts of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, the Keene is reading Program text for the 2008-09 academic year.

I’m also teaching a section of the first course in the English department’s introductory sequence, Literary Analysis. This course invites students to read and discuss imaginative literature; become familiar with key terms, concepts, critical problems, and theoretical debates in English studies; and develop the habits of mind and skills to effectively analyze texts through the process of writing. Students also practice protocols for writing with sources, in-text citation and compiling a list of works cited. This semester I’m using Scholes Comley and Ulmer’s Text Book and we are reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts. I’ve also added readings from Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

Finally, twice each week at eight in the morning, I am teaching an interdisciplinary course, Environmental Literature, that traces the emergence of environmentalism as a social movement in relation to the rise of environmental literature as a genre. Students are considering the claims of the environmental movement in the United States from the second half of the twentieth century to the present; examining the development of the fictional and nonfiction conventions of environmental writing; thinking through the relationship between literature and social change; and considering commentaries on the environmental movement in the United States by cultural critics and environmental historians in developing countries. We are reading Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962); Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968); Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (1969); Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America (1977); Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America (1990); Michael Pollan, Second Nature (1991); and Linda Hogan, Solar Storms (1995). My students are writing a lot and I, in turn, am reading a lot of student writing. A hard job of work. Satisfying, too.