"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Friday, October 26, 2012

Eng. 151H: Politics and the Classroom

As a general rule, I stay away from political topics and such in my classrooms.  I don't like to teach truly controversial topics, I don't like to get into debates (I don't even like to watch the presidential debates...), and I tend to structure my classes around other things I think are (also) important for students to know and I will leave other topics, which are not my area of expertise, to those for whom it is.  My youngest sister is in politics and my stress level could not handle that job.  As a teacher (and as a human being) is not to tell anyone what to think.  I may raise an issue, present different viewpoints, but ultimately the final conclusion someone draws is up to them.  Even if I think it's wrong.  It was why, when we were talking about food systems with our second Writing Project, I had to keep repeating that it was not my goal to convince anyone to be a vegetarian.

Perhaps I should have known better when I chose to teach The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to my 151H class.  For Wednesday, when we started the book, we had a delightful author presentation by three students, which gave us background on the book, the author, Henrietta, HeLa, and more.  It was a truly excellent example of an author presentation and why I like to have students do them.  I was so proud of them.  Then, I gave my students a copy of Peggy McIntosh's classic "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" and we read it in class.  I asked them to free write a little, react to what they'd read, and in the last little bit of class we came back together and talked about their impressions.  To my everlasting bafflement, the consensus was that there was no such thing as white privilege and if there was, it was not a bad thing.  I was so completely speechless that I had very little to say in response.  Fortunately and unfortunately, we'd run out of time and we'd continue in the next class (today).

I've been struggling for the last two days about how to accept that what we're going to be talking about with this book is going to be a process--and it's going to be a longer process than I expected it to be.  To be honest, I expected that we would read McIntosh's article on Wednesday, my students would be shocked to recognize themselves in some of those statements, and that would be the disorienting we needed to talk about the book and all the issues that it raises.  When that didn't happen, it's required some serious work in directions I didn't expect.

Today, I walked into class, prepped with some things I wanted to say, but really apprehensive about the way that this class would go. These are smart students--it's an Honors class--all white, and from what I've gleaned from their conversations, conservative nearly to a one.  That's been disconcerting.  So I put a timeline on the board:

  • 1920:  19th Amendment 
  • 1932-1973:  Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments
  • 1929-1974:  North Carolina Eugenics program (Oregon went till 1981)
  • 1954:  Brown vs. Board of Education
  • 1955:  Rosa Parks arrested
  • 1965:  Voting Rights Act
And I made another list:
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Class
  • Privilege
  • Issues of Consent
  • Reproduction/Reproductive Rights
We talked through the first list, made sure everybody knew what we were talking about.  19th Amendment was women's right to vote--yes, women have had the right to vote for less than a century.  We talked through the two medical programs.  Education desegregation.  And still another ten years for the Voting Rights Act to be passed.  And I brought up how these issues are still not resolved.  I had them talk through voter suppression efforts in this election cycle that are disproportionately affecting poor and minority voters that statistically lean Democratic.  I talked about women's rights and women's rights over their own bodies still an issue (most hadn't heard Richard Mourdock's comments on Wednesday).  These are still issues.

Then we listened to a NPR interview with Harriet Washington about her book Medical Apartheid--in which she talks about scientific racism and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments.  Here's the interview (it's about 12 minutes):

After the interview finished, I had them find a moment in the chapters we read for today where they stopped, paused, moments where they had a specific, solid reaction to what they read--it didn't matter what it was, what mattered was the pause. I had them write about that moment, putting it into context with the interview, with history, etc. We didn't get enough time to talk about what they wrote, but they have a Think Piece due on Monday, so that should be very interesting. We went to the beginning of the text to start with the epigraph from Elie Wiesel, taken from a book on Nazi experiments--and we talked about what frame of mind that particular quote and its accompanying context put us in. I spent specific time talking about my students' specific reactions to what was written, laying off the ideas of white privilege. As class progressed today, I began to understand the actual process of this and to be heavy-handed about it at this point would be counter-productive. I asked them how they felt reading the scene where Henrietta goes into the bathtub and feels the tumor on her cervix. My students admitted to being uncomfortable. I asked why Skloot might want us to feel uncomfortable. I asked why Skloot used clinical terms like cervix and vagina and uterus, instead of more comfortable euphemisms. Why would Skloot want us, as readers, to be uncomfortable? Maybe it was my imagination, but I think I saw their synapses firing in different ways.

 We talked about gender and reproduction in these chapters, the particular moment where the doctors in the Johns Hopkins hospital viewed the public charity ward as a research base, simply because the patients were not paying for treatment and serving as research subjects (even without their knowledge or consent) was justified. I could have hammered home white privilege here, but I didn't. About the only time I mentioned it was when Henrietta and Day moved to Sparrows Point to work in the steel mills, where black men got "the jobs white men wouldn't touch." This, I told my students, is white privilege--the luxury of choosing what job you will have and what jobs you will not touch. This still exists. There are still jobs that white people will not do. And that is an unaccountable privilege that is not shared by other races and ethnicities. And then I dropped it.

 I don't know what's going to happen on Monday. My stomach is still in knots from today. Maybe I should explore this feeling of being uncomfortable in my own classroom and see where that leads me. At the very least, this should be an incredibly interesting Writing Project.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Eng. 180: Serendipity at the Sheldon Art Museum!

So, as many of you know, we've been talking about place in crime literature all semester.  We started by talking about Poe's use of architecture, which echoed through Agatha Christie and many others.  Tomorrow night, Tuesday 23 October 2012, a serendipitous opportunity to hear Sarah Burns talk about Victorian architecture and creepy stuff.  How exciting is this??

Eng. 180: Interview with Dennis Lehane!

Last week, we finished up Dennis Lehane's Mystic River and my class and I formulated some questions that he agreed to answer via email.  I was not expecting to get answers so fast, but last night, I come home from a truly spectacular conference in Milwaukee (which, as many of you know, "spectacular" generally does not denote a low-energy affair, so I was exhausted, which may have been exacerbated by the 10-hour drive from Lincoln to Milwaukee and back)--and what should be waiting in my inbox, but our interview!  I can't wait for class (later) this morning to share this with my students!  And, yes!  That's a lot of exclamation points for this early in the morning!



How do you go about writing your novels?  What is your writing process like?  Do you write longhand?  Computer?  What was your specific inspiration for Mystic River?  How many drafts did you go through for this novel?
I write in the mornings or late at night. Always hit the chair every morning for at least 3 hours. I write longhand and/or on laptop. Completely depends on my mood. The inspiration for Mystic River was moving to Charlestown in the early 90's, a historically clannish, 100% Irish, mostly poor-to-working-class neighborhood of Boston that had just been discovered by the real estate frontiersmen and yuppies looking to live closer to downtown. When I first lived there it still had plenty of rough edges but I could read the tea leaves, and I wrote myself a note: "What happens when Pat's Pizza becomes a Starbucks?" That's Mystic River in a nutshell. It took my another six years to begin writing the book because I didn't have the necessary muscle when I first came up with the idea. The book took about four or five drafts if memory serves. 

When creating characters, do you ever favor one over another and do you find yourself becoming attached to a certain character?  How much control do your characters have over the plot?  Do you let them free and write wherever they take you or do you know from the beginning what will happen in the story?
I usually have prior knowledge of three or four things that have to happen in my novel--one beginning thing, one middle thing, one end thing. Everything else is discovery. Sometimes characters pop up who speak to you with a lot more clarity and volume then others. Sometimes they're minor characters who present their case to become major ones. When that happens, I listen, because so much time is spent chasing characters down and begging them to talk to me. When one does so, freely and unbidden, I treat that like a gift from the gods.

How do you create a character’s dialect in a way that adds to the flavor of the story without being distracting?  What sorts of local knowledge—like dialect—are you conscious of writing into your characters?
I always had an ear for dialogue, probably because I came from a place where people spoke in a very vivid manner. I'm not conscious of writing it, though. It's just innate and organic. 

How did your upbringing affect the ways you use setting and character attitudes in Mystic River?  How are you aware of the ways you use the natural and built environments in this novel to create suspense?  What ways do you see this story as rooted in this place, that it could not take place anywhere else?
The neighborhood is a character in the novel, quite possibly the most important. It couldn’t take place anywhere else because East Buckingham doesn’t exist; it’s my amalgam of all the urban Boston neighborhoods. It was my way to look at the tribalism that defined the city for decades, for good and ill. Since I grew up very much a part of that tribal culture I certainly felt comfortable writing about it.

How do you go about writing societal fears, such as violence against children and violence against women?  Are you conscious of having an overall agenda as you write a novel, an overarching principle you want the reader to come away with?
I never bring an agenda into the book. If it bubbles up organically—as I assume it will—I deal with it as seems appropriate but I’d prefer to come bearing questions not answers. I’m not a big fan of the novel-as-scold. As a reader I’m there to be entertained and learn something about the human condition, not to be hectored or lectured. 
The relationship between law and justice and punishment is extremely complicated in Mystic River, a relationship that is essential to crime literature (crime disrupts the social order and and something must happen to restore order by the end of the tale) and causes the reader to question what constitutes justice.  (We just finished reading Rebecca, where a murderer went unpunished (at least by legal standards) and we were rooting for that murderer to go free.)  Can you respond to the complications of law/justice/punishment in Mystic River and how you created them, as a writer?
It’s playing around with American myths regarding regeneration through violence and the outsider who rights the wrongs society is unable or unwilling to. Jimmy Marcus is the classic American gunslinger hero—he follows his gut; he avenges the sins no one cares to avenge; he is absolutely sure he is right. Punch line is—he’s wrong. The novel is something of an assault on the idea that might can equal right or that we should forego trust in our institutions and the better angels of our nature simply because our emotions are boiling hot enough.
Many are critical of genre literature and crime fiction (recently Jeffrey Eugenides in the By the Book interview in the New York Times).  What position do you believe genre literature occupies in the larger world of writing and literature?  What do you see as it offering that other modes of fiction do not?  What do you see as the value of crime fiction?  (And we are noting that you use several different modes in your own work—from the PI in the Kenzie and Gennaro novels to a complication of that mode in Mystic River, etc.) 
The issue isn’t genre. The issue is whether something is formulaic or not. If I pick up a genre book where the hero cop and his family are targeted by the serial killer because this time it’s personal, well, I’m tossing that book aside. But if I have to to choose between, on one side, THE BIG NOWHERE or CLOCKERS—both books in which the main characters are policemen who, on some base level solve crimes—and, on the other side, the latest dirge about “the vaguely dissatisfied in Connecticut” or some piece of clever meta-fiction wholly unconcerned with character or story, it’s no choice at all. The former is literature, the latter is “literary fiction.” I’ll take the literature, thanks very much.
What authors did you read when you were starting out, writing your books?  Which authors were influential—and in what ways?  What current practitioners of crime literature do you think are doing particularly good work these days?  Where do you see the genre going?  What are you reading right now?  What books would you recommend to us?
I was most influenced by urban novelists like Richard Price, Pete Dexter, Elmore Leonard, William Kennedy, and Hubert Selby. I also looked up to those who’d transformed the crime fiction genre in the late 70’s and through the `80s—James Crumley, James Ellroy, and James Lee Burke. Then, because I’d studied to be a short story writer for so long, I’d say Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Andre Dubus, and Hemingway’s short fiction left a mark. Graham Greene cast an enormous shadow. The people who are currently doing great work in crime fiction are legion but ones who spring immediately to mind are Daniel Woodrell, Ken Bruen, Gillian Flynn, George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Laura Lippman, Michael Koryta, Stuart Neville, and Val McDermid.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

State of Mind: My Reading of "Grosse Ile"

A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to read for the No Name Reading Series at UNL, along with poet Rebecca Macijeski.  Matching up readers who mesh well is usually more accident than design, given how we change what we may read before a reading, but my nonfiction and Rebecca's poetry really did match up really well.

The essay I read, "Grosse Ile," comes out of my trip this summer to Montreal, and it feels good to be writing and reading new material.

Click below for the podcast:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

State of Mind: Conflicts and Opportunities

It's the last day of Fall Break here at UNL and other than the opportunity it has presented for me not to leave the house for four days so I can work, it hasn't felt very break-y.  That's okay.  I've gotten a lot done.  I'm halfway through commenting on 151H rough drafts, I'm plugging along on job materials, I got my conference paper for this weekend's ACIS done (prepare for a future post on creative writing pedagogy), and I found my sister's dog a Halloween costume.  Marley's the sweetest black Lab ever and she is absolutely going to hate her costume.  While my parents' dog, Daisy, would chew the thing to shreds, Marley is just going to sit there and look as embarrassed as a sixty-pound Lab can.  Being an aunt is awesome.  Two years ago, when C. was eight months old, Marley was a witch and so was C.  It was beyond cute.  This year, C. is going to be Raggedy Ann.  Love it.

Marley and C., 2010

This weekend, I also compiled the questions that my 180 literature students brought to class, questions for Dennis Lehane's email interview.  I sent them off this weekend and I can't wait to bring his answers to my class.  They asked some really good questions.

But this morning is one of those mornings when different elements collide in ways that I didn't expect them to.  I've been working this weekend on "evidence of teaching effectiveness" for my job search materials and one element I keep coming across is how to reach students with various interest and commitment levels.  It's one thing to encounter this in a required composition class, but it's another thing entirely when the classes are elective.  This was an issue I faced this past spring in my fiction class and I didn't expect to see it again this semester, but I suppose this is what happens when certain classes are designated ACE requirements.  And as I was formulating my responses to various evaluation comments, I realized that one of the ways to engage students--no matter the class--is to make the material and ideas relevant outside the classroom, so that they notice when they encounter these ideas in their every lives.  I've brought in Jerry Sandusky's sentencing to illustrate various aspects of what crime literature responds to, but I think for the last half of the semester, I need to do more of this.

I don't yet know how I'm going to do this, but I had a germ of an idea today that I'm going to further explore.  Today, Inside HigherEd posted an article titled "Tensions Simmer Between American and International Students" and the crux of the article is hatred and intolerance on college campuses--and UNL is one of the universities mentioned.  Drawing attention to such intolerance is the subject of the various Haters tumblrs, including one dedicated to UNL.  (It's illuminating.)  But I think there are other implications here, namely the ways that crime literature responds to--and is, in some cases, inspired by--tensions, conflicts, and issues in real life, as we live it.  What is the link between an article like this and school shootings that have happened in the recent past?  Anything can become a plot, anything can become a headline, and crime literature responds to that (we have also talked about the media/news as a form of crime literature, responding to a specific societal need).  Here's a screen shot from this morning's St. Paul Pioneer Press (I chose it because it offered the most text vs. ads of the local and national newspapers I looked at for this purpose):

Also, this morning's Lincoln Journal-Star:

The world is full of conflict, full of connections that we need to make between our class and the world outside our classroom.  What do these headlines say about who is vulnerable in our society?  What do these headlines say about power and gender and class and race?  What do these headlines say about what kinds of behavior are socially acceptable and unacceptable?

I think what I'm going to do is collect articles like the Inside HigherEd article over the next couple of weeks, bring them to class, distribute them to the small groups and perhaps ask them to do some creative writing, or at least creative thinking--and I might give each of the groups an author that we've been talking about and reading.  What would these headlines look like in novel form?  If you were to take the texts we have been reading and pretend that they were inspired by a newspaper headline/article, what would that look like?  What is the role between the literature we are reading and our everyday lives?  Crime literature has to be more than entertainment.  I know for sure that Kent Krueger's novel Red Knife, later in his Cork O'Connor series, was inspired in part by the school shooting in Red Lake, MN on the reservation there, and like many of his books, follows a specific question (in that case, "when is violence the right answer?")--how does genre literature like this fulfill a legitimate societal need in a way that Literature cannot or does not?

That's the question we need to explore more fully in the rest of the semester and now I have a new plan for doing that.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

On Issues of Genre Literature

It's one of those moments where various threads of the universe come together at an extremely inconvenient time, but these things usually happen for a reason.  I'm now in the midst of grading my Eng. 180's midterm essays; we started Dennis Lehane's Mystic River in class on Monday; Jeffrey Eugenides' interview in the NY Times, and the sentencing this morning of Jerry Sandusky.  The Lincoln Library Book Sale was this weekend; I'm on my second pot of Maritime Mist, and I have a locally-grown Cortland apple to remind me it's fall.  Happy October!

I'm dissertating today too.  Working on an essay about Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway and also finalizing my paper on Joseph O'Connor that I'll present next week at the Midwest meeting of the American Conference of Irish Studies.

This weekend, I brought home somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred and sixty-some books from the library book sale.  I think whenever I talk about this particular book sale, which feels like my birthday, Christmas, and the 4th of July all wrapped into one, I don't think people who haven't been there really understand.  I actually prefer used books to new books, because they always feel like they have a history before they get to me, a story layered in those pages.  And I like that my own library feels comfortable, like it's a place you wouldn't be afraid to take a book off the shelf, snuggle up on the couch with a cup of tea, and read there for the afternoon.  And the riot of colors of those book spines against the dark of my shelves livens up the space.

I stocked up on books I should have in my library (I made a killing in the John Janovy, Jr's), authors I'm specifically looking for (Jane Urquhardt), books that will help me with various classes that I'm teaching or want to teach.  I loaded up on classic crime literature (Walter Mosley, Ross MacDonald, Ed McBain, etc.), enough that I've reorganized my library so that I have shelves specifically dedicated to crime lit.  (I have more than fits on those shelves, so it'll be a work in progress.)  But as my goal to teach my students how to analyze crime literature within the space of a college literature classroom (albeit an introductory one), how crime literature fits into the larger idea of capital-L Literature, the divides of valuing this work seems particularly wide this morning.

A while back, when I was reading Derek Hand's A History of the Irish Novel, I noted that he really had nothing good to say about the rise of genre literature in Ireland, a kind of selling-out for some writers and a dumbing-down of the high-literary tradition of Irish writing.  It's one of the few things in his work I strongly disagree with.  But I'm also not blind when it comes to the perceptions of genre literature, especially from the perspective of those in academia, where literary fiction is king.  And I mean king deliberately.  While the debate over gendering issues in publishing is absolutely an argument worth having until it's no longer an issue anymore (hooray for the VIDA issue of Brevity!), I also see no benefit in getting my back up every time genre literature is maligned.  I think those people are idiots, but the link between genre fiction and gender issues is not as far as one might think--and this is the point I've been mulling this morning.

A friend directed me to Jeffrey Eugenides' interview in the 7 October 2012 By the Book in the New York Times and it is indeed illuminating.  In some places it is downright funny, especially the "You're organizing a dinner party of writers and can invite three authors, dead or alive.  Who's coming?"  His answer is wonderful.  But then, there are moments that make me scratch my head:  "You grew up in Detroit.  What should someone who really wants to understand the city read?"  Eugenides answers, "I'm trying to think how to answer this in a way that doesn't sound self-important.  Give me a minute." I'm trying to hear wry humor in his voice and perhaps that I don't is a failing of the written medium, and maybe it annoys me just because writing of a city is important.  That's my own bias.  (And I know he's said some very dismissive things about gender and publishing that already predispose me to be irritated with him.  Some good responses to that via NPR and Francine Prose.)

But here's the exchange that annoyed me most:  "Any guilty reading pleasures--book, periodical, online?"  And the answer:  "The only thing I'm high-minded about is literature.  It's not an elitist stance; it's temperamental.  Whenever I try to read a thriller or a detective novel I get incredibly bored, both by the language and the narrative machinery.  Since I'm so naturally virtuous on the literary front, I don't see why I can't slum elsewhere, and I do, guiltlessly.  I'm the guy in the waiting room flipping through People.  Bellow said that fiction was 'the higher autobiography,' but really it's the higher gossip."

Like I said, I can't rage every time somebody says that genre lit is inferior, but in the world of writing, there does seem to be that hierarchy--and perhaps the larger question is not greater-than-less-than, but how literary fiction serves a different purpose than genre fiction.  It's true that there are some crime books I can't stand, whether it's the writing style or the treatment of various topics or whatever--and that's a valid reason for putting down a book and picking up another one.  But to dismiss an entire classification of books as boring sounds much too much like my students on the first day of class (we haven't made it to the last day of class, so I don't know how things will end up there)--and I want to tell Eugenides (and others like him), if you're bored, you're not reading the right things.  If you want language, I can pull down half a dozen crime books on my shelf that will set your socks on fire with sentences.  If you're bored by the "narrative machinery," go read Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea and talk to me about narrative machinery.  

But the larger issue is something we started discussing yesterday in my Eng. 180 class, as we started Lehane's Mystic River.  If, as we have been talking about all semester, crime literature is the literature of social order, that the purpose of crime literature is to address a specific societal fear and the disruption in the social fabric that crime represents, as well as the role of law/justice/punishment that restores the social order, then today's sentencing of Jerry Sandusky is incredibly interesting.  The beginning of Mystic River involves a three-way friendship between three boys in working-class Boston, the kidnapping and the presumed sexual assault of one of them (an eleven-year-old boy), who is rescued.  Taking place in the present time, with the three boys grown up and grown apart, the daughter of one of them is missing (as far as my students have read so far, we only presume that she has been murdered).  The role of contemporary crime literature--as we are still formulating our definition of "literature"--is to take the fears of a specific society (and with our book so far we have identified several, some with conflicting values) and somehow use the movement of the novel to restore order.  How the novel ends (which we will not get to until next week) questions the way that order is restored.  Those of you who have read the book know what I mean.

But the point I want to raise here is the fear of contemporary society towards violence against children and violence against women.  (Violence against women and violence against women for entertainment value is something we'll explore as we learn, for sure, that our missing character, Katie, has been confirmed murdered.)  Jerry Sandusky was sentenced today to 30-60 years for assaulting, molesting, and raping children.  It's a cliche to call a television show or book "ripped from the headlines," but such things is where crime literature thrives, because it would not exist without those rips in the social fabric.  Teaching my students to recognize the links between those headlines and the novels we are reading (or short stories, plays, or nonfiction, as the course progresses through various genres) is absolutely critical for them to apply these concepts outside of our classroom.  I don't know how our discussion tomorrow will go, thinking about whether Sandusky's sentencing was just punishment, the role of the law in justice, and what his sentencing says about our society's attitude towards violence--especially sexual violence--against children.  Violence against children in Mystic River--there are frequent references to physical abuse--seems to be a different issue, treated differently--and this is a conversation definitely worth exploring.  Provoking conversations we would not be having otherwise is the greatest benefit I see crime literature as offering, something that drives what I do as a teacher.