Dr. Victoria Smith – English Department Chair 

Sept. 23rd, 2019

A portrait of Dr. Victoria Smith in a blue jacket

Dr. Victoria Smith, who became Chair of the English Department this Fall, has always loved traveling and exploring new places. During the senior year of her undergraduate studies, she had the opportunity to study abroad in Greece, and this passion for immersing herself in another culture only grew. Each morning she woke up in her apartment on Democritus Street, the smell of warm bread filling the air as it wafted up from the bakery below. On Thursdays, beginning in the early hours of the morning, this aroma scented the bustle of vendors setting up their stalls for the weekly street market. Excitement on the street grew equally with anticipation for the market and the desire to socialize, which is characteristic of the very expressive Greek people. Dr. Smith reflects on this formative experience by noting that “being immersed in that culture and being able to travel and learn about it was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Dr. Smith describes herself as an “army brat.” Traveling from France, to Italy, to Washington DC, to New Orleans, she had no choice but to adapt to the different places and cultures she encountered. Exploring the world during her adolescence taught her an invaluable lesson that shaped both her current outlook on the people around her and her career path. Still a lover of exploring, Dr. Smith finds joy in traveling because “it reminds [her] that people are different.”

She carried this important lesson forward as she pursued her college education, realizing that cultural differences don’t make one group better or worse than another. Dr. Smith earned a Bachelor’s degree in English from Pomona College; a Master’s degree in English from the University of Texas-Austin, with a minor in Radio-Television-Film; and a Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness from the University of California-Santa Cruz. While pursuing her Ph.D., she explored how Modernist female authors write about loss. She investigated the social traditions that instruct this demographic’s characterization of loss as a consciousness represented in their writing, aiming to prove that women writers internalize society’s limitations of their gender and write about loss in a melancholic way.

Dr. Smith’s respect for cultural differences also informs her current scholarship and teaching. In “The Heterotopias of Todd Haynes: Creating Space for Same Sex Desire in Carol,” she analyzes the film employing Foucault’s concept of “other space,” exploring how a queer counterspace is created through the film’s “framings, textures, color, and spatial relations.” In another project, “Highways of Desolation: The Road and Trash in Boys Don’t Cry and Monster,” she considers how familiar tropes and genres such as melodrama and the road movie make characters accessible to an audience. Dr. Smith explains that this project evaluated how speaking to an audience’s understanding of social class and norms allows the characters’ transgressions to “draw attention to the larger hierarchical structures of power in American society.” Scholarly projects in Film Studies and Gender Studies that examine portrayals of sexuality and race suggest Dr. Smith’s varied interests, which she also incorporates into her English classes such as her Fall 2019 course on Mainstream Queer Film.

Dr. Smith laments that she will miss teaching as often as she’d like now that she has taken on the administrative responsibilities of Department Chair. “I love teaching, so [becoming Chair] was never a goal of mine,” Dr. Smith explains, reflecting on her new position. Even so, she hopes her new role will allow her to continue promoting diversity; over the next two years, she plans to work with her colleagues in the English Department to revise the English major curriculum – “to improve the curriculum, change it, make it more reflective of what student needs are and how students have changed.” Dr. Smith explains the English major “hasn’t been changed in twenty-one years,” and she hopes a new curriculum will formalize the offering of classes that promote diversity – classes often taught in the English Department but under the current curriculum only scheduled as “topics courses.” Such courses reflect the rich complexity of the English Department and Texas State University as a whole, diversity of the University, and the varied interests of its students and faculty.

Kennedy Farrell, English major

Archiving Civil Rights Movements

Dr. Miriam Williams

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a core component of the Voting Rights Act, weakening the federal government’s oversight of voting rights. In recent years, the impact of this ruling on marginalized groups in particular has been dramatic: lack of transportation to a shrinking number of polling places, voting roll purges, and new requirements regarding what forms of identification are valid as proof of eligibility to vote. Such attempts to make voting more complicated are not new. In her latest article, “Technologies of Disenfranchisement: Literacy Tests and Black Voters in the U.S. from 1890-1965,” Dr. Miriam Williams, an English professor in the MATC program at Texas State, discusses how laws affecting Black voters have existed for years in the United States, especially in the South.

Co-written with Dr. Natasha Jones of the University of Central Florida and forthcoming in a Fall 2018 special issue of Technical Communication focused on election technologies, Dr. Williams’ article explains how discriminatory voter registration cards and literacy tests appear innocuous on paper while, in practice, targeting Black voters. For example, from 1890-1965, voter registration forms that were written in race-neutral language were used to collect housing and employment data about Black voters. This data could then be used to report those voters to their employers or landlords who would, in turn, threaten them with loss of home or job if they went to vote. In their research for the article, Drs. Williams and Jones also recovered documents (manuals, reports, and graphics) created by Civil Rights activists to help Black voters successfully navigate the obstacles designed to prevent them from voting. Because these archives exist, we can see how activists resisted oppression when it came to unfair voter registration practices.

Dr. Williams also examines the archival history of activism in another recent essay, “#BlackLivesMatter: Tweeting an Essay in Chronos and Kairos” (included in Texas State professor Octavio Pimentel and Cruz Medina’s edited collection, Racial Shorthand, recently published by Computers & Composition Digital Press). The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter acts as a living archive, documenting instances of police brutality and sharing them across the Internet, thereby serving as a platform that facilitates activists’ organizing and resisting. Dr. Williams explains that technical communication, in part, studies how digital media tells stories, and she uses that perspective to illustrate how people used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to chronicle “a story of oppression and resistance.”

Attention to voting laws that may seek to disenfranchise marginalized Americans matters, as does the way we treat the activism surrounding that disenfranchisement. Dr. Williams’ research explores how activists have sought to archive their own fights for social justice, and hopefully, we can learn from these archives in preparing for our country’s future.

 

– Gloria Russell, English major

Fall 2018 New Faculty

This fall, the Texas State English Department welcomed four new tenure-track faculty members. While each has origins in Texas, making their arrival at Texas State something of a homecoming, their scholarship attests to their pursuing very different research and teaching interests. From Irish Modernist studies to analyses of comic book superheroes, our new faculty ensure exciting new courses and research over their coming years at Texas State.

James ReevesJames Reeves

While he was earning his Master’s degree at Oxford, studying John Milton, Dr. James Reeves wandered into Blackwell’s Bookstore. The religion section shocked him. He grew up in Hutto, Texas, with an extended family of evangelical Christians, and though he had studied authors like Milton while earning his undergraduate degree at Texas Tech, he hadn’t considered the scope of religious studies. “From then, I was fascinated by how religions are related and how they represent each other,” he says.

Dr. Reeves changed his focus from Milton to 18th-century British literature, exploring authors like Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, whose works deal with shifts in religious thought and secularization. After earning his Master’s degree at Oxford, he went to UCLA for his PHD, investigating how atheist characters were represented in that time period. Literature from the 18th century often imagined worlds dominated by atheism or with atheist characters, suggesting a shift towards secularization that manifested itself in its representation of atheist themes.

After earning his PHD and teaching at Franklin & Marshall, a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, he applied for a job posting at Texas State. He wanted to raise his family where he’d grown up and where his extended family lives, and he finds the public-oriented goal of state schooling compelling. At Texas State, he currently teaches First-Year Writing classes and a British literature course on the Restoration and Augustan periods.

His research projects include reshaping his PHD dissertation into a book and writing an article about how British abolitionists’ view of the slave trade impacted the concept of a Christian hell.

Sara RamirezSara Ramírez

Although she claims San Antonio as her home, Dr. Sara A. Ramírez grew up in Dallas. She attended Notre Dame as a first-generation college student with the intent to become a medical doctor, but her passion for literature, outstanding performance as a writer, and urging from her English professors convinced her to become an English major.

After she graduated from Notre Dame, Dr. Ramírez attended graduate school at UT-San Antonio, where she began to “cultivate a sense of Chicana feminist consciousness.” She wrote her thesis on madwomen in literature, and when she went to Berkeley for a Master’s and then PHD in comparative ethnic studies, she began to understand madness as a reaction to trauma. Because of this understanding, she began studying Chicana representations of historical and intergenerational trauma, an interdisciplinary endeavor involving psychiatric and indigenous interpretations of madness.

While doing dissertation research in San Antonio, she worked in the Women’s Studies program at UTSA from 2013-2017. She then pursued a postdoc at the University of Minnesota before applying to work at Texas State. Texas State stood out to her as a Hispanic-serving institution, or HIS, because it meant she could relate to and mentor Latinx/Chicanx and first-generation college students. “On the first day I ask them what they need to know about college,” she says, “because I had no one to talk to when I went.” At Texas State, she teaches First-Year Writing and a class on Chicano Narratives and Social History.

Currently, Dr. Ramírez is writing a philosophical article on how Chicana subjects can recognize themselves through indigenous (Nahua) ideas of the self.

Julie McCormick WengJulie McCormick Weng

While she was earning her Master’s at Texas A&M, Dr. Julie McCormick Weng came across an article by John Eglinton (William Kirkpatrick Magee). The article, titled “Mr. Yeats and Popular Poetry,” discussed the connection between literature and new technologies and sparked her interest in machines’ representations in Modernism. “Modernism rethinks not just style and form but also the way we relate to the tactile and technological world around us,” she says, “and that captivated me.”

She went on to earn her PHD at the University of Illinois, where she looked at the intersections of Irish Modernist literature with questions about science and technology. She attended Georgia Tech for her postdoc, and there explored the possibilities of digital pedagogy. Her students created podcasts, dramatic recordings of poetry, and infographics of literary texts. “This media lets students explore a range of possible responses to literature from different angles,” says Dr. Weng.

After completing her postdoc at Georgia Tech, she came to Texas State University. She wanted to teach in her home state, and the Texas State student body’s reputation for friendliness promised innovative and creative classroom discussions. She teaches First-Year Writing and twentieth century British literature.

Currently, Dr. Weng is editing a collection of essays titled Science, Technology, and Irish Modernism, which is scheduled for release in 2019. She is also working on an article concerning digital student projects in the classroom, as well as a book manuscript about Irish modernism, transportation technologies, and gender politics of the early twentieth century.

Samuel SaldivarSamuel Saldivar

When Dr. Samuel Saldivar left his hometown of Weslaco, TX to go to college at Ohio

State, he was surprised to find that there was a whole area of study focused on the very community with which he had grown up. For this reason, when he worked on his Master’s in English with a specialization and certification in Chicanx studies at Ohio State, he first was interested in Victorian literature, but felt drawn by “the opportunity to talk about authors of color who have been forgotten over time.”

After his Master’s, he pursued a PHD in Chicanx Studies at Michigan State University, writing his dissertation on Chicanx representation in American media. Specifically, he studied the shifting ways Chicanx people are portrayed for American audiences. As a result, his work is extensive, ranging from 1970’s poetry by Corky Gonzales, to Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldua, to even modern-day comic book representations of Chicanx/Latinx superheroes.

Dr. Saldivar worked as an associate professor and undergraduate coordinator at the University of Michigan for a year and half before coming to Texas State. He was eager to return to Texas and explore how students at a predominantly Hispanic institution would respond to his field of study. At Texas State, he teaches First-Year Writing and an American literature course spanning from 1930 to the present day.

His current research includes researching a Puerto-Rican superhero named Vibe from the DC franchise and exploring how Vibe’s representation over time has changed since he first made his appearance in the 80’s. Dr. Saldivar is also working on book chapters focused on Chicano heroes and their representation in American film; and just finished a short piece on the diversity of Tejanx people, highlighting the largely ignored Afro-Latinx associations of the term.

by Gloria Russell, English major

Distinguished Professor, Dr. John Blair

Dr. John BlairDr. John Blair, professor of English, has been awarded the title of Distinguished Professor at Texas State University for teaching, research, and service that has been recognized at the state, national, and international levels.

For the duration of his time at Texas State, Dr. Blair will keep the title “Distinguished Professor.” Along with the title, he will receive a one-time $5,000 cash award, a commemorative medallion, and recognition during the fall convocation. In addition, he will be considered by the Texas State University System (TSUS) Board of Regents for the Regents’ Professor Award.

Dr. Blair came to Texas State University in 1989. He is a professor in the English Department and directs the undergraduate creative writing program. His collection of short stories American Standard was the 22nd winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and his third poetry collection, Playful Song Called Beautiful, is the 2015 winner of the Iowa Poetry Award. Among his other literary prizes are the Sewanee Review’s Andrew Lytle Prize for Fiction, the Texas Institute of Letters’ Helen C. Smith Award for Poetry, the Phoebe Winter Fiction Prize, the Arts & Letters Rumi Prize in Poetry, and a nomination for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award.

Dr. Blair says that he is “very happy and grateful” for the opportunity to work and teach at Texas State. He is currently working on his fourth book of poetry, with the working title Misericordia.

–Gloria Russell, English major

The Cradle of Digital Literature: The Saga of the Lindsey Reading Series

Title Image

In a locked closet, in another locked and little-used room in the English Department at Texas State University, lay hundreds of dusty and nearly disintegrating VHS tapes and DVDs. These recordings, however, weren’t just old home movies of picnics and fundraisers, but constitute perhaps one of the most significant archives in the literary world, a collection now valued well north of $1 million dollars. Until 2005, the tapes had been stacked on shelves, filed away and forgotten, some for nearly 30 years, and they were just awaiting the digital era for their re-discovery.

Therese Kayser Lindsey

Originally entitled the Therese Kayser Lindsey Readings Series, visiting writers have come to campus to deliver lectures, read from their work, hold Q&A’s with graduate students, and host workshops at the Katherine Anne Porter House. Previously, each event has been filmed and shared with English Department faculty for their research and teaching purposes. Now, preserved digitally for the first time, these recordings have been re-mastered, archived, and made available to the public in a way none of the original organizers and participants could’ve imagined.

 

Begun in 1978, almost exactly 40 years ago, Louise Lindsey Merrick created the series as a living memorial to her mother, Therese Kayser Lindsey, a Texas writer born in 1870 in Chappell Hill, one of the many scrub-grass towns that dot the hill country between Austin and Houston. Lindsey was a poet, newspaper writer, and producer of operas, known for a narrative poem about the 1900 Galveston Hurricane’s destruction. Lindsey graduated from Texas State University in 1905, and throughout her life, invested heavily in the future of literature in Texas, establishing the Poetry Society of Texas in 1921. Mrs. Lindsey was a resident of Tyler, TX until her death in 1957.

First recorded event

The first recorded event in 1978

The first event was entitled “The American Southwest: Cradle of Literary Art” and featured Larry McMurtry, John Graves, R.G.Vliet, and Lon Tinkle. In the early 80’s, the series expanded to feature other Texas and notable southwest writers like Bill Wittliff, James Dickey, and Thomas Berger. As the series continued growing in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the department brought many titans of the literary world, authors such as Allen Ginsberg, Margaret Atwood, Ken Kesey, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Sandra Cisneros.

Despite the obstacles, the department arranged for each event to be filmed. Recently retired Professor Nancy Grayson, the TKL coordinator from 1983-1986, helped make the reading series an institution at Texas State and fought to get each event recorded, no small feat given the cumbersome recording equipment of the analogue era.

“The goal,” Grayson said in an email, “was to ensure that as many students and faculty as possible heard our speakers and to give them the opportunity to hear and experience Q&As with great literary artists…. Obviously, filming has enlarged audiences extensively by continuing to provide access to the presentations down through the years.”

Fast-forward again to 2005 and the tapes in the Brasher closet and Tom Grimes, then the Director of the MFA in Writing Program, when he “rediscovered” the tapes. Professor Grimes imagined what few others could: a digital home for these events, where anyone in the world could, with a touch of a button, hit “Play,” and beam some of the world’s foremost authors into their living rooms, where viewers could watch them read, hear them answer questions, and marvel at humanity’s urge to tell stories. Given the nascency of the Internet and digital-streaming services at the beginning of this century, Grimes’s foresight also cannot be understated. He knew this was an important resource for the university and that’s why he’s “pushed so hard to get these videos online,” he said.

Still, given the technological, professional, and contractual limitations, it would take another decade to realize this concept. The archive currently stands just shy of 500 events, or nearly one terabyte of data, and grows every year. This information needs a secure location with regular backups and high-speed servers for hosting streaming content. Another battle has been the lack of technical expertise in developing the website and video-player interface, two subjects largely beyond the department’s knowledge.

Stack of VHS tapes

One stack of VHS tapes

In 2014, the English Department paired with the Learning Application Solutions component of the office of Instructional Technologies Solutions. With the help of ITS, the department secured the necessary server and bandwidth space and helped finish the re-mastering process, where additional graduate students converted all of the DVD files into high-quality MPEG-4 files better suited for adaptive bitrate streaming.

With an estimated 95% percent of the files online, the department begins to focus on the second stage of development. They’re in the beta-testing stages of a new portal interface that will allow for an improved user experience, one of the biggest shortcomings so far. This new portal will offer more intuitive content hierarchy, improved search capabilities, and eventually transcript files.

“The focus now,” said English Department Chair Dr. Dan Lochman, “is to make these videos accessible to scholars and academia.” However, in the future, they plan to group these talks, readings, and Q&A’s into learning modules, organized by creative writing craft elements and techniques. The hope is that these adaptable learning modules will expand awareness and access to “develop lesson plans for everyone, not just within academia,” Lochman said.

Yet, challenges lie ahead. Closed Captioning and ADA compliance and slow-streaming speeds are several of the problems viewers encounter. Additionally, many of the events from the first two decades either never had a permanent copy stored or weren’t ever filmed, and so are likely lost forever.

But there’s little doubt the archives will continue to grow in ways that we can’t even begin to imagine, because these events and their recordings bridge a divide in the writer-reader relationship. Authors can seem remote, almost superhuman when hidden behind their words, but seeing them read and speak about their work allows anyone a glimpse at the wizard pulling the strings. This act of connection in an otherwise solitary experience, perhaps, represents something new in the literary world, as one can imagine other closets, at other universities, that also possess hidden gems awaiting their own re-discovery for the digital age.

If nothing else, as Professor Grimes said, the Lindsey Archives hope to “give everyone, everywhere, online access to one of the richest — if not the richest — literary video archives in the country.”


More information:

The collection is housed via the English Department’s graduate-run literary magazine, Front Porch Journal.

For a list of this year’s writers and events: The Katherine Anne Porter Center and The Wittliff Collections.

For a more in-depth biography of Therese Kayser Lindsey see the book Texas Women Writers: A Tradition of Their Own.

Written by Eric Blankenburg with reporting by Gloria Russell

“A Space in Which to Listen: Naomi Shihab Nye on Joining the Texas State Faculty”

At three p.m. on a Friday afternoon in February, the Katherine Anne Porter House, a creative epicenter for the MFA program at Texas State, buzzes with students who are waiting for the day’s workshop to begin. While students fill their mugs with steaming coffee, others unfold chairs around a circle of conference tables. Floor-to-ceiling windows let in afternoon light. Outside, two cats bask in the sun. Inside, bookshelves filled with the works of previous visiting writers line the walls, and beside them, framed event posters announce this year’s slate of writers: names such as Ocean Vuong, Karen Russell, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Impressive names no doubt, but today, the students have come to participate in the long-anticipated workshop of one of the most celebrated poets in this country and the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Texas State University.

Katherine Anne Porter House

While the last few students trickle in, Naomi Shihab Nye quietly transcribes a Mary Ruefle poem into her notebook. Once everyone is settled, Nye closes her notebook and begins.

“Most often, we can’t change things,” she says, “but as poets, we can notice.”

To start the day’s discussion, Nye asks students to consider the value of poetry in the age of breaking news. The conversation leads into a recognition that in recent years the world seems to be growing more chaotic, a result perhaps of the 24-hour news cycle. Nye nods in affirmation. As the daughter of a Palestinian refugee journalist, Nye inherently understands how quickly things can change and the necessity for writers to monitor current events.

Born in the U.S., Nye spent much of her adolescence in Jerusalem and San Antonio. This multicultural upbringing taught her the value of accepting people from different belief systems. As one graduate student, Katharine Kistler, said after the workshop, Nye brings “a special focus on family and heritage” to the poetry world. This understanding of international relationships and their effects on current events heavily influence how Nye writes and how she leads her workshops.

For her, she tells students, one of the few things that can withstand the tumult of modern life is poetry, and poetry workshops in particular, she says, help us to “find [a] deeper meaning for why we are writers and why we need writers.” Now, Nye has come to Texas State to instruct the next generation of poets.

Her three-hour workshops, held six times a year, are voluntary, so students come and go as they please. After wrapping up the current events discussion, students with new poems distribute them to the group and take turns reading aloud and discussing them afterward. Even people who didn’t bring work are encouraged to speak, because for Nye, one of the key values of a workshop is to help writers obtain as many different perspectives as possible.

This process, Nye says, not only builds “a sturdy resilience of spirit,” but also helps students “find ways to inquire about [their] own pieces, so [they] can identify elements that don’t work.”

In addition to gaining multiple perspectives, Nye also finds it important for a poet to share his or her work in whatever ways possible. Nye began sending her own poems to magazines at seven years old and so, from an early age, built a tenacious capacity to publish an astounding thirty-four books, all without an agent. Among these are Hugging the Jukebox (1981), which won the National Poetry Series, and 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002), which was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.

During the discussion of the students’ pieces, those writers being talked about furiously scribble notes and suggestions from their peers. Engaging and listening to this type of constructive criticism helps students strengthen their own perseverance in overcoming the challenges that writing poetry presents. More importantly, this also helps students recognize that “writing is fluid and it’s changing, and sometimes… it wants to guide us to something else entirely,” Nye tells the class.

Throughout the workshop and in our interview, Nye emphasizes her “profound allegiance” to the process of revision. For her, revision connects to the necessity of viewing one’s work with a sense of flexibility. As she says, “In three days [the poem] might be different,” but hopes that through these workshops, students will have “new ways of thinking about revision.” Despite the critique, Nye’s workshops never become a negative experience, and she reminds the workshop participants to note the positive comments they receive as well.

Nye also encourages her students—and any young writer—to read as much as possible from as many diverse voices as possible to find those texts that serve as “nourishment” to the poet. In addition to reading widely, Nye urges her students to establish a writing routine, even if it’s only for ten minutes a day.

Maintaining a regular writing schedule, Nye believes, helps poets uncover their voice. As a guide for budding poets, Nye aims to help students figure out where they fit in terms of poetic style and determine what their voice will be and how it will sound. As she says, “there’s a satisfaction when you feel your voice is really authentic.”

Teaching students in this manner, Nye hopes to impart a far greater idea to young artists than simple revision: the act of slowing down time. Before our interview, Nye woke up at five a.m., as she usually does, and revised a poem for two hours before sending it off. “Between five to seven,” she says, “I had a full day because it helped my sense of time for the rest of the day—no sense of rushing or distractedness or forgetfulness, all those things that come up when we’re overwhelmed by time.” Poetry, she argues, helps the mind hold onto thoughts and be held by thoughts, providing sustenance to reader and poet alike.

After the workshop, graduate students mill around and discuss the value of having the opportunity to work with a poet like Nye. As one student, Wade Martin says of Nye, “She provides a much-needed down-to-earth element for young poets.”

Ultimately, Nye hopes that these workshops and the practice of writing poetry will help students tune into their own work and budding voices. If successful, students will learn valuable skills that will serve them later, even if, as Nye says, they “can’t say how at this moment.” For now though, Nye’s happy to help students unpack their lives and provide them with a space in which to listen to one another.

By Gloria Russell and Eric Blankenburg

Searching for Justice in Literature

Searching for Justice in LiteratureIf you counted the number of people in prison in Texas for drug possession, you would have a population roughly the size of the student body at Texas State University. If you included other non-violent offenders, this number spikes to over 100,000, much larger than the population of San Marcos. Numbers like these suggest that crime, justice, and prison reform should rank high on topics of discussion in our classrooms. The university’s Common Experience is a way to explore these issues.

Each year, the university selects a theme as its yearlong initiative to cultivate a common intellectual conversation. Designed to enhance student participation and foster a sense of community, the Common Experience brings students together to read and engage with books and other works of art, to listen to visiting speakers, and to engage in classroom discussions in order to explore issues in our society. This year, the Common Experience theme highlights issues such as racial disparity in sentencing and the war on drugs, among other problems in our justice system.

Professor Steve Wilson’s graduate course, “Literature and the Criminal Mind,” provides a model for tackling similar issues in this year’s Common Experience. Professor Wilson’s course offers students the opportunity to read literature through the lens of criminal narrators and their experiences in the justice system. As the course description on his course syllabus suggests, “The goal is to explore the various ways in which texts portray the criminal mind.” While reading novels such as Junky by William S. Burroughs and Pimp by Iceberg Slim, students examine topics such as guilt, psychology and crime, social attitudes toward crime and criminals, redemption, “fugitive” language (as Burroughs phrases it) and punishment.

Class discussion - 1

To get an understanding of how this course relates to this year’s Common Experience theme, I visited one of their discussions. On a muggy October night in Flowers Hall, the students explored ways that literature can bridge the gap between “criminals” and society.

“People are capable of incredible empathy, and literature helps us connect with each other,” Patrick Funderburg said. As the students’ discussion demonstrated, reading texts sympathetic to people unlike them forced them to wrestle with conceptions of right and wrong. This invariably led to questions of justice and fairness in the criminal system. “Criminals can absolutely become a victim of the justice system,” said Eden Jasuta, turning the discussion toward systemic inequalities of racial bias that occurs in all stages of the penal system. But when asked if these texts offer solutions, John McClellan shook his head: “The best literature doesn’t answer questions; it asks them,” he argued.

As the Common Theme and students in Professor Wilson’s class illustrate, it’s one thing to identify the problem, but it’s another thing entirely to find solutions. While the humanizing power of literature can help readers develop a more complex understanding of criminals, a compelling narrative still can’t solve the primary focus of this year’s Common Experience theme: the problem of mass incarceration in America. But as this student-led discussion suggests, complicating one’s conception of what it takes to commit a crime can go a long way in overturning previously held biases and prejudices. This suggests that a first step in addressing our overcrowded prisons is to read stories about the people inside, and read them not as outsiders, but as the criminals themselves see it.

Class discussion 2

To illustrate this idea, Katharine Kistler used the example of a drug addict. “People say drug addiction is the addict’s choice, but it’s more complicated,” she said while reflecting on Junky, Burroughs’s fictionalized account of using and peddling heroin in the 1950s and its similarity to the War on Drugs. Lisa Magnusson agreed with her, adding, “People get out of prison and go right back out to scratch that itch.”

Unfortunately, the numbers support this claim. Possession and drug-related charges are one of the more common ways people end up with a felony. Compounding the problem, a majority of prisoners suffer from some form of substance abuse, but only 11% receive treatment while incarcerated, according to the Center on Addiction.

In addition to addiction and justice, the class and the Common Experience explore what happens after the offender has paid their debt to society. Regardless of the nature of the crime, a felony conviction will remain on a person’s record forever. With today’s availability of Internet databases, employers can dig into every candidate’s background and often pass on those with a record. This action can hamper the ex-convict’s search for housing and government benefits such as food stamps. As Tyler Newlin argued, “A felony nowadays is a life sentence.”

While these students may not ever have answers to the questions this year’s Common Theme asks them to consider, the number of people in prison for drug possession proves that the need for critically thinking students grows in relation to the prison population. One day, these students might have power to change the system. Ultimately, the idea that having difficult conversations may empower them to improve the world is an idea that lies at the heart of our democracy, and it’s the goal of a humanities education.

 

–Gloria Russell, English major

National Endowment for the Arts announces FY 2018 Creative Writing Fellows, Assistant Professor Jennifer duBois among 36 recipients nationwide

Jennifer duBoisSan Marcos, TX—The National Endowment for the Arts announced that Assistant Professor Jennifer duBois is one of 36 writers who will receive an FY 2018 Creative Writing Fellowship of $25,000.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to provide crucial funding to support these writers in their creative endeavors and to continue expanding the range of ideas and viewpoints available to readers,” said Amy Stolls, NEA director of literature.

Jennifer duBois was selected from nearly 1,700 eligible applicants. Through its Creative Writing Fellowships, the NEA gives writers the freedom to create, revise, conduct research, and connect with readers. Applications are reviewed by a panel through an anonymous process and are judged solely on the artistic excellence of the work sample provided. Fellowships alternate between poetry and prose each year and this year’s fellowships are to support prose—works of fiction and creative nonfiction. The full list of FY 2018 Creative Writing Fellows is available here.

Jennifer duBois is the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2012 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 award. Her debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was the winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction and the Northern California Book Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction. Her second novel, Cartwheel, was the winner of the Housatonic Book Award for fiction and was a finalist for a New York Public Library Young Lions Award. Jennifer earned a B.A. in political science and philosophy from Tufts University and an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before completing a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, The Missouri Review, Salon, The Kenyon Review, Cosmopolitan, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and has been anthologized in Imaginary Oklahoma, Byliner Originals’ Esquire Four and Narrative 4’s How To Be A Man project. A native of western Massachusetts, Jennifer currently teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.

Since 1967, the NEA has awarded more than 3,400 Creative Writing Fellowships worth $46 million. Many American recipients of the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and Fiction were recipients of NEA fellowships early in their careers.

University of Lomé Receives English Department’s Book Donation

If a student at Texas State University wants to conduct research for an essay on Emily Dickinson, he or she might simply go to the library and check out a book. In contrast, a student at the University of Lomé could find few books on this and many other subjects in English literature, and the books available often had missing pages. Imagine turning to an important section, one necessary for your research, only to discover that the paragraph you need has been ripped out. “It was very difficult for students to write their dissertations for American literature,” said Dr. Komi Begedou.

Since the University of Lomé, Dr. Begedou’s home institution, lacked the resources and opportunities he was seeking, he applied for and was accepted into the competitive Fulbright Scholarship Program. Founded in 1946, the Fulbright Scholarship Program sponsors U.S. and foreign students and teachers in a diverse exchange program in an effort to facilitate greater understanding between cultures. Dr. Begedou came to Texas State University in 2014 to work with the faculty in the English Department in order to further his knowledge of American literature and culture.

“The people at Texas State were very kind and supportive,” Dr. Begedou said, but he was also impressed with the access to critical resources for students and faculty at Texas State.

One afternoon, while studying with Professor Dr. Elvin Holt, Begedou described Lomé’s lack of resources. As Dr. Komi’s faculty advisors, Dr. Holt, along with Professor Steve Wilson, the former Campus Representative for the Fulbright program, felt compelled to help their colleague, so they decided to enlist the help of Sigma Tau Delta to arrange for a book drive. Sigma Tau Delta accepted donations from professors and students from 2014-2015, amassing more than six hundred books, which ranged from fiction to poetry to plays, as well as works of criticism and scholarship, written by a wide selection of English-speaking authors. After the collection, the books needed cataloguing and sorting, so that “the right genres ended up with the folks that needed them,” Laura Ellis-Lai, Senior Lecturer and Faculty Sponsor of Sigma Tau Delta, wrote in an email.

The University of Lomé lies just miles from the Pacific Ocean in the French-speaking West African country of Togo and enrolls about 40,000 students, similar to Texas State’s matriculation size. On Feb. 7, 2017, the University of Lomé finished the construction of their main library and held a reception to celebrate their expanded collection of resources. Although no representatives from Texas State University were able to attend the ceremony, the U.S. Ambassador to Togo, David Gilmour, presented the books on behalf of Texas State.

Dr. Begedou is confident that this collection will also enable his students at the University of Lomé an opportunity to enhance their knowledge of English and American literature. “It’s a great relief for students to know that when they go to the library, they can see books in American literature,” Dr. Begedou said. “Students can use them to aid their research for their dissertations.”

While these books have helped Togolese students, their university still needs additional resources. Students could benefit from more books and from visiting faculty from Texas State, even on two or three-week exchanges, Dr. Begedou said. Additionally, many of the professors at the University of Lomé have never traveled abroad, and so, “they are teaching something that they have not experienced,” Dr. Begedou said. He also suggests that students in Togo studying American literature might benefit from a study abroad at Texas State to learn American culture firsthand. He also envisions how this could help students improve their English, give them access to experienced faculty and extensive resources, and gain a global perspective by talking to the diverse people at Texas State.

Texas State University and the University of Lomé built a relationship that might lead to more collaboration in the future. Dr. Holt writes that he would like to “cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with the University of Lomé that extends beyond providing books.”

Whatever an enduring relationship with the University of Lomé might entail, it will certainly involve participation from organizations like Sigma Tau Delta, faculty, and any student with unwanted books. Anyone who donates a book makes a significant impact in improving the education of another student in Togo and deepens the lasting positive impact of Texas State University on other parts of the world. As English Department Chair Dr. Dan Lochman writes: “There are unlimited opportunities to help, but we have to be willing to contribute the time and have the will to do so.”

by Gloria Russell, English major

Irish Consulate Reception

Irish Consulate ReceptionOn October 28, The Austin office of the Irish Consulate hosted students from the 2016 Texas State in Ireland program for a reception and conversation on their five-week stay in Ireland this past summer. Consul General Adrian Farrell encouraged the students to share their impressions of Ireland, noting the growing cooperation between the Republic of Ireland and the Austin area, as well as the long history of the Irish in Texas and the southwest. Consul Farrell and the students were joined at the reception by Dr. Ryan Buck, Texas State’s Assistant Vice President for International Affairs. The Texas State in Ireland program, directed by English Department faculty members Nancy and Steve Wilson, has taken Texas State students to Cork, Ireland each summer since 1999, allowing more than 300 of them to explore a vibrant country that was home to the ancestors of millions of Americans. While in Ireland, the students from the 2016 program visited such cultural sites as Dublin; medieval Ross Castle, in Killarney; 10th-century Celtic settlements on the Dingle Peninsula; Gougane Barra Forest Park, in the Shehy Mountains of County Cork; and Great Blasket Island, a rugged outpost off the western coast. They also earned six hours of credit for completing advanced English courses in Travel Writing and Irish Literature. Steve Wilson noted at the reception that the program offers students the opportunity to be much more than travelers. They are encouraged to investigate the country and its people, discovering common ground with the Irish but also the important ways peoples of different cultures interact with and understand their world.

Learn more about studying English abroad in Ireland