Monday, March 23, 2015


March 20th was blessedly the first day of spring and also would have been my Baubie's 100th birthday. She lived 95 of them about as well as you can. She grew up in Minneapolis the oldest of five sisters, had two daughters and four grandchildren. She was a social worker and a faculty wife who loved her college community - much of my stubborn romanticism about academic life is thanks to her, her bookshelves, and her stories about Saul Bellow's various wives. She was a widow for al...most thirty years who remade herself in every way. I first read the New Yorker at her apartment by the lake in Chicago. She took me to the Art Institute countless times and taught me to remember one thing in particular from each visit because you can't remember them all. The last time she visited New York we went to see Avenue Q and she was a good sport about the puppet sex. She stayed at the Wellington hotel that visit and this week I happened to walk by it on St. Patrick's Day and suddenly felt her presence among all the drunken kids stumbling around. I remembered taking the bus with her downtown, talking about Mary McCarthy. Those were my people, she said, the college girls of the Depression, a little eccentric but had their heads screwed on straight. She loved books but wanted to know why so many great writers had such a pessimistic view of the world. I never came up with a good answer to that one. She died just over a year Eli was born and when I found out I was having a boy I had a dream that she said "I thought we'd never have another boy again!" Family legend has it she once had five boys call her in a single night to ask her to the same dance - I can believe it looking at this picture. Happy birthday Baubs. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

8 Approaches to the Papers/Grading Dillemma

If you're any kind of an academic, or spend anytime with anyone who is, the end of a semester comes with the neurotic repetition of an essential truth: we hate grading papers. But the time to think about what to about that comes at the planning stage, so I thought I'd do a January post about this eternal question.

A while back, Rebecca Shuman had a piece on Slate that proposed a simple solution: stop doing it. Stop giving papers, stop grading them. Like a lot of her pieces, it was a combination of a solid insight with broad generalization and pure-Slate contrarian click-bait. I like the impulse at the core of it: if something isn't working, maybe we should not do it any more. But there's also the very-Slate like impulse that everyone out there is doing one conventional thing mindlessly, and only you are brave enough to call them out. The truth is, there a lots of professors out there with creative approaches to teaching writing and to using writing in a range of classes, and there's also a very interesting literature out there on it. Partly to clarify my own thinking, and partly because I think this might be useful to other folks, I put together a list of some of what I think I've figured out after teaching composition, creative writing and literature for fifteen years. Some might apply more to folks teaching in one discipline more than others, and it's probably impossible to do all these things in every class, but it's probably possible to use some of them in any class.

It's tricky to talk about attribution of teaching ideas and lesson plans - ideally we should all be talking about these things and circulating them such that it's impossible to claim total ownership. But, because so many people are convinced almost all writing about teaching is without merit (an odd position for teachers to take, to say the least), I want to note some writers and thinkers who have been helpful to me with this, though in some cases I encountered their work indirectly. These include Ken Bain (whose What the Best College Teachers Do is an invaluable resource), John Dewey, Peter Elbow, Donald Barthomae, James Moffat, Mina Shaughnessy, lots of essays from Radical Teacher and Rethinking Schools, and countless colleagues at multiple universities, especially at NYU and LaGuardia Community College.

1) Spend more time designing your writing assignments and less time grading them. Write your writing assignments BEFORE your reading list/syllabus. Lots of people talk about "minimal marking" but often we miss the first half of this equation, or it falls by the wayside as we get into crunch time. Very often I've looked at a piece of student writing, wondered where it could have gone wrong, only to realize the student has done exactly what I asked them to do - and that that was the problem. Ken Bain is very good on this. When you're designing a course, start by thinking about what you want students to be able to do, and the assignments should come from that. Create a syllabus and reading list that will allow you to do this.

2) Try to give students "real" rather than "fake" problems to solve.  Have them create knowledge rather than simply reporting it. Ken Bain is also very good on this, and to me it's at the heart of what Dewey means when he talks about his belief that education must be, not preparation for experience, but must itself be an experience. This can mean a number of different things: in a composition class where we read Terkel's Working, students interviewed people they knew about their working lives. Colleagues in sociology have guided students through ethnographies of their own neighborhoods and proposed changes to the urban landscape of their own college, applying what they have learned from urban theorists.  Not so incidentally, this is also the best way to prevent plagiarism. If you ask students to write about light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet, I won't say you *deserve* plagiarized papers, exactly, but let's just say it's a foreseeable outcome. Some of my LaGuardia colleagues do a brilliant project where students edit wikipedia entries. Not only can't they plagiarize, as one of them noted on FB, the students can note with pride that they will be the ones getting plagiarized.

3) Think about and identify what you think good writing is in your field, and what kind of writing makes the most sense for them based on the kind of class and level. You probably didn't write an honest to god academic paper until grad school - does it make sense to give undergrads that task and be upset when they fail at it? Is a simplified version of this the best approach? Would a book review make more sense?  A literature review? A letter to a friend about what they're doing in the class? If you're in English, do you think of "creative" assignments - the ones you and your students have fun with - rewriting a classic poem in a contemporary vein, rewriting a scene from Shakespeare as a Western, say - as something they do on the side but they shouldn't get much credit for? Do you think of it as a reward for "mastering the basics?" Rethink those assumptions. Memorizing a poem and writing a reflection about it might show as much understanding/engagement of the text as a standard essay prompt - why not recognize it as such.

4) Rotate assignments and due dates between students.  A lot of professors asks students to take responsibility for presenting or starting the discussion of a certain reading. In my experience it's rarer to take the next step, to connect this to writing. Having them connect written and spoken work is likely to improve the quality of both, spaces out your grading, and lets students work around their schedules.

5) Think about staging, cumulative assignments, and portfolios as well as revision.  We say that writing is a process and revision is a process but our schedule often makes this an afterthought.  If it's important, we should bake it into the time, talk about it and spend time on it in class. If students have a meaningful chance to return to the work, all those comments you write on them feel like less of a waste.

6) Make student writing a text in the class and make student writing public. Whether they workshop or you bring in sample essays or share them on line, it only makes sense that students have examples of what they're being asked to do. If they have some sense of a public audience, whether through a blog or through their work in class, they're more likely to take it seriously than if they know it's going to you and then to a drawer. Even better are truly pubic projects like ones where they have a chance to present at a student conference, have some publication submission goal, or the wikipedia project I mentioned above. Relatedly, I heard a great presentation by some poets at a conference on collaborative student writing, and I'd love to work with that,  though I haven't yet.

7) Learn to read student writing as a teacher - not an editor.  Your job isn't to correct this for publication - it's to help the student. This is minimal marking, but it's not just that. You're not really marking a manuscript at all, you're talking to a person. Think about what you think they need to hear. David Bartholomae talks about a student paper in a Basic Writing class on Sartre that was in the traditional sense incomprehensible. It had sentences like this: "To elaborate on the subject matter. the principle of existentialism is logic, but stupid in itself."* Obviously, to mark the fragments here or send the student to a grammar book would be beside the point. As Bartholomae notes, he in a sense had to learn to read student writing like that. In this case, he argues, the student had a coherent point that they knew how to communicate: fuck you and your assignment. How to respond to that was the real question. We have to read student writing as a communication, not product. This goes at more advanced levels too: Bartholomae also tells a story about the most important comment he got on his graduate school writing, when he was being overly verbose and pompous, as beginning graduate students are want to do. The comment? "Please don't do that again." He knew what it meant.

8) Contract Grading.  In many of my classes, I have taken at least half of Shuman's advise: I don't grade papers. I do give them, (though many don't look like traditional "papers). I give comments, and then I grade the portfolios at the end of the semester which I combine with participation grades. I started this in Creative Writing classes to avoid the "who says my story is a B? Do I change the end to get an A" problem but I've expanded it. In my experience, it makes students work harder, not less hard, and they're more open to read and take in comments if there's not a grade attached. (Understandable! If I got a rejection and comments when I've submitted something, I wouldn't really want to read the comments.)

So those are some ideas. Like I said, you can't really do all of them all the time, but they're worth considering. And if you think you have so much content you really don't have time to think about it, or to talk to your students about writing, then yes, maybe you should consider something other than writing as a means to evaluate them.

* From David Bartholomae, Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. Bedford St. Martins, 2005.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Quick Hit: Baldwin and the Magazines

In a 1984 interview,  Julius Lester asked Baldwin about his early days after the war as a writer publishing reviews and essays "for publications like The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary and Partisan Review" Baldwin described the people he met through these publications as a kind of "Olympus":  
"Dwight MacDonald told me that I was "terribly smart." I certainly learned a lot from them, though I could not tell you exactly what I learned. A certain confidence in myself, perhaps." 
Out of curiosity, I looked up all the bylines where Baldwin originally published the essays in his now classic first two collections, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows my Name. Here they are: Commentary, Harper's, New Leader, Partisan Review, The Reporter, The New York Times Book Review, Encounter, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Le Preuve.  The Fire Next Time was published in its entirety in the New Yorker, Baldwin's first published essay in a national magazine was for The Nation, where his later work frequently appeared, and he was on their board during the last years of his life.

Of course no recent particular event and no particular magazine of note that maybe would have been predisposed to miss the work of an African-American who is probably the greatest essayist in American history and any prominent "serious" publications missing from the list  are just a coincidence.

(The limitations of my library's archive are such that I haven't been able to confirm if Baldwin ever wrote for the publication that shall not be named. If so, would be very curious to see where and when.)

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Dancer and the Dance

This summer I published a poem about Lee Miller in Narrative.  Miller isn't exactly obscure - people interesting in photography, war journalism, or surrealism are probably at least somewhat familiar with her life and work. But she isn't a household name either - I didn't know anything about her until I read Francine Prose's collection of biographic essays about women - many artists in their own right - who have served as "muses." I've been working on a group of poems, short fiction and short essays on other artists I'm interested in for a variety of reasons - people like Jay DeFeo and Isa Genzken and Maria Lassnig and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Again, none of these people are unknown, but they all have fascinating, not-common knowledge stories that having fascinating things to say about obsession, passion, bodies, sex, death, and all the other good stuff. I've worried, though, about how to talk about wanting to do this - it sounds a little old-fashioned: ah, those second wavers with their projects of "rediscovery"! Haven't we found them all by now? Not by a longshot, as it turns out.  

This was on my mind recently when I read this great piece by my friend Joanna Scutts about the usually disappointning results and diminishing returns of the seemingly inexhastable genre of novels about writer's wives, and how they tend to smooth over the uncomfortable details literary biographers deal with. Being in love with a difficult man - who can't relate, these books seem to tell us. In wanting to bring women's stories "from the shadows," are we most interested if the shadow takes the form of a great man? Are we more comfortable with stores of talent squelched and repressed than those who worked through these paradoxes?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Three New-ish Books to Buy

The last couple years I've started keeping track of the books I finish, movies I watch and my favorite magazine articles from the year. Except for the magazine articles, very few are current or even recent, but I've been trying to correct that a little, partly because buying or writing about new books is the best way to support authors and also to have more of a foothold in some of the discussions out there. So, herein your humble blogger pretends to be one of those folks with a steady gig who gets paid to say things like "3 Must Buy New(ish) Books!"

1) The Lists of the Past, by Julie Hayden, available in a new edition from Phraros.  This is not a new book per say; it was first published in 1976, and its stories appeared in the New Yorker in the years leading up to that. I've written before about how going to college during the canon debates of the 1990s distorted my perception about the idea of "forgotten" works - there was so much debate about a few titles and replacing this particular one with that particular one you could forget all the nooks and crannies of forgotten pathways that were always there to be continually rediscovered. Even a New Yorker writer can get lost. Hayden's book found its way back into print by way of the New Yorker's wonderful fiction podcast, for which Lorrie Moore selected the masterpiece "Day Old Baby Rats," and the immensely popular Cheryl Strayed, who picked the book for Pharos's series of reprints.  Reading Hayden reminds me of Virginia Woolf - you feel more alive when reading her, like you're starting to see in color what you've been seeing in black and white. I wrote more about the book a little while back and have since had the honor of meeting a few of her surviving family members. Grab this book and put in the hands of every short story lover you know.

2) Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich. First, grab the greatest short stories anthology that's lying around your bedroom and read Bernard Malamud's classic story. By the time you finish, before you've even started reading Ulinich's graphic novel, you will realize the genius of its premise. Malamud's story tells of a matchmaker who brags he needs a magic barrel to carry around the photos of all the beautiful young women he has to offer. Read what happens when the shy young rabbinical student comes to seek his mate and his dating foibles and you'll be astounded Ulinich is the first to point out what seems obvious: forget superhighways, tubes, and clouds: the internet is a magic barrel. Ulnich's drawings and words are such a perfect distillation of recognizable and particular experiences that for a few days after reading it I was seeing her distinctive lines in every face I encountered. When Lena Finkle expresses frustration with a novel she's working on and says, as an aside that the novel's contrivances seem ridiculous to her, I immediately thought, yes! Every novel I'd read recently seemed to have exactly the flaws she described. Only this particular picture and words seemed to have any hope of breaking and preserving the artifice in just the right measure. When you go diving in the Magic Barrel, you need the right guide.

3) The Best American Essays, 2014, edited by John Jeremiah SullivanVivian Gornick, Kristen Dombek, Mary Gordon, Lawrence Jackson, Ariel Levy, Zadie Smith. Sometimes they get it right.  Appropriately enough, my very favorite writer, Vivian Gornick, has "Letter from Greenwich Village," while the amazing Kristen Dombek has "Letter from Williamsburg."  I look forward to "Letter from Maspeth" in ten years. Hopeful a LaGuardian will write it. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fall Reading Challenge

Thanks to the wonderful Prof. Rebecca Hill, I'm taking part in a reading challenge for academics this fall. Teaching a heavy load, it's all too easy to set both writing and reading aside during the semester. Having a "writing" or "reading" day isn't realistic for me - it's more like an hour here or there. I don't know how we'll I'll do with this list, but filling it out was a lot of fun.

I'm starting with the American Quarterly issue and Kafka. I'm teaching the Metamorphosis for the first time in my composition class, and looking forward to rereading that one. Over the summer I tried to write a little about each book I finished and I'll try to do the same here and on goodreads, for stuff reading for the challenge and other stuff also. 

You can see more about the challenge and other people's lists on Rebecca's blog.  

Professors’ Fall Semester Reading Challenge 2014 - checklist version

Challenge Categories
Author,  Title,  pp. #
Date read
  any book for teaching/research 200 pp.
Swapped for J. Baldwin, The Last Interview.

J. Baldwin Devil Finds Work

J. Baldwin No Name in the Street 


achieved 35 points


book written by a friend, colleague or acquaintance
Chris Schmidt, The Next in Line, 71 page (poetry)

Also Anya Ulrich, Lena Finkel 

achieved 20 pts.

 book by a former  student or former teacher
Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country, 304 pages

 Entire academic journal including reviews
American Quarterly, vo. 60, no. 2
achvd 10
 Book reviewed in the journal above
Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, 388 pages.

 book about a country or region that isn’t part of research or current teaching
Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, 336 pages

academic book you always meant to read or never finished
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 616 pages

 Novel nominated for a National Book Award, 2014 (long list, Sept, finalists in October)
TBA when list comes out

Book on current events written by a journalist
The Battle for Justice in Palestine, by Ali Abunimah, 224 pages.
 Finished 12/31
Pulitzer Prize winner before 1970 (any category)
Willa Cather, One of Ours, 206 pages

Book with “house,” “apartment” or “room” in the title.
Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes through the house: 395 pages.

3 books on same topic in different disciplines below:

Stephanie Gilmore (ed) Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-Wave Feminism in the US, 320 pages.

Literary Criticism
Lisa Hogeland, Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness-Raising Novel and the Women’s Liberation Movement, 224 pages.

Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Ann Snitow, eds. The Feminist Memoir Project, 495 pages.

EXTRA CREDIT – Double up in any category above

The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as it is unabridged and the print edition is at least 200 pages long.
Books must be started no earlier than midnight Sept.2 and finished no later than Dec. 31, midnight.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"That city which the people from heaven had made their home": Thoughts on Baldwin's "Another Country"

When I was volunteering at Housing Works Bookstore, one of the musicians who came to perform was a woman named Tift Merritt. I knew of her a little from my ex-boyfriend, and listened to a bunch of her music right around the time she played the show at Housing Works. Her most recent album at the time was "Another Country" and for a few weeks I kept listening to its title song, with its simple, sweet plaintive refrain:

I thought these things would come to me
Love is another country, and I want to go -

I want to go too. I want to go with you.I want to go too. I want to go with you.

She was incredibly gracious with the volunteers, and asked one of us if we had a copy of Baldwin's novel hand. (But only if it wouldn't be too much trouble). As I remember it, we managed to find one and she put it on her stand during her performance. 

I also remember her asking me if I'd read Another Country at the time and being embarrassed to say no, though my guilty student self may have invented that piece. I read Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room sometime in college. I think I read Giovanni's Room in preparation for my college year in France, knowing it was about ex-pats. I haven't read it since and I don't remember a lot of the plot, but I remember being devastated by it. I remember that the pages of the old paperback I'd found at my parents or grandparent's house fell apart as I read it, and how I tried to put them back together with scotch tape. When, after one move too many moves, I accepted that this particular copy had given up the ghost, I tore out a few pages and taped them on my dresser, the way writers do for inspiration, even though I never actually wrote at that desk. 

Since then, like a lot of people, I've spent more time with his essays, and had come to accept the line that they were his true form. After reading this piece about why Baldwin is taught less than he was, I recently made a vow to teach something by Baldwin in every one of my classes. I asked one class who had heard of him, and only one student had. ("I went to the Baldwin school," she told me, "We heard a lot about him. To the credit credit of that school, there wasn't a trace of irritation in her voice.) Until recently teaching him mostly meant teaching the essays, but as I've been teaching more fiction writing and literature classes, I wanted to revisit that. Last semester I did "Sonny's Blues" and a lot of them had read it before, thanks to its status as an anthology staple. I realized my mistake too late to fix it - and then I realized I didn't know his other stories, or how many he had. (One collection, as it turns out, Going to Meet the Man).  

So I decided to start remedying this by reading Another Country, Baldwin's 1963 novel, the next work of fiction after Giovanni's Room. I had a falling-apart paperback of this one also. I think I inherited from  my grandmother's library. I like to imagine her reading it as a forty-something faculty wife, when she looked like a happier Mona Sterling in her impeccable blouses and tailored skirts. Like a lot of the feminist books from later in the 60s I've been researching, the books packaging combines commercial hype and political import in a way that's almost impossible to imagine today. On the back, Granville Hicks intones "The book itself is, and is meant to be, an act of violence."  (It isn't, of course, and that Hicks thinks so - and thinks this is a selling point - would be another post in of itself).

As this cover illustration suggests, Another Country is first and foremost a New York novel. Like so many writers, Baldwin left the place he was from to write about it. The middle section takes place in Paris, but he didn't write it there either. Below the final scene, charting the arrival in New York of a character's French lover to New York and these "people from heaven," there's a dateline reading "Istanbul, December 10, 1961."  I happened to finish Another Country around the same time I read this New Yorker essay about Erich Auerbach, who famously completed Mimesis, a founding work of my original discipline of Comparative Literature, in Istanbul.  Auerbach was fleeing the Nazis; Baldwin was fleeing racism, fame, and all the things that make it as difficult to write in New York as it is to write about New York. He came at the invitation of his friend Engin Cezzar, and the photographer Sedat Pakay took amazing photos of him there. 

One of the many fascinating things about Another Country is the lost New York it gives us. Baldwin's group of writers, artists and drifting souls (there's no one central character, and a lot of fascinating misdirection around this), hang out mostly in the Village. Some characters like to go to Harlem for "tomcatting," as they put it. One white woman has run away from the south, fleeing an abusive husband who has taken custody of her children. Brooklyn is the place of childhood everyone runs away from. And much is familiar: everyone in the group is suspicious of the writer whose novel is having some commercial success, and everyone drinks too much. They hang out at Smalls.

Baldwin's characters are exiles of a different sort than Auerbach or Baldwin. They flee their isolation and  the repression of their families. They run headlong against the cruelties of the culture they come from, unable to treat each other better than they have been treated, but blessed or cursed with enough self-knowledge that compels them to keep trying. Their other country is their own, and Baldwin takes pains to render his own New York strange as well, as when we are given the city through the eyes of another exile, the actor Eric upon his return to France:
So superbly was [New York] in the present that it seemed to have nothing to do with the passage of time: time might have dismissed it as thoroughly as it had dismissed Carthage and Pompeii. It seemed to have no sense whatever of the exigencies of human life; it was so familiar and so public that it became, at last, the most despairingly private of cities . . . The girls along Fifth Avenue wore their bright clothes like semaphores, trying helplessly to bring to the male attention the news of their mysterious trouble. The men could not read this message. They strode purposefully along, wearing little anonymous hats, or bareheaded, with youthfully parted hair, or crew cuts, accoutered with attachĂ© cases, rushing, on the evidence, to the smoking cars of the trains. In this haven, they opened up their newspapers and caught up on the day's bad news. Or they were to be found, as five o'clock fell, in discreetly dim, anonymously appointed bars, uneasy, in brittle, uneasy, female company, pouring down joyless martinis. 
Geography and sex and ritual: Baldwin stirs them so that it is impossible to maintain our convenient fiction about which part of ourselves comes from an "external" society and which from "internal" desires. This, I think, is why their  jealousies, adulteries, and drunken rages seem large rather than petty. Sexual and racial repression is part of it, but I don't think this is just a case of "when nothing is permitted, everything matters." Hipster alienation and rebellion have become such a cliche it is startling to view characters for whom estrangement from their families and communities are a real, definitive rupture that could easily leave them destitute and isolated. At the same time, in New York they have the means to peruse their desires and realize what this does and does not do. It is one thing to parse out all we know or think we know about desire, repression and "the other," when we see Vivaldo, an Italian-American "unpublished novelist" from Brooklyn peruse Ida, an African-American singer whose brother is probably the person Vivaldo is actually in love with. It is another thing to try, as Baldwin does, to imagine what both such people think and feel as they undertake this doomed but sincere bond. Here is Vivaldo watching Ida perform:
She was not a singer yet. And if she were to be judged soley on the basis of her voice, low, rough-textured, of no very great range, she never would be. Yet, she had something which made Eric look up and caused the room to fall silent; and Vivaldo stared at Ida as though he had never seen her before. What she lacked in vocal power and, at he moment, in skill, she compensated for by a quality so mysteriously and implacably egocentric that no one has ever been able to name it. The quality involves a sense of the self so profound and so powerful that it does to so much leap barriers as reduce them to atoms - while still eating them standing, nightly, where they were; and this awful sense is private, unknowable, not to be articulated, having, literally, to do with something else; it transforms and lays waste and gives life, and kills.