books recently read - jul/aug 2022

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins

Remainder by Tom McCarthy 

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

The Employees by Olga Ravn

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is by Justin E.H. Smith

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch

books recently read - may/jun 2022

Ground Truth by Mark L. Hineline

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

Summerwater by Sarah Moss 

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins

rejected proposal for MLA 2023: Issues of Adaptation in Post-Crisis English

The Summer 2021 MLA Newsletter opened with the following question: “Where Have All the Majors Gone?” A subsequent article noted that, from 2009 to 2019, “the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded across all subjects in the discipline fell by 29%.” The article provided plenty of additional data related to the above question, observing that declines in awarded English degrees is, “particularly troubling.” However, what departments might do to reverse this trend remains “unclear.” As the former chair of an English department that no longer exists and as a tenured faculty member in a program on borrowed time, I want to suggest that maybe there is no reversing this trend, that perhaps we need to consider a different question: “What now?”

Such a suggestion and consideration come from the experience and knowledge that the development of unique and in-demand courses, the diversification of teaching appointments, concerted efforts toward enrollment management, and an active and visible presence at every campus event did not prevent the dissolution of my department. And I worry that such actions are unlikely to stop the end of others. So, much as conversations about climate change have moved from prevention to adaptation, similar discussions are overdue in our field. In therefore drawing upon recent, relevant scholarship on the precarious position of English (broadly construed) within higher education, I hope to highlight and invite testaments of disciplinary survival and to identify the coffins to which we cling while facing our future.

books recently read - jan/feb 2022

The Midwest Survival Guide by Charlie Berens

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

The City & the City by China Mieville

At the End of the World by Lawrence Millman

Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty by W.L. Rusho

Outside Lies Magic by John P. Stilgoe

After Cooling by Eric Dean Wilson

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

books recently read - nov/dec 2021

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt 

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett 

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Subprime Attention Crisis by Tim Hwang

Futureproof by Kevin Roose 

Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells 

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells 

books recently read - sep/oct 2021

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green 

Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Wall by John Lanchester

The Complete Mushroom Hunter by Gary Lincoff

Fulfillment by Alec MacGillis

Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatiana Schlossberg 

Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier

Stoner by John Williams 

on "The Chair"

I'm annoyed with, frustrated by, and tired of the ridiculously unrealistic "critical" takes on The Chair. Below are some more positive and nuanced responses:

But as it unfolds, The Chair offers far deeper insight into the interpersonal and intergenerational dynamics of campus culture than any novel I’ve read. The show’s dramatic energies are focused on issues of free speech, the changing paradigms of scholarship and teaching, and the prejudice that women faculty and faculty of color face. Yet the subject that gets the most screen time is none of these, nor is it chairing. It’s parenting—although as the series rolls on, we slowly realize that, just possibly, chairing is parenting by other means.

Kevin Dettmar, What The Chair Gets Unexpectedly Right About the Ivory Tower

If we're watching The Chair as Ji-Yoon's story, the portrayal of activist students would exist to shed light on the pressure and complexity of the situation Ji-Yoon is facing as a woman of color in a position of authority, not, as some have interpreted it, as a commentary on activist students in general. That is, Ji-Yoon experiences student activism as high-stakes and unwieldy precisely because she respects their principled stances -- to the point that they intensify her suspicion that, despite her best efforts and intentions, she is not transforming the master's house from the inside (shout out to Audre Lorde).

To operate as if the portrayal of student protesters matters more than how the portrayal illuminates something about Ji-Yoon is to give these characters the primacy

Koritha Mitchell, Stop asking if The Chair is realistic

The show, co-created by Amanda Peet and Harvard Ph.D. Annie Wyman, feels like a real attempt to grapple with the problems of contemporary academia, and the humanities in particular, by someone who has felt invested in them.

Lidija Haas, The Chair Is an Elegy for the Life of the Mind

I don’t know anyone who has gone through the trouble of becoming a professor with the express goal of ending up as a department chair. The role draws on organizational skills that many academics have made a career out of avoiding; it also leeches away time that could be spent researching or teaching...The Chair thrives in scenes where manners and decorum get stripped away and Kim recognizes the futility of her situation. Her strange profession begins to seem relatable. Her face, usually so attentive and patient, evinces rage and disappointment. One complication of institutional diversity is that diverse faces can now lead institutions that are in free fall. 

Hua Hsu, Sandra Oh's Masterly Performance of Empathy in The Chair 

But as much as the characters are—wonderfully—never cynical about the study of literature, they are also exhausted by the situations they find themselves in, both personally and professionally, and especially where those two spheres collide. The current pandemic permanently damaged the academic careers of parents (mostly women) who had to abandon their (our) research to take care of their (our) children, and forced faculty to teach in windowless classrooms to hundreds of students without mask or vaccine requirements. None of that is in this show, yet even so, it depicts the study of literature as unsustainable. I wish it were clearer to the viewer that it’s unsustainable because it’s not supported. 

Johannah Winant, Moby-Done 

hate to say i told you so

For the time being, this will be a space for checking myself against reality. I want to make sure I have the story straight, that I’m not finally losing my mind eighteen months into the pandemic. 

So, yesterday, my new department chair emailed all faculty members about the agenda for an upcoming meeting. The message ended with the following question: “Can your discipline realistically complete its deliberations about a program revision in time to meet the October 29 deadline?” 

I anticipated this prompt in comments I made during an English department meeting in late April as well as emails I sent in early May. My anticipation arrived in the form of concern over colleagues’ capacity to do the work of curricular development amid whatever new efforts arose as a result of the College’s reorganization.

At present, there is a call for volunteers to serve on four different ad hoc committees at the department level. Faculty are also managing another semester of uncomfortable teaching, whether they returned to in-person instruction or not. And program revision is no small task, particularly when accounting for three different specializations among more than a dozen faculty members. 

This is why I pushed for proceeding with program work in May. At that time, I was engaged, invested, and ready to get shit done. I took the liberty of completing both official and unofficial documents on the department’s behalf. I suggested that we have an initial proposal and market analysis information ready for review by June 30th. Assuming a positive outcome in our final action as the English department, we could then signal our new program to the College and request that the appropriate associate provost begin work on the market analysis. Through July and August, we could work on the program proposal proper with the intent to provide our new department with that document as well as the market analysis in early September. We’d therefore be well in advance of the October deadline and likely prepared to announce a new or revised major in Winter 2022 and months before the sunsetting of our current programs. 

But none of that happened.

At this point, I’m no longer interested in program revision. Beyond my summer bitterness, here’s why: I have six students in my business communications class that expressed a love for reading and writing but all of them are majoring in finance or management. I also have a dozen students in my first year writing class that are “English intolerant,” as one put it. There are, of course, a number of factors at play here, but the elements are so interrelated as to comprise an intractable issue. I think now that declining enrollments in English constitute a sociocultural problem that cannot be adequately addressed by a handful of faculty at a regional campus of one of the top universities in the country. No matter the amount of effort we commit, the problem persists because a career-oriented narrative remains dominant. And students are either too stubborn or too scared to be persuaded otherwise.

I can’t and won’t blame the younger generations, though. There will always be students who buck the trend, but I doubt their numbers have ever been sufficient to maintain a program anywhere but the most prestigious institutions. Given the discipline’s origins as well as its resistance to change, perhaps English was always destined to be a program for the elites. 

But maybe the week I spend on how the descriptions of whaling in Moby Dick contribute to the overall story will stay with my technical writing students. Maybe the selections from Frankenstein I assign to engineering and entrepreneurship majors will keep their future hubris in check. Maybe that will be enough for them, and for me.