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W course for int’l students has promise

in Columns/Op-Eds/Opinions by

Several weeks ago, I received an e-mail inviting all international students to meet with Dr. Natalie Mera Ford, who currently serves as a Swarthmore’s Multilingual Writing Specialist. As an international student, I was interested in how college-level writing in the US differ from that in other countries, especially here at Swarthmore where every student must take at least three writing courses in two distinct disciplines in order to graduate. Moreover, because most of my professors had yet assigned any major essay (an indication that they soon would), I believed it would be useful to know beforehand the challenges international students often face while attuning their writing skills to the level expected at Swarthmore. Therefore, I attended the session and was surprised: some international students did not have trouble with their writing skill or their writing fluency as much as with the academic writing norms to which they have no prior exposure.  

Before addressing anything further, I would like to define two terms pertinent to our discussion: writing skill and writing fluency. This article defines writing skill as the ability to formulate a grammatically correct sentence. The greater one’s writing skill is, the fewer grammatical mistakes one makes while conveying an idea. Standardized English exams evaluate students primarily on this area. On the other hand, writing fluency refers to how natural one feels while crafting sentences with appropriate syntax and word choice. Indeed, all fluent writers make minor grammatical mistakes once in awhile, but we would still call those writers fluent if those grammatical mistakes do not significantly interfere with the message they wish to convey. Hence, writing skill does not correlate with writing fluency. With these definitions established, I will explain why writing skill and writing fluency do not trouble international students at Swarthmore as much as some may assume.

First, because the admission process at Swarthmore is extremely selective, it is highly unlikely that non-proficient English users could enter the institution. To elaborate, Swarthmore tests its applicants’ English proficiency on several instances before offering them an acceptance letter. Numerically, applicants demonstrate their English skill through their GPA and their standardized test scores (e.g. SAT, ACT, TOEFL, and so on). Pragmatically, they demonstrate how fluent they are as an English writer through their personal essays via Common Application. On top of that, some applicants may be interviewed by Swarthmore admission in English. These rigorous admission process applies to all students at Swarthmore, domestic or international.

Therefore, we could assume that international students have an English proficiency equivalent to that level of native English speakers.

Second, the learning environment at Swarthmore is conducive to the development of English skill. At the most superficial level, all classes except foreign language are conducted in English at Swarthmore. Every day, students read texts in English, listen to lectures in English, and complete the homework their professors assigned in English. At the more meaningful level, we analyze, criticize, and synthesize every claim we come across as we embrace the spirit of liberal arts education, all in English. In other words, because the amount of reading, listening, and speaking in English required in this institution is tremendous, every Swarthmore student develops their writing skill, their writing fluency, and other areas of English proficiency as a result. Thus, even if you do not buy into the argument set forth in the previous paragraph and still believe international students are somewhat less proficient than native English users, the gap between the former and the latter will eventually diminish thanks to Swarthmore education.

However, based on the conversation I had with my international friends, Dr. Mera Ford, and people who worked closely with international students, the consensus is that even though a significant number of international students believe they are proficient in English, they do not feel confident in their writing ability as much as they should. As mentioned earlier, such lack of confidence arises because some of the international students do not know how Swarthmore professors expect them to write. Although this problem applies to other student populations as it affects international students in particular: the latter may internalize the blame, believing they struggle because of their inferior writing ability even though such explanation is untrue. Culture significantly affects how one writes. This article will now provide several examples to support the claim and put forth some possible solutions.

To begin, the first major problem is that, whereas the writing at Swarthmore emphasizes content and clarity, the writing style with which some international students are familiar focuses on the beauty of the language. My experience in Thai education system warrants this claim. In Thailand, students learn Thai as their first language. By the age of six, the age they presumably have a solid foundation in Thai language, they will start studying English. English, therefore, is not a first language for the majority of Thai students. To determine how knowledgeable each student is in English and reduce the potential gap in knowledge, Thai teachers focus upon the language usage in an essay rather than the content. Thai education, in essence, values big words over small words, indirect over direct communication, and rhetorical beauty over logical clarity. In contrast, to write well in American settings, one must be as clear and concise as possible. I, along with many international students I know, struggle tremendously while transitioning from the former writing style to the latter. In essence, such difference in writing culture between the United States and other countries cause some international students to focus more on the language and less on the content, which is contrary to what Swarthmore professors prefer.

Another major problem regarding the expected norm of writing is citation. In some countries, citation is not expected. Rarely are students in those countries penalized for failing to cite properly. The opposite applies to the United States: one could face a serious academic probation from failing to cite oneself, let alone other authors. One of my international friends once told me that she felt awkward every time she cited because citation is not “a thing” in her country. To exacerbate this issue, because there exist so many citation formats (e.g. MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.), chances are students unfamiliar to the citation culture forget to cite or fail to cite properly. Indeed, neither forgetting to cite nor failing to cite properly indicates how skillful or fluent one’s writing proficiency is. Rather, they reflect how cultural difference could potentially impact international students’ ability to write.

Lastly, the last problem pertains to the extent to which Swarthmore students use the writing resources Swarthmore offers. To answer this question, I created a survey with several questions regarding each student’s writing experience from “How confident are you in your writing skills?” to “What are your writing background prior to entering Swarthmore?” To make pertinent to our discussion, only the data gathered from surveys international students complete will be reported in this article.

One of the survey questions asks students to describe how content they feel towards the writing resources Swarthmore offers on the scale of 1 to 5 (1 = Not at all, 5 = Nothing to complain). Another asks how often they use those resources through similar scale (1 = Never use them, 5 = Use them whenever I could). Interestingly, eleven responses to the first question fall between 3 to 5, which means they believe Swarthmore, at the very least, provides sufficient resources on writing. However, when asked how often they use those resources, six responses fall either into 1 or 2, indicating that half of the surveyed students barely, if never at all, utilize those resources. Some justification include: “I procrastinate to the last minute, so I don’t have enough time to visit any WAs”; “I feel no need to use it”; “I am simply too busy.” Even more interestingly, for students who have taken or are taking a writing class, more than half believe the taking writing course does not help improve their writing skill as much as they had initially expected. Few even argue the non-writing courses they have taken improve their writing skill and fluency more than the W-accredited courses. Also, whereas two-thirds struggle with expressing ideas clearly and citing properly, virtually every student has problem with spending too much time on writing.

Overall, even though this survey by no means represents the general consensus among international students because of its small sample size, we still learn that some students know the writing resources exist but do not use them for several reasons. Common struggles among international students include spending too much time on writing, expressing ideas clearly, and citing properly, with the last two pertaining specifically to international students. How should we solve these problems?qqq

First, every class should make explicit what style of writing the class expects every of its students to adopt: if students worry less about how to write, they could devote more time into thinking what to write. Second, Swarthmore should provide sessions on citation, plagiarism, and basic writing processes, and so forth to all students who are interested. Indeed, because not every student who struggles with writing could take the Transition to College writing class, it is essential that these sessions be provided early so that the struggling students could fix whatever problems they may have with writing before taking more advanced, writing-heavy courses. Lastly, students and Writing Center should reach out to one another more. Perhaps, if the Writing Center has more flexible operating hours, students will be encouraged to use the center more. Writing is difficult. Addressing these issues will make writing way easier.  

Digital Humanities spread in classroom and beyond

in Campus Journal by

Computer science and the humanities don’t have anything to do with each other, do they? Code belongs in Sci, and books stay in the seminar room, right? Wrong! The two disciplines come together in digital humanities, a set of research methods that takes computer-assisted approaches to disciplines of the humanities. At Swarthmore, the college’s small size and liberal arts focus have produced a rich variety of digital humanities work spanning various departments and have positioned community members to make serious contributions to the digital humanities, even beyond campus.

Associate Professor of English Literature Rachel Buurma ’99 integrates digital humanities approaches in her classroom, as well as in her own research and published work. In Buurma’s “Rise of the Novel” course, which is taking place this fall, upwards of thirty students spend part of each week learning how to use data visualization tools, text mining, and digital mapping, among other computational methods, to analyze individual eighteenth-century novels.

One assignment, for instance, asked students to run a computer program which would extract all mentions of geographical locations from a digital version of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, create a map of these locations using Google’s MyMaps, and compare this map to one included by eighteenth century printers in early editions of the novel.

Now, Buurma’s students are applying text analysis to a wider set of novels in order to situate the smaller set of books read in the class within their greater literary context.

“This is a very canonical history and theory class, so I’ve tried to conceptualize how DH approaches can open it up so that we can test and look at the canonical novels against a bigger world of what people actually read and what printers actually published in the eighteenth century,” Buurma explained.

Buurma noted that she has been impressed with how interested students have seemed and how responsive they have been to her assignments.

“I’m getting more than I’m asking for from many students,” Buurma said. “That’s always true at Swarthmore, but it feels especially true here.”

Assistant Professor of English Literature Lara Cohen’s students, meanwhile, had great success with a digital archiving project in her Early African American Print Culture class two years ago. The project centered on one of the Philadelphia Library Company’s most-requested items, a friendship album kept by a woman named Amy Matilda Cassey. The album was one of several kept by women at the heart of the Black activist community in Philadelphia in the mid-19th century, and includes inscriptions from Cassey’s friends — including Frederick Douglass and other prominent anti-slavery activists — along with original writing and art and material copied out from other sources.

The project culminated in a digital version of the album. For each page, users can view a digital facsimile, a transcription of the text, and a student’s close-reading of that particular page. Cohen’s students also tagged the pages, so users can track different themes across the album.

Cohen explained that the original impetus for creating a digital version was to both reduce stress on the original object and increase the accessibility of the album.

“Scholars are aware of and curious about it, but so few people have access to it, so it seemed as though it would be really valuable to try and make it as easily accessible as possible,” Cohen said.

Cohen described herself as an amateur in terms of digital humanities but said that her interest in digital humanities methods and questions grew as the project continued.

“As we were working on it, the relationships between the kinds of reading practices that the digital makes possible and the types of readings that the album makes possible became increasingly clear to me,” Cohen said.

She explained that the album is at its core about a social network, and much of the text copied from other sources into the album was rewritten in a way to forge social bonds. The creation of a digital version of the album enables a somewhat more historical way of reading it, helping users contextualize its material and understand its references, Cohen said. Readers can click through on the digital version of the album and be linked to newspapers where an original clipping appeared.

Thus, Cohen explained, readers gain a sense of the interconnected and intertextual nature of the album in a way which is not necessarily available if one picks up the album in the library and views it as a singular object.

“That’s what I think is really interesting about the digital: repositioning the album in these networks that would have been much more visible to its contemporary readers than they are to us now…I like that ability to disrupt the kinds of reading processes that we’ve settled into,” Cohen said.

Buurma said that many to most of her fellow English department faculty already integrate or are working towards integrating types of text analysis, digital archiving, or contemporary electronic writing, among other digital humanities approaches, into their curriculum. This process has been mostly informal, but Buurma believes that in the spring the department will begin to think in a more concerted and formal fashion about ways in which to integrate, support, and make sustainable these types of computational approaches. Buurma is also hopeful that new classes in the future might be more fully focused on the digital humanities or adjacent fields such as digital methods, and that a newly formed, informal digital humanities student reading group might serve as a resource for thinking about upcoming curricula.

Digital humanities-inflected work at the college goes beyond the English department. Students in Professor of History Allison Dorsey’s class Black Liberation 1969: Black Studies in History Theory and Praxis created a digital archive of the college’s Black protest movement. The archive “challenges visitors to reconsider the stories that have previously constituted the official narrative and to engage with the black experience of Swarthmore in this critical period,” according to the project website, and includes information from college archives, interviews, personal collections of photographs and other documents, and newspaper records. Creative projects on the site feature an interactive map of the the 1969 sit-in spearheaded by students in the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society and a visualization of Black student enrollment data. (See the February 12, 2015 edition of the Phoenix for more articles on the class and archive.)

The college’s contributions to digital humanities work are not limited to campus, however. Since 2009, Buurma has worked with collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania on the Early Novels Database, which aims to make eighteenth-century novels more discoverable and searchable by compiling tables of contents and indexes, careful descriptions of prefaces, introductions, and dedications, title-page genre terms, and footnotes from within the texts.

One of the END’s guiding ideas, Buurma explained, is that eighteenth century novels created multiple methods of telling readers about their content, much as the database seeks to do.

        “They gave readers access to their contents in multiple ways, they thought of literature as a form of knowledge that could be discontinuously accessed or accessed for particular reasons,” Buurma said. The END seeks to reanimate this kind of access, making data about the novels more aggregable and searchable.

In this way, the END highlights the relationships between digital and historical reading practices, similar to the relationship Cohen pointed out in discussing the advantages and dynamism of a digital version of Cassey’s friendship album.

        Though the END is a digital initiative, Buurma said, it is a deeply humanistic project at its heart. It is about collecting a specific, controlled set of data which machines can read, but it is also about students creating personal descriptions of early novels.

“It’s not just that we are using digital tools to do something to or with literature but that there’s a kind of poetics of the bibliographic data that’s at the core of the project.” Buurma and her collaborators are currently working to start up a summer node for the project at Columbia University, and that she and professors from Penn and Columbia are all integrating END data into their courses.

Beyond the END project, Buurma, Anna Levine ’10, and Professor and Chair of History Timothy Burke will all be published in the upcoming issue of Debates in the Digital Humanities, an annual publication which seeks to capture and critique current digital humanities issues. Buurma and Levine’s article looks at the relationship between the digital humanities and liberal arts, using Dorsey’s project as a case study of the ways in which undergraduate digital research can be tremendously useful for audiences both within the college and beyond. Burke’s piece focuses on “The Humane Digital.”

Finally, Tri-Co Digital Humanities, a research and teaching collaboration between Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges, funds faculty research, training in new methods and practices, curricula development, and undergraduate internships and research fellowships. On March 31 and April 1, Tri-co Digital Humanities will host “Re:Humanities,” at Bryn Mawr.  This is the sixth year that the conference — which is the first national digital humanities conference of, for, and by undergraduates, according to the initiative’s website — will be held.

Of course, both challenges and enormous generative possibilities are created in the process of bringing digital approaches and humanistic methods of inquiry to bear upon one another.

With Cohen’s project, making the move from physical object to digital version is necessary work but cannot entirely capture the friendship album’s materiality. The current online version, Cohen said, points to an effort to approximate as closely as possible the original object, though a perfect digital surrogate is not possible.

“When I look at the 3D rendering, all I want to do is hold it, particularly because it was passed from hand to hand and because it’s so affectively rich, I feel like the intimacy of holding the object matters a great deal,” Cohen said. “Digital humanities is cool and valuable and interesting, but it’s always going to be for me tinged with some sadness.”

At the same time, Cohen feels that the album itself predicts its digital future and that the process of digitizing it brings out this very theme.

“So many of the entries are about the slim chances people had of seeing one another again…because mortality rates were higher and the presence of death is always hovering over this album,” Cohen said. “So, so many of the entries are about how writing is an insufficient approximation of physical presence, so there’s a way in which the album itself anticipates the kinds of losses of its own digitization.”

For Buurma, one of the largest challenges posed by digital humanities work is seeing not only the problems but also the advantages.

“A digital facsimile of a text can show you things that holding it in your hands or reading it with your eyes can’t show you,” Buurma said. “There are all kinds of things we can learn about old books and old literature by looking at it in digital form.”

The college may be a uniquely fertile environment for work in the digital humanities.

“Swarthmore people seem very excited about DH and computational approaches to humanities studies,” Buurma said. She explained that the college’s computer science department has expressed tremendous interest in the digital humanities and has been quite open to collaboration.

“That’s a very small liberal arts thing…that’s a great opportunity for me and for teaching and research here that many places don’t have,” Buurma said. “You think of research universities as having the big research resources, you don’t think of liberal arts colleges as the place where new exciting work in fields happens, but of course that happens across Swarthmore, and especially here, we have the conditions to be doing really exciting new work.”

A flickering between truth and fiction

in Campus Journal/Columns/The Scrivener by

At one point in Ben Lerner’s new book, “10:04,” the narrator visits the studio space of his lover, Alena. Alena’s latest project is curating the “Institute for Totaled Art,” a conceptual art show composed of pieces that, because of damage that renders restoration unfeasible, have been declared to be of “zero value” by an art insurance company. Amongst slashed and torn canvases and broken Jeff Koons pieces, the narrator finds a Cartier-Bresson print that seems to be in perfect condition. While he is unaffected by the other pieces, upon seeing this work the narrator is sent into a critical-theory-inflected state of bliss that would make the German philosopher Adorno blush: “It was as if I could register in my hands a subtle but momentous transfer of weight: the twenty-one grams of the market’s soul had fled; it was no longer a commodity fetish; it was art before or after capital.” This scene, with its quasi-metaphysical artistic transcendence couched in secular, Marxist — and just a touch ironic — terms, is emblematic of Lerner’s undoubtedly clever but ultimately frustrating new book.

“10:04” is the second novel by Lerner, a Kansas-born poet who attended Brown and traveled to Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship. I mention this because his first novel was the runaway indie success “Leaving the Atocha Station,” a novel about a young Kansas-born, Brown-educated poet on a Fulbright in Madrid. Need I say “10:04” is about a poet who had a successful first novel and is surprised to receive a large advance for his second? This is, of course, all part of Lerner’s intention to create a work that is “neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a flickering between them.” The result is a blend of fiction, metafiction, memoir and poetry, the primary and elliptical narrative of which concerns the Lerner stand-in’s anxiety over his recently diagnosed heart condition, his nomination as sperm donor for and by his close friend Alex and his status as literary executor for his ailing mentor. If I were being generous, I’d call it a meditation on the creative process, wherein events that occur on one plane of the “novel” are transmogrified into material for another. The narrator’s heart condition and quickly complicating relationship with Alex are displaced and transformed into elements of the (slightly more) fictional short story that composes the novel’s second chapter, and the form of the narrator’s artist residency in Marfa becomes the content of an embedded long-form poem. If I were being slightly less generous, I’d say the book is a fictionalized memoir padded with previously published material; the Acknowledgements page serves as a kind of medical cross-section: we learn that the embedded short story “The Golden Vanity” was originally published in the “New Yorker,” the embedded long-form poem was completed during his real-life residency in Marfa and published elsewhere; the descriptions of the Institute for Totaled Art overlap with “Damage Control,” an essay on vandalism in the art world originally published in “Harpers.” I could go either way.

However you frame it, the novel does deal effectively with the very real sense of living in anticipation of ecological disaster. The book’s epigraph (attributed to Walter Benjamin) sets its own somewhat woozy thematic key, throughout this quasi-novel, framed by two hurricanes and practically humming with climate-change anxiety. I couldn’t help but think of another, darker Benjamin quote, his famous description of Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus”: “‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet…The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

The narrator, propelled forward by medical and ecological threats that are out of his control, is certainly, like Klee’s angel, obsessed with history and time. His favorite movie is “Back to the Future,” and a visit to Christian Marclay’s visual art piece “The Clock” prompts a meditation on the extra-temporal potential of fiction: “As I made and unmade a variety of overlapping narratives out of its found footage, I felt acutely how many different days could be built out of a day, felt more possibility than determinism, the utopian glimmer of fiction.” Throughout the novel, the narrator seems to experience periods of temporal dissociation, with past, present and future often described as being superimposed on one another. Occasionally these dissociative and utopian tendencies combine and reach a rhapsodic fever pitch that sounds somewhat archaically like the turn-of-the-century modernists’ lyric celebrations of the telegraph: “the rhythm of artisanal Portugese octopus fisheries coordinated with the rhythm of laborers’ migration and the rise and fall of art commodities and tradable futures in the dark galleries outside the restaurant and the mercury and radiation levels of the sashimi and the chests of the beautiful people in the restaurant — coordinated, or so it appeared, by money.”

That final qualifier — “coordinated, or so it appeared, by money” — marks the novel’s other mode of presentation, what I can only describe as narrativised critical theory. When the narrator welcomes into his home a member of Occupy Wall Street, and a reflection on his own altruism prompts a nurturing instinct, he immediately reflects: “So this is how it works, I said to myself, as if I’d caught an ideological mechanism in flagrante delicto: you let a young man committed to anticapitalist struggle shower in the overpriced apartment that you rent and, while making a meal you prepare to eat in common, your thoughts lead you inexorably to the desire to reproduce your own genetic material within some version of a bourgeois household.” This is all tossed off with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, but its effect is still worrying.

Whenever some second-hand Foucauldian analysis occurs in the text — as when the narrator characterizes the tendency of the modern liberal to ascribe social tensions to food- and health-related issues as indicative of “a new biopolitical vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety” — I am reminded of a quote by the essayist Marilynne Robinson: “The prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong, and its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong.” While we know capitalism is not a repercussion-free moral gymnasium, so too, I think, can we on some metaphysical level intuit that to philosophically deconstruct it, to wittily deploy critical theory in order to show the emperor has no clothes, we simply must institute a negative presence — what is only the shadow of the prevailing view of things. Lerner’s decision to “flicker,” to so often present both thesis and antithesis — a real-life situation and its critical theory schematic, a memoir-ish segment and its fictional appropriation — ultimately has a negative artistic effect. It’s obvious Lerner is quite intelligent, and at times his prose is excellent. One wishes he would simply commit and accept the consequences. The “utopian glimmer of fiction” is present in “10:04,” but it’s dim and it won’t stop flickering.

Literary canon with a troubling history

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

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Over the summer, I began a research endeavor under the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program. The Mellon Program seeks to increase the number of minorities holding PhDs in the humanities. I decided I would read four of Toni Morrison’s works and take notes in preparation for what would become my English senior paper. Most of my background as an English Literature major, naturally, centered on European literature. Coming into my final year as a Swarthmore student, I felt an obligation to engage with literature that centered on non-white individuals and communities.

I really enjoyed the experience of reading Morrison. As many who attended her recent Cooper Series talk witnessed, Morrison (in both her person and her fiction) opens our eyes to inner worlds that we could hardly imagine beforehand. I was exhilarated by the manner in which The Bluest Eye, Jazz, and Beloved expanded my mind such that I felt as if the growth came from within me. I believe that this is what the most powerful literature accomplishes. A world external to anything I’ve experienced concretely somehow gives me a feeling of rediscovery. It’s as though I have forgotten something essential, but am finally realizing it once again. When this happens I gain a sense of wholeness, enrichment, self-actualization.

Unfortunately, the responsibility of forming an argument which could be made in twenty pages threw a damp towel on the experience. Of course, I should have known that I would have to do this in the end. However, I did not foresee the tension that would come from the personal impact the works would have on me and the academic requirements I needed to apply to them. That is to say, when something really means something to you, but you’re not sure exactly what it means, it can be an extremely difficult task to form a thesis on even its smallest elements.

When it came time to start incorporating secondary sources, I wasn’t ready to so quickly impose another’s reading of the text on that invaluable first encounter. I read critical analyses unwillingly and began to wish I had chosen to do a final paper on Paradise Lost or Harry Potter. But that would simply reinforce the Euro-centric interests I had become attached to over the duration of my life as a reader. I would be taking funds from a program that wants to offer opportunities to minorities in higher-education and using them to learn more from and about white people. To make a long story short, I turned in a final paper that was fine but did not meet the expectations I initially had for it.

I did, however, enjoy the process of writing my senior colloquium paper for my French minor. I had chosen to write about the myth of Orpheus in relation to Jean Cocteau’s film adaptation of the same title. When I was a freshman I took a first year seminar about the Narcissus myth, mirrors, and reflection. This was my introduction to the English Literature Department at Swarthmore and I was enthralled not only by the story, but by the way in which a myth thousands of years old had me considering what it means to form an identity in a world of others. Since the mirror is an essential aspect of Cocteau’s film, I was excited to revisit the ideas surrounding identity that I had encountered in my English Lit courses with my French final project.

As much as I enjoyed the process of doing my French colloquium paper, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t let go of this notion of identity and otherness. I’ve possessed this nagging thought that here I am being deeply influenced by a corpus of literature coming from a culture which, at least in the past, minimally recognized the humanity of non-Europeans. Would these authors even consider me a consciousness that could grasp and be moved by the ideas they were putting down? At least with Morrison, I was convinced she would be sure of my humanity as a reader. I did not have the same sense of assuredness while reading Ovid.

Despite having these thoughts about the minds of Western writers, I have not been discouraged to the point of rejecting the literature. It’s taken some time and effort to not be overly affected by the idea that the minds from which great works of Western literature have emerged are minds that might not consider me a worthwhile reader. Though I keep reading, I believe the lens with which I read undergoes a slight shift when I remember that I am a female of African descent encountering Western literature. This final semester I am taking the English course “Tolkien and Pullman Literary Roots” taught by Craig Williamson. Both these authors’ works present important considerations about recognizing the other as a subject similar to and different from oneself. So as I delve into their English epics, I make the choice to not feel undervalued as a reader, but to acknowledge their individual efforts as writers to embrace otherness.

 

Daisy Fried ’89 returns to read poems

in Arts by

daisy-fried-jpgDaisy Fried wants you to enjoy the pain that comes with her poetry. The Swarthmore alum worked for many years at the Warren Wilson College (WWC), and has also taught at Smith College, Haverford College, Bryn Mawr College, Villanova University, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania. She has published three books of poetry: She Didn’t Mean to Do It, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again, and Women’s Poetry: Poetry and Advice. She has won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from University of Pittsburgh Press, the Cohen Award from Ploughshares, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, the Hodder Fellowship from Princeton and the Guggenheim Fellowship.

Those of us who have encountered a decent variety of creative writing know that not all styles and voices speak to us the way we’d expect. Poet and Swarthmore graduate Daisy Fried insists that any sense of dislike we encounter as we read or listen to poetry is something we should pay a great amount of attention to.

Fried teaches creative writing at the WWC MFA Program for Writers and is this year’s judge for the John Russel Hayes Poetry Prizes and the Lois Morrell Poetry Award. Fried graduated from Swarthmore in 1989 and went on to publish work in The London Review of Books, The Nation, The New Republic, American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Threepenny, Review, and Triquarterly.

For Fried, the poems that we dislike and find evoke negative emotions within us are the ones we should pay an equal amount of attention to. “If something gets me angry, if a poem gets under my skin, if I feel offended by something I ought to pay attention,” says Fried.  Reading poems one dislikes with a sense of openness provides readers the opportunity to realize what triggers them. As she told the New York Times in an interview last year, Fried finds “Sourness a kind of joy I try for intricately.” The taste of this ‘sourness’ flavors her poetry, in balance with rich beauty and the bleak modernity of iPhones, GPS and supermarkets sprinkled throughout.

In a talk she recently gave, Fried had audience members consider, “If you let content get in the way of understanding and learning from a poem you dislike, are you also letting content get in the way of understanding and learning from a poem you do like?  Do you like what you like for the wrong reasons?”  Content, Fried proposes, is not all a reader can gain from a piece. A poem that directly challenges our personal outlook or subtly irritates us can open our eyes just as much as a poem that sits well with us. “Reading it with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine.”

Daisy Fried’s poetry poignantly celebrates the nature, and the burden, of a woman’s body. In her collection, “She Didn’t Mean to Do It,” Fried depicts young girls as daughters and as individuals. She shows us mothers, and pregnant women, and old women. Her work also portrays sexualized femininity through pin up girls and porn stars. These images of the female body enrich her poetry with not just verbal eroticism, but with taste, touch and smell.

Fried’s poetry surrounding the female form is self conscious, and frequently under the scrutiny of the male gaze, as narrators move from the bathroom floor into the womb and onto the calendar on the walls. Perhaps this speaks to her idea that poetry is triumphant when it makes us uncomfortable and insecure. It is victory for her art when Fried’s work leaves us feeling vulnerable and vaguely threatened by the characters on the periphery of her work.

Despite this hovering nature of this presence on the edge of her work, Fried is never intimidated by violence and trauma. In her book, “My Brother is Getting Arrested Again,” the poet looks straight into the eye of senseless crime. Her work directly addresses tragedy, and hits the reader with painful directness. In both of these collections, her work forces the mind and psyche into grave emotional discomfort. But the grace of her words lifts up back up and into the sunlight.

In a reading she gave at St. Francis College, Fried was asked if what she writes in her poems is true. Her response was that she writes from her experience and writes from what she would say is the persona of herself. “But a lot of it is fictionalized, and a lot of it is more the emotional truth than the factual truth,” she explains. Like many other poets, Fried attempts to convey a sense of balance and imbalance in her work rather than explicitly telling what has happened to her. Story is the means by which she accomplishes this.

Fried will give a reading and announce the winners of this year’s poetry competitions on Thursday from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. in the Scheuer Room. For further information contact Professor Nathalie Anderson at nanders1@swarthmore.edu.

 

Yusef Komunyakaa to lecture on campus

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Last week, celebrated author Toni Morrison offered us a few invaluable insights regarding the unspoken truths we derive from words written on a page. She called this idea “invisible ink.” On Friday, we will hear from another Pulitzer Prize-winning author who holds that the indirect insinuations of poetry can likewise offer explicit truths.

“Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. It’s a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault,” says Yusef Komunyakaa, Professor of Creative Writing at NYU and author of the famous poem “Facing It.”

Komunyakaa, the grandson of a Trinidadian stowaway, was born in Bogalusa, La. as James William Brown. He would later reclaim his ancestral surname.

In 1969 and 1970, he served in Vietnam as a writer and editor for the military magazine. After serving in the military he received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Chicago, an Master of Arts from Colorado State University, and an Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine. From 1985-1997 he taught at Indiana University before teaching at Princeton. In 1994 he won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and has published much work on black southern life.

 Born at the dawn of the Civil Rights Era, much of Komunyakaa’s work, like Morrison’s, examines elements of American History that have remained hushed. “I excavate history. I look at lives buried under too much silence. Periods of time, like slavery, have to be revisited, reimagined, so we can move through them.” His Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems “Neon Vernacular” fuses blues and jazz rhythms to relate narratives of African-American community and the Vietnam War. Other famous works include “Dien Cai Dau” (Vietnamese for “crazy in the head”) and “I Apologize For the Eyes in my Head.

Komunyakaa calls each poem an action. Each one is a confrontation and celebration. He advises young poets not to write for others, not to write on the computer, and not to be afraid of surprising themselves.

 “He or she comes to a piece again and again. And it’s not so much to perfect a voice, but to discover a voice,” says the Komunyakaa. The poet explains that many writers stifle their own voices through attempts to project a certain voice. This often leads to inauthenticity. “Only a few people are ever brave enough to say what has informed their psyche.” Komunyakaa did not write about Vietnam until 14 years after his tour. “I had never thought about writing about it, and in a way I had been systematically writing around it.”

In an interview, Komunyakaa explains why reading aloud is a valuable tool for the editing process. “For myself, I read everything aloud as I’m writing, because the ear is a great editor. I think listening is the most important thing in the creative arts but also in life. In a highly technological society it seems to me that instruments are there to steal bits of what we call information, but it isn’t knowledge, because [knowledge] takes a dialogue. Any interesting, complex dialogue comes out of the science of listening.”

Komunyakaa will give a reading in the Scheuer Room this Friday, April 18 at 4:30 p.m. For further information contact Professor Nathalie Anderson at nanders1@swarthmore.edu.

 

Toni Morrison casts her spell

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“I’m worth it.”

A filled LPAC auditorium. A lengthy standing ovation. The moment so many have been waiting for since the start of this academic year finally came Monday night when Toni Morrison was wheeled onto LPAC Mainstage.

Dr. Weinstein’s reverent introduction of Morrison as a spokesperson for her race, a figure that has been claimed by both her time and her race, and a writer that has eluded the traps that befall an author who writes on race gave many the notion that they were soon to lay eyes on some sort of deity. What we saw instead was a smiling, white-haired, reservedly regal elderly woman with a voice to lull children to sleep.

In his introduction, Weinstein spoke of the multitude of sentiments he has experienced while reading Morrison’s works. “As a white reader, I have experienced shame at what whites have done to blacks, admiration at what blacks have survived, and pity and terror in the face of something so real.” It was gratitude, however, that he expressed towards Morrison. Gratitude for showing the injustices blacks have survived, but also, and perhaps more importantly, gratitude for trusting her imagination and conveying what it sees.

It was this notion of imagination, the individual minds of readers and the worlds they create, that Morrison focused on during her talk. She called her lecture ‘Invisible Ink’, calling it a “description of what I try to do or what I think I’m doing in my writing.”

She underlined the importance of distinguishing reading as a skill and reading as an art. She read a brief passage from Flannery O’Connor and described it as an illustration of flawless writing. What constitutes flawless writing? For Morrison, it is “writing that can be read over and over again with attentiveness.”

“I was a reader before I was a writer,” said Morrison. She recalled reading Run Jim Run and Hansel and Gretel and having so many questions about what else was going on besides what the text conveys. “Invisible Ink is what exists outside the lines and is discovered by the Right Reader.” A person who loves a particular text may not be the Right Reader for that text. For Morrison, great writing lures the reader to worlds outside the lines of the pages. The Right Reader is the one who can tap into those worlds to form a fuller understanding of the story being told.

Morrison went on to discuss the role of race and gender in the projections made by the reader. When the gender of a narrator is explicit in a text, it elicits certain responses from the reader. Similarly knowing the race of the author and/or narrator produces far more certainties for the reader than not knowing the full identity of the voice. Morrison seemed to suggest that the assumptions adopted by a reader may be put into question through the engagement of Invisible Ink. “What if we read the invisible ink and saw that it was not so?”

Recalling his first encounter with Morrison some forty years ago, Weinstein stated that Beloved “remains as shocking as when it first appeared.” He is by no means the only one who finds Morrison’s works to possess that flawlessness that allows them to be revisited time and time again. We were able to catch a glimpse of her ever resonant literary gift as she read a passage on a work in progress. “Don’t ask me anything about it,” she chuckled.

Morrison lectures, reads to delighted full house

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On April 7th, Toni Morrison spoke to a packed house – so packed that many faculty were stranded outside, forced to watch her speak on the monitors. Her reception was understandable. At 83, Morrison is one of the last twentieth-century literary heavyweights, a Nobel laureate and the author of Beloved, a book so universally lauded that, as Scott Bradfield puts it, even a mention of its name is accompanied by “a little sigh, a half-sensible expiration.” Toni Morrison is one of the few living authors who can visit a class taught on her life’s work.

Thankfully, the idol-worship has not gone to her head. She is a no-nonsense orator, conducting herself with measured self-assurance. The first part of her talk was a reading of what seems to be a previously unpublished essay, entitled “Invisible Ink,” addressing Morrison’s understanding of the relationship between reader and text. In twentieth-century literary criticism there was a split in the consideration of the right way to approach a text. On the one hand, you had those who sought authorial intent and backed the idea of a stable text with a “right” reading (“Animal Farm” is “supposed” to be read as an allegory for communism”). Then there were those who decried the intentional fallacy (the consideration of authorial intent) and advocated a plurality of readings: the text was for them a child let loose by its authorial mother, to be inscribed upon in myriad ways by a multitude of readers. Morrison attempts to bridge these two understandings with her idea of invisible ink. Put simply, invisible ink is the subtext waiting to be unlocked by the “right” reader. An example Morrison gave illustrates the point well: Faulkner is known for leaving narrative blind spots, points where information is deliberately withheld to put the reader on even footing with the characters. The “right” reader will take this as an invitation to engage even more fully with the text, to complete it in a sense, by allowing the information he gains later on to fill out the “omitted” portions of the novel; author and reader work together to write a complete text. Her method of criticism invites a multiplicity of readings, but suggests that some books will only resonate correctly with the “right” reader (as in “you’ll understand this when you’re older”). As with any other theoretical lens, this viewpoint isn’t applicable in all cases. In a sense it favors twentieth-century literature, as, beginning with the modernists, authors became increasingly interested in demanding more from their readers. Certainly “Don Quixote” does not need a “right” reader to unlock its invisible ink, if there is any. Ultimately, while “Invisible Ink” is a nice way of bridging two critical extremes, its terms feels a little euphemistic. Not that Morrison need worry. She has legions of “right” readers.

The second part of her talk was a reading from a work in progress. The passage was, as Morrison’s later work has increasingly become, concerned with voice. It read as a monologue by a “high yellow” – light-skinned African American – woman, relaying the difficult emotions she experienced when she gave birth to a “midnight-black” child. The candid nature of her dialogue, the sometimes uncomfortable personal truths the character gives voice to, are commonplace in the peculiar type of “moral” fiction Morrison seeks to write. Earlier in the day, when Morrison held a Q&A session for Professor Weinstein’s “Faulkner and Morrison” class, she spoke about her desire as an African American, sensitive as she is to the burdens of this nation’s past, to avoid writing “the melodrama of good being abused.” Thus, the violence and antipathy we find in a Morrison novel is her attempt to present “experiential truths” intended not to be ethically evaluated but experienced affectively.

At the Q&A students and faculty posed questions, and Morrison’s answers were gratifyingly honest. Even a fairly generic question (“What do you normally write on?”) prompted a thought-provoking answer. Morrison writes exclusively with a number 2 pencil on legal pad; not in itself interesting, but her rationale made one stop and think. An  irreverent gripe about the lack of resistance a modern keyboard provides turned into a critique of the deceptive formality of a word processor. Morrison told of how she always required her creative writing students turn in handwritten work lest the neatness of the typed formatting trick them into thinking their writing was better than it actually was. The pragmatism of Morrison’s argument was refreshing: neither a retreat into ludditism or a simple writer’s quirk, her decision to stick to writing with a pencil stemmed from a desire to remove all obstacles that would prevent the critical interrogation of her own work.

One student asked what he was supposed to take away from this moral universe, what insight there was to be gleaned from her ethical ambiguity. Morrison’s response – that the point was not getting, but experiencing, even if it is unpleasant to do so – was refreshing insofar as it shied away from the idea of reading as “escape.” If anything, Morrison’s work is about confrontation. “Forget about happiness,” she told the room full of students. Perhaps hyperbolic, but something we should all hear once in a while. One was reminded of a quote by Austrian Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”

 

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