Category Archives: Liberal Arts

Conference Opportunity for FMU English Majors

Calling All English Majors!

Apply for a full-funded trip to the Dickens Universe Conference at the University of California, Santa Cruz from August 2-9, 2014. 

Email letters of interest to Dr. England by April 24th! More information on the application process and the Dickens Universe can be found below and on this flyer.

dickens

The Dickens Universe

The Dickens Universe is a unique week-long conference that focuses on one work by the Victorian writer Charles Dickens each year. This format allows its participants to fully prepare for an in-depth, scholarly experience that will include lectures by outstanding professionals in the field, discussions groups, and even Victorian-themed activities (yes, there will be lots of tea and even a ball).

For FMU English majors interested in increasing their knowledge of English Studies and who have experience reading nineteenth-century literature, this is an incomparable opportunity to learn from leading scholars while also experiencing the Pacific Ocean views, redwood forests, and California culture of Santa Cruz.

For more information, visit the Dickens Universe website or watch “The Dickens Project Mini Documentary” on YouTube.

Dr. England, Trip Coordinator

Dr. England (a three-time veteran of the Universe) will be accompanying selected students and preparing them for this year’s conference on Our Mutual Friend through reading and writing activities.

Application Process

To apply, send a short email to c e n g l a n d [at] f m a r i o n [dot] e d u by April 24th. Your email should briefly describe your career goals and past experience with British nineteenth-century literature. Strong candidates will be asked for an interview. All majors (including graduating seniors) are strongly encouraged to apply. 

Apply today! The application deadline is April 24th.

Conferences and Community: The Social Side of Academia

In this post, Dr. Veenstra describes what happens at academic conferences and notes some memorable learning experiences from conferences she’s attended. She also explores how conferences nourish vital social and intellectual communities in academia.

Every February, the University of Louisville hosts their conference on literature and culture since 1900. Almost every February, I am one of the many hundreds of academics and independent scholars that flock to the city of bourbon, basketball, and derbies. It has become a tradition for me and for many of my colleagues from graduate school, who first started attending the conference under the guidance of our advisors. In fact, it feels much like a mini-reunion each year, as we come together again, from increasingly diverse locations and jobs.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user sniggie

Once we were all in graduate school together at Michigan State University and we clung to each other out of excitement – who doesn’t love continuing conversations about Jean Baudrillard or Virginia Woolf over coffee? – or out of desperation – at the end of the semester, with 40 pages of seminar papers to write and even more grading to do, we needed all the friends and commiseration  we could find – or out of genuine affection. Indeed, I met some truly amazing people in graduate school. Not only are they smart and committed to both the intellectual life and the service of teaching, but they are also genuinely interesting people.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user lilcrabbygal

I don’t use that word lightly—interesting. What I mean to say is that they helped me see the world in a different way as we talked about literature, theory, teaching, and life. And, without exception, they knew how to laugh and make others laugh. In hindsight, I am pleased to discover that, although we were engaged in a deeply serious endeavor, we somehow managed not to take ourselves too seriously. And that makes for true character. It’s easy to get beaten down by grad school and the pressures of making it in the world, especially when you’re living on the meager wages of a graduate student and pondering the increasing difficulty of landing a job as an English professor. But if you can make it through that and be able to laugh about the absurdity that is academia  or even the absurdity of being an adult, then your character has been forged in just the right way—you remain open to the possibilities of the world, don’t ignore the harsh and unfair truths that come at you every day, and remember that we are all in this together, so we might as well make friends.

And that brings me back around to the conference. Sure, I ran into people I knew from “back in the day.” But every year I see more familiar faces that are part of a different community – the mobile collection of scholars, thinkers, and fans of literature and culture that are a distinct hallmark of academia. As a scholar of modernist literature, I also attend the Modernist Studies Association conference most years. I start to see overlap between attendees at the two conferences, and we are able to follow the development of eachother’s ideas from year to year. Some of the people I have met at conferences were introduced to me first through their papers and ideas, and then I got to meet them in person. Some of these people – often the keynote speakers – I met long ago through their writings, and it is a curious phenomenon indeed to see the physical person who has produced such work. They are all just people like us, people who started plugging away at some ideas decades ago and are still engaged in the process of searching for and creating new knowledge.

Sylvia Plath’s copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Photo courtesy of Dr. Veenstra. All rights reserved.

This year, I heard noted feminist scholar Jane Marcus speak about Adrienne Rich, her friend, fellow feminist, and poet who passed away last year. Afterwards, I joined her and a small group of others to see an exhibit displayed for us by the University of Louisville’s special collections librarian. Included in this display were some rare editions of books by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.  Many of those in the library, Jane Marcus included, were thrilled to see a copy of A Room of One’s Own with Woolf’s signature on the title page. My favorite book was the copy of Woolf’s novel Orlando, which had been owned by Sylvia Plath. In the first page of the book, Plath had taped a newspaper clipping, a photo of Woolf with the caption “morbidly affected” underneath. What a delightful discovery to make – how one author, clearly influenced by Woolf herself – chose to think of this past icon, through a lens that intensified her complex and ultimately disturbing emotional life.

Why go to a conference? I am struck by the generosity of all the people I meet, people who are deeply invested in their work and in the collective endeavor of intellectual discovery that goes on display at conferences. The librarian was a scholar in her own right, and she was eager to help others with their research interests. Within the conference itself, after papers are presented, audience members often ask questions and suggest ideas that help expand the thinking of the presenter. Since there is a healthy mix of graduate students and established scholars, there are always moments when the older generation reaches out to help the younger generation in their work. Many years ago at one of the conferences of the Modernist Studies Association, I added my thoughts during the Q&A portion of a panel and mentioned that I was working on Ford Madox Ford.  Afterwards, Max Saunders – author of a biography of Ford and one-time Chair of the Ford Madox Ford Society – came up to me to express his gratitude that the younger generation was continuing work on this author in whom he was so deeply invested.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Eric Mills

I always return from conferences reinvigorated to do my work as a scholar and a teacher. I am reminded of what I love about this field—namely, how one’s mind can get expanded over and over again by the thoughts of other people. I used to find this sensation somewhat intimidating and overwhelming, especially when it seemed to suggest that my research had only scratched the surface of something that had turned out to be much larger than I had initially imagined. I felt that there was so much to know that I had not accounted for in my research, and I despaired at ever mastering it all. Now I am pleased to realize that it’s true – the quest for knowledge is indeed endless – but it is much less solitary than it appears at first glance. At conferences, in the classroom, in coffee shops, and through the many publications that connect academics, there is a thriving community of people who take pleasure in the quest, and who invite the next generation to add their voices.

Course Spotlight: Advanced Study in Critical Theory and Literature

This post is by Ms. Natalie Mahaffey, an instructor in the English Department and FMU alumna. She describes the role critical theory played in her successful transition from undergraduate to graduate studies. During spring semesters, the English Department offers a course in critical theory, ENG 465: Advanced Study in Critical Theory and Literature, which is open to majors and minors.

When I graduated from Francis Marion University in 2008 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English, I felt good about where I was going in life. I had an excellent GPA, a half dozen conference presentations, published poetry, and an English Award under my belt.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user origamidon

But, I wasn’t dumb to the fact that I was a very big fish about to become a very small minnow at Clemson University. That was fine with me, though. I was going to Clemson to get my Master’s degree in Literature, and all I cared about was getting through my two years unscathed with my academic reputation still intact.

However, as I sat through my first few months of Literature courses at Clemson, I began to realize something. In a class of twenty new graduate students, I was one of the only ones with any sort of experience presenting at conferences, and even stranger, one of the only ones who had ever had to deal with critical theory.

I remember sitting in on conversations and hearing students apply theory without realizing they were applying theory. They’d graze the surface of theory, only to let me down by the end of the conversation because they never quite got there. In the mean time, I was busy reading texts and delving into critical analyses all based in different forms of theory. Post-Structuralism. Deconstruction. Feminism. Marxism. Psychoanalysis. If I was writing a paper, theory was making an appearance.

I finally got brave enough to ask some of my peers about their background in critical theory, only to learn they’d never been introduced to theory as undergrads. Yes, they’d analyzed texts, but they’d never had an official learning experience that involved any sort of theory. I thought back to my undergrad courses, thought of Dr. David Cowles in English 465 cramming critical theory down my throat (because, really, that was the only way I was going to allow myself to learn theory), thought of the times I’d flung my theory book against a wall in frustration, only to pick it back up and start again. The memories made me cringe, glad that I’d survived that time in undergrad; but, those memories also made me exceptionally grateful for my experience as a student in Francis Marion’s English Department.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user scrappy annie

When I went to grad school, I was prepared. I was able to attack my work with confidence because I was not learning brand new material while some of my peers struggled; I was simply learning how to apply it in brand new ways. Some of my peers used to scoff at the fact that I came from such a small liberal arts school in a town they’d never heard of, but my small liberal arts school taught me what was necessary to succeed in grad school. I graduated from Clemson with a 4.0. I consider that Francis Marion’s 4.0 as much as it is mine. I may have worked for it, but the English Department at FMU gave me the tools to use to earn that GPA. Not so shabby for a little minnow in a sea of students.

“Doing” English in the 21st Century

 

In this post, Dr. Clemons considers the practice of literary studies today, a question she is exploring with her students this semester in Foundations of Literary Study.

I opened my Foundations of Literary Study (English 300) class a few weeks ago with a difficult question: “What does it mean to study English in the academy today? What do we study when we study ‘English’?” In part, I did so to frame our discussions for the semester: the class introduces students to the “research methodologies…[and] literary theories…[needed] to read and respond to poetry, fiction, and drama.” At the same time, I also wanted to prepare students for the inevitable, uncomfortable moment, typically at a family holiday meal, when someone asks, “So, what are you going to do with that English degree?” Barring a quote from Avenue Q to fill the awkward gap, I wanted my students to have an answer.

But I wanted one, too. Because thirteen years after hesitantly declaring myself an English major, I’m still not always sure what it is I’m doing.

Worldle of text in this blog post. Make your own at wordle.net.

Take the list our class developed of “Things English Majors Study.” At first, the answers were pretty typical. Shakespeare made an appearance. Twice. But then the list got much more interesting (if I may say so). Remembering the MLA’s mission statement we read, students added “folklore” to the list. Then “Business writing.” Then “Poetry writing.” Followed by “How to teach writing.” Then a tentative “Rhetoric?” During a lull, I asked them to think about courses they’d taken or seen listed at FMU. This netted quick responses of “African American Literature” and “Gender Studies” and “Literary Theory” and “Film and Mass Media.” One person offered enthusiastically, “History of the English Language and Grammar.” Someone else groaned. By the end of that discussion, the list covered most of the board, and I asked the question again: What does it mean to be an English major?

My students are still ruminating over that question. (I’m giving them until April.) Here and now, though, I want to consider the temporal part of this question: What does it mean to be in English today? That, to me, is the difficult part of the equation. Perhaps six or seven decades ago, one could comfortably state that English majors were people who read and were “cultured” in the classics of literature. They spent their time considering the major questions of literary study–What does this piece mean? How does it convey this message, and does it do so successfully? What makes this piece a Great Work? Frankly, these were not the reasons why I grudgingly signed on to get a BA in English. I was lucky enough that, in a cornfield in Ohio, I was allowed to ask the kinds of questions I wanted to ask, because these other approaches, this “Cultural Turn,” was what made it all worth it to me.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user untitled projects

Instead of looking at the canon, I finished my honors thesis on Science Fiction (the good and the bad, I might add). Similarly, although I took Shakespeare, I also took Mass Media (because how do we get Shakespeare these days, except through Kenneth Branagh?). While I enjoyed the seminar-style Modernist Poetry, I loved my Film and Violence course. And although it’s impossible to hate a course on PostModern Southern Religious Writers, my course in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory changed how I read Flannery O’Connor and Graham Green. Today’s “English” field is no longer stuck within the text but is cutting across multiple, related fields. Our departmental website’s homepage is a testament to this fact.

Further, today’s literature is not passively, privately consumed years after it was produced. Today’s literature–even literature written “before the internet”–is a visibly living part of the fabric of our culture. While this might have always been true, literature and its effects are trackable not just by which major critic is reviewing what, but by the girl on the street tweeting about her newfound love for Whitman (hey, it could happen. Somewhere.). Today’s top authors don’t just do the lecture circuits and then retire to their mountain retreats in New England (admit it: that’s what you picture): They go out, they talk to people. They get new ideas from their readers. They use what little fame they have for activism or they just geek out, sometimes with their fans.

Do you tweet? CC-licensed photo by flickr user cobalt123.

Nor does reading only encompass sitting alone in a coffee shop. Facebook links up communities of readers. You can track what’s on your BFF’s virtual shelf with multiple apps. Amazon’s algorithm can pick out your new favorite book. You can listen to your favorite book on your iWhatever. IMDB can help you find when the movie or TV rights got sold, and you can debate on Tumblr who should be cast, complete with sample pics. If you’re really brave, you can stumble your way into the world of fandom and write your own version. Don’t like how Darcy treats Elizabeth? Fix it by adding an explanatory scene. Or have the Lizzie hook up with Iron Man when the Avengers crash the party thanks to a time traveling trope–the story is yours. (And then email it to me, so I can examine what social function this story fulfills for the reader and writer.)

In recent months, liberal arts schools have been working to show the public why we exist or what can be gained by doing what we do. Most of them, rightly so, point to studies that show what employers want is not easily quantifiable skills, but training in communication, critical thinking, and problem solving. This, we argue, is what the liberal arts, specifically English, gets us. Being an English major in the 21st century means learning how to read the world and, more importantly, respond to it. 

This, of course, is a very long answer to give when you get the “English major, huh. So what are you going to do with that?” question. Feel free to edit it down and make it your own. Start a tumblr. Create a Facebook page. Write a post for our departmental blog.

And if you’re one of my students in ENG 300 this semester: I’m still looking for responses to another question: “What does it mean to study English in the academy today? What do we study when we study ‘English’?” I hope that by the end of the course, you’ve found not only your answer, but your own way to express it as well.

 

English All Over Again

Department of English professor Dr. Will Duffy explains why he majored in English as an undergraduate — and why he’d do it “all over again” if he was starting college today.

Not too long ago a friend from college asked me what I would major in if I could turn back the clock and do college all over again. My friend had no ulterior motive with the question; it was just one of those random “what if” conversations we sometimes share with our friends.

I thought about the question for a moment.

One answer I considered was communications, but I quickly dismissed this response because in communications programs there is very little by way of philosophy. When you study literature and writing in an English program, you ask questions about not only what makes for effective communication, but you also study the reasons why people think and act—and speak and write!—in the ways that they do.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Leo Reynolds

I don’t mean to sound critical of my colleagues in  communications departments, but I’ve always framed the difference between English and communications using that aphorism about teaching another person to fish. You can give someone a fish, and feed him for a day, or teach someone to fish….well, you know how it ends. English programs dive into the why of in addition to the how.

Another answer I considered was economics. Economics is interesting because there is a strong philosophical dimension to it (you have to know how to think), as well it requires a cursory knowledge of psychology and rhetoric (you have to understand how other people think, and what persuades them). The problem with economics, however, is that you also have to know math. Without going into details, I’ll just say that math and I broke up years ago. It was a messy break-up, too. We hardly even talk anymore.

A third possibility I considered was religious studies. I did then and continue still to enjoy the study of religion, in particular the philosophy of religion. That is, I have no real interest in theological debates but I do love talking about the ways that religious belief influence and inform how we see the world in general. To be honest, I have nothing negative to say about religious studies; in fact, if you’re an FMU student, I encourage you take as many classes with Professor Blackwell as possible. But would I want to have majored in religious studies if I could do college all over again? No, but not because I don’t think it is a valuable area of study, but rather because I fell in love with the study of rhetoric as an English major, which allows me to study religion as a rhetorician.

After running through these answers in my head, I finally answered my friend’s question by stating that I’d major in English all over again. I justified my answer by noting how everything that interests me—philosophy, reading, writing, rhetoric, religion—I can “do” as an English major. Sure, English might not be a particularly sexy degree, but it’s certainly comprehensive and it’s even practical. This latter characteristic of an English degree might not be obvious on the surface, but studying English requires disciplined work in reading, thinking, analyzing, and writing–skills employers value.

Moreover, and more importantly, majoring in English gives you the freedom to define and in turn pursue your own particular interests. If you like creative work, you can learn to write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. If you like analytical work, you can pick schools of literature in which to develop specialized knowledge and experience. If you like art and design, you can study professional writing and rhetoric and put your education to work in the fields of public relations and communications. If you’re like me, you enjoy reading and writing about ways that people produce arguments about the world around them and how they share these ideas in the public sphere. This interest is what led me to pursue graduate study in Rhetoric and Composition (a sub-discipline of English!), which in turn allowed me to become a university professor.

The point of this story, I guess, is that I’m not at all surprised why I answered my friend’s question the way I did. If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I have reaped lots of value from my experience as an English major. I’ve never second-guessed this decision.

I share these thoughts here because I’ve recently had several conversations with FMU students who’ve decided to switch their major to English (usually from something else!), or who’ve decided to minor in English. One of these students in particular, let’s call her Emily, came by my office early in the semester to tell me this news. “Great,” I said. “Good for you.” But clearly my response wasn’t adequate. This student wanted something more from our exchange because she kept lingering in the doorway. “I just feel like I have to tell people,” she said. “I don’t know why.” While we didn’t have a long discussion, this student explained this was the first decision she’s made about her college career that she feels has been totally her decision. Declaring a major in English was obviously a kind of affirmation for this student—a way for her to tell her friends and family that she has found something she loves to do and that she’s going to do it.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user nvk_

I love witnessing these moments. I’ve had ones like that myself. It’s a fun thing to recognize when another person discovers a vocation that excites them. Too often I see college students simply go through the motions; checking off courses one by one; completing their schoolwork with little passion, little care. English is an area of study that grabs hold of you and gets you excited about the how things like narrative, argument, and the rendering of experience keeps our world going. Well, it will if you let it. Jump in, I always tell my students.

If any of you have stories about your “conversion” to English as a major or minor, please share them here!