academia, baltimore

Show me the money

Yesterday morning, I was out walking the dog when I ran into one of my neighbors. He told me that his wife, a research physician at Johns Hopkins, had just scored a $57 million grant. I was thrilled and amazed by this news.

Later in the  day, I was brought to tears by a woman from McElderry Park, a neighborhood on the east side of Baltimore, who told me she’d tried—and failed—to get a grant to fund a trip she’d organized to take neighborhood kids to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. This rodeo features black cowboys and cowgirls (is that really what they’re called?)—I’d never heard of it before. She (let’s call her Lisa) showed me pictures she took of the kids at the rodeo, the bronco riders, the kids playing back at home on the streets.

billpickettrodeo
Picture of Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo from bartable.com. Wish I could show you Lisa’s pictures instead!

“I’d been counting on getting this grant,” Lisa told me. “I thought I was going to get it.” But she didn’t. She was devastated.

Lisa had come to Loyola on a Saturday, as I had, to attend a workshop looking at ways for institutions to work better with communities. I was there by way of my new job at Loyola, which is all about figuring out how to connect teachers, researchers, and classrooms with communities. The workshop leaders, De’Amon Hodges and Caitlin Childs, suggested that institutions could lead better and accomplish more by “stepping back”: rather than swooping in like golden angels to “save” communities, institutions should listen to what the community wants to accomplish, responding to goals instead of needs, energies and capabilities and gifts instead of deficits and problems.

This approach, they  said, could break down barriers between institutions and communities and even lead, in De’Amon’s words, to celebration and “mutual delight.” It has an uninspiring name: assets-based community development (ABCD for short). But it’s  an inspiring approach nevertheless.

As I listened to De’Amon and Caitlin, and all of the people at the workshop, which included community activists, various Loyola people (including a few students), government officials & politicians, and people simply involved in their city neighborhoods, one thing really struck me. A big question people in the community have for institutions like Loyola is simply this: How can institutions say they are invested (in principle) in communities, when they don’t invest (in principal, i.e., dollars) in those communities? Specifically, to the people in those communities? Why is it so hard to channel institutional resources—starting with simple, cold, countable cash—to actual people?

This isn’t just about giving away money. It’s about exchanging assets. It’s about equity. If you’re going to study a community, why wouldn’t you pay the people you’re studying just as you would expect to get paid to participate in a medical trial or weight-loss study? If you’re going to ask people to give their time to tell their story or give you a tour of the neighborhood or supervise your students while they learn how to work with kids or with elderly folks or people recovering from addiction, why would you not pay them? Time, bodies, local knowledge, experience, even passion and desire: these are all assets, are they not? Shouldn’t they be recognized and valued, and made visible, as such?

This is, indeed, a conundrum. It brought to mind a meeting I had a couple of weeks ago with the director of our office of community service and advocacy at Loyola. We were discussing my budget (another uninspiring, but important, subject). She emphasized that we needed to find ways to pay community members directly, even though the university generally disapproved of this practice. I was initially horrified to learn of this. “We pay our community partners?” I remember asking.

“Yes,” she said. “We need to make sure that they remain whole, no matter what happens in their interactions with us.” Especially, when those interactions don’t work out as well as we hoped. Which inevitably happens.

I now understand this. But the stark necessity of it became clear to me yesterday. Lisa had told her story to our entire group, bringing us, as I said before, to tears. I introduced myself to her after the workshop ended, which is when she showed me the pictures. She had clearly brought them to the workshop because she needed to tell her story. She needed to show someone those pictures of the kids at the rodeo. This is what she needed to become whole: for someone to know.

She also said to me, “I came to this workshop today because I want to know, does Loyola know about McElderry Park?” This question stopped me in my tracks. Does Loyola know about this neighborhood? I honestly had no idea. I fumbled an answer about how I’d had students do service-learning at an after-school program in Collington Square, another East Side neighborhood which I thought was nearby (though I wasn’t exactly sure), and I knew we worked with other organizations in East Baltimore (though again, I wasn’t quite sure if any of them served people in her neighborhood). But I had to admit, I really didn’t know if Loyola really knew much about McElderry Park. Our efforts, frankly, are focused on neighborhoods closer to Loyola’s campus, and our relationships to specific organizations rather than to communities.

She pressed me further. “I want to know, what can Loyola do about this?” She picked up the rejection letter she had brought along with her pictures, a thin, letter-size envelope with a cellophane window and pre-printed postage, very official looking. “Does Loyola show people like me how to get grants like this?”

“Well, no,” I said.

But couldn’t we? Needn’t we? The dean of our business school told me a few weeks ago that she had helped orchestrate the establishment of a Kiva program in Baltimore (Kiva is a microlender that uses crowdfunding to fund small-scale entrepreneurs; they started in so-called developing countries but have started programs in economically depressed areas in the U.S.). That’s great. But are we just going to make the money available, or are we going to help people get it?

And how much money are we talking about? How much money can make a difference? During the workshop, De’Amon described his own foundation, The Learning Tree, which gives $500 to people with projects they want to pursue to benefit the community. During the workshop, he showed how even $500 can make a big difference.

So I asked Lisa how much money she’d applied for.

“$660,” she said. This number astonished me. It also made me recall my morning conversation with my neighbor about his wife’s $57,000,000 grant.

Johns Hopkins Hospital is not far from McElderry Park. In fact, the hospital campus forms the western border of the neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that was hit hard by the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, and remains contested gang territory. Many blame Johns Hopkins directly for some of the problems suffered by the neighborhood. Despite that, residents have doggedly remained, turning vacant lots into community gardens, blighted properties into murals, publishing a great neighborhood newspaper—and, I discovered, taking their kids to the rodeo.

rcp_081012_8585
McElderry Park, photo by Rob Cardillo (robcardillo.wordpress.com).

 

This juxtaposition got me wondering about the actual difference between institutional and community resources. So I did some research (that skill is one of my assets, right?) And here’s what I found.

In 2013, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine received over  $400,000,000from the National Institutes of Health alone. In the same year, demographic info on McElderry Park set the average home price at about $50,000, average annual income less than that. I’m not sure how much money is invested in the community in the form of schools, urban infrastructure, and social/community services, but I’m sure it comes nowhere close to $400 million dollars.

jhu
Research funding received by Johns Hopkins in 2013 and 2014 from the National Institutes of Health, from Johns Hopkins Medicine at a Glance 2014-2015, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org.
32109
2013 house values in McElderry Park, from http://www.city-data.com.

I find it interesting that the JHU graphic states that the grant money enables them to “study” over 8 million patients worldwide. Does that actually mean they are serving them, or just studying them? And I’m also curious to know, how many of those 8 million live in McElderry Park? How many of them aren’t being served because they can’t afford to pay? Maybe one of you reading this can provide some heartening answers.

Now, Loyola doesn’t get anywhere near this kind of research investment. But the disparity between the resources we have and the financial resources many in our community have access to still raises the same questions. We need to figure out a better way to get resources to people in the community who have ideas and energy and passion to make the world—their world, our world—a better place.

So, I have it in my head now to establish some kind of grantwriting workshop for community members, maybe bringing some faculty and students in the business school, but also writing, English, communication together to have workshops with people seeking grants. Nothing particularly glamorous, but obviously, necessary. Especially if they’re going to have any chance at getting those Kiva grants.

And, a coda. In this new job I am constantly reminded of community assets, assets that accrue to me and my own work. I mentioned earlier that I’d never heard of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. Who knew that there was a black rodeo circuit—and that there’s actually a rodeo in Maryland every year featuring black riders and wranglers? I teach a course on the American West, and have always been interested in the unexpected ways that ethnic and racial minorities participate in American history and culture. Lisa gave me something great I can now bring into my course on the West, and maybe incorporate into future research. I’m chagrined that I did not even thank Lisa for this gift during our brief conversation. But I hope to make it up to her someday.

 

 

academia, research

This just in!

 

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My first book, in all its academic glory.

Just this week, I discovered a new review of my first book. The book was published in 2002; the review was published in 2005—appearing in a journal I’ve never heard of before (Women: A Cultural Review)— and written by someone I don’t know, one Sarah Meer. The review was very nice (thank you, Sarah!), and I can now add it to the stack of two (2) others I know to have been published. Ever. Maybe in another 10 years I’ll find out about another review that was published in, say, 2006.

It boggles my mind that it’s taken ten years for this review to finally reach me. For whatever reason, publishers of academic books don’t seem to keep track of where their books are reviewed, or perhaps they do, and it just slips their minds to tell the authors. We are supposed to keep track of our own reviews. And reviews, as you see here, can sometimes (usually, actually) take years to appear. The wheels of academe sometimes move so slowly that it’s hard to tell they’re moving at all. To mix metaphors, I’m not going to waste my time watching the grass grow.

Of course, I seriously doubt that my book was reviewed all over the place and I just happened to miss it. But you do have to wonder if there are any others.

With a publicity system like this, who needs enemies?

It’s baffling, especially since academics increasingly need reviews to show that their work is being read and valued. Even more, given how long these sorts of books take to write, how hard they are to get published, and how few people read them, a review is like a little glimmer of light off in the distance, showing you you are not absolutely, entirely, and terribly alone in the desert.

Oh well. In case you’re curious, here’s the bit about my book. The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton, incidentally, is about a half-Chinese Canadian writer who adopted a Japanese-sounding pseudonym, Onoto Watanna, and wrote popular romance novels about geishas and the like (in the vein of Madame Butterfly) about 100 years ago. She was an opportunist and a poseur, but I argue that writers like her challenge us to rethink what it means to be an “ethnic” American writer, as well as what it means to have an “authentic” ethnic voice.

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 8.45.37 PM

If this piques your interest, you can check out books by Winnifred that have been reissued—A Japanese Nightingale (co-edited by yours truly), The Heart of Hyacinthher fictionalized autobiography, Me: A Book of Remembranceand Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model … or you can read any number of works & stories I’ve collected into the Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive, which is stored on this site. If you’re just interested in her biography (she lived a very interesting life), you should check out Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton, by my friend & fellow blogger, Diana Birchall, who also happens to be Winnifred Eaton’s granddaughter. Diana really brings Winnifred to life in all her burnished glory.

academia, writing

Full retreat

This is what my spring break (yes, it’s early!) has looked like thus far: me, my computer, stacks of books, in the library. Yep, that’s right: Profs Gone Wild!

I’ve been joined in the library this week by a half-dozen or so intrepid colleagues from around campus. We’re all trying to write. We’re all trying to shift gears from our day-to-day semesterly grind to devote some solid, untinterrupted time to our research.

Unfortunately, being on this retreat has reminded me—oh halcyon days!— of what being on sabbatical was like. Fifteen months of doing almost nothing but research. While the reminder certainly made me nostalgic, this week I also realized why I have such a hard time doing research and writing while I am also teaching. And serving on committees. And all that day-to-day semesterly grind-y crap.

I realized this week that when I am writing, a switch flips in my brain that basically makes me useless for anything but writing. On Monday, I ended the day, satisfied with the 6 or so pages I wrote, and came home with a stack of books but no backpack. Which also meant, no laptop, no notebook, no notes. (Luckily, no one uses the library during spring break, so I recovered backpack, computer, notebook, and all the next morning.) Then, after deciding on Tuesday that I wasn’t satisfied with those pages after all, I started over again, wrote another 8 pages, and went to bed, satisfied but exhausted. And then sat up bolt upright at 3am with a Great Idea and decided to start over again … at 4:30 am. And aside from a few breaks, I’ve been at it since then. A good 11-hour day of writing. If your brain isn’t a bowl of overcooked noodles after than, I’m not sure what it is.

I can’t do this and actually teach anyone about anything. I can barely dress myself this week. Luckily Matt is a good sport about all this.

I am starting to suspect that the reason why I have only been able to write in fits and starts, during breaks—mostly during the summer—is because that is, in fact, the only way I am able to write. Lots of academic productivity coaches advocate writing every day, even if it is just 30 minutes. I tried and abandoned this experiment on sabbatical, and my experience this week confirmed again that this method just doesn’t work for me.

I would love to know if it works for you!

academia, writing

Time for change

Well, the time has come: time to close down—or at least, step away from— my sabbatical blog. School’s about to begin!

I embarked on this blog a little over a year ago. In my initial post, I talked a lot about things I’d be doing over my upcoming sabbatical year– trying to finish a book, dusting off my flute, writing poetry for the first time, taking up plein-air painting. I didn’t say there, though I was certainly thinking it, that I was also blogging because I wanted to figure out how this whole social media thing worked and what it might do for me. At the same time, I also decided to actually try following and posting to Facebook, which I’d joined in 2010 or thereabouts but had never thought much of. And this past spring, I also picked up Twitter.

I did most, almost all, of the things I said I wanted to do at the outset of my sabbatical. I did not finish my book, but I knew even then that that was an unreasonable goal. I am now a flute player again, and have picked up additional crafts (as if that was ever needed). When I look back over the year, though, what really surprises me is how much more than my book I actually wrote, and how many more people I reached with my writing. And for this, I have social media to thank. So, thank you.

Academics often joke about no one reading their books. You spend years working on a book, or even getting a single article published in an academic journal, in the hopes of reaching dozens, maybe hundreds, of readers before you die. I’m not exaggerating when I say this. The royalty statements I receive from Rutgers University Press, which has published three books I’ve either written or edited, are a painful yearly reminder of all the millions of people who are not reading my books. Google Scholar tersely informs me that my first book, The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity (now that’s a title that makes you stand up and take notice!), has been cited 21 times since it came out in 2002– three times by yours truly (ha!). Articles I’ve written have been cited by other scholars numbering in the single digits, though I also know some essays are assigned as reading in American literature courses, which is perhaps more important in the grand scheme of things.

Any way you slice it, it’s a hell of a lot of effort expended to not accomplish very much. Yes, it’s frustrating. You add to this the fact that it is becoming more and more difficult all the time to even get published in an academic journal or an academic press, when you know no one will read your work when it appears in print, and you start teetering on the precipice of existential crisis. What’s the point of it all …???

In my case, the result was that I was writing less and less. Luckily, social media, mostly in the form of this blog, came to the rescue.

Since May 2014, I’ve written 80 posts and have had over 4200 documented views by some 2500 individual visitors.  I say “documented” because I discovered, much to my chagrin, that WordPress almost always underreports the number of views and visitors one actually receives. (If you want to know more about this and why this upsets me, leave a comment and I’ll explain why.)

That comes to more than a post per week, each post averaging about 1000-1200 words. And while they may not show it, I really did write these things: they have all been drafted, edited, revised, rewritten. I’ve tried not to waste your time, dear readers.

Also, as part of my Weekly Poem Project, I wrote over 20 poems, in forms ranging from the lofty (sonnet) to the absurd (clerihew). I’d initially set out to write a poem per week, which I was unable to even come close to doing, but I decided that was fine, given that I ended up caring more about writing poetry than I ever thought I would.

(Writing poetry, incidentally, was a funny thing. I had no pretensions about actually writing Poems when I originally started, but once I started to enjoy writing them, I wanted them to be good. Which made me end up writing less. A sad paradox of the writerly condition, no?)

Writing teachers and productivity gurus love to say that “writing begets writing.” And yes, it’s true. All this writing has made writing come much more easily. Listening to and responding to actual readers has made me a better writer. And readers have also brought me more projects to write. Among these:

  • The editor of The Concord Saunterer, a journal specializing in the work of Henry David Thoreau, ran across one of my posts about the unrest in Baltimore in late April and asked me to write a piece on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Baltimore for their upcoming issue on “Civil Disobedience Now.” This piece, titled “An Accidental Activist,” is in the can and should be appearing in a few months.
  • It looks like I’ll be co-editing a volume coming out of the NEH-funded Summer Institute I attended in June in New York City on The City of Print: New York and the Periodical Press, which (I hope) will include an essay from me on the professional and social networks of artist John Sloan.
  • Also coming out of the NEH institute, I hope to collaborate with one of my fellow participants on an essay about potential connections between periodical studies (my field) and communication theory (hers).
  • Oh yes, finishing my book, How the Other Half Laughs: The Comic Sensibility in American Art and Literature 1895-1920. Can’t forget about that.
  • And a new project, arising from the Weekly Poem Project: a book about poetic form, aimed at the adult writer, people who want to write poetry, either for personal edification or as a method of self-reflection. This project is just forming in my head right now so I’m not articulating it clearly, but hopefully you get the general point.

This should be enough to keep me pretty darn busy until, well, my next sabbatical in 7 years, probably! So it’s time to put the blog aside and move on. I may post periodically here if I have something of substance to say– or a poem for you to read!– but I’ve discovered that at least for now, Facebook is a fine place to post the very short observations I have about current events and the academic profession that seem to be coming to me these days. So, if you’ve been following this and would like to keep in touch, send me a friend request on FB, or follow me on Twitter.

Thanks for reading, and for helping me make the most of sabbatical. Now it’s time to enjoy what’s left of the summer!

academia, baltimore, links, print

From the hive mind: “print culture” and beyond

The term “print culture” is being bandied about a lot among grad-student types these days. I heard it used a lot when we were interviewing candidates for jobs, I hear it when I go to conferences, I see it all over the place in CFPs (calls for papers) and conference announcements.

Most of the time, people seem to be using “print culture” just to mean “stuff in print that some people might not think is literature”– that is, magazines, advertisements, newspapers, dictionaries, instruction manuals, and so on. But “print culture” is an inadequate term for what I think people are really talking about these days, which means, culture that can be examined as literature (meaning, analyzed and discussed in the way we analyze & discuss poems, fiction, and drama) but is not literary. This includes printed things like ads and dictionaries, but also, things like comic strips, which I’m studying right now, but also, social media (which includes words and language but is not “print,” per se), television, and the like.

And we also have what’s called “book culture,” which may or may not be dependent on print per se. For example, libraries are all about books, how they are collected, organized, and used; however, the fact that the books are printed is only just one element of their “bookishness.” Many have talked about the odor of books as a key aspect of book culture. And so on.

For some reason, I ran across a number of things today that address these questions, and found their juxtapositions interesting to think about. Here are the two that really got my attention:

  • Article in Baltimore Brew depicting scribal culture in books placed in parks– in Sandtown (Freddie Gray’s neighborhood) and Stony Run (a block from Loyola, used by well-off folks in Guilford, Roland Park, and Homeland neighborhoods)
  • Edith Wharton reviewing the Starbucks that is now located in her old childhood home in NYC, courtesy of TheToast.net–literary art meets flat whites and skinny lattés.

I don’t have time to post more than just the links, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on what they say about the literary, the literate, and book culture, either in the comments below or on Facebook.

(Note: if you want to comment without a WordPress account, you can– I think you just have to click on the “Change” link in the comment window and fill in your email address.)

academia, research

Scaling the walls: infiltrating the OED

Today, I tried to break into the OED. That’s the Oxford English Dictionary, in case you didn’t know.

By breaking in, I’m not trying to steal anything. The opposite, in fact–I’m trying to leave something behind.

I love dictionaries. Not in a nutty way–I don’t collect them or obsess about differences between prescriptive and descriptive lexicography or get into arguments about phonemic vs. non-phonemic pronunciation guides.

A phonetic transcription. Can you pronounce this?
While I find phonemic notation impossible to read, I also don’t care enough about it to find this cartoon very funny.

But I do love me some OED. It’s not the first English-language dictionary, nor is it the biggest dictionary in existence. However, it is one of the coolest. Most dictionaries, including the good ol’ Merriam-Webster, include just words currently in use, the thinking being that a dictionary should tell you what words mean now, how they are spelled and pronounced today, so that people can read and use them accurately and precisely now. Yes, you get an etymology which tells you the origin of the word, but the definition is pretty much restricted to its current meaning(s). The OED, in contrast, includes all of the words that have ever been commonly used in the English language– one reason why it currently contains over 600,000 words– and traces not just the different meanings words have, but how the meanings of words have changed over time. So each entry basically presents a sort of biography of the word, an overview of its entire lifespan. This is what I love about the OED: each definition tells you the word’s life-story.

How does it do this? By presenting examples of how the word has actually been used, quoting from written texts that can be positively dated, often literary ones, which makes reading the entries lots of fun. When the first edition of the OED was compiled–over the course of over forty years, beginning in 1857–the team that assembled the dictionary used millions of little slips of paper to document examples of use, and sorted them according to the different words and nuances of meaning they conveyed.

James Murray and his millions of notes that ended up making up the OED.
James Murray flanked by the millions of notes that ended up making up the OED. Love that velvet scholar’s cap–how Victorian! Maybe medieval, even. The cap I have with my regalia looks just like this one. Coincidence … ???

The compilation of the OED is a story of overweening ambition, dogged determination, lunacy, and romance. In his best-selling book The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester tells the story of W. C. Minor, who alone was responsible for tens of thousands of entries. It turns out Minor, unbeknownst to Murray, was an American Civil War veteran who had been committed to an insane asylum, and that he had submitted all those entries from his lonely room over the decades of his confinement.

What can I say? There’s a little bit of W. C. Minor in me, I guess. I’ve been submitting entries for the OED for years now, and have never yet gotten one accepted. It’s much harder to get in now than it was in Minor’s day, of course– you have to submit something that tells users something new, and something important. Something so important that it’s worth expanding the capacious girth of the OED a tiny bit further (Here’s a link to their guidelines, in case you’re interested.) Needless to say, they are very selective these days.

Nevertheless, whenever I think I’ve run across something important, I send it in. Yesterday, while finishing up revisions– finally– for an article I was asked to revise and resubmit for a journal (more on this to come), I ran across a word that did not make sense in context. The word was very small, and my photocopy very bad. I initially thought maybe I was seeing the word incorrectly. It read, “eke.” As in, “to eke out an existence.” But the context was very different. Here’s the passage, from a story written by Bruno Lessing (Rudolph Block) in 1907:

And I can assure you that it was a delight to spend an evening in that crowded café, surrounded by the murmur of foreign voices that suggested picturesqueness of all kinds, listening to the intoxicating strains of wild Romany airs, watching the various types of faces, tasting the queer-looking beverages that you had never heard of before, and, eke, eating a plate of gulyas.

Eh? Eke? this word didn’t make sense. So I looked it up on dictionary.com: a verb, “to increase; enlarge; lengthen.” Well, clearly, it’s not being used as a verb here, so that was no help. Then I turned to the old stand-by, the OED, where I found this definition:

eke, adv.: arch. Also, too, moreover; in addition.

Well, that works–no quibbles there. What interested me was the list of quotations– the word’s “biography.” The word originated in Old English; it appears in Beowulf, c. 1000 A.D. (“Dracan ec scufun, wyrm ofer weallclif,” and most of the other instances dated from before 1500. Then there’s one example from 1616, then we jump to 1760 (it appeared in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, “Supposing the wax good, and eke the thimble”). Then the final entry is dated 1856, from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Answered the young men Yes! and Yes! with lips softly breathing answered the maidens eke.”

If that last entry doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to you, you’re not alone. I find it a rather weak example. Not only is it unclear; it’s also obvious that Longfellow (as he was wont to do) was actually using the word because it was archaic. So it’s not really showing you that it would have meant anything in common parlance in 1856.

My example, however, is clearly intended to be used as daily speech. And it appears in 1907, basically extending the lifespan of the word by over 50 years. If a word were a person, wouldn’t you want to be granted 50 years more life?

So I filled out the online submission form and sent it in. I’m not particularly hopeful, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try. You’ll be the first to hear if I get in.

Lucky for me, Matt understands how I feel about dictionaries. One of my most treasured gifts from him came a year or so after we got married, when he surprised me on my birthday with the Compact OED–in a slipcase with the magnifying glass and everything. How romantic!

2-page spread from the OED, containing 18 pages. The pages are about 10 x 14" original size, then shrunk down for the Compact edition so that it can all fit in one 7-10 lb book instead of 20 big volumes. You have to read the thing with a magnifying glass. What fun!
This 2-page spread from the Compact OED contains 18 actual dictionary pages, which means you can fit all 20 big volumes of the full-size edition into 1 really big, 7-10 lb volume. The pages are reduced so much that you have to read the thing with a magnifier. What could be more fun?

Oh, and maybe you were wondering about that other word in the passage from the Bruno Lessing story, gulyas? Well, that one’s easy. It’s an alternative spelling for the Hungarian dish, goulash.

academia, research

Think. Do. Talk.

(Image courtesy of–ok, just snatched from– Sophie Deal’s What I Learnt Today blog. Please check it out here–it’s cute!)

Aside from publishing, not perishing, and teaching, academics– that fancy name for college professors– are expected to talk. We talk to our students, our colleagues, to fellow scholars. We are supposed to be good at talking. However, unlike people like Bill Clinton and Toni Morrison, who can command over $100,000 in speaking fees for a single engagement (Clinton reportedly has received $795,000 for a single appearance!), most academics speak for free. And some academics you see popping up on various cable news shows and internet sites– Paul Krugman, Henry Louis Gates, Melissa Harris-Perry, to name a few– seem to be so eager to tell you what they think, about what they do and do not know about, that you think they’d be willing to pay you for the privilege.

I’m not one of those people. Mostly, I’m terrified of speaking in public. I’m much more comfortable writing, and having people read what I write. This blog, in fact, is part of my self-imposed regimen/therapy to get me more comfortable about telling other people what I’m thinking. (Thanks to all of you who indulge me in this.) And I think that writing this blog has actually helped me overcome some of my fears about talking about what I do, what I am trying to say, and what I think.

It may be because of this blog that I surfaced from my sabbatical to speak– briefly– I mean, really briefly– I mean, for ten minutes– to people on campus about my research. I did so when our university’s library solicited faculty to participate in their efforts to highlight faculty research. Seven of us were asked to speak for 10 minutes each, and the talks were open to the whole university community.

Even though I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about and preparing for this, I’m really glad that I did it. People seemed interested; they laughed when they were supposed to laugh. Several introduced themselves to me afterward and told me they now wanted to read my book. It actually ended up being quite … fun! I never thought I’d say that!

One thing that may seem counterintuitive to people not accustomed to public speaking is that it’s actually quite difficult to give a very short speech. Like me, you probably remember having to give a 2-minute or 5-minute speech for a required Public Speaking class in tenth grade and thinking it took an impossible number of words to fill the time. What you probably didn’t realize is that all those words were required because you were speaking at a gazillion miles per hour, and your heart was cracking your sternum because it was pounding so hard and you were choking from both a surfeit and absence of saliva and sweating in uncomfortable places and thinking about how you really need to pee and mostly, just wanting to die. If you didn’t feel this way in high school speech class, I very much envy you.

Ironically, of course, it seems that once one gets used to speaking, it gets harder and harder to rein oneself in. It gets easier to go on, and on, and on. (Powerpoint, it seems, has made the problem even worse.) When I first started teaching, I found it difficult to fill a 50-minute class, even when most of it was discussion. Now, my 75-minute classes constantly run over. So being asked to speak for only 10 minutes about my research, I realized, would be a real challenge.

I decided to write out my remarks so that I’d be sure to get in the points I wanted to make. And I realized that in doing so, I’d be able to share my talk with you on the blog. So, here is the talk I gave yesterday– it’s not about the comics book I’m working on right now, but the last book I published: Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner. Enjoy!


Freedom’s Witness: or, The Book That Would Not Go Away

The words that became the book Freedom’s Witness first popped into my field of vision about ten years ago. Words like “timberhead,” “flim-flam,” “noddles.” Phrases like “Snake-hearted squatter-smatters.” “Hydrophobic dropsy-headed oligarchy.” Words in all capital letters and italics, for even greater emphasis.

These words did not appear in a speech by Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or in a book by Lewis Carroll. I was seeing them in an 1865 issue of an African American church newspaper called the Christian Recorder. At the time, back in 2005, I was under a tight deadline. I’d been asked to write an essay on one of the first known African American novels, The Curse of Caste by Julia C. Collins, and the only available text of the novel was the one that had been serialized in the Christian Recorder. And the only version of the Christian Recorder that was available at the time was on microfilm. So I was reading all 25+ installments of Collins’s novel inch by inch, column by column, in very small, frequently illegible type, scrolling up and down the long columns that snaked down the dim screen of the microfilm reader.

The Curse of Caste, while a very interesting text to analyze, was not much fun to read. A classic “tragic mulatta” tale, it was sentimental, overwrought, and maudlin. My eye kept being drawn to those strange words and phrases appearing the next column over. As the weeks passed, I realized that the columns my eye kept catching on all had the same byline: the initials “H.M.T.” I tried to ignore H.M.T., but found it impossible.

I became fascinated by the story H.M.T. was telling from week to week—a story he was in the process of living, unlike the story Julia C. Collins was in the process of fabricating. He was in the Union Army, I learned, serving in Virginia, then North Carolina. He was on the battlefield, and rode a horse, but was unarmed. He was a preacher, it turned out: a chaplain for the newly formed black regiments of the Union army. As a chaplain, he dodged “cannon and grape” with the rest of the soldiers. He was afraid he would drown at sea. He worried for his life, and the lives of his “brave boys.” He consoled them as they lay dying, and wrote letters to their wives, their fathers, their mothers, if they didn’t make it—or even if they did.

He taught his soldiers how to read and collected hundreds, if not thousands, of books, bibles, and newspapers for them. He preached on the battlefield, in the homes of free blacks, in town courthouses—in the courthouses, much to the chagrin of defeated white southerners, who found the mere sight of him at the lectern “as much gospel as they could swallow in one week.” He described Jefferson Davis as a man of “bestial vices.” But he was also suspicious of Lincoln, describing his preliminary emancipation proclamation as “one of the most ingenious subterfuges to pacify the humane and philanthropic hearts of the country.” (He later changed his mind about Lincoln.) And always, always, he trumpeted the bravery of black soldiers, correcting the popular perception that African American soldiers would flee or simply surrender themselves in the face of battle.

After I finished the essay on The Curse of Caste, I moved on to other research projects. But I kept thinking about H.M.T., and periodically went back to the microfilm to find and read more of his columns. I deduced that the initials corresponded to the name Henry McNeal Turner. Once I knew who H.M.T. was, I was able to find out much more about this mysterious, charismatic writer. He was the pastor of the Israel A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C, and a rising star within the denomination. He had lobbied for the enlistment of black soldiers, and was one of the army’s most active recruiters. To recognize his efforts, he was named chaplain of the 1st U.S Colored Troops, becoming not just one of the first black chaplains in the U.S. Army, but one of its first black officers.

With the help of an undergraduate research assistant—Emily Oswald, class of 2006—I located and then transcribed all of Turner’s columns, totaling some 85,000-90,000 words. Turner’s use of initials, it turned out, was the only circumspect thing about him. I wasn’t sure what to do with all this material. I really knew nothing about the A.M.E. Church, and much of Turner’s writing concerned church governance, annual conferences, and debates on theological issues. But I thought that if Turner’s voice was able to reach me through the hazy blur of microfilm, it was a voice others would find worth hearing. His muscular, forceful, yet often colloquial language contrasted with both the sentimental outpourings of writers like Collins, and the finely honed rhetoric of Frederick Douglass. I wanted people to appreciate Turner as a prose stylist, not simply as an eyewitness.

I tentatively shopped a proposal to a few presses, where it generated some interest—as a history text. “You’ll need to get a historian to write the introduction,” I was told. “And he (yes, they all said ‘he’) will have to help you write the notes.” No kidding. Civil War history is so fraught with conflict—among historians, re-enactors, enthusiasts, and demagogues—I didn’t want to touch this with a twenty-foot pole. I asked a few historians I knew if they knew anyone who’d be interested. I got no leads. I even offered to give away the transcription files, but got no takers. Historians, I learned, aren’t naturally inclined to be editors.

So the manuscript sat. For years. Then came the Civil War sesquicentennial five years ago. The hoopla surrounding the 150th anniversary of the war finally got me motivated to do something. I decided to take on the historical research myself, and spent a year and a half learning about the various battles that took place on the Virginia front near the end of the war, about the debates surrounding the enlistment of black soldiers, about A.M.E. church hierarchy and church history, about Turner himself. I annotated the text and wrote an introduction that addressed Turner’s historical importance as well as his importance as a writer. This time, when I shopped the book proposal, publishers, as I predicted, wanted to take advantage of the sesquicentennial. I was able to get the book under contract with West Virginia University Press, the first place I tried. And West Virginia was able to find a Civil War historian where I could not; he (yes, it was a he after all—Aaron Sheehan-Dean, an endowed chair of Civil War history at West Virginia University) wrote a lovely preface that gave the book some historical cred. Freedom’s Witness finally appeared in spring 2013.

Now that the book has come out, I can finally put a big “THE END” on the Book That Would Not Go Away. I didn’t look for H.M.T.; often it seems that Turner came looking for me. But once he got his tenterhooks in, he never let go. Freedom’s Witness is an odd book in my scholarship, being somewhat out of field—my research specialization is in Progressive Era American literature and culture, and I certainly never had any interest in the Civil War before I edited this book. But it is most certainly the result of my research in periodicals. And I guess this is the last point that I’d like to make. We who study periodicals insist that magazines and newspapers are more than a collection of individual texts. An issue is an assemblage of interrelated texts, each providing part of the context within which the others are read; we like to say that “texts published in periodicals must be considered within their publication context.” Freedom’s Witness, in a sense, was an accidental result of a very conscious process. I found H.M.T. because I was trying to place Julia C. Collins’s The Curse of Caste within the context of The Christian Recorder. Unexpectedly, Turner, who provided a part of this publication context, came into view as a new text.

I think that our suspicion of religion, as well as our assumption that periodicals are purely ephemeral, have prevented us from recognizing the Christian Recorder as a rich vein of literary ore. We need to see publications like church newspapers as important outlets for creative expression, especially for marginalized populations that lacked access to mainstream publishing networks and lacked the capital to publish books on their own. The Christian Recorder published novels, not just by Collins, but by well-known African American writers including Frances Watkins Harper; they also published memoirs, speeches, sermons, short fiction, and poetry, all interspersed with “the news.” Taken together, these texts show us the richness and variety of African American (not to mention American) literary expression during a period once known almost solely for the slave narrative.

In the closing weeks of the war, Turner wrote, “I have seen war wonders.” I hope you’ll give Turner a chance to show these wonders to you for himself. The book is available for widespread course adoption. Tell your colleagues! Send a copy to a friend in honor of Black History Month! Like Freedom’s Witness’s Facebook page! Or borrow it from the library. Having wrested Turner from the pit of silence, I hope you’ll listen to what he has to say.