Sunday, December 8, 2013

A pause, perhaps permanently

Clearly, I have managed to avoid updating this blog recently. I've got a lot going on, and I don't have much time to sit and write about what I'm reading very much these days.

So I'm going to officially put this particular project on hold.

I think it's time to make the move to a shorter form -- and probably a bit away from these longer posts about what I'm reading.  I'm going to do that over here, which is something I originally started as a way to collect inspiration for a couple of my on-going projects.  But I've been so inspired by my friend's observational blog, that I think I'm going to try to move to that shorter form.

I've also got this photoblog going, which I started as part of the book that Bradley and I have written together, but has also sort of morphed into its own thing.

Anyway. This has been a good space for me. I think it's helped me think about things more clearly -- and it's definitely made me think about my writing a lot.

So ... for now ... so long to this space.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Local history (a favorite topic)

I made the mistake (?) of letting it slip that I'm interested in the history of any place I live -- at least, I let it slip to my landlady, who is a big player in the local historical association.  She lent me a book about the area, one written in the 1970s to commemorate some local business' anniversary, that covers a great deal of local history, but with a rather gossipy tone.  Having just started a book, I initially put it aside -- but she kept asking me what I thought of it, so I figured I better at least begin looking at it.

It is, of course, quite interesting -- and more importantly, it's sent me to read everything that I can find online.  And I've started to map out where some of the
Erastus Bowe founded the 1st tavern
more obscure historical markers in this county -- and the surrounding counties -- are located.  I'm particularly interested in the fact that the town was built initially as a fort during the latter days of the War of 1812, primarily as a military depot.  There are all sorts of tantalizing stories, including the explanation that one of the earliest settlers realized that he should build a tavern on the site (and the town grew from there ...).

I've become most interested in the even earlier story of William Crawford, who led an expedition into this area, but was captured and executed by the local Native Americans in retaliation for an American-led massacre elsewhere in Ohio.  Anyway, his execution was rather gruesome (which is not to discount the gruesomeness of a massacre), and it happened within about 30 minutes of my town.  Most interesting to me is that there's a monument on the site, called (appropriately) the Crawford Burn Site Monument.  I'm terribly excited to go find it.  Because I am morbid, apparently.

Monday, September 23, 2013


I've been away from this space for quite some time, I realize. I think I've said that in the last several posts. I go away for a bit, always with the intention of getting back at it, but never quite get there, because I've got so many things going on of late. (As an academic, I'm wont to do that. As a person, at the moment, I've not been particularly interested in public reflection on much of anything, positive or negative.)

But I've been thinking about a book I'm currently reading -- admittedly on among several books at the moment -- and a talk given by the author of that book a couple of weeks ago.  I recently started reading Pico Iyer's The Global Soul, and while I haven't gotten too far into it, I've been thinking a lot about the central figure of the book: that global soul who has no single home or homeland; the global soul who is redefining what "home" even means. Iyer talked about this a great deal a few weeks ago, when I heard him speak at St. Lawrence University.

And the idea has been sticking with me since then, in no small part because I identify with that notion.  I grew up moving around the country, and while I'm not quite as displaced from my "home" as my brother -- who is, essentially, an ex-pat living on Hokkaido -- I still don't have a single place that I identify as my hometown. When people ask me where I'm from, I tell them where I graduated from high school and where I went to college -- acknowledging obliquely that I didn't start there.  I suppose my "home town" is Aurora, but my mom and my step-dad don't live in the house that we lived in more than a decade ago, so I don't really have a space to go back to (not a complaint, just an observation).  Because we moved several times -- South Carolina to Tennessee to Minnesota to Illinois -- and because I've moved as an adult -- Missouri to Florida to North Carolina -- I'm not quite sure where I totally "belong."  And now, more than ever, I'm feeling a bit displaced altogether.  I own a house (which I'm trying to sell) in rural North Carolina; my husband and my cats and most of my furniture is in upstate New York (where I also spent most of my summer); and I work and primarily live in Ohio.  It's a bit bewildering at times.  And at the very least, if I wake up in the middle of the night, unsure of where I am, I'm liable to run into furniture -- I have the bruises to prove it.

While this is disorienting to some degrees, it also means that I am able to look around and find things to appreciate anywhere and everywhere.  And that's even more true when I'm with my spouse, my friends and my family (though I'm happy to report that I've got friends all over the place as well).  Sometimes there is loneliness.  But more often that solitude is time for reflection and creative work, for reading and scholarship.

I am perhaps not quite so global as many people -- by choice or by necessity -- but I am certainly seeing myself more and more a citizen of whatever place I am for the moment. The transience of my abode does not matter.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Pop Adaptations: Kill Shakespeare, Volume One

Last night, I finished reading the first volume of Kill Shakespeare (for those of you not in the know, it's a comic book that re-imagines a number of Shakespearean characters in a timeline in between acts 4 and 5 of Hamlet).  The plot revolves around a number of characters -- both good and bad -- seeking out the wizard Shakespeare, with the intent either to kill him or to reinstate him as the savior of the wounded land.  Pretty standard comic book fare, in some ways, but lots of fun.

I think, overall, the reception of the book has been pretty good in general.  But the negative reviews of it are hilariously negative.  When the book came out a few years ago, one reviewer in particular hated the book intensely.  That review is so melodramatic and pretentious, that I'll just let you go read it. I'm not going to respond to every point made in the review, but I do want to address a couple of things in it.  Mostly, though, I want to draw your attention to it, because we picked up the books at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Toronto -- even getting the books signed by one of the authors.  Many academics are having a good time with this -- most copies of the book were sold, and at some points the table was surrounded by more people than the tables of the major academic publishers.  That review reminds me that lots and lots of people take umbrage at people trying to play around with Shakespeare, people trying to do something different with the works that are so identified with the center of our literary tradition.

Frankly, it's because people take Shakespeare far too seriously.  And for some people, George Bernard Shaw's term "bardolatry" clearly fits.*

I want to clarify, though. I love Shakespeare. While he wasn't my primary author in my dissertation, I certainly wrote about him (Merry Wives of Windsor, represent!).** I gave a number of public lectures on his work at my last institution. I've seen a lot of live versions of his plays. I've seen professional versions. I've seen community theater. I've watched films.*** I enjoy it.  It's part of who I am, both personally and professionally.

But people who bardolatrize don't see it the same way that I do.  Part of the problem is that there's a strain of thinking that refuses any attempt to have fun with Shakespeare.  And there's a weird suggestion in that review that somehow Shakespeare is in trouble.  From the review:

Everyone hates Shakespeare. I know it. You know it. So, let’s move on.
WHY does everyone hate Shakespeare?
Because if you don’t know what you are doing and you try to produce one of the plays or teach it to students in school, the experience is utter torture. No one will understand it. No one will care to try and understand it. No one will be able to explain why it’s so bad, it just is. Effectively, this is what has been killing Shakespeare ever since the first quarto was published and what is still killing his works today. You really have to know Shakespeare in order to do Shakespeare.
There are so many BAD manifestations on the subject, it pains me to even discuss it. From a Harvard scholar’s book to a community theatre production of JULIUS CAESAR to how students are forced to read ROMEO AND JULIET in school.
Ah. There's the problem. The claim is that "Everyone hates Shakespeare."  This claim of absolutes is, of course, the first of the many problems here, but it's also exactly why my students struggle with Shakespeare: they've been told that they have to.  Certainly, Shakespearean language is difficult.  But so is the simple act of reading a play when you're used to reading novels or short stories.  My students come in to my Shakespeare class -- or even my intro to literature class -- with the notion that "Shakespeare is impossible."  Because our culture treats his work as such -- and treats his work as something that is unimpeachable above all others.  Some of my students have the same initial response to some of the films that I show -- for example, I had a student almost leave a voluntary showing of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, because she assumed that because it was in black and white and subtitled, she would hate it. She loved it. This is all because we hold certain things in our culture as "too hard" or (even worse) simply "school subjects."

But this all ignores the fact that these things are all forms of art: they are not created to be "school subjects." They are created by people who want to express something. Some of it is entertaining. Some of it is troubling. Some of it is quite moving. But all of it is intended to provoke a response in the audience.

Also implied in the above complaint is that only Shakespeare's work has even had "bad manifestations."  This is, of course, not true. There have been plenty of mediocre community theater productions of A Doll's House. And there's a video game of Dante's Inferno that bears almost no resemblance to the original.

Here's the thing: Shakespeare is fine. He doesn't need us to prevent adaptations that we might not like (and, let's face it, that's what the hyperbole is really about).  In fact, the persistence of adaptations like the Kill Shakespeare (which, again, I really enjoyed!) is that Shakespeare, the cultural icon, will continue long beyond any one of us.

So, let's adapt away.

*Some scholars (though I don't have my books with me at the moment) have argued that bardolatry actually contributes to persistence to anti-Stratfordians conspiracies. Just wanted to get that in there.
** This also means that, unlike the negative reviewer, I actually don't consider myself a Shakespearean. I know people who wrote dissertations on Shakespeare, people who write books on Shakespeare. I don't. I work on his contemporaries. But I'm guessing we have a different definition of "Shakespeare scholar" going here. I'm a professional academic. Just because I've been reading and teaching and studying Shakespeare for a long time doesn't mean ... well, you can figure it out.
*** Most recently, the David Tennant Hamlet. Go. Go watch it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Burnout and unintentional hiatuses

This May was a mopey month.  And I'm not even sure that I realized how much I was moping.

Mostly, that's because there was so very much happening in May. I finished out my contract at a school where I was employed for five years. Which also means that I saw two capstone projects completed in May (and I'm so proud of both students). It also means that I dealt with a great deal of assessment (some of which isn't actually quite done ... but that can wait a little longer, right?). I ordered books for my classes this fall at my new university. I began, somewhat half-heartedly, a search for an affordable apartment in my new town. I drove my cats from North Carolina to upstate New York, where they're going to live for at least the next year.

All this transition -- and the finishing of the academic year -- also means that I've been able to spend the last few weeks with my husband full time. And that's a very good thing. I'm incredibly happy to be under the same roof again, even if only for the summer.

But have I ever been burned out.  There's just so much transition going on right now. And that burn out has carried into every aspect of my life: I just haven't wanted to do much of anything. So I have pretty much taken a hiatus from everything in my life except hanging out with my husband and my cats.

The past two years have been draining in many ways: emotionally, spiritually, and even financially.  The future isn't entirely clear, and all of the unknowns create more anxiety than they probably should. (Or than I should allow them to.) But as academics, we know that we cannot simply take everything one day at a time entirely: we have to plan; we have to prepare; and we have to think long term about many, many things. It's the nature of the profession, right down to the length of time between the initial job ad and the actual appointment in a tenure track position (I applied for my new job in October. I start in August).

I realize that other people have a great deal more uncertainty in their lives. And for whatever reasons, I've managed to apply for and achieve two tenure track jobs since finishing grad school in 2007.

But it does all exhaust me.

And part of the exhaustion from all this means that I've withdrawn from a number of things, entirely unintentionally.  I just don't feel like I've had much to say lately.  And while I've been reading, I haven't had much to say about the things I've read other than "Huh, that was pretty good ..."

So here I am, apologizing once again for a hiatus from blogging (though I think this one was longer than my usual end-of-semester hiatus).  But I'm still here.

And I'm taking stock today of what's actually been going right.

Of course, having my husband and the cats all under one roof is the most right thing there is.  But I've also had an article come out recently. I've had a couple of poems accepted into a collection. I've got a job I'm really excited about this fall (and some awesome classes). And it's at a school which will be a better fit for me than the last one.  I had a great time with my English majors this past academic year -- and they did a lot of good work in my classes, and I'm proud of that. I've got the opportunity -- here in the North Country for the summer, and in Ohio for the fall -- to meet lots of new people and make lots of new friends.  I've returned to running. I've returned to writing. I've been playing around more seriously with photography.

Life is good.  And I'm ready to be excited about all of it again.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Telling Local Stories

Last night, I attended play called Conjure: the Folklore of Dr. Jim Jordan at one of our local cultural centers.  The story is narrated by F. Roy Johnson, who founded the newspaper in our area, and who wrote about Dr. Jordan in the 1960s -- and, as the playwrights point out, this is significant because he was a white journalist interested in recording African-American lives in a time when most of white America was not invested in doing so.  The stories of the play are based on F. Roy Johnson's book about him, and the recollections of our local historian E. Frank Stephenson, Jr.

The play was written by Stephenson's daughter, Caroline Stephenson and her husband Jochen Kunstler -- two filmmakers who have come to our area, raising their children while continuing their work as artists.  And we're incredibly lucky to have them here.  (They've also made a great short documentary on the Rosenwald Schools in the area.)

I had fun. And it was an especially great experience to be in the audience with people from the area who remember the man.  Even in our small community, with our local community members acting, there's something special about live theater and watching things in a room full of attentive near-strangers.

Watching -- and thinking about -- the play also causes me to reflect on the importance of telling the local stories.  Roy Johnson thought it was important; so does Frank Stephenson; and so do Caroline and Jochen.

I've written elsewhere about the importance of taking the time to embrace the community that you find yourself in.  And even right now, in the midst of a degree of alienation from the community I'm currently in,* I really do still believe that.  But more important, perhaps, than simply embracing a place is investigating its history, its culture -- and telling that history and culture.**

Every place has a history.  Every person has a story.  And those stories are worth telling.

Fundamentally, it's about a radical notion of valuing every person, no matter where they come from.  And as artists and scholars (and I'm going to be bold enough to now go ahead and categorize myself as both), we can share those stories, no matter our particular medium.  We can be inspired by places, and we can share that with the world, even if it's just the world right around us.

Of course the danger for the artist is that not everyone might like the story that you've told.  Some may disagree with your perception.  And perhaps, more dangerously, some may not want to face the truth of a place -- our histories are not always things of beauty, and contain injustices and outright horrors.

Those stories are worth telling. Every place has a history, no matter how complicated and sordid that history may be. Every person has a story, no matter how flawed and contradictory the person may be.

And we really should be telling them.

And we should be teaching everyone that their stories are worth telling -- and worth sharing with the wider world.

*Suffice it to say, my bio will soon say "Ohio" and not "North Carolina." I have a new job and will be leaving my current one, a move made inevitable in part because of the actions of other people.  It's a long story for another day. Or not.
** Also, I'm not advocating for embracing a place completely: there are problems everywhere, and we don't have to turn a blind eye to poverty and injustice. But we don't have to scoff at the local history, simply because it's "not significant."

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Authorship and Critical Thinking

This morning, a number of my early modern tweeps were in a bit of a fuss over a post at Brain Pickings, a site I normally like. But the post in question made me roll my eyes excessively, sigh, and say "really, are we doing this again?"  The post in question was about a book -- and companion website -- that once again rehearses the Shakespeare authorship question.

(And I'm going to try to be fair-minded here and not begin with authorship and controversy in quotation marks.  Though it is only fair to tell you that this is a test of my own ability to be fair to not do so.)

What particularly bothered a number of people was the fact that this is a book that is posing the authorship question as an issue of critical thinking.  I don't think I have to point out to those few of you who read this blog that the insinuation, then, is that scholars of Shakespeare who dismiss out of hand the notion that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare are not thinking critically.  Frankly, this is not a good way to begin a discussion: it begins by insulting the opponent.

A number of people have done what I consider amazing and extensive work discussing the problems raised by the authorship conspiracy -- Holger Syme has a number of posts about it, including critiques of the problems of Shakespeareans focusing on the wrong things in order to dismiss Anti-Stratfordians; and James Shapiro's book Contested Will does a remarkably thorough and fair job tracing the history of the conspiracy and refuting each alternate authorial identity.

So I really don't feel like I need to address that particular argument: much better early modernists have already done so.

But I want to talk about this in terms of critical thinking.

I do this (so you know my point of view) as both an early modern scholar and a critical thinking program coordinator.  I teach this.  I teach classes in it.  I train faculty in it.  It's important to me, and that fact that one of my friends was most distressed by the linking of the question (did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?) with the concept of critical thinking spurs me to consider the whole thing (especially this particular project) with critical thinking in mind.

And I will fully admit that I am doing this without reading the book.  I am rather interested in what the website's "About" suggestion puts forward as the purpose of the book.  So, please don't think me entirely unfair for doing this without reading the book, but I have read many of these arguments, so I'm familiar with the general tenor of them.

Anyway ... onward ...

Monday, April 1, 2013

SAA: collecting my thoughts

CN Tower
I spent the last several days in Toronto, at the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America. I cannot emphasize enough how much I have enjoyed attending this conference: I began going in 2005 and I've found something incredibly refreshing and renewing about attending every year. I've attended a number of other conferences, but the way that this conference is set up encourages intellectual experimentation.  The seminar sessions -- where most of the papers are presented -- are clearly places for working papers.  The other sessions -- the panels with completed papers -- are always fascinating.

Looking out from the boardwalk
This conference, I participated in a workshop -- entitled "Shakespearean Dance: A Practical Introduction" -- and this was a departure from anything I'd done previously.  We prepared for the workshop with a great deal of reading and discussion via an email list.  And then we met in Toronto and danced.  Or at least tried to.

While the dances we learned we fairly basic (a good choice, as a number of us have pretty minimal levels of coordination, myself included), the experience of actually participating in these dances establishes a more visceral, material experience of the practice for me.  (I'm going to try to sort out my thoughts more clearly on this later. I've got lots to think about and organize, intellectually.)

St. James's Cathedral Church
But the opportunity to audit other seminars is always useful as well -- where we can listen in on other people's conversations.  I get worn out on auditing, and only sit in on 2 or 3 sessions each year, but I certainly learn a lot when I do.

And this year, there was the joy of seeing people that I know: I met up with a number of people I've known almost exclusively through social media; I saw friends that I see every year; and I spoke with completely random strangers, both at the conference and serving beers in the bars around town (uh ... we do that a lot).  My husband was able to join me, and he partook in a great deal of the socializing and tourist-ing.  We also got to spend some time with one of the editors of a major textbook publisher, who is looking over a proposal of mine right now.

Poutine (with bacon)
All in all, a successful conference.  We looked at things. We tried new drinks. We ate some really alarming local delicacies.

Hey look! They have Canadian flags here

Towards the St. Lawrence Market

As I think more about this, I'll try to post more thoroughly, either here or at LitBits.  I've also got some pictures put into the queue on my new photo tumblr.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Self-imposed anxiety

Excuse me momentarily while I mope this evening.

It is always about this time of year that I start to really put an insane amount of pressure on myself -- just as I'm also feeling incredibly tired and losing motivation.

Part of it is that this is the time of year when I'm feeling a little burned out from the academic year -- I'm much more interested in working on side projects and playing around with my hobbies.  It's also partly the build up to the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America.  It's a conference I love, but it's also the source -- up until I actually arrive -- of my annual falling deeply into my own belief that I'm an impostor in the academy.  I realize that we all feel it.  Almost every one of the faculty members at my PhD granting institution has expressed some degree of the impostor syndrome.

Part of this is probably linked to the type of person who would intentionally spend as much time in grad school as we do.  We're already convinced that we need to work hard, that we need to impose ever higher standards upon ourselves.  And the outside pressure that we get -- both from the places that we work and the larger culture that we live in -- make the whole thing even worse.

I worry as I head into these conferences that I'm distracting myself with things outside of my field.  I know a lot about pedagogy and educational theory.  I know a lot about creative nonfiction.  I know a reasonable amount about photography.  I know more about pop culture than I should admit to.

But do I know enough early modern stuff?

I don't know.

What I do know is that part of what makes us (relatively successful) academics is that we're willing to put our ideas out there.  Ideally, yes, it should be in academic writing.  But it's also about having conversations, about taking risks.

And that's something that I have to remember.  We take risks.  Not stupid risks like bungee jumping (so not doing that), but we do take risks.  And I take risks.  I talk to people.  I ask questions.  I try out ideas, sometimes in public.

It's a little scary.  But it's also the reason for doing what we do -- and it's the type of intellectual challenge I'm trying to instill in my students.

Okay, I think I've talked myself partially out of my funk.  I cannot control the future.  I can simply do the best work that I can do.

Thank you for indulging my mope.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Seeking Sanctuary

The end of February and the beginning of March have been hectic (and we're now at about the middle of March!) -- and I've had little I felt like reflecting publicly upon.  I've simply had a huge number of tasks, both professional and personal, and I'm feeling rather worn down (oh, also: allergies. Spring is springing here in North Carolina, and I'm incredibly sneezy).

But my husband is with me this week -- our spring breaks coincided this academic year.  And we've been working on several projects together, including the book we're co-authoring.  We've put everything together and with one more piece for it (as well as a final editorial glance at everything), we think it's ready to head out into the world, looking for a publisher.

Being together also means we're taking some time to continue our exploring.  Sunday, after waking up in a bad mood, my husband announced that we should get out of town if only for a few hours.

So we went looking for a church I'd read about in A Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers (one of the books I'm constantly scouring for such things).  It's the sort of thing that you have to know that you're looking for, but we found St. John's Episcopal Church in Suffolk (before incorporation into the city of Suffolk, the area was known as Chuckatuck. And I constantly keep calling it Chuck-a-duck).

The congregation was founded by settlers from Jamestown -- and so it's foundation was in the 17th century. The present building is an 18th century structure.

What was particularly delightful was that the minister was at the parsonage, and as we were out taking pictures, came up to us asking if we wanted to see the interior of the church.  I am always incredibly grateful for people who want to share the history of a place with a couple of people just wandering into their vicinity.

It's something that we do -- talk to people about the local experience, the local history.  When we were in Ashland, Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, we spoke with a bartender who would visit her aunt and uncle's house in Centralia -- and she remembered the lights of the fire under the highway glowing purple and teal.  We find things out that way.  It's just what we do.  We talk to new people.  We look at things.  It's something that appeals, I think, to our artistic sensibilities -- and certainly has influenced the way that we look at the world.

Typically, we're so far off the beaten path that no one has mentioned things in the guidebooks -- or even in the guidebooks that are supposed to take you off the beaten path (though we've certainly visited our share of those places).  It's the exploration that we're always up for.  Wherever we are.