Today in ABQ: Conference Hell, Muslim Harry Potter, Southern Devils, and Simon Ortiz

Today was busy. I’m pooped. In my defense, and in addition to having a cold, it is after 1 A.M. back home, though only 11 here. I cannot promise this will be readable.

I started my day with a workout and a way overpriced breakfast, followed by a presentation titled “So you want to go to Grad School.” Most of the info was pretty run of the mill, but she did have some really interesting insights on alternatives to academia. Plus, she was funny.

Then followed my personal hell: networking. I managed to meet the overall and regional presidents. They were nice, intelligent humans, and did not bite me, so I’ll call that a success. I’m reminded of the funny internet meme that says “Introverts Unite! We’re here! We’re uncomfortable! We want to go home!” Yup, that sums up my networking experience. Here’s to hoping I appeared more competent than I felt.

Lunch turned into a mini adventure when, on my way to a local deli, I got lost, headed to Jimmy Johns instead, took another wrong turn and ended up eating at a great local pizza place. The waiter and I had a heart to heart about the virtues of homemade dough and mozzarella, adding to my socialization experience. (Bonus: they served me way too much food, so I didn’t have to venture out again for dinner! Both economical and introvert friendly. Win!)

After lunch I went to two panel presentations.

The first was called “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and the panel discussed representations of Satan and evil in the South, especially in Southern Gothic literature. Color me impressed. They outlined the Gothic, then the Southern Gothic, talked about what characterizes classic texts, then focused on four contemporary novels, while pulling in other media, music, and pop-culture. They talked about the influence of African religions, especially Voodoo, on Southern images of evil. Really a wonderful presentation, and our discussion afterward was engaging.

After the talk I hung out with some of the panelists and audience members and we continued the discussion. They asked me about Appalachian literature and how it departs from and is similar to the general trends of Southern Lit. Not only was I proud of my social self, but was also proud I had retained what I read in Dr. Claxton’s class.

I went to another panel Titled “Harry Potter and Christian Theology: A Muslim Perspective.” I cannot say enough wonderful things about their presentation. Though the panel was arranged by four students, two could not get permission to enter the country from Iran, so the presentation was done by just two. They did a beautiful job; I’m sure their colleagues would be proud. They pointed out that Harry Potter has been banned in both Christian and Muslim nations, but for opposite reasons. In the US, Harry Potter is banned for being anti-Christian, while in Muslim nations, it is banned for being too Christian. They talked about Harry as a Christ figure, the Deathly Hallows as the trinity. There is too much to explain here, but I learned so much about Muslim culture, and about how my own culture looks through the lens of theirs.

At the end of the day I went to see Simon Ortiz speak. He was amazing. I have so much to talk about, it might be a separate blog post tomorrow. It was an honor to hear him, though. He talked about the history of war and genocide against indigenous groups in the Americas, and the boundaries placed around those groups now: on our landscape, in our language and rhetoric, and in our historical memory. He was thoughtful and eloquent, and I was enchanted.

Now. That hotel bar had better have some bourbon.

Welcome to ABQ! Plus Gary Soto and trying new things.

Back in December I was surprised, proud, excited, and horrified to learn one of my papers had been accepted for presentation at Sigma Tau Delta’s 2015 International Convention. This year’s theme is Borderlands and Enchantments, and is aptly located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It really is an honor to be here, but my introverted self is not super excited about going solo to such a social event, or about opening myself to ridicule when I read, for that matter. But anyway, the tickets are paid for (thank you Western Carolina University English Department and the Theta Sigma chapter!), the time has come, and I’m off on my trip.

11 hours (six of which were in an airplane) after leaving home I found myself landed and bags recovered at the airport in Albuquerque. I’ve never flown for more than an hour before, so I’m exhausted.

I proceeded nervously to another personal first; I hailed a cab. The cabby wasFeatured image nice, talkative, and knowledgeable. He asked me where I was from, why I came to ABQ. We compared accents. He thanked me for magically bringing my mountain rain to the south-west. He dropped me at my hotel. I thanked him profusely, checked into my hotel, found myself in a lovely room with a gorgeous view.

I missed the abecedarian – the new people meet and greet – but if I hurried I could still make Gary Soto’s speech. I walked the couple of blocks – in my own magic rain – to the convention hall.

I missed his opening, but caught the rest of the speech. He was funny. His speech was on the conference theme, Borderlands and Enchantments. With wit, ease, and pop-culture references he spoke of the very personal borders of our identity, the effect of names, ethnicity, and age.  he slipped into enchantment, asking us, mostly young people, if we agreed with him that people lose the ability to enchant and be enchanted as they get older. He commented that, as we age, we experience too much world – that the experience of life dilutes our ability to find magic in it. He challenged us to refute him, said he would love to find a way to recapture the enchantments he feels he has left behind. He continued and spoke of physical borders and how they affect history, memory, and identity. He talked about the way we acknowledge the changing of borders, and how we sometimes ignore it. The ramifications of both approaches are etched into the landscape here.

I was impressed by my fellow English nerds and their astute questions. A few brave souls ventured to challenge Soto’s comments on age and enchantment. He was asked about literary influences (Pablo Neruda), his poetics (a focus on imagism, no matter the genre), what he is reading now ( Jim Harrison), personal experiences, when he knew he was a poet. A few of the questions were so good he jokingly told the asker to go sit back down and think of an easier question.

I’ve challenged my introverted self to be more social on this trip – especially since I’m here alone. So far I’ve chatted with my cabby (totally counts) and smiled awkwardly at fellow conference-badge-wearers in my hotel. Progress!

The Not-so-Creative Type


 

I often say that I can’t do creative writing. One of my professors always replies that all writing is creative.

It’s this game we play.

Not a very fun game, I admit, but I’m sure I have friends who could turn it into a drinking game. 

I need a fourth class to tack onto my schedule for the fall, my last semester before I graduate. I’m contemplating taking a creative writing class to see if it helps develop my style. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that all writing is creative, and believe the class might help get my creative juices (if they exist) flowing. 

Before I became an English major I was actually in math and science. I didn’t leave my program because it was too hard or it didn’t suit me, but because I found I was slightly more passionate about literature. When thinking about my work as an English major and the idea that my writing might be creative, I believe I approach writing similarly to how I approached chemistry and calculus. 

The heart of our language is grammar, and what is grammar if not a sort of formula for calculating meaning? Each individual sentence is a formula with constants (a subject and a verb) and with any number of variables that can be substituted in depending on the context. For me, papers have a comparable formulaic structure. Any piece of academic writing, from a short essay to a book, has a similar structure: Intro, conclusion, supporting paragraphs. These parts also have their own structure. Introductions are supposed to be a funnel beginning with broad concepts and ideas and slowly circling down to a specific idea or argument, the thesis. Body paragraphs then begin with their own mini-thesis that states the purpose of the paragraph. Evidence follows to support that mini-point, and then a transition sentence allows the paragraph to flow to the next point until the argument has been made and a conclusion can be drawn. The conclusion then almost reverses the introduction. Conclusions generally start with some sort of statement saying the contents of the paper prove the thesis. It then goes on to connect the thesis to broader implications. 

That is the formula. Fill in the parts with your variables, and you have a paper.

That isn’t creative at all, it’s mathematic! 

But what if it is creative? So the paper, and even the language, has a formulaic structure. Does that mean that formula can’t be broken? Creative writers often break grammatic rules on purpose in order to manipulate meaning or create a specific image, character, or mood. Maybe that means language is more malleable than I give it credit for. 

On the other hand, all of my writing is academic, and breaking the rules of grammar is not as accepted for academics as it is in creative writing.

I think the answer may reside in content. I said I approach all of my papers in a similar manner, but this does not mean that my papers all look the same. From an analysis of a new language style guide, to a research thesis on the concerns emancipated slaves expressed about the world after the civil war, to a look at the way our obsession with zombie media and other post-apocalyptic stories reflects the concerns of our society, my papers differ radically. Perhaps the creativity is in choosing the subject. When given a final paper prompt in my Fairy Tale Literature course, I could have talked about anything from Perrault’s “Little Red Riding-hood” to Harry Potter to shows like “Grimm,” or “Once Upon a Time,” and my thesis could have been anything from cannibalism, to plant symbolism, to potions as alchemy. My paper ended up analyzing instances of blood in some of the oldest fairy tales, showing how they roughly correlate to female life cycles, and proving that these blood symbols contribute to female stereotype and objectification.

That was my idea, my concept, my application and analysis. It was something I noticed as we read the tales, and something that I chose to research and look into. Maybe that is creative, and maybe I won’t fail that creative writing class as badly as I anticipated. 

What do you think, is all writing creative?

A “Tense” Situation

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Joel Martin’s essay on Southern representations of Native Americans is typical for historical scholarship. The research is thorough and well-documented. The analysis is succinct and insightful. The finer points of grammar, however, are often lower on the to-do list than if he were writing for publication, say, with the MLA. The issue I found in Martin’s essay is one that often occurs in academic writing, especially in historical writing. “Eighteenth-century representations had centered on border-crossing types, individuals who moved freely between Indian and non-Indian cultures.” In this sentence, Martin uses the past perfect tense.

The definition of the past perfect tense from the Purdue OWL is that “the past perfect tense designates action in the past just as simple past does, but the action of the past perfect is action completed in the past before another action.”

 In this particular argument, he is not stating that the representation occurred until some other event. He explains only that the “border-crosser” was an eighteenth-century representation. The correct tense is simple past, and the sentence would have read “Eighteenth-century representations centered on border-crossing types…”

                Many readers may never notice the error; it is a minor one. However, due to our study of these tenses, and my additional study of them for foreign language classes, I was momentarily confused by the above section of Martin’s essay because I expected him to argue an event that changed the “border-crossing” representation. I had to re-read the section to be sure I had not misunderstood or somehow skipped over the information. Mixing verb tenses can confuse a reader, and distract from a paper’s argument.

Too Much “I” – Academic Writing and the First Person Rule

Although fiction will always have a special place in my heart, as a student interested in pursuing a career in academia, I dedicate most of my time to non-fiction, academic reading. Because my interests and activities lay within the realm of academia, I realize that my focus for this blog, and the subsequent project, should also be academic.
Happily (or perhaps not so, as you will see,) one of last week’s reading assignments afforded a usable example.

“Exhibiting Native America at the National Museum of the American Indian” by Amy Lonetree is a critical analysis of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), the history of the artifacts it contains, and a critique of the way it portrays the Native American narrative to the public. The essay encompasses a wide variety of sources and information, and draws valuable and insightful conclusions about the Native American narrative in American commemoration and memory. It was a valuable read and related perfectly to what we were studying in class. However, unlike some other reading we have done (like Brundage, from my previous post,) if this reading had not been mandatory, I would have quit reading after about four pages.
The essay was irritating to read because it repeatedly broke one of the most frequently stressed rules of academic writing: it overused the first person point of view.

Chapter three of Lonetree’s book Decolonizing Museums, the essay is about 49 pages long, but the first 5 whole pages are told in first person. In these pages, Lonetree describes, in detail, her experience in working with these museums, her scholarship, her internship, and her interests.
Oh my goodness.
I was dying.
Like I said, had this not been required reading, I would have never made it to the actual information because of the ridiculous amount of personal narrative at the beginning.

Even her thesis is centered on her: “What follows is an analysis of my multilayered engagement….” And then “Finally, I provide an analysis….”

There is something I always tell the students I tutor when they write this way: It is your paper. We know it is your analysis, we know it is what you think. Instead of stating that you are giving us your analysis, just give us your analysis.

There are three problems with breaking the ‘avoid first person’ rule:

First, and most simply, it is generally considered unprofessional. Different fields each have their own set of expectations for working and writing within those fields. Following those expectations is how professionals maintain standards and norms of practice and communication and is integral to participating in a discourse community.

Second, so much time spent on the author’s personal history and opinions is boring and taxing to the reader. I did not open that essay hoping for a biography of Amy Lonetree. With the exception of establishing credibility, an author’s experiences, history, and opinions are irrelevant to the a paper’s argument. Beginning a paper with an excess of information about oneself is an effective method for scaring away readers.

Finally, because using first person in excess is generally considered unprofessional, and because it is boring and irrelevant to the reader, doing so grants writing a pompous, self-centered tone. Lonetree managed to relate everything in her paper, nearly every detail and historical fact, to herself. While using oneself occasionally as an example, or pulling one’s own history into a paper can make a topic more relatable or provide context, repeatedly doing so removes credibility. Indeed, I felt through the whole essay that Lonetree was more concerned with proving her depth of knowledge in her topic, than using that knowledge to make an insightful argument or educate her readers.

The Magic of Strong Language: Making a History Text a Pleasure to Read

While this blog will often focus on the grammatical and language mistakes I see infecting our world, I’m happy to take a few moments to appreciate the successful use of language. In my Grammar for Writers course we recently discussed the difficulties and stress that can result from attempting to balance interesting prose and vivid language with understanding the needs of an audience. Those of us who study and love language and words may find it frustrating to be forced to choose a simple word for an audience when there is a more difficult, perhaps even slightly obscure, word that encompasses precisely the idea we wish to convey.

Now, I promised you some successful language. I am a history minor and as such, I spend nearly as much time reading historical resources and essays as I do reading literature and rhetoric. Though I use primary materials for research, a great deal of what I read for class are excerpts, essays, and books of historians and academics. Now, while historians have much more training and education than I have, and while a large portion of their jobs involve writing, the language of historical texts tends to place its focus on research and not on language. I was excited, therefore, when this weekend I found an exception as I was reading. This passage is from page 106 of Dr. W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s book The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory.

“To have done so might have enabled political insurgents to use state funds and offices to promote historical narratives that were anathema to the Democratic Party and its supporters. But by 1900, white Democrats had a firm grip on the region’s politics and public institutions. They also had an acute need to establish the legitimacy of their recently secured power, in large part because their hegemony rested on coercion and anti-democratic constitutional manipulations. State historical agencies provided the means to present the southern past in a manner consonant with the needs and goals of this ascendant white elite.”

I appreciate his diction. He uses some solid vocabulary, but nothing so difficult that his meaning is lost. His word choice gives the reader, even from a short section from a rather long book, a good idea of his tone. “Political insurgents” is a strong term; “insurgents” carries with it negative, violent connotations. “Anathema;” I love this word. Anathema, like insurgents, is heavy laden with connotation. A quick Googling brings up definitions that involve words like “loathed,” or “detested.” Anathema is much more specific, not to mention more awesome, than simply saying “narratives disliked by…” I knew what anathema means, but I also Googled it, because, well, Google. Some people may not recall the word anathema from their long distant SAT-Prep days, but I don’t think the meaning would be lost if someone were uncertain, and if they did indeed Google the word, they would see those awesome words like “loathed” that would help them understand why Brundage chose anathema instead of dislike.

Brungage continues his strong language with “firm grip.” These are simple, short words, but they form a strong image, one of a clenched fist. “Acute” is a sharp word, forgive my bad pun, closely followed by “hegemony.” Hegemony, like anathema, is a perhaps-no-so-well-known word that draws strong connotations. Definitions of hegemony include terms like domination and imperial control. “Coercion” rests just two words after hegemony with obvious connotative meaning, and “anti-democratic constitutional manipulation” is a grim accusation in American culture. “Consonant” is so much more interesting a word than consistent, and “ascendant white elite” closes off this selection, leaving the reader with a strong image of this group and their role in shaping the historical narratives of their time.

I look forward to reading Brundage because, while his research is thorough and his analysis thoughtful, I also appreciate his use of precise and expressive language. It is not often that I can consume the information necessary to my historical research while also appreciating style and language usually reserved by my English and Literature studies. The selection from Brundage points out the power in the ability to use good language and interesting prose in any genre of writing.

My Mother Sent Me a Selfie, or Communication in the Digital Age.

Last week my mother sent me a selfie.

My mother. A selfie.

The two previous nouns should never enter the same room, much less sentence. It was not long ago that my mother had to set up an email account and would constantly ask me how to “start the email” even though I had put a shortcut right on her desktop. Double clicking was an issue. Now my mother has a fairly sophisticated phone – she even has a touch screen, and she uses said sophisticated phone, apparently, to send me selfies of herself at the grocery store.

I am a young person living in an age when face to face conversation is giving way to digital communication. I am a young adult expecting to graduate college this year and enter the workforce, and though my generation has largely embraced the technology it grew up with, my feelings about digital communication remain ambivalent. While I appreciate the increased accessibility of information the internet has provided, and while I love my tech-gadgets as much as the next 20-something, my free time is more ideally spent with a good book or engaging in face to face conversation with my best friend than scrolling through endless hours of social media, or texting people I barely know. I am an avid reader and a habitual writer. I value communication and understanding. I believe that, even in an online context, communication and effective writing and conversational skills are invaluable to the smooth functioning of society.

I am not sure my already tumultuous relationship with my mother can survive emoticons and selfies.The goal of this blog, therefore, will be to point out situations and examples that highlight the importance of clear communication even, or perhaps especially, in the digital age.