This semester’s Irish Literature Honors class (ENGL 3122) is hosting a series of talks highlighting Irish Women’s Writing and some of its contexts. All events are free, open to all, and from 12:30 to 1:30pm in the same Webex virtual classroom. The schedule of speakers this semester is below; if you are interested in attending or require accommodations, please contact series host, Prof. Mary Burke (firstname.lastname@example.org)
March 4th: Sean Forbes (UConn) discusses Boland & Hartnett & his Irish-themed work
March 9th: Myles Dungan (RTÉ broadcaster & historian) on “The Alpha Male in Irish History”
March 16th: Alex Mika(’21 CLAS) on Meadhbh McHugh*: “Dramatic Readings as Performance”
March 18th: Meadhbh McHugh on her drama adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It*
Alex Gatten is a visiting assistant professor of English and the associate director of First-Year Writing at the University of Connecticut, where he also recently completed his PhD in English. His work explores the relationship between gender and sexuality and forms of writing, particularly in Romantic poetry and poetics, queer rhetorics, and digital writing and pedagogy. A portion of this research has been published in the European Romantic Review, and he is a co-editor of the Reviews & Receptions section of the online scholarly resource Romantic Circles. For several years, he has been working with First-Year Writing on the new curriculum, in addition to conducting research on multimodal writing and pedagogy. He looks forward to continuing this work in the English department.
Paige Walker is originally from the Houston, Texas area, but has lived numerous places beyond Houston since her teens. After completing her MEd from the University of Houston, she worked as a high school teacher and community college professor for a number of years before relocating with her family to Australia. During her time in Australia, she continued teaching online for Lone Star College, completed her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and published “Morning Star” in the Ezine, LiteraryMama. Upon returning to Texas, she continued with her career as a community college professor and high school teacher. Walker and her family relocated to Tennessee in 2015, and she continued to teach while also completing her PhD in English with a focus in rhetoric, writing and linguistics from the University of Tennessee. Paige’s dissertation analyzes March for Our Lives use of Twitter as a Shoaling Rhizome, a theoretical framework first published in Computers and Composition’s May 2019 special issue. Currently residing in Virginia with her partner, daughters, dog, and cat, Walker joined the University of Connecticut, Stamford this August as an assistant professor in residence of FYW and the Stamford liaison to UConn’s FYW program. Walker teaches several sections of FYW for UConn Stamford as well as coordinates scheduling, training, and the general implementation of the UConn FYW program at the Stamford campus. She also represents Stamford FYW to the greater UConn FYW community.
When she was first hired by Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Gina Barreca in spring 2019, then-first-year student Nicole Catarino ’22 (CLAS) had no idea that she would soon help work on a book, let alone be featured in it. Fast Funny Women, an anthology of seventy-five flash nonfiction pieces by women authors and edited by Barreca, will be released by Woodhall Press in March 2021 and includes works by both internationally celebrated authors and incredibly witty new voices. In this conversation with Catarino, I had the pleasure of learning about her experience assisting Barreca with the process of creating Fast Funny Women.
AM: When you were first hired, what were your responsibilities working for Professor Barreca? When did the work begin for Fast Funny Women?
NC: At first, it was primarily managing her inbox. She got so many emails. I mean, at the time she was writing for The Hartford Courant and Psychology Today and all these other different things. So we’d get emails from readers, people who wanted her to come speak at events, emails from students being like, “Hey, I need you to write this for my grad school application.” So it was basically my job to be a human calendar and keep an eye on things, answer emails. There were organizational tasks, too, like preparing things for her classes, reaching out to the bookstore. In the summer, she approached me with the book she was working on and we jumped right into it!
AM: What was it like creating a book with so many contributors?
NC: Gina’s pitch was basically this: “We’re going to get 75 different women to write in this book. I want you to be one of them.” It still blows my mind to this day that she was like, “Yeah, I’m going to put you in a book.” I think in total we probably reached out to about a hundred people. At the beginning, it was just reaching out to people and asking, “Would you be interested? Do you want to do this? Can you do this? Do you have the time to do this? We need this by this date. Is this possible for you?” Some people were great and would respond with a “yes” and attach a piece of writing for us already. Most people needed the time, which was completely understandable. So it was really just being good about deadlines and keeping people on track. There was about a year of just emailing people about their writings, getting the drafts, sending back edits, getting biographies and pictures, making huge Excel sheets and Google drive folders and so on.
AM: How did it feel to hold the first manuscript?
NC: It’s funny you mentioned it, because I had that feeling of “Oh my God, this is a book” twice. The first time, well, I guess the second time was when I got the very first manuscript, but the first time was when we had fully printed it out. I still remember printing out all two hundred pages, taking this massive stack of papers, hot off the press and just holding the book in my hands for the first time. It didn’t look anything like a book; it looked like two hundred pages of a Word document, but I just remember looking at it and knowing that my name was in there somewhere and just being absolutely elated. Gina, I think, saw the happiness on my face and was like, “Well, you need to take pictures.” So I have pictures. It was massive. I can’t stress enough how big the stack was. It dwarfed my head.
The second time that happened was when we got the first manuscript back and we had the cover page, which was beautifully done byMimi Pond. It had the cover, it had all the details, the table of contents, the different page numbers. And again, my name was right there and it looked so beautiful. And I just remember looking at it and thinking, “Oh, this is so cool.” It’s like baking something and the bread comes out of the oven and you think, “This is my child. I helped make this. Even if mom ended up doing most of the work, I assisted in this.” And then immediately spotting my first grammar issue of being like, “Okay.”
AM: With so many moving pieces and things to keep track of, what was something that caught you off guard or surprised you about this process?
NC: I think the biggest thing for me was like realizing how much work goes into a table of contents. I had just never thought of this before because most of the time. My instinct would tell me to do it in alphabetical order or in the order in which people submitted the pieces. It took us a couple of weeks to figure out the order, asking questions like “What are the themes that we can find within these different stories, despite them all being so different? Who do we want to start the book? Who do we want to finish the book?” That was definitely one of the more eye-opening parts.
AM: What are some of those themes?
NC: It’s a book written entirely by women, so there are a lot of stories in there that are about just womanhood in general. One of the themes was dating, but even more specifically, online dating; we had a bunch about online dating. Food and weight and dealing with that. Men, in any sort of capacity, negative or positive. School and teaching, learning. We had a lot about law, which was interesting. And then we had to put them in some sort of order resembling a book, which I think worked out. Gina had more of a hand in that than I did.
AM: Can we talk a little about your piece that’s featured in the book? What was your process for that? Did you have the piece ready, or did you write it with the pressure of a deadline looming overhead? NC: I didn’t have this piece written at all. Actually, I still remember her asking me to be in the piece, I remember my just overwhelming excitement and then immediately afterwards realizing I have no freaking idea what I want to write, because I don’t think I’m a funny person. I know that I have a good sense of humor, but I don’t think I’m a funny person. And I don’t think that anything that happens to me is funny. It’s all about how you tell the story, but my day to day is very basic and boring. What I actually ended up writing about was about another internship I had been doing. I worked at a law internship in Harford doing child support law, which was a lot. And so I ended up writing about one of those experiences because it was at the forefront of my mind at the time. I only had seven hundred fifty words, and boy, brevity is the soul of wit and I have none of it. I am not a short talker. So it was mostly just me sitting there trimming, trimming, trimming, trimming, getting Gina to pop in, trimming, trimming, trimming. I was really lucky to have Gina helping me to make it shorter and funnier.
Even just in that year my own style had changed so much that I was looking at the piece and would think, “This sucks.” I would love to rewrite this, but of course you can’t when you’re doing line edits. And so it was mostly me being trying, “Okay, well, maybe I can just change that to a period instead of a semi-colon.” I got yelled at a couple of times by the editors being like, “We can’t do this now.” It was worth a shot. I had to try. I said, “This semicolon is so pretentious. Can I please take it out?” “Absolutely not.”
AM: That’s it, Nicole you’ll forever be known in infamy as The Semicolon User.
NC: That’s alright. If there’s something I have to be known for…
AM: Now that the book is going to be released soon, what’s next?
NC: Once the book comes out, it’ll still be a lot of publicity work. We’ll be doing talks about it, getting the word out there, gauging people’s reactions. The exciting thing, though, is that we have a series planned for the future, so Fast Funny Women is actually going to be a series. Gina’s already in the process of exactly what we did freshman year, inviting people to the mix, getting people to to join the book again. We’ll see where that goes, but yeah, there’s a series in the works. We’re already working on the second book, so that I imagine is going to take up a lot of my time again.
Nicole Catarino is a junior at the University of Connecticut pursuing an English major with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in literary translations. She hopes to pursue a master’s degree in English after graduation with the intent to go into publication. On a given day, you can find her listening to one of her many Spotify playlists, drinking boba tea, or trying to come up with an idea for a new D&D character.
Kyle Booten was recently hired as an assistant professor in the Department of English in 2020. Booten is a computational poet with research interests that include literacy and media, computer generated texts, and computer mediated texts. In this interview, we discuss Booten’s post-doctoral work at the Neukom Institute at Dartmouth College, the expanding field of Digital Humanities, and his work at UConn.
Creating New Tools for Writers
At the Neukom Institute, an interdisciplinary computer science center, Booten began to research the ways in which digital and print literacy interact, such as the circulation of literary quotations from print texts on social networks. This work then informed a series of projects called “digital progymnasmata.” These progymnasmata (ancient Greek rhetorical exercises) have allowed Booten to develop as a writer and to create in new and exciting ways. Booten explains: “The progymnasmata push me to use more rare or interesting syntax and to move beyond the kind of affects that I might typically strike while writing a poem.”
By using algorithmic media and natural language processing, as well as these progymnasmata, Booten is researching and designing a program that will assist poets in creating more challenging, original works. “Natural language processing can tell us, for instance, what kinds of ways of using language are rarer than others,” Booten explains. “It’s harder to say, ‘Computer, is this a good poem,’ but you can ask, ‘Is this a rare poem? Does it have some kind of linguistic rarity?’” By analyzing the linguistic rarity, Booten hopes that poets will be able to learn more about their own writing practices and habits and be able to examine their work in a new light. Each copy of the poetry assistant software will be made to fit the specific needs of a particular poet. The project is currently in the data collection stages.
One of Booten’s primary goals with this project is to ensure access to such technologies and tools. He remarks, “I can make my own poetry machine because I know how to do it. I’m increasingly interested in questions of access and allowing people who don’t have the time to learn how to code themselves to collaborate and integrate algorithmic logic into the ways that they’re working. I think that’s really important because it also allows more and more people to critique that logic. It’s important to include people from all sorts of different artistic and academic backgrounds.”
Redesigning DH Courses at UConn
Currently, Booten is teaching two courses that he updated and revised: Introduction to Digital Humanities and Writing with Algorithms. With the introductory course, he seeks to expose students to many of the core concepts, or “the bread and butter,” as he puts it, while also using topics with which most students are familiar, like Instagram poetry, as a medium for examining these issues with recognizable language and images. “Computational text processing, I think, is very new to almost every student in the course,” Booten says. “On the other hand, certain other things like literature and social media are spaces where students are also going to have a lot of experience that they can bring into the course. And it’s all about bouncing these different perspectives off of each other. I like grounding new concepts and familiar forms.”
Writing with Algorithms introduces creative writers to coding with Python, a language that allows one to manipulate and generate text. Booten finds that the bridging between writing and programming in this course, the creative and the analytical, has a range of benefits for students: “I think it’s a really important skill for humanities majors to have. A lot of our literary media is always being integrated into algorithmic media. And I actually think that doing something creative with coding is a really good way to get people excited enough about coding to push past some of the inevitable frustrations, because it is frustrating at the beginning.”
Questions of Epistemology and Ethics
With the release of incredibly powerful text generation systems such as GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3), a system that uses AI to produce text, a number of epistemological and ethical questions have been raised. “You programmed how it will learn,” Booten explains, “but you actually don’t know very much about what it has learned through its training process. And I feel like one of the things that digital humanities Is starting to do and will continue to do is to reckon with that epistemological challenge: how do you think about texts that are so radically inscrutable?”
Since these programs are created by people, biases find their way into the coding, which can have serious implications in everyday life. The advancements in the field prompt important discussions of “algorithmic justice” and questions such as “How do you de-bias algorithms?” “So far as algorithms like this play a huge role in determining all sorts of practical matters in our lives,” Booten notes, “and plenty of scholars have shown in code all of these biases about the world, it becomes that much more important to figure out what it would mean to teach one of these algorithms.”
As Booten works to expand the study of digital humanities at tUConn, one of his keywords is accessibility: his goal is to foster a community in which people share a common literacy and work to develop these skills outside the classroom, engaging in discussions and implementing the coursework into their extracurricular creative projects. He also sees unique possibilities UConn presents for interdisciplinary collaboration. “There is this great constellation of other people across campus in all sorts of different places that are thinking about really similar questions,” Booten remarks. “I’m new to the university but I’m really excited about the English department and the university as a whole; it’s a great place to be doing DH work.”
After fifty years of teaching at UConn, A. Harris “Hap” Fairbanks retired from his associate professor position in Spring 2020. On a brisk and spotty-interneted December morning, I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his career, philosophy, and projects.
Teaching, Researching, Writing
According to Fairbanks, he knew that teaching was his calling “probably from the time [he] was in the eighth grade.” The decision to teach at the college level, however, came after he completed his undergraduate coursework at Swarthmore and received his master’s degree in teaching at Johns Hopkins. At first, he thought he would teach high school English: “I first got a job at a military school, which I hated. I detested it. And I could see that teaching at the high school level meant that you had one hundred twenty-five students, you were teaching five classes, and you couldn’t really get to know people, so I decided to go into college teaching, instead.”
At UConn, he found an environment conducive to his pursuits; while research was desirable and encouraged, he could focus on teaching (“the central component of my professional life,” as he put it) without institutional pressures to constantly publish. As his career progressed, his interest in research grew: “In fact, one of the reasons I retired is because I became very interested in doing some research … and I wanted to do more writing.” Now, he gets up at four or five o’clock every day and spends the first half of the morning working on his current project: geometry and chess as rival models for decision making and how these models have contributed to an increasingly competitive world.
Fostering Independent Thought
Fairbanks designed his courses on the principle that students should “think of their education as posing interesting questions. I wanted to make them think for themselves.” One guiding principle was to create an environment in which students could be both comfortable with and willing to challenge their own ideas. For a course like Rhetoric and Political Discourse, which he co-taught with associate professor Jerry Phillips, he sought to encourage lively and respectful debate with the promise that all students would have a judgment-free platform to voice their views if they could express themselves in an informed and productive manner.
For his short story course, Fairbanks took a different approach to creating engagement. “I always went through the major little magazines and picked out what I thought were the best of the stories … and of course, there would be nothing written about these [pieces]. Students have come back to me in later years and said that they learned so much from that. It was the process of analysis, getting to appreciate the structure of something, how it works. It was to make these real problems. When you’re writing a paper, you can’t start with a thesis: that comes out of the analysis. You have to start with an interesting question.”
Fairbanks also recognized that this was a process for himself, as well. “One thing I learned is to draw students out, get them to come to the office and say to them, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ I would have started doing that earlier.” He once was confronted by a group of students who claimed that he was not being sufficiently accepting of their interpretations. “So, I thought about that. I became broader minded about recognizing the arguments they were making. In other words, I became less dogmatic. That’s the most important thing I learned.”
The Very Model of a Modern Major Generalist
Although his primary areas of research include nineteenth-century British literature, rhetoric, and poetry, Fairbanks believes in an interdisciplinary approach to answering those “interesting questions.” He says, “I’ve always been a generalist. That can make life a little difficult, though. Typically, the way most people proceed in a career in English is to be a specialist in something and get to be known as an expert in that field.” As a generalist, however, his work draws from a range of fields.
His current project, for example, implements applications of cognitive theory, geometry, politics, rhetoric, history, and economics as he examines how various models have been used to predict and control behavior. “The article I’m working on now starts with Adam Smith’s comment that the ‘man of system’ thinks that he can arrange the pieces on the chessboard any way he wants to, but in the great chessboard of society, the pieces have their own ideas about how they want to move.” By applying concepts from a wider field of view, Fairbanks can connect seemingly smaller, unrelated phenomena to explain how a certain frame of thought has influenced society at large in several spheres.
Thank you, Hap, for fifty years of compassionate teaching. We wish you great success with your projects, painting, and research going forward.
Recently, the University of Connecticut’s First-Year Writing program redesigned course curriculum and is in the process of implementing those changes at the regional campuses. The new course, ENGL 1007 (Seminar in Academic Writing and Multimodal Composition), features a Writing Across Technology curriculum that encourages students to engage with and develop academic inquiry in a variety of modes. In this interview with Alex Gatten, visiting assistant professor and associate director of First-Year Writing, he examines the past, present, and future for FYW at UConn.
Time for a Change
The redesign process began a few years ago when Professor and Aetna Chair of Writing Brenda Brueggemann became the director of First-Year Writing at Storrs. As Gatten explains, “There was an idea to develop and move the program forward and start incorporating what’s referred to as multimodal writing, which is an approach that acknowledges that writing isn’t just linguistic: it also has spatial, gestural, visual, and aural components.” Lisa Blansett, an associate professor in residence and the recently-appointed director of the First-Year Writing Program, notes that the curricular revision continues the program’s tradition of asking students to develop meaningful inquiries as they engage with challenging ideas and complex texts. Ultimately, according to Blansett, “the course helps students rethink their own composing practices as they experiment with new ways of making meaning.”
One aspect of the redesign project involved re-examining writing-as-process that had framed for decades as linear and discrete, when “we understand that writing and composing are themselves messy, recursive practices,” says Blansett. “We have these assumptions ingrained in us about writing,” Gatten points out, “Where we’re trying to get that perfect finished product. And even though we usually recognize that we can’t ever get there, traditional process-oriented pedagogies persist in being very product-focused. We wanted to return to being a program that was more attuned to multiple processes of writing.” In line with this philosophy, Blansett and Brueggemann and their team designed a set of “course moves” which are meant to serve as “a flexible methodology that makes visible composing activities of experienced writers, while also encouraging students to make contributions to knowledge,” according to Blansett. Team members also wanted students to develop writing practices and strategies that would take them beyond the classroom in a range of disciplines.
The initial plans for the redesign were taking shape around the same time that Gatten began working as a graduate assistant director and contributing to the curriculum redesign, which also coincided with a state and University budget shortfall. “We wanted to make sure that it remained an appropriately challenging foundational course and that we held onto the core principles of the curriculum and multimodality,” Gatten recalls, “But we also needed to address the financial pressures.” The team worked hard to secure multiple grants from campus partners and external sources so they could continue to develop the new curriculum while also sharing the burden of budget cuts with the English Department.
The Current State
The new course, ENGL 1007, was developed from a set of five “course moves:” collecting and curating, engaging, contextualizing, theorizing, and circulating. Students who are working with “contextualizing,” for example, might research where an idea comes from, read other texts that engage with similar questions, dig into archives for gaps in records. While working on “engaging,” students work putting other works to use responsibly, and to expand their own repertoires of “use” beyond quoting a few words from a text to serve a limited role as validation or foil. “Students tend to see other works as something they are only supposed to agree or disagree with, but there are so many other ways we can engage with others’ work beyond restating their arguments and adopting them as our own” suggests Blansett, “so we ask students to spend time examining and experimenting with ways to engage other authors. Ultimately, we want students to interact with texts as experienced writers do, in more nuanced ways.”
“The class is structured to highlight each of these moves of writing in a sustained way,” Gatten explains, through major assignments or an activity or something that’s associated with each of those course moves at some point during the semester.” While the goals of each assignment are concrete, the assessment opportunities are designed to allow for original forms of presentation and organization: “Our goal was to have assignment prompts that had more specific and direct writing goals without also then siloing students into ending up creating hundreds of the same type of project.”
Collaboration is a crucial element of this new course. In ENGL 1007, instructors are encouraged to create spaces for collaborative projects, and it was in a collaborative environment that these assignments were created.
“Our instructors have really been important to us and to the process,” Gatten notes, “I want to give some credit here. When we were piloting the course last year, the graduate students who were teaching the pilot met with us and worked with us on their materials. We got a lot of our recommendations and ideas from them.”
Not only are the students in 1007 working together on certain projects and providing each other feedback, but they are engaging with students from other sections of the class, as well. “There’s research that shows that when first year writing students are able to work with and interact with students in different classes that it helps them pedagogically,” Gatten explains. “Allowing students from different sections to come together allows them to see how the practices of collecting and curating, for example, work in different contexts.” In a further effort to learn more about what students do in the classes, Gatten and Blansett began hosting “Meet the Directors” chats with undergraduates. Blansett recalls that they’ve “had such a great time learning about students’ individual projects,” including in several conversations learning that an early assignment helped them reconsider what they had thought were isolated, but once they had collected and curated interviews about other people’s experiences in education, they saw some interesting questions emerge that they then became very invested in pursuing.” The directors also saw how much the new course moves helped students envision composition as more than “filling a template or cycling through to produce a draft, revise a draft.” “Students have really grasped the transferability of these course moves; they say things like ‘finally, I know what I can do to write.’”
A collaborative environment is difficult to maintain in an online learning scenario, according to Gatten. Nevertheless, the program learned from undergraduates during the first semester during this pandemic that they missed deep interaction with each other about their projects. Blansett and Gatten worked with the Storrs Registrar to implement more opportunities for synchronous sessions. They also worked with the team to develop more activities and assignments that provided opportunities for students to work more closely together in a time of limited social interaction. When in-person instruction resumes, ENGL 1007 courses will once again be able to take advantage of the new Studio in the Storrs-campus Austin building, a space that was designed and furnished through a grant won from the Steelcase Corporation. The Studio space makes the pedagogy of active learning a spatial imperative with its flexible seating arrangements (including tables, chairs, couches, and “bouys”). The space itself welcomes students to make themselves more comfortable. The room also houses tools for making that range from low-tech paper and pencils to ipads, audio and video equipment. “We wanted anyone who takes the course to have equal access to technology, and we’re grateful that we were able to collaborate with the English Department, the College of Letters Arts and Sciences (CLAS), and the Information Technologies folks to make that happen,” says Blansett.
In addition to creating a space that provides equitable access to tools, the new curriculum also allows for change towards more equitable instruction. “We’re also excited about the fact that this allows for a push for anti racist instruction,” Gatten remarks. “We wanted to design a curriculum that allows students who are from diverse backgrounds to contribute and develop projects that aren’t hemmed in by limitations placed upon them.”
As the new course is phased in across all campuses, the regional writing coordinators and liaison will play an integral role in adapting the curriculum for the individual needs and resources at each campus. The FYW program team members look forward to learning more about how students at regional campuses engage with the new curriculum.
Professor Veronica Makowsky, an expert in women’s, ethnic, and Southern American literature, recently retired from our faculty. She received her BA from Connecticut College and her PhD from Princeton University. She then taught at Middlebury College and Louisiana State University before coming to UConn in 1993. Besides her most recent book, Valerie Martin: An Introduction to Her Fiction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2016), Makowsky has written about a wide range of American literary subjects, such as Susan Glaspell, Caroline Gordon, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. We are grateful for her energy, dedication, and leadership.
If you could go back in time and tell your former self one thing before going in to teach that first lesson, what would it be?
Less is more. When I started teaching, I wanted to pack too much into a course, too much into my course preparation, expect too much reading from the students, and expect much too much from myself. I have definitely learned that less is more in that students can focus on learning less content but have a deeper understanding of that content. The skills practiced can then be transferred to “more.”
What is one thing you hope your students took away from your courses?
That literature is so exciting because there is always so much more to be discovered in a single work or in reading new works—it’s endless pleasure!
What is something you have learned from your students?
That they are individuals with all kinds of different talents, strengths, and ways of looking at the world and at literature. While we must follow certain rules and standards as professors, one size doesn’t fit all, so I have devised a number of ways to let students develop according to their own predilections and needs
What has changed most in education since you started teaching? What has mostly stayed unchanged?
In education, what has changed most is the increasing emphasis on student-oriented teaching and active learning, which I think is long overdue. Students learn much more and retain much more by doing, not memorizing; they are not empty vessels to be filled.
At UConn, the changes have been dramatic in my 25+ years here. When I arrived here in the mid-nineties, there was a green dumpster in front of every building, showing that no effort was made toward an attractive campus, and much was in disrepair. Obviously, the physical plant has improved radically, but I think what is even more significant is the change in the student body in that they are now pretty uniformly high performing and highly motivated.
What has remained unchanged is the pitiful lack of funding for public education. It has been and still is treated like a private benefit, not a public good that benefits all of society.
What do you look forward to most about retirement? What do you hope to work on next?
Much of retirement for me will be a continuation of what I like to do now: read, write, cook, take long walks with my dog, play with my cats, and travel a bit, but the difference will be that I will do as much as I want and when I want, not according to the demands of the academic calendar. In the first months, I just want to read whatever I want. When I am temporarily satiated, I will turn to writing. I may do more scholarship, but I am increasingly interested in creative nonfiction of various sorts.
Professor Emerita and Connecticut Poet Laureate Margaret Gibson will be releasing two new books this year: an anthology of environmental poetry edited by Gibson called Waking Up to the Earth and a new collection of her own poems called The Glass Globe, her thirteenth book of poems.I recently had the honor of speaking with her about these projects and her work.
Responsibilities of a Poet Laureate
AM: What are some of your personal ethics and principles that have guided you with this position?
MG: One tends to think of the Poet Laureate position as primarily honorary, and it’s really not. There is an expectation, not only for oneself, but also from the poetry office and from poets in Connecticut, that the State Poet Laureate will be an impetus for poetic activity within the state. I wanted to pick a theme to focus on that was not just personal, but also social, so I selected “poetry and the environment in a time of global climate crisis.” I wanted to lift up that issue, that urgency of encouraging poets to write about the fragility of the environment. In a kind of blessing of good timing, I applied for and received a grant to Poets Laureate from the Academy of American Poets. The grant is for my work and for personal development, but a portion of it is set aside for programs I want to sponsor or initiate.
AM: What sort of programs are you sponsoring?
MG: My initial intent was to help establish five or six green poetry cafes and to invite Connecticut poets to read poetry or do workshops in those cafes. Along came the pandemic, so that closed down live readings except for careful, socially distanced events in the summer, but there are still some online initiatives and virtual readings. In another project, we filmed poets reading out in the open in land preserves. I also wanted to put together an anthology of poems about the environment, and Grayson Books in Hartford agreed to publish it. We sent out a call for poets to send in poems having to do with the global climate crisis. We defined “the natural world” very broadly so that it would include environmental injustice as well as social or racial and cultural injustice. It represents over sixty poets in Connecticut. I wrote the introduction, I made the selection of poets, and I’m in the process of setting up readings, mostly on Zoom at this point because we’re still sequestered because of COVID. The anthology comes out in April, 2021.
Waking Up to the Earth: Connecticut Poets in a Time of Global Climate Crisis
AM: How did you publicize the call for submissions? How many pieces did you receive?
MG: We sent it out as broadly as we could and asked the town poet laureates to publicize it, as well. We notified various literary networks in multicultural and social and academic environments. I ended up reading thousands of poems. Ginny Lowe Connors and I agreed that we would not try to publish a doorstop of a book–so many poems that the book’s too heavy to carry. It’s going to be an anthology of about 120 pages. Most of the poets are represented with just one poem, but there are a few who have two poems. I was really pleased with the quality of the poetry, the variety and the breadth of attention.
AM: What informed your selection process for this anthology? How did you organize it?
MG: Well, of course, authenticity of voice, vibrancy, concision of language, originality of image and focus, depth of thinking. If you read the anthology straight through, there’s a sense of an unfolding narrative and a kind of linkage. There are no sections. I didn’t want division. There are poems that begin the anthology which have a detailed focus on individual living organisms, the poet paying close attention. Then, the darker notes of the climate crisis begin to come in, then other poems consider what might be done to alter the progression of climate change. And toward the end of the anthology, there are poems that offer visions of what the future might look like if we don’t wake up and make changes. There are poems whose material is political and social, and there are poems which are celebratory. I also wanted the anthology to be representative and inclusive of a diverse range of voices.
AM: In the introduction, you mention the word “humility” and that the authors have all sought a humbler relationship with the earth. What are some ways in which you have pursued that relationship, yourself?
MG: Well, “humility”, as I pointed out in the introduction, is related at its root to the word “humus:” the ground, the earth. So, by a humbler relationship, it means a more grounded relationship. It means a more equitable relationship. The natural world is not here to support just the human species, but all of us. I think our species of humans has egotistically focused on our own. We’re all here to survive and to be happy and to thrive, but not at the expense of others because if you personally thrive and do damage, that damage will eventually come home to you. Why do I want human beings to continue? Because they write poems and write beautiful music and because one of our unique qualities is that human beings have speech. And as a poet, I would just hate to see words vanish, which is what happens at the end of my poem, “Irrevocable.” It’s a great loss we’re looking at if we don’t get to work.
AM: How will you be promoting the release of the book?
MG: We’re just beginning to set these things up, but we have a lot of exciting events planned. I sent out a letter to all of the poets who are published in the anthology and said, “Look, we are now a family. We are all bonded together because we’re in this anthology.” Some of the poets teach, and might include the anthology in courses. All of them will, I hope, get invited here and there to read. And I’m hoping that they will also set up readings and events and videos and Zooms. Grayson Books in Hartford is a not-for-profit press. They do beautiful books and I think this one will be really lovely. We don’t have a big advertising budget, but I think with the enthusiasm of the poets and the pleasure, frankly, of gathering to read together, the book will make its way.
The Glass Globe
AM: How did you decide on the title? I know there’s a poem in the collection called “The Glass Globe,” but how did you decide that it should be the title of the book?
MG: Choosing a title can be really hard, but sometimes I actually have the title for the book in mind very early on, and it’s helpful because I can then write with a certain kind of focus. With this book, I had to wait and sort of see what evolved. “The Glass Globe” focuses on a glass globe that is in my house. It’s a hand-blown, beautiful, luminous glass globe that rests on a table right by the window. It gets lots of light and you can see the natural world through it. I had written about that globe years ago in an essay. This is kind of remarkable, but I was rereading that essay about a couple of weeks before doing a little housework, and I picked up the globe and put it down too hard. It cracked, but it didn’t fall apart. And because it had been something in my father’s family and I’d seen it since I was a little girl, I was very attached to it. I started writing this poem about my own clumsiness, and the words from the other essay got incorporated into the poem. The action of breaking it got incorporated into the poem. My late husband’s death got incorporated into the poem. All of those elements that are present in many of the poems in this collection kind of got woven in, along with a focus on human decisions that have damaged the Earth, so it felt right to title the book The Glass Globe.
AM: Your poem, “Irrevocable,” is featured in both Waking Up to the Earth and The Glass Globe, and both books come out in 2021 (April and August, respectively). Did the processes for both books inform one another in any ways? Was there any overlap?
MG: The manuscript for The Glass Globe was done and actually in production when I started reading for the anthology. I’m still in the editing process, but the manuscript was completed. I chose “Irrevocable,” which was originally published in The Gettysburg Review, after I selected the anthology pieces; I waited to see what poem of mine might best fit in. With the fact that I’ve been focused on my relationship with nature for years, wanting to do the anthology is a kind of natural outgrowth of my own work, but also of my position as poet Laureate, which as I said, is intended in part to extend inspiration and invitation to other poets in Connecticut. So, in that sense, the anthology is an extension of both public and private work of mine.
UConn English and Journalism alumni Crystal Maldonado ‘10 (CLAS), was featured by Lakshmi Gandhi of NBC News for their Culture Matters series. The article, published on February 2nd of this year, focuses on Maldonado’s debut novel released on that date, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. It includes inspiration for the novel through her experiences and the importance of body positivity messages in popular culture.
In an effort to promote anti-racist writing practices across academic disciplines, Kathleen Tonry, associate professor of English and associate director of the University Writing Center, and Gabe Morrison, a PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition, are working on an initiative called “Racism in the Margins.” The project begins with a virtual conference that will take place on Friday, February 19 and Friday, February 26. A panel of experts featuring Haivan Hoang, associate professor of English, UMass Amherst; Mya Poe, associate professor of English and director of Writing Program, Northeastern University; Vershawn Ashanti Young, professor, English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo; and Asao Inoue, professor and associate dean of Academic Affairs, Equity, and Inclusion in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University, will meet to present on the current issue of racially biased writing evaluation and opportunities for improvement in providing fair and valuable feedback to a diverse set of voices. Following the conference, a faculty working group with members from a range of disciplines will synthesize the information presented in the conference and develop strategies to improve writing instruction at the University of Connecticut.
The Writing Center: A Unique Vantage Point
The idea for this initiative came from conversations students had with their UConn Writing Center mentors. Tonry remarks, “We see things and have conversations about writing that are really different than the ones that [students] have with faculty. The kinds of conversations that get precipitated there are really peer ones.” In this peer environment, some students felt comfortable enough to express concerns about feedback they received on assignments. Many were international students who felt that some faculty members were getting frustrated at their “writing with an accent,” and unfairly expressing those frustrations in the margins (hence the name for this initiative).
“A couple times each semester,” Tonry recalls, “there will be a knock at my office door or an email that says, ‘Hey, I had a really hard tutorial with a student who felt that they were being singled outbecause of their race or gender in the comments and they felt that it was really unfair. What can we do?’ Well, it turns out there’s not much you can do. You can take it to a dean or move it through the OIE, but the bureaucratic processes really rely on students being willing to carry that further.” While the Writing Center provided a space in which such issues of biased feedback could be identified and discussed, Tonry and Morrison recognized that it was not the space in which these problems could be solved via peer mentoring; the solution had to come from faculty.
For Students, Through Faculty
As they developed their proposal for “Racism in the Margins,” Morrison emphasized that issues of racism and writing become especially problematic in situations where there is an inherent power imbalance between teachers and students. “Part of the reason why we weren’t focused on the Writing Center and what our tutors could do,” Morrison explains, “is because that power dynamic doesn’t exist: they’re peers, so they’re really on an equal playing field. Where damage can really be done is through evaluation. We’re looking at the margins of students’ papers. That’s where the grade appears, and it can make a student feel like they want to give up. Faculty are the ones that have the power to shape those margins.”
To facilitate a conversation about such damage that lasts beyond two Fridays in February, Tonry and Morrison developed the idea for a faculty working group that will continue the necessary work of applying the conference’s discussions to university practices. Since writing-intensive courses are required for every major, Tonry and Morrison organized an eclectic panel with representatives from as many cultural centers, colleges, and departments as they could include. Morrison notes, “Writing doesn’t belong to one field, so anti-racist writing practices in biology might look different than anti-racist writing practices in English. Part of what’s so exciting about this initiative is that we need to build that knowledge from the ground up. That’s why we need this faculty working group to be interdisciplinary; we need to generate that knowledge. I don’t think it’s really been done in this way before, so we’re excited to do that.”
“It’s Ongoing Work.”
While their College of Liberal Arts and Sciences grant covers the expenses of organizing the conference and developing the working group, Tonry and Morrison hope that the work they achieve in the coming months will lead to further opportunities for creating lasting change at UConn and beyond. While it will be the working group’s job to decide how best to implement anti-racist practices in pedagogy, according to Morrison, the Writing Center could play an integral role in this work:
“An advantage of the Writing Center is that we do some of the training for faculty and graduate students who are teaching writing-intensive courses, so we saw in this an opportunity to start having conversations about different views of language that are explicitly anti-racist and more inclusive to students of color or students who speak another language as their primary language.”
Regardless of what form this initiative takes on once the working group completes its deliberations, Tonry says, “We don’t want this to be another hoop for faculty to jump through. We want to develop something that becomes a part of faculty culture: thinking about how they use writing and how they use anti-racist writing assessments. It’s not something you get a dose or shot of and be declared an ‘Anti-Racist.’ It’s ongoing work.”
Tonry and Morrison anticipate expanding the scope of the project to also include anti-racist writing workshops as part of the community outreach work the Writing Center does with Connecticut high schools. They hope that this work will inspire other institutions to examine and improve their practices, bringing these issues in the margins to the forefront and creating a more equitable experience for students of all backgrounds and experiences.