Professor Gina Barreca, editor of the soon-to-be released Fast Funny Women: 75 Essays of Flash Fiction, was highlighted in UConn Magazine for the collection, its origins in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the contributors with connections to the University of Connecticut.
Details on how to get a copy of the new book are available through Woodhall Press.
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 (email@example.com)
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.