Daring to Speak

March 7, 2012

Imagine if the next fad in self-help and self-improvement ran on the following slogan:

We are how we pronounce the words “caramel” and “pecan.”

The implications for identity and conflict are potentially terrifying. Nonetheless, the concept of dialect and regional differentiation of language is a fascinating one. Today on the Diane Rehm show, guests Joan Houston Hall and Ben Zimmer discussed The Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE, a project cataloging just this phenomenon.

Listen to the show archive now.

Fred Cassidy, one of the project’s founders, was a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

[Cassidy] selected just over a thousand communities across the U.S., chosen to be as evenly distributed as possible while still sampling all the places that were notable for historic events or migration patterns. He recruited a group of 80 Fieldworkers (mostly graduate students, but also some professors), and between 1965 and 1970 they were sent out to the selected communities to interview people who had lived there all their lives. Initially some of the Fieldworkers traveled in minimally-outfitted vans dubbed “Word Wagons.”

Their findings, now spanning a five-volume set, have been used in fields ranging from theatrical training to forensic linguistics, medicine, history, and law. Underneath, as the tone of the show and comments reflected, is an ongoing fascination with the way we are united and divided by words, even within the bounds of a common language. As one commenter wrote, “Regional accents are really part of the great flavor of America.”

Now I just want to know if the original “word wagon” researchers had read Travels with Charley


One Mission Accomplished

January 3, 2012

This morning, I received an email update from a sociology professor at my alma mater, Bridgewater College. The message from Dr. Mwizenge S. Tembo began with this headline: “Mission Accomplished: Books Delivered to Nkhanga Library Dec. 20, 2011 at 5:15PM.”

In my graduate studies, I have read and written a great deal about the power and politics of reading and writing. Sometimes I forget to give equal space to the personal and positive sides.

The Nkhanga library project is part of a larger initiative called ZANOBA: the Zambian Knowledge Bank. Co-founded by Dr. Tembo in 1995, its mission is to “to encourage all Zambians in the Southern African country to document, preserve, and enjoy their traditional and modern Zambian culture and technology among people who live in the rural villages and Provinces to the towns and cities of the African country.”

Fundraising for this particular branch of the Zambia Knowledge Libraries began in 2006, while I was a junior in college. I have been following its progress since that time: watching, through photos, as trees were cleared and the foundation laid (May 2007); the walls were completed (September 2008); the roof was installed (August 2009); and the interior took shape (May 2011).

Setbacks were a regular feature of the progress updates, but also prominent were the determination and dedication of many individuals who did their part, however small, to make this vision take shape.

The main collection of donated books arrived a few days before Christmas. Dr. Tembo writes this:

I just returned from Zambia. I am thrilled to report to you that all the publicly donated total of 3,092 used books packed in 65 carton boxes were successfully delivered to the new Nkhanga Village Library in Lundazi in Eastern Zambia in Southern Africa on December 20, 2011 at 5:15PM local time and 10:15AM Eastern American Standard time. …

What the shipment of the books and the entire Nkhanga library project has shown is that there are so many selfless people both in the United States and Zambia who are genuinely dedicated to the success of this very truly unique grassroots project. On behalf of the project I would like to thank everyone in the community here and in Zambia for their contribution.

You can read more about the Nkhanga library project in the Fall 2011 issue of Bridgewater Magazine (beginning on page 21). Visit www.bridgewater.edu/zanoba to find out more about the broader aims and goals of the Zambian Knowledge Bank.

As You Were Seen

November 7, 2011

This month, I have been reading the book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence by Judith Butler. I had read the title essay earlier this year for a class and was deeply moved by it, so I wanted to read the complete work.

To call literary criticism or theory “moving” might seem like a contradiction in terms. This book is an exception.

The piece begins with the experience of grief and attempts, from there, to work out a better way of responding to violence, one that does not provoke further violence. The scope and breadth of the implications are compelling, but it is the interpersonal aspect that has been most poignant for me.

Butler writes this, “Loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others” (20). As a graduate student intending to enter a career in academia, transience is a way of life I am learning to accept: moving frequently, saying goodbye to friends, adapting to new environments. Being a socially constituted body is difficult in that context.

Butler continues, “When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are…” (22).

Earlier this summer, I read Salman Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Lengthy, like most of his writings, the novel is nonetheless one of my new favorites. At one point, the narrator speaks about loss in a way that echoes Butler’s sentiments:

“…whenever someone who knows you disappears, you lose one version of yourself. Yourself as you were seen, as you were judged to be. Lover or enemy, mother or friend, those who know us construct us, and their several knowings slant the different facets of our characters like diamond-cutter’s tools” (510).

In this way, we give select others permission to tell our story. We grant them the right — for good or ill — to name us. In doing so, we acquire a stake in each others’ lives. To lose, or to grieve, reminds us that we are not autonomous and in control. As Butler says concisely, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something” (23).

As painful as that experience can be, I think we receive from it a new appreciation for our own vulnerability, and perhaps a new humility in our relationships with others as well.

As I said, plenty to ponder here…

Imagination and the Impossible

April 26, 2011

A few weeks ago, international bestselling author Salman Rushdie spoke at Duke University on “Public Events, Private Lives: Literature and Politics in the Modern World.” Read a review here. Here’s a snippet:

Human beings are unique among the world’s creatures in telling stories, he said, and writers willing to tell those stories can change their world just as the works of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe prompted reform in their worlds.

“That’s what all great literature tries to do,” [Rushdie] said. “It tries to open the universe a little more. In order to push out the boundaries of the universe … you have to go to the frontiers and push … when writers do that, they find very powerful forces pushing back and the consequences can be significant … but you can bet that art will outlast tyranny.” (Read More…)

Pushing out the boundaries of the universe is akin to what Czech former president and playwright Václav Havel calls “the art of the impossible“: recognizing that ideals like freedom, democracy, and human rights can be realized only imperfectly, yet in the face of that knowledge, continuing to seek better ways to approach those ideals.

To do so is to combine pragmatism and idealism.

What is more, to do so demands an act of imagination.

(See also Rushdie speaks on role of the novelist).

I’m back!

April 20, 2011

Thesis written, defended, and soon-to-be en route to printing.

On Leave in Books

March 11, 2011

My apologies for the recent dearth of posts. I’m currently writing my Masters’ thesis and haven’t had much time for extra writing. I should be back in a little over a month.  In the meantime, I leave you with this somewhat appropriate poem by John Donne. Enjoy!

Valediction to His Book

by John Donne

I’LL tell thee now (dear love) what thou shalt do
To anger destiny, as she doth us ;
How I shall stay, though she eloign me thus,
And how posterity shall know it too ;
How thine may out-endure
Sibyl’s glory, and obscure
Her who from Pindar could allure,
And her, through whose help Lucan is not lame,
And her, whose book (they say) Homer did find, and name.

Study our manuscripts, those myriads
Of letters, which have past ‘twixt thee and me ;
Thence write our annals, and in them will be
To all whom love’s subliming fire invades,
Rule and example found ;
There the faith of any ground
No schismatic will dare to wound,
That sees, how Love this grace to us affords,
To make, to keep, to use, to be these his records.

This book, as long-lived as the elements,
Or as the world’s form, this all-gravèd tome
In cypher writ, or new made idiom ;
We for Love’s clergy only are instruments ;
When this book is made thus,
Should again the ravenous
Vandals and Goths invade us,
Learning were safe ; in this our universe,
Schools might learn sciences, spheres music, angels verse.

Here Love’s divines—since all divinity
Is love or wonder—may find all they seek,
Whether abstract spiritual love they like,
Their souls exhaled with what they do not see ;
Or, loth so to amuse
Faith’s infirmity, they choose
Something which they may see and use ;
For, though mind be the heaven, where love doth sit,
Beauty a convenient type may be to figure it.

Here more than in their books may lawyers find,
Both by what titles mistresses are ours,
And how prerogative these states devours,
Transferr’d from Love himself, to womankind ;
Who, though from heart and eyes,
They exact great subsidies,
Forsake him who on them relies ;
And for the cause, honour, or conscience give ;
Chimeras vain as they or their prerogative.

Here statesmen—or of them, they which can read—
May of their occupation find the grounds ;
Love, and their art, alike it deadly wounds,
If to consider what ’tis, one proceed.
In both they do excel
Who the present govern well,
Whose weakness none doth, or dares tell ;
In this thy book, such will there something see,
As in the Bible some can find out alchemy.

Thus vent thy thoughts ; abroad I’ll study thee,
As he removes far off, that great heights takes ;
How great love is, presence best trial makes,
But absence tries how long this love will be ;
To take a latitude
Sun, or stars, are fitliest view’d
At their brightest, but to conclude
Of longitudes, what other way have we,
But to mark when and where the dark eclipses be?

Source: Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I.  Ed. E. K. Chambers. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 30-32. Accessed from http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/valbook.php.

Trickle-Down Texts

December 15, 2010

In economics, the “trickle-down effect” refers to the phenomenon in which a costly good becomes accessible to more people as it loses singularity and status. In politics, it’s a popular explanation for why tax cuts to the rich ultimately benefit everyone. It’s also an interesting question to consider in relation to academics.

For the purposes of this argument, what I’m calling the “trickle-down effect” is a phenomenon used to justify the ongoing relevance of theoretical study in academics.

True, the average Joe may not benefit from Professor Doe’s extensive knowledge of dark matter and particle physics, but he will benefit from the implications of her research for nuclear weaponry and international relations.  If he takes her introductory physics class, he may learn something about force that will help him build a better bookshelf. Some day, her research may lead to an enormous breakthrough, and in the meantime, it’s justifiable to those who dole out funding to the department because some, well, particle, of that knowledge trickles down to a “useful” level.

Math and science are natural bearers of this logic. But does the “trickle-down effect” apply to literary study? Or, more broadly, to the humanities? To answer that question invokes a host of other questions about not only the purpose of literary study, but the purpose of teaching literature. Here goes.

Literary Study and Theory

One of the reasons I find literary theory appealing is because it breaks down a barrier between conversations about the content of literature and conversations about, for lack of a better term, “real life.”

I would be the first to agree that discussing literary characters as if they are real is delightful. Beginning to studying fantasy as if it were utterly strange to our world frees our thinking and can produce thoughtful consideration of the similarities and differences between them.

However, as much as we like to think of books as windows onto a world we’ve never experienced, those “windows” get fogged up by the limitations of language, the other literary texts the author is using as building blocks, the author’s biases and intentions, and our own preconceptions.  To my mind, an important goal of literary theory is to draw attention to the fog on the window.

Literary Study and Teaching

When it comes to teaching, at an introductory level it’s about developing a set of skills, a way of approaching the world. Scientists begin with the scientific method; literary scholars also have (often unwritten) methods.

For me, those skills include close reading — paying attention to the details of a passage, the language, the images; thinking about context; identifying patterns and links to other works; articulating ideas verbally and in written form.

Quo Bono?

As I’ve said before (see “Literature For…“), those skills do have practical relevance in a wide range of fields. In that sense, I suppose you could call them evidence of a “trickle-down effect.” After all, a student may struggle to read Fanon or Spivak and yet recognize that teaching Shakespeare in India in the nineteenth century had political implications. And perhaps the next time she looks at a newspaper, she’ll ask herself what stories did not receive coverage, how the story may have been shaped in transmission, and by whom.

Are the benefits from these skills more difficult to measure? Yes. Are they less tangible? Probably. Are they less important? I would argue that the answer is no.

Then again, this is my career choice I’m discussing.  These are questions I have the luxury of considering, and my answers do not provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, or  better health care for the sick. Does that mean they’re not valuable? No. Does it mean they should be kept in perspective? Yes.

Given the fact that I have vested interests in this discussion, my perspective might be just a little skewed. Or is it? To quote the indomitable Paul Harvey, “That’s something to think about.”