Category Archives: school daze

Writing Literature, Writing Race: Syllabus

Below is the description and course reading list for a writing class I designed and am teaching in Spring 2016 in the English Department at UC Davis.

English 003: Introduction to Literature: Black and White and Read All: Writing Literature, Writing Race

Race is read all over: thinking about race and, especially, thinking that is shaped by ideas about race, is global and constant, from college campuses in the United States, to Paris, Brazil, South Africa, just about everywhere. Though each location and social situation is unique in its thinking about race, race is something we think we “see”; it can shape what we think we know about particular human beings; it can shape our behavior and treatment of others; it can affect our life circumstances, opportunities, and hazards. But what is “race”? We often use the term “race” to refer to groupings of humans who share (or seem to share) distinct physical phenotypical traits. And in practice race is also often used to refer to cultural traits. But in both of these cases, after scratching the surface there are many complexities and contradictions that make simple categorizations quite problematic. Why? Race is a social construction, meaning simply that “race” is an idea created by humans to explain or understand the world. So some scholars argue that racism—as expressions of how people are thinking about race—is not only a useful way to understand “race” as a socially constructed idea but perhaps its defining characteristic: racism makes race. Race (and other social constructions) is a flexible concept that change over time and place, and can differ depending on the society in which they are used. As a social construction, we can look to an unlikely place to better understand race: literature and culture, expressions human experience and human thought. The creative expression of literature shows us what people see, think, and imagine about their world in particular places and times. Importantly, literature is not simply about recording knowledge; literature makes new knowledge that shapes society. So literature also creates understandings of race. Thus, to write literature is also to write race.

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Literature and Citizenship: Syllabus

[Image from Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660 (1946)]

Below is the description and course reading list from the syllabus for a writing class I designed and taught in Fall 2015 and Winter 2016 in the English Department at UC Davis.

English 003: Introduction to Literature: “Go Back to _____!”: Literature and Citizenship

In the summer of 2015, when Donald Trump told Univision reporter Jorge Ramos to “Go back to Univision” (i.e. “go back to Mexico or X-Latin-American country”) he used rhetoric and expressed ideas that are neither new nor uncommon. He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last. Even in the few months since then, debates about who belongs where, what they should look like, sound like, worship like, think like, etc.—who they should be—are everywhere in this country and world. In a globalized world, questions about citizenship and belonging are of the highest importance, not only in the technical sense of laws but also at a very deep philosophical level. Who are we? And how is this shaped by our relationships to other human beings? What are those relationships? How are they formed, perpetuated, dissolved, and transformed? In this class, we will examine how writers have used literature to represent and think the meaning of citizenship, belonging, nationhood, movement, migration, inclusion, and exclusion.

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Policing and Race in the Black Humanities: Syllabus

Below is the description and reading schedule from the syllabus for a class I designed and am teaching during Summer Session 2015 at UC Davis, through the Humanities Program.

Humanities 002B: American Humanities Forum: Justice or “Just Us”: Policing and Race in the Black Humanities, from Slavery to the Present

Course Description and Objectives:

Protests that began in the summer and fall of 2014 (and that continue) over the killing of black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner by white police officers in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY have made the intersecting issues of police conduct and race relations highly visible. But the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter does not announce a new problem or movement—indeed, it follows a much longer history of anti-black racial discrimination by law enforcement that ranges from disrespectful misunderstanding to brutality and homicide. And current activism follows a much longer history of protest and resistance to racially discriminatory law enforcement.

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Putting the Humanities to Work: The Human Tool

Thomas Martin, The Circle of Mechanical Arts, London (1813)
Thomas Martin, The Circle of Mechanical Arts, London (1813)

(Attended the first day of the culminating conference for the UCHRI initiative “The Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work”. The day was addressed to graduate students, “Making the MA/PhD Work Post Graduation: A Career Workshop for Humanities Graduate Students”. A few thoughts…)

Graduate students in the humanities ARE the humanities.

During a panel that also featured the director of UC Press and the chief counsel for CA Department of Industrial Relations, the departing director of Cal Humanities Ralph Lewin shared the anecdote/joke/nightmare: in the process of looking for a new job, he spoke with a headhunter who said, “so on your resume you have all of this experience in the humanities… and I have no idea what that is.”

I have now been to two programs addressing the question of what to do with the humanities PhD post graduation besides teaching in higher ed (the tenure-track, the adjunct, the two-year school). In each I have heard a great deal about identifying and marketing our transferable skills (or fluencies or literacies, if you want) to those beyond the academy. In our current economy, a knowledge-based economy, the humanities PhD is well positioned, or so goes the argument. Our job prospects open up, the career possibilities multiply. All we have to do is reframe the resume, match up our skills with the keywords of job announcements: help employers see more clearly the work we can do, the tasks we can complete.

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Reflections from MELUS Conference 2013: Random Final Thoughts (on Professionalization, Mostly)

My First MELUS Conference

As graduate students (in English, at least), conferences are a funny thing. Compared to faculty, who attend to present their work, get a sense of what else is going on, and catch up with old friends, maybe visit a new place, graduate students attend with what seems to me to be a sense of anticipation and anxiety. For them, the conference does not yet seem part of their professional lives but one that offers the promise of the kind of professionalism that they aspire to and are yet reminded that it will be the privilege of the very few who can get jobs teaching literature. Thus, the presentation of the paper, the discussions, the Q and A sessions after a major talk, the networking, all of this often seems future rather than present oriented. And if you/we don’t get the job, move into another field, will you/we have enjoyed these moments? Remember them fondly? Are the conversations organic, genuine, or are they strategic, angling for something?

I’m sure that this describes me to a certain extent, but I like to think that I’m also just interested: in the work others do, that I myself do (not as a ticket to somewhere but as thought/ growth/ engagement). I like to think that I’m interested in listening, in observing, in talking with others no matter who they are. As dumb as it might sound, I hope that the human in me and not (or not just) the laborer/professional is better from a conference. Continue reading Reflections from MELUS Conference 2013: Random Final Thoughts (on Professionalization, Mostly)

Reflections from MELUS Conference 2013: Encountering My Double

One of the strangest things that happened while I was at MELUS was that I ran into another graduate student, D., currently a student at the University of ______ (for his anonymity and a bit of mine, I leave the names blank here). Meeting another grad student shouldn’t be strange at all, but we got to talking and it turned out—once he heard that I was a student in the English Department at UC Davis—that not only had he almost gone there but he also would have entered the same year I did. Or should I say, he would have entered and I would not have. I was on the waitlist and was admitted at the last minute. And he told me that he had had a really tough time deciding between UC Davis and the University of ______, where he eventually decided to go. He had drawn up charts, waiting until the very last minute, deferring calls and emails from people who wanted a decision, and wanted him to come to their school. Continue reading Reflections from MELUS Conference 2013: Encountering My Double

Reflections from MELUS Conference 2013: What Was/Is/Will Be Chican@ Literature?

Panel 32: “Chicano/a Historical Consciousness, Arts Movement, and Literature,”

One panelist, Elizabeth Cummins Munoz, spoke about novelist and critic Emma Perez’s Forgetting the Alamo, Or, Blood Memory Flesh (2009) and another, George English Brooks, talked about the significance of material objects in three Chicano texts: cockroaches in Oscar Zeta Acosta’s Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973), bricks in Alejandro Morales’s Brick People (1988), and Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2005).

But for me the most fascinating presentation was by Alma Ros Alvarez from Southern Oregon University, titled, “Institutional, Demographic and National Challenges to a Sustained and Vibrant Chicana/o Literary Arts Movement.” Rather than the traditional academic presentation, in which the presenter simply reads, Alvarez gave a short Powerpoint presentation about the way that Chican@ literature—rather than simply Chican@ studies—is currently being taught, offering some preliminary observations about why and how the field might adjust or adapt. She conducted a survey with instructors of Chican@ in the West and Southwest, asking about teaching loads, curricular choices (texts), rationales and feelings about classes and texts, as well as observations about students. Institutionally, the primary concern was with the frequency of classes being taught—most instructors were teaching one course every year or every two years. Demographically, Alvarez investigated whether classes were made of up majority Chican@ or majority white students (or, infrequently, other students of color). How did the makeup of classes determine the curricular choices? What do students expect? What do they respond to? Finally, Alvarez looked at the way that nationalist tendencies or issue shaped the field. How is the category of Chican@ holding up in the current moment, one in which there are many recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America? In which the Aztlan-inspired nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s is perhaps overshadowed by the Mexican-flag-America-flag bi-nationalism evidenced in the May 1st demonstrations several years ago. In terms of the literature, Alvarez found that historical and cultural content was equal in importance to literary value—and thus there tends to be a focus on reproducing certain themes of Chican@ identity and life. Continue reading Reflections from MELUS Conference 2013: What Was/Is/Will Be Chican@ Literature?