Saturday, August 15, 2015


Q.  How did popular culture shape your early years. What were some of your favorite television programs.  Did  you have any comic book heroes?

I had a comic book library.

I had already fallen in love with reading, had fallen in love with the library. We had one of those Summer challenge programs in Grand Island, Nebraska. The same school that sold me a block of discounted tickets to go to the matinee movies on Saturdays also sent me home for the vacation time with a little booklet into which I could enter the names of the books I read over the break. (Certified by the librarian.) Of course they made a competition of it, and I remember getting various colored stars and commendations on my booklet for my achievements in speed reading.  I believe I would have outread most of my classmates even without having been put into competition with them. (Unlike the high jump or the swimming meet, this was one I knew I could win.) 

But I stayed away from the children’s section. I’d gotten all I could stand of Spot and company in the readers at school, and though my younger brother was to spend time in the company of Winnie the Pooh and the Cat in the Hat, I somehow hadn’t known of them. My favorites were varieties of adventure fiction and Sci Fi. Later I added detective fiction to my addictions, and I was always a sucker for science books (biographies of Albert Einstein, George Washington Carver, Madame Curie – Books explaining climate, atomic energy, and, above all else, space exploration).  

The great comics debate was going on, had been since the thirties, though I knew nothing of that. While politicians and moralizers worried publicly that reading comics might lead to juvenile delinquency, I was busy collecting my juvenile art books. I had no idea what that stamp that appeared on the covers of my comics meant, or what the Comics Code Authority might be. To my eyes it just looked like the hunting stamps on my grandfather’s license or the stamps we saw on bags of flour and such. Neither did I have a clue that my beloved Mad magazine came about after William Gaines, responding to the comics code madness, folded his EC Comics (I loved those too) and started Mad, which, not being a comic book per se, was not subject to the code. (Couldn’t help remembering all this when Congress was pressuring the film industry, and the movie ratings resulted, followed by ratings on music recordings, followed by hearings on video games, followed by . . . )

I never attempted to produce my own comics, as Baraka had done, but I was an avid collector (though not remotely like the present day aficionados – we had no comic stores, no ComicCon, certainly no academic courses in comics, would have laughed at a term such as “graphic novel”).

There was a space beneath the stairs leading down to the basement where we lived by the time I was in fifth grade, and that space became my comics library. I made a card catalogue and stuck little checkout slips in the back of each comic. I don’t remember ever allowing anybody to checkout anything from my library, but it was a formidable archive. Walter Benjamin would have enjoyed unpacking my comics. If atomic bombs (or tornadoes) ever drove us to shelter in the basement, I was prepared for a long siege.

The Classics Illustrated versions of classics I had not read (Three Musketeers) and classics I had (Treasure Island) were prominent in my collection. But the heart of my library was the horror and fantasy genre, just the sort of thing that had driven censorious Congressional staffs to warn of impending Wild One outbreaks and rampant James Deanism. Aliens featured on the covers of most of these, aliens clearly ignoring those annual reminders to register at their local post offices. I loved aliens, probably the only literary figures with whom I ever identified.

Heroes I had, but, aside from coming home one day in third grade and announcing that I was changing my name to Roy Rogers, heroes were not points of identification for me.  I was not looking for myself in any of my reading, never did. The point of reading for me was to get beyond my own languages, beyond my own yearnings, to get elsewhere. (Did this have something to do with being born in the middle of the middle of the prairies? My parents had gotten elsewhere – first generation to leave the farm for the town. I had something more like Jupiter in mind, and there was Wernher von Braun in the news to encourage me. I had a comic book about him too, which was silent on his war time sins. Hadn’t met Sun Ra yet, though he had already left Birmingham for Chicago, with Saturn in his sights.)

There were the super-hero comics in my library too, the obligatory Superman, Bat Man, Flash – but I felt an attraction for some of the odder, now less well remembered ones, like The Atom. DC Comics introduced this figure in 1961, by which time I had been to the museum in Hastings, Nebraska where I had purchased what claimed to be an “Atomic Pencil,” and my feet had been inserted countless times into those X-ray machines they had in shoe stores before they realized they were murdering an entire generation of children. I was a nuclear kind of guy, so The Atom appealed to me, despite his having been created by a man with the unlikely name of Jerry Balls. The Atom was, by day, a physics professor in Ivy Town. (While becoming a professor as an adult, I never did get to Ivy Town.)  The Atom could shrink himself to sub-atomic size to do battle with aliens and crooks – Much as I liked aliens, I liked embattled aliens even more.

What I enjoyed most in the super hero comics, even more than the adventures, were the letters to the editor columns.  All these comics had them. The loyal fans were constantly coming up with the most logical questions, questions that generally had not yet occurred to the editors. Where does Superman keep his street clothes while he’s flying around saving the world? If Superman’s costume was made from the blanket he was wrapped in when he crash landed after the explosion of Krypton, how did it keep getting bigger as he grew? This was my first immersion in criticism.

By fourth or fifth grade I was reading tons of genre fiction (and yet more science books). There was a trilogy of fantasy novels that captivated me, though I no longer recall the titles or the authors. I bought all of the Twilight Zone books. I subscribed to the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and to the Mystery Book Club (which I couldn’t really afford). Through the book club I discovered Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries and read all of them multiple times. (My friend the late Rob Reed and I used to sit around fantasizing about a TV or movie version of the Wolfe series – we both lived long enough to see the sad spectacle Hollywood made of this great material once they did get around to it.) Wolfe wasn’t actually a hero (given his girth and inaction, he was nearly its opposite), but he was the apotheosis of the detective of ratiocination, and there was his faithful side kick Archie Goodwin to handle the action side of things.  And he was from some mysterious place called Montenegro. (As with the letters columns in the comics, the Wolfe novels have their close readers, who have noticed that Wolfe’s home has many differing addresses despite always being in the same place, and that for a period of years that address seemed to be in the Hudson River. In later life my friends and I would sometimes direct Washington tourists to such ideal sites as 31st and C Streets NW.)

I spent as much time browsing the racks of paperbacks in stores as I spent in the library. In those days, books were on sale in large quantity at every drug store, dime store and grocery. That’s where I found the fantasy trilogy I enjoyed so much, and where I got my Twilight Zone books. I have a strong memory of the cover of the paperback of Kerouac’s On the Road, though I wasn’t to read that for another five or six years. So far as I could tell from that cover, there were no aliens or murders in the book.

Television was a late arrival in our household, so, like Baraka I was raised on radio. But some of the neighbors had TV. One of my best buddies, Stevie Eggers, lived directly across the street, His family didn’t just have a TV, they had a color TV. That opening sequence for the Disney Show was breath-taking. (OK – I just checked and my memory has suffered a bit of displacement. Disney didn’t broadcast in color till 1961, by which time we had moved to Denver and away from Stevie’s TV – Memory is a funny, and evidently colorful, thing.) I have always suspected that my father’s motive in getting us a TV set of our own was largely a matter of getting me back in the house so he wouldn’t have to go looking for me at dinner time.

My sister and I weren’t supposed to be watching things like Alfred Hitchcock. (Parental fear of our having nightmares, not of our becoming juvenile delinquents.) But our home was designed in such a way that the two of us could sneak out of bed and sit just around a corner, out of sight of the parents, and see the TV set. But we generally got caught before too long because of our inability to maintain silence. At lunch time I usually rushed to get the seat at one end of the kitchen table, because from there I could lean back and see the TV in the other room. I was hooked. There was the aforementioned Roy Rogers, along with Hopalong Cassidy and Cisco Kid. (Many of these TV cow pokes had an odd way of firing their pistols – It looked almost as if they were shooting at the sky and only then aiming at their target. This struck me as wildly comical. In the rural areas, we always had guns around and knew something of their use, though it would never have occurred to any of us that we’d carry a gun to the store or any other public place. Guns were tools, often used to shoot predators and sometimes to shoot a pheasant for dinner. There was no politics attaching to their presence or their use. I might have toy guns for playing cowboy or cop, but our sense of the real thing was entirely pragmatic.)

There was Superman, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound and outrun a speeding locomotive in his zeal to protect truth, justice and the American way. We had no Sesame Street, but the good Captain, Kangaroo by name, read from books to us on TV, something less common today. I have vague memories of the Amos and Andy show being on, though that may have been reruns. I remember wondering why it wasn’t called Kingfish, since he seemed to be the main character. I remember wondering why they talked that way. In contrast, Nat King Cole was also on our TV. Smooth – 

I knew no segregation in Grand Island. But that same TV set showed me images of the Civil Rights Movement as it was unfolding. Superman wasn’t going to be much help against racism, it was pretty clear. I had no clear notion of what this thing called The South was, but formed the opinion that we were fortunate not to be there. 

There was Route 66, which was a prerequisite for my eventual reading of On the Road. Checkmate included Sebastian Cabot as a crime solving professor, setting me on the path toward my early career ambition to be a forensic pathologist.

These things might seem the random juxtapositions that commercial culture throws at us. Wait long enough and everything links back up. The singer/song writer who goes by the name of Stew fronted a band named The Negro Problem, and that band had a wonderfully titled album Welcome Black, and that album included the song “I’m Sebastian Cabot.” “I’m Sebastian Cabot in your dreams. / I’m Sebastian Cabot, what’s that mean?”

OR – when very young I was fascinated by Woody Woodpecker. Had a Woody Woodpecker hat and decoder ring at one point. Fast forward to my adult years and I’m dancing to Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers playing the Woody Woodpecker song.  Things are changed on the blue guitar.

We didn’t call any of this popular culture. We breathed it.

I saw Carl Sandburg reciting poetry on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

E. Ethelbert Miller - The Aldon Nielsen Project #13

 Q. How have the computer, cell phone and other electronic devices changed how you read, write and study?
Note to librarians: We are still a very long way from leaving the technology of the codex behind. I read books about computers. I read ebooks in apps on my computer about books. It's not unusual.

None of my sixth grade friends would have been surprised to find me in my late twenties hanging around an IBM 360. Once I had gotten past my fifth grade plan to grow up to be a forensic pathologist (I was way ahead of the CSI effect), my next career goal had been Computer Scientist. Since my family left Denver before I got to eighth grade, none of my old friends knew that my ambitions had run hard up against higher math right around the time that I had become obsessed with poetry. (Had always read it, had written some in fourth grade, but had not yet seen that this was something I could be.) The surprise would have been that at the end of my time with Mr. 360, what I would walk away with on a reel of tape would be a dissertation in American literature.

I was of that last generation of men who didn't take typing instruction. We were mostly in shop classes and the girls were the ones who were, unbeknownst to themselves, picking up skills for the millennium. I was to become self-taught on the keyboard, pecking away in my GWU Campus Police dispatcher's booth, eventually becoming remarkably fast with my four fingered approach. I started out on manual typewriters, but soon hit the harder stuff.

That turned out to typify my fortunate contact with hardware. Just as I was able to learn typing on the creaky old manual available to me at the beginning of my academic life, then move on to an electric as I advanced to grad school, when I moved out of the campus police office and over to the Registrar's my early efforts at programming were registered on punch cards. (At some point after 7th grade I had made the discovery that logic and syntax, at which I was quite good, were more important to programming than being adept at higher math. I'd gotten much better at math in College, but still . . .) In the few years of my time in that job, GWU moved from the card reader to "dumb" terminals that, via the wonders of those rubber cupped, squealing modems, allowed us to send code across the street to the computer lab. No more carrying big boxes of punch cards back and forth to the computer center.

Conveniently enough, I was able to buy one of these used with about $50 from my skimpy pay check, and soon enough was coding from home. More convenient still, I took my coding skills to Continuing Ed just as I was starting the for real work on the dissertation, and had all the computers I could ever think of using right at my fingertips.

We were just getting to the microcomputer revolution, but GWU made a stop along the way, investing heavily in the Wang mini computer, which could be configured for local use in our offices, but also ran off a smaller computer center room in Rice Hall. In Continuing Ed we were teaching classes in the use of microcomputers, spread sheets, etc., but my own Literature work was still haunting the climate controlled confines of the IBM 360. I was using my newly acquired dumb terminal to type up the pages of my dissertation, which lived in the 360. 

The first drafts of my chapters were written out long hand on yellow legal pads, then transcribed using software known as Waterloo Script. This was an awkward solution, but I had free access to the mainframe by virtue of my employment. You had to manage a host of command lines, and you quickly learned to start each new sentence on a new line, for ease of later editing. But it was serviceable; I could print the thing out at the computer center, make corrections online, resubmit the job, get the new printout, etc. Eventually I was done; had a substantial tome to pick up at the job window. And when I graduated and departed from GWU, I took along with me a reel of tape containing all my hard work, which reel could not be read today without visiting a computer museum with legacy software. 


Waterloo SCRIPT

SCRIPT is a document composition processor developed by the Department of Computing Services. It is suitable for preparing documents that range in complexity from simple papers to large reference manuals and books. SCRIPT processes an "input file" consisting of text and "control words" (formatting commands), and produces an "output file" (formatted document) on disk, on a line printer, several laser printers, a CRT, or a typewriter terminal. While the long list of control words are powerful in their own right the greatest benefit for the user is derived from creating SCRIPT macro definitions for repetitive applications. SCRIPT is being used by many hundreds of computing installations, on a number of different IBM computers and operating systems.
A Text Editor: is used to create the input file and to enter the text and control words, and to make changes to previously-entered text and control words.
GML: An implementation of many different Generalized Markup Language layouts and a Starter Set layout to emulate the GML Tags described in the IBM GML User's Guide (SH20-9160)"

Somewhere along the line I had started typing shorter prose work, book reviews and correspondence, directly on the keyboard. (To this day, most of my poetry starts out in handwriting, but I long ago stopped handwriting any prose at all.) Sorry to report that somewhere in the Amiri Baraka archives (or is it the Rosmarie Waldrop collection?) there is a letter in which I inform my correspondent that I am now using word processing for most writing, something then still sufficiently novel as to warrant mention. But novel reading . . . That was still entirely a hard copy affair, despite the fact that I was occasionally applying various algorithms to digitized texts. (We already had The Brown Corpus and other such things, in some instances a gift from the great age of structuralism.) 

In those last years in D.C., with the help of a grant from the Commission on Arts and Humanities, I purchased my first actual home computer (and threw away the dumb terminal). I started with an Epson DOS machine, which in those days came with a gigantic codex of its own, a nearly impenetrable set of manuals. With that machine on my desk I felt a tremendous sense of liberation.  But what to do with all those perforation strips you had to tear of the pages fed to you by your dot matrix printer?

In the early nineties, following my wife's wise example, I purchased my first laptop, a Toshiba. Again, I felt that same sense of freedom. I could work anywhere, though I'd already begun to dislike people who made a show of reading their conference papers from laptops. (Seemed they could never get the things to scroll properly, let alone to sit straight on a podium.)  This was the heroic era of the Power Point. We had all slowly come to the conclusion that the Hyperlink was not going to change EVERYTHING after all, Hyper novels weren't doing all that well with readers, but we could sure throw up a screen and project an outline of the very talk we were giving. I held off till it became easier to embed video and audio files; now I use multimedia in class and in presentations all the time.

I was an early adopter of the PDA as well, though it always seemed a device that was coming up just short of what I wanted it to do. Who knew that all those functions would make the leap to the telephone? I still wasn't reading much from screens, but with these devices I had started writing poetry on screens, on the go. It was a wonderful combination of notebook and mystic writing pad.

But my real claim to being an early adopter came with the e-paper ebook. At some point in my San Jose State years, at a system wide conference of English faculty, I attended a presentation by a young man who called out all of us who were still using something so out of phase as WordPerfect. (I still use it -- It's a far superior product to Word, which is and was, as with so much Gatesiana, a badly back-engineered simulacrum that conquered the world.)  Then he waved his Digital Book device at us and advised that in the future nobody would read paper books anymore; that any of us who didn't use the thing in his hand was utterly hopeless.

Problems: The thing was bulky; it was hard to read from; there was virtually no literary content I could ever care about available for loading into it. (Reminded me of those racks of audio books in the stores, mostly diet manuals, self-help volumes, murder mysteries . . .)

A few years down the road I was browsing a Comp USA (remember those?) and saw the SONY Reader on display. It was thin. It used epaper, which seemed downright magical, like the Mystic Writing Pad, which must have been its inspiration. Most of all, there was a substantial and growing library of literature available for it, and you could load your own writings onto the platform. This was what I had been waiting for. I began reading novels and criticism from it. I loaded my own conference papers ont it and read from it on panels. (None of the difficulties attendant upon using a laptop at conferences with this little thing. I still remember Eugene Redmond coming up to me in Saint Louis to see what was that thing I was reading from.) When Amazon introduced the Kindle, I jumped to that at once. Even got the large format version, because now I could get my morning newspapers wirelessly delivered no matter where in the world I was, so long as I had internet access. When Apple introduced the iPad I left the Kindle behind. These new tablets had things called apps that could perform a plethora of functions.

But the steady evolution of the tablet finally brought me to what I had been wishing for all along; tablets that could entirely replace the laptop. Beginning with Windows 8, I could have a tablet that ran apps but could also run full programs. Not only could I read books and my own writings from its screen, I could use it for downloading and managing my concert files, creating presentations and running them, editing video and displaying it. It did pretty much anything a desktop or laptop (or indeed the old IBM 360) could accomplish, and I could slide it into my pocket.

These days I am the very model of ubiquitous computing. I still have the desktop at the house for the heavy lifting, but I'm screened in wherever I go. In my shoulder bag I carry a Windows 8.1 tablet. (Windows 10 anybody?) In my pocket I carry a Samsung Note, which is seldom used to phone anybody. (Seriously, have you ever gotten a phone call from me?) On my wrist is a Pebble Smart Watch, which displays emails, lets me know who is calling my phone, etc. I make notes for poems and other quick observations on the phone, which I can easily transmit to the other devices. I read my books on everything except the watch. (Don't have the patience for reading 140 characters at a time.)

There is one throwback, though. I've found that for teaching in the classroom, I still want the hard copy book -- Much easier to flip around in and find the passages I want to discuss -- No need to initiate a search to do that.

My complaints are all with the publishing industry itself, which seems bent upon destroying the potential market for ebooks. I've said before in blog entries and elsewhere, I should be able to buy any ebook at no more than half the price of a hardcopy. I should be able to read it on any device or platform that I choose. (DRM, as many have remarked, has never prevented piracy and only serves to annoy the industry's customers.) 

Ubiquitous computing also means that there is a powerful efficiency to my life of writing. Like every poet I've ever known, I've always had a small notebook with me no matter where I was. Still do! But between the tablets and the phone, I can also sit down anywhere I find myself and do the really serious work of writing and editing in a way that had never before been possible.

And yes, my most recent book of poetry, A BRAND NEW BEGGAR, is available in a Kindle edition.

Monday, July 13, 2015

E. ETHELBERT MILLER - The Aldon Nielsen Project #12

Q. Many professors complain about course loads, class size and how they don’t have enough time to write and do research. Has this been a problem for you?

This is a problem for everybody, but it’s a problem I’ve learned a few things about along the way. The story is all too familiar to friends who have heard me on this subject, but it may be of some interest to others.
When I began my full-time teaching career as an adjunct at Howard University, I taught eight courses a year, 4/4/ on the semester system, and most of those courses were writing intensive – most were, in fact, composition courses of one sort or another. Just to get a literature course on my resume, one year I added a ninth course taught at GWU, an American Literature survey. I would teach a couple classes at Howard, jump on my bicycle and ride down the hill to Foggy Bottom, teach my American Lit section, then pedal back up Georgia Avenue to finish my day’s teaching at Howard.

[The thing itself]

My situation was a bit different from most others, then as now. I was never a “T.A.” - -had not even so much as heard the term till one of my professors at GW’s grad program asked me if I was interested in becoming one. I was working my way through grad school on tuition remission, meaning that because I had a full time job working at GW (started as a campus cop, moved to the dispatcher’s booth, got myself hired in the Registrar’s Office as director of student records, finally worked as a sort of systems analyst for continuing education), I was entitled to take two courses per semester free of tuition. My professor approached the higher ups about putting me on as a teaching assistant, but came back with the bad news that I couldn’t have a TA spot because I was working full time.  A couple years later we looked into the possibility again because my work situation had temporarily changed a bit. I got the opportunity to serve in a Humanities in the Schools program funded by the D.C. Commission. This in reality meant that I was working even more. In the mornings I taught poetry in two D.C. elementary schools, Phoebe Hearst and John Eaton. (I was really only supposed to be at Eaton, but the same wonderful woman was Principal at both schools and talked me into adding two classes at Hearst.) So, mornings spent as a poet in the schools, then a quick bike ride back down the hill to my job in the Registrar’s Office at GWU, which I had temporarily reduced to half time.  I figured the GW part of my employment was the only thing visible to the GWU grad office, and my prof and I thought maybe now I could get that TA spot and get some university teaching experience. But now word came back from the Dean’s office that I couldn’t be a TA if I had any other job at all. Keep in mind that many if not most of my grad school friends who were TAs had jobs, but they didn’t have jobs on campus where they could be seen. I can’t imagine too many people could have survived on just a single GWU TA’s stipend in those days.

And that’s when I made the first of several intriguing discoveries. The TAs all had to sign up for a course on the teaching of English. Once I’d passed my comps and gotten my Master of Philosophy degree (essentially an ABD diploma) I was qualified to teach university writing and literature classes despite having had no training or experience in teaching at the college level. So I began teaching composition courses and learning on the job.

Pause to add that up. I was teaching elementary classes in the morning, working as Director of Student Records at GWU in the afternoon, and, oh, almost forgot to mention, I was also teaching a poetry workshop for the community in the evenings at the Martin Luther King Library downtown, and teaching a section or two of freshman composition.
All of that while researching and writing my dissertation – so my second discovery about all this, a good one to make early on, was that time management was the key to any accomplishment I was going to make in this endeavor. (I’d worked full time while completing my BA, so had some sense of the realities.)

Not everything I did in this respect was admirable. Using the vacation days I’d accumulated to work on the diss was fine, but I’d also accumulated a fair amount of sick leave. (This was all on the GWU job.) So for a time I could be counted on to get “sick” at least once a month, though I was generally treating my illness right there in the library. Have to admit I felt really good at the end of each “sick” day. As I was working on the dissertation, I made the move from the Registrar’s Office to Continuing Education, returning to full time on the GWU payroll, and my final administrative position put me in charge of a fair amount of computing power. As had been true in the Registrar’s, I quickly saw that I could usually finish my work in about half the time my predecessor had taken, and so I was spending much of my working day doing work that my employer had not hired me to do, researching and writing about racial discourse and poetry. (Still at it decades later.)

Those experiences had given me a tremendous preparation for juggling a huge teaching load with my desire to continue writing both as a poet and as a critic. (And the thousands of miles I put on my bicycle left me trim and toned in a way that my current students might find surprising.)  Adapting to my new environmental niche as an adjunct, I adopted a number of successful strategies. Seeing a course in Howard’s catalogue titled “Writing from Poetry” that nobody had been teaching much, I volunteered.  I’d been told over and over again during my time as a comp teacher that writing courses were not literature courses. (I’ve always been puzzled by professors who think they know what writing is not literature.) Here was a course in which the topic of all the writing was poetry. I jumped on it. There was another course in which all the student writing was in response to the news. I volunteered for that one and suddenly found myself getting paid to argue with smart students each day about what was unfolding in the Washington Post. But the real secret, it turned out, was to teach at unpopular times of day: early morning and evening. That cut the total number of students, and thus the total number of papers to read and comment upon. My office mate at Howard, poet Calvin Forbes, complained often of the too large classes he was given in creative writing, arguing, correctly in my view, that creative writing did not lend itself to such large sections. (Today we’re faced with a different problem. Enrollments in English are cutting all by themselves. Now the problem is not enough students.) The GWU American Lit survey was a big class, but it was worth adding to my schedule to get that all important lit experience on my c.v.

So, my two years as an over-worked and overwrought Howard/GWU adjunct gave me a lot of training on how to continue research and writing while carrying an intense teaching load (also doing a lot of hanging out with my friends, going to concerts, playing penny ante poker, participating in a poetry community, etc – all the while working out on that bicycle.) 

This in turn had the effect of helping me on the PhD job market. I got no response whatsoever to the first, large round of application  letters I sent out while finishing my dissertation. The next year, my first year at Howard, I stayed off the market to see how things might develop around D.C. It became evident that nothing was going to develop close to home, so I went back on the market my second year at Howard.  

A few things had changed significantly since that first, sad round of apps. By this point I had published four scholarly essays in peer-reviewed journals, along with a substantial number of book reviews. I had also published a significant number of poems in a variety of journals, and my first chapbook, but since I was not applying in creative writing, I knew those added little to my prospects. More to the point, the manuscript of my dissertation, Reading Race, had won the SAMLA Studies Prize from the South Atlantic MLA and was under contract to be published by the University of Georgia Press. Things will be different now, I told myself. “You’re hot now,” one of my friends told me.

More like tepid. Now I began learning about the class structure of academia, a subject much in discussion today thanks to recent studies of PhD placements. It had not escaped my attention that a large number of my professors at GWU had come from major R1 departments, but the implications of that had escaped me. With my substantial record of publication, a major award and a book in press, I was only able to snag four MLA interviews. I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned while standing in line at the MLA Job Center (this is how we used to do it) to find out the room locations of my interviews. I found myself next to a guy I knew from Yale. He had published not so much as a single word, and he had eleven MLA interviews lined up. (I later learned he had gleaned four job offers.)
In the end, I received one job offer, and it was at San Jose State, a place where, as R1 people then and now like to put it, “teaching is more emphasized,” which meant that, like Howard, San Jose had a 4/4 teaching load. My extensive record as a published early career scholar had done little for me, but all that teaching had helped a lot. Turns out I was really the only candidate interviewed who had shown no signs of surprise or panic when told about the teaching load. I was already doing it.
That publishing record was to give me some breathing space as I started my tenure track career at San Jose State. With several articles already out and a book about to emerge, I had more time to get whatever research and writing I was to do next underway. The trick was to find the time. I started spending an inordinate amount of time applying for grants, fellowships and course releases. This was especially important as I needed to teach in the summer to get a bit more income. Grant writing is percentage baseball. You have to apply a lot, get turned down a lot, to be successful. I was very successful. After seeing my first NEH proposal rejected, I subsequently went back to the NEH again and again. I got a summer grant. I got into two summer seminars, accompanied by stipends. I got a larger NEH grant that took me away from my campus. Within the Cal State system I got Trustees grants and course releases. Turns out that if you are productive, universities will encourage you. I got a year long fellowship at UCLA’s Afro American Studies Center. (Now I seldom apply for grants, as the amounts available are not sufficient for me to give up my paycheck. My department wants me to be applying for grants anyway, and will probably criticize me for not bringing in the $$$$.)
And that’s when I learned what I could do without a 4/4 teaching load. During the period of that fellowship, I did all the research for two books, wrote all of one of them and got a running start on writing the other. I loved teaching; loved my students. Yet, I knew, I loved writing still more.

Here’s the thing – During my years at Howard and San Jose State, I often heard my colleagues complain about the difficulty of getting work done with our crushing teaching loads. As I was laboring under the same load, I sympathized. When I got to UCLA, where the teaching was much more reasonable, I heard the same complaint.  Call me a slow learner, but something dawned on me.
Poetry never leaves me. Reading and critical thinking never stop for me. What is more difficult is putting myself in circumstances where I can do the sustained work of critical writing, and take care of the seemingly unending chores connected with publishing. Over the years, students have often asked me how you can tell if you’re really a writer. Somewhat flippantly, I have replied, “try to stop.” If you succeed at stopping, you’re not a writer, or at least you are no longer a writer. (I hasten to add that this is no guarantee as to the quality of your writing; that’s another set of questions.) If you are a writer, you are going to do whatever it takes to write, no matter your teaching load and administrative duties. You may write considerably less if you have a 4/4 load, but you will write. If you are given to your research subject, you are going to find ways to research.

There are those for whom the problem is how to find time to complete the project you need to complete for tenure and promotion. Many of these people complete wonderful projects. There are other people who would do these projects even if they were not on a faculty, and many such people are part timers, adjuncts, casual labor – people who do not get the institutional recognition they deserve for the work they are compelled to do. The same phenomena are apparent on the creative writing side of the academy. A few years ago, sitting in a hotel lobby during the AWP conference (a conference at which I am very nearly anonymous), I overheard a conversation between two MFA students who were approaching completion of their programs and who were contemplating their future in the academy. The young man said to the young woman, with an air of great confidence, that he could write fifty poems a year. I was fairly certain that I would not care to read those fifty poems.
“Art comes when it comes,” wrote Jayne Cortez. Much the same could be said about truly worthwhile research and critical writing.  There is a large class of faculty who will never write and publish more than is required for rising to the rank of Full Professor. Again, much of that work is solid stuff, but that is all they will do.

Throughout my career, I’ve taken heart from the examples of a few scholars I met along the way who, like me, did not graduate from the most highly ranked grad programs, but who, through their work itself, were eventually able to secure positions of the sort their accomplishments truly deserved. As the job market for PhDs has constricted, this has become increasingly difficult, but I knew it to remain a possibility.

I’ve never liked the terminology we use in these conversations. It is said of someone like me that “he wrote his way out,” meaning that the writing and publication record finally eventuated in a better position in the academy. (NOTE: this route also leads to lower pay. If, like me, you begin well outside the gravitational field of the research university galaxy, when you finally achieve lift off and reach at least suborbital status, your pay will likely be a good twenty percent lower than equivalent faculty who spent their entire careers at R1 institutions.) My work took me from my 4/4 load at Howard as an adjunct, and then at San Jose State as I worked my way up to full professor, to an endowed chair at Loyola Marymount with a 2/2 load. My continued writing and scholarship then brought me to my present named professorship at the Pennsylvania State University, with a 2/1 teaching load. In the course of my Penn State campus visit, one of my many interviews was with the personnel committee. The man who was chairing it at the time turned to me after nudging the copy of my c.v. on the table before him and remarked, “we don’t often see candidates with your profile.” I at first thought he was referring to my research profile, one that I thought sufficiently impressive, but it soon became clear that he meant they didn’t often give serious consideration to candidates from “comprehensive” universities, those where “teaching is more emphasized.” Another member of the committee asked me if anybody ever gave me a hard time about being a white scholar teaching African American materials. I so badly wanted to say, “just white folk like you,” but held my tongue and landed the job.

I have been doing the same work all along. I continue to create and accomplish projects at roughly the same rate. (Were I still the mathematical whiz of my youth, I would here insert a graph charting relative age against teaching load to show that my steady rate is still relatively steady despite my increasing years.) 

It should be the case that hiring and promotion decisions would be based almost entirely on the quality of the work. The judges of that long ago SAMLA Studies Prize, god bless them, had no idea who I was or where I had done my grad work. They just read the manuscript. But I think we all know our world is not so arranged. It will always be the case that those who couldn’t attend the highest ranked programs will have to outperform those who did if they are to have any hope of succeeding. So many faculty do that it is, or should be, an embarrassment to the profession that more of them don’t get those prestige jobs and the invitations that come with them. Still, they can have the satisfaction that their work is important to others in the field. Long before I had any title to append to my name, I had the experience of poets and scholars coming up to me at conferences (conferences, it must be said, where I was usually an attendee of the same order as themselves, not a keynote speaker) and telling me how much my work had meant to their own.

It is hard to find the time we so desperately need, time away from teaching, grading, committee work, to do our research and writing; harder still to stop writing.

CHINA 2015 - Part 5

July came, along with seminar papers to grade, and it was time to start packing for the return trip to the USA. I put away the Chinese guitar I had brought back to its motherland, had one last visit to a tea house with the students, visited another Buddhist shrine, had a last supper with colleagues, even visited the Wuhan Starbucks. (The WiFi worked much better there than on the university campus.) It was time for goodbye hugs (I only hug in China!), leave takings, and plans for next year's seminar. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Following the conference in Xiangyang, I joined a faculty tour group to visit the Wudang Mountain region, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The day's steady rain lent a mystic sense to this visit to the ancient temples, site of Xuanwu's enshrinement, the place where he had withdrawn to contemplate the Tao.

Wudang is also the birthplace of Taiji quan martial arts. We visited the Purple Cloud Monastery, Five Dragons Temple, Purple Heaven Temple and made the steep climb to the golden temple at the mountain top.