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The Difference CALS Makes on the Job Market

The academic job market for positions in literature, as many are no doubt aware, can be difficult and competitive. Many recent PhDs must spend a few years on the market before landing a tenure-track job, while others choose a path outside of academia, sometimes known as the “alt-ac” path. (CALS sponsored a symposium on this topic in 2014, which you can read about here.) For those who remain committed to the academic profession, the application process is full of ups and downs, opacities, doubts, and sometimes, great rewards.  This year, Penn State’s PhD graduates in American literature had much success on the academic job market, highlighting the difference exposure to CALS makes in preparing our grad students for success.


CALS provides graduate students with grant and award support of various kinds, which is making a real difference in the professionalization and maturation of Penn State Americanist graduate students (read about the kinds of support CALS offers in an article here).  Yet three Penn State Americanist graduate students who were successful on the job market this year—Laura Vrana, Michelle N. Huang, and Sarah Salter—suggest that the benefits of CALS extend far beyond the financial support the Center provides graduate students.  Just as important to their training and eventual success has been the singular introduction to the profession that CALS programs and its extra-disciplinary spaces afford the next generation of academic professionals.


Each year CALS sponsors  an extraordinary slate of programming that exposes graduate students to the academic profession and allows them to make contacts in unique ways. Laura Vrana, for example, has been successful recently in securing a position as a Postdoctoral Fellow in African-American Literature at Rutgers University. Vrana acknowledged the positive impact that the “Alien Form” symposium, which showcased the work of Penn State’s Ethnic American literature faculty, and other CALS events had on her scholarly development. In addition, hearing fellow grad students present their work at the annual CALS Graduate Awards Symposium, she said, was also helpful in framing and presenting her own work. Vrana’s dissertation traces the development and evolution of black women’s poetics from the Black Arts Movement in the mid-1970s to the present. She received many positive responses in her job search before accepting the postdoc position. From the fifty or so applications she sent in, she was offered 13 interviews, and two campus visits. While these didn’t turn into offers for a tenure-track job, she was happy to receive the prestigious post-doc from Rutgers, where she’ll be able to revise her dissertation and begin marketing it as a book, while also going back on the market next year.


CALS also provides extra-disciplinary space that empowers graduate students and allows them to make meaningful contributions to the programming and operations of the center. Because of these inputs, CALS-affiliated graduate students are able to envision the kinds of involvements they might have as future professors in the field. Michelle N. Huang worked closely with CALS as a graduate research assistant in the 2013-2014 academic year, where she helped organize, with CALS Director Sean Goudie and CALS-affiliated faculty member Tina Chen, the “Alien Form” symposium that Vrana noted was so impactful on her professional development. Part of the symposium’s events included a pedagogical lunch where participants read core texts from the visiting Ethnic American creative writers, and discussed how people might teach those texts in their classes. “It was invaluable to be exposed to organizing symposia at an early stage of graduate school. Events like Alien Form, which filled a much-needed gap in Ethnic American literatures at Penn State, really highlight how CALS creates spaces for areas of scholarship that lack institutional support. Additionally, helping graduate students and faculty who aren’t working in Ethnic American literatures access and become familiar with teaching and bringing these texts into their classroom was really important and meaningful to me.”


Huang’s role as a CALS Grad RA and her efforts in organizing the annual CALS Spring Symposium and running the First Book Institute made a crucial difference in her personal narrative as she went on the job market this year and quickly landed a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of English and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. “The inter-university and inter-community work I did with CALS as a research assistant gave me both experience and confidence when it came time to organize conference panels and collaborate with scholars from other institutions.” She also described attending the First Book Institute as the CALS Grad RA as “a total game changer,” explaining that, “it was reassuring to see brilliant and accomplished junior faculty still struggling with the ‘so what?’ question, but what really helped me with drafting my prospectus was watching them work through their thought and writing processes.”


During her time at Penn State, Sarah Salter also had extensive involvement with CALS on multiple registers, in teaching, research, and service. In her work as a teacher, she often included an emphasis on archival research, which she drew on to co-organize with Director Goudie CALS Undergraduate Research in the Archives Scholars (CURIAS), a special program for Honors English students working on archive-related theses. Salter served as Assistant Director of this program for three years. This experience, she explains, helped her to articulate her relationship to professional service in job interviews. “It certainly had a larger impact. It really helped me to think about and talk about my own professional commitments in terms of library liaising.” Salter was also awarded a CALS Dissertation Support Fellowship, which helped her to complete her dissertation focused on literary and cultural exchanges between the United States and Italy in the nineteenth century.


Salter, too, was an important graduate student contributor to events like the founding of C19: the Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists under the auspices of CALS in 2010.  Later, with fellow CALS Americanist graduate student Erica Stevens, she co-organized G19, the graduate student forum in the organization. Salter stressed that these experiences with CALS aided her professional development in vital, meaningful ways that made a real difference in her job market success. This past year was her third on the market, which is a common timeframe for obtaining an Assistant Professor position. Over the three years, she applied to 170 jobs, a number that may seem shocking to those unfamiliar with the humanities job market. But, like Salter, most Penn State students who remain committed to finding a job do well. Last year she landed a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and next year, she will move into a tenure-track position at the same institution as Assistant Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature.


Salter explains that her experiences with CALS and with Penn State’s other extra-disciplinary training, such as the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), her translation work, and work at the Graduate Writing Center (GWC), were invaluable to getting this position. “All of the other kinds of less-discipline-specific experiences I had as a graduate student at Penn State really made that possible to apply for this job, because I can speak across all of those pieces. The work that CALS does to help graduate students have a relationship to other kinds of campus communities and academic-related communities is really important. CALS is one space where research is important, of course, but it has enabled me to do all kinds of things beyond that, which have been very valuable for me.” Her advice for those going on the market soon is to cast a wide net in both your applications and in the ways you frame your own capabilities as a scholar.


All three of these Americanist scholars from Penn State emphasized that the job search is time-consuming and can be demoralizing at times, but that it’s also rewarding to have your work recognized. What’s important as you move onto the market, each emphasized, is being able to pitch a compelling narrative about your project that can appeal to a range of scholars. CALS provides the exposure to a wide scholarly community that helps grad students like Vrana, Salter, and Huang do just that. One thing that remains clear in each of these success stories is that while having a compelling research project is of course important, there are many other important factors in landing a job. The wide range of programs and experiences that CALS makes possible for graduate students and the wider Penn State community facilitates the development of a robust scholarly profile that can give newly minted PhDs an edge on the market.

The 2017 CCR/CALS Community Read: Under a Painted Sky

Though sometimes considered conservative, the Western is an iconic American genre. It reflects both our violent history and our utopian desires for a space free from law but full of potential. Recent mediations of and hybrids with the Western have challenged our expectations and opened possibilities for new ways of thinking about the American West and its classic iconography. The choice for this year’s Centre County Reads and CALS Community Read book, Stacey Lee’s young adult novel Under a Painted Sky takes up many of these familiar icons: two outlaws on the run; cowboys headed West in search of Californian gold; survival, grit, and determination in the face of an unforgiving landscape. Yet Lee’s book also seeks to challenge some of the “old standards” by featuring young and diverse female protagonists: a second-generation Chinese-American violinist, and her friend escaping from slavery.



The Community Read is a joint venture between CALS and Centre County Reads designed to foster a sense of community and engagement with a single book. This year’s series kicked off at the Centre County Library and Historical Museum in Bellefonte on February 19 with a day of fun that featured music, period-themed food, storytelling, and games inspired by Lee’s novel. Visitors could take a tour of the Underground Railroad exhibit, dress up in cowboy gear, or join in on a continuous poker game. The Historical Museum offered information and activities about the Chinese Zodiac, plus tea and fortune cookies, and in the afternoon, featured ukulele lessons and a jam session with cowboy songs.


Following the kickoff event, CALS sponsored a roundtable discussion on “Rethinking the American West,” held in the Mann Assembly Room in Paterno/Pattee Library on April 3. The roundtable featured an excellent panel of scholars who used Under a Painted Sky as a touchstone to talk more about the American West in the cultural and literary imagination. Susan Kollin, College of Letters and Science Distinguished Professor at Montana State University, provided a reading of Lee’s novel as a revision and a corrective to the traditional masculinist narrative common to the Western genre. Charity Fox, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Gender Studies at Penn State Harrisburg, focused her remarks on the genre itself--its pop-culture history beginning in the 1950s through its contemporary, hybrid manifestations, to think about the West as a space for identity formation. Richard Aquila, Professor Emeritus of History and former Director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Penn State Behrend, unfortunately could not attend the panel but sent his remarks to be read aloud. Aquila interpreted Lee’s novel not as revisionist or radical, but as reinforcing the traditional “American values” espoused by classics of the genre. Following the panelists’ remarks, audience members and panelists alike engaged in a lively discussion.


Writers in and around the Centre County and Penn State community participated in the “Wanted” writing contest, which aimed to evoke the classic “wanted” poster of the old West that appears in Under a Painted Sky, but also asked writers what it really means to be wanted. The word has both positive and negative connotations: it signifies pursuit, escape, and a sense of danger; but to be wanted is also to belong, which Samantha and Annamae learn on their journey in the novel. Among many great submissions five winning entries were selected, which you can read here.


Finally, as a culminating event in the series, Stacey Lee visited State College to discuss her novel and her work. At “An Evening with Stacey Lee,” held on April 6 at the Nittany Lion Inn, WPSU host Eleanor Klibanoff interviewed Lee about her writing process, her experiences as an Asian-American growing up without literary diversity (leading her to help found, and her plans for future novels. Lee, who is a fourth-generation Chinese American, spent time looking through immigration stories and collecting the histories of Chinese-Americans in the nineteenth century, which inspired her to write Samantha and Annamae’s stories as well as her second novel, Outrun the Moon, set around the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The historical American West, Lee explained, serves as a rich setting for diverse and under-represented stories. Lee’s third novel, The Secret of a Heart Note, was released in December of 2016 and tells the tale of a young perfumer (and love-potion maker) who shares an interesting talent with Lee herself: a form of synesthesia that allows her to smell musical notes.


From the culturally and historically themed kickoff event to the popular book-signing that followed Lee’s public talk, the 2017 Community Read offered enriching and diverse opportunities for community engagement. This year’s choice of a young adult novel proved popular with teens and adults alike, marking another successful year of this joint venture between CALS and Centre County Reads.


You can read or listen to a review of Lee’s book by undergraduate intern Bailey Young, or see an overview of this year’s events here.

Radical Engagements: Speculative Fictions and Social Justice

Despite what some might consider its humble origins in the “genre ghettos” of pulp magazines and dime novels, speculative fiction has proven to be a fruitful and nuanced literary mode with important implications for both social justice and the political imaginary. On Monday, March 20, the Center for American Literary Studies brought together ten leading thinkers from both Penn State and elsewhere around the country to explore the ways that speculative fictions reveal both the possibilities and limitations of how we imagine socially-just realities. The day-long event’s two roundtables were organized around temporal themes, focusing on both the alternative histories that speculative fictions make visible, and the alternative futures that it might make possible. This sixth annual CALS spring symposium was organized largely by the members of Tina Chen’s Fall 2016 Contemporary Speculative Fictions class (English 577), which focused on “the speculative” as both a literary mode and a critical approach. “Radical Engagements” thus sought to challenge easy generic distinctions (between science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.), distinctions between genre fiction and “the literary,” and between simplistic separations of the utopic and dystopic.


The first roundtable, “Alternative Histories: The Diverse Pasts of Speculative Fictions,” highlighted the diverse origins of speculative fiction in order to theorize about its relationship to both past and present. How have these fictions changed over time? Must the speculative involve the future, or might it also be an act of recovery? What the speakers in this roundtable revealed is that, much like the future, history is also always speculative, and this historical speculation is vital for envisioning alternative political relations in the present. The roundtable began with Neil Clarke, Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning editor of Clarkesworld. Clarke emphasized the importance of editors and publishers in shaping the direction and politics of the genre, both in terms of its content, themes, and tropes, and in the representation of authors along race and gender lines. Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor (Penn State) talked about the historical origins of the utopian story, arguing that its deferral of narrative closure expressed a desire for radical social or political alternatives, which served as a counter-point to the often-conservative form of the novel.


Sarah Juliet Lauro (University of Tampa) focused her remarks on the figure of the zombie, America’s legacy of racialized slavery, and the possibilities of thinking “histories that weren’t.” Moving through texts like Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) and The Underground Railroad (2016) beside Octavia Butler’s classic novel of historical speculative fiction, Kindred (1979), Lauro’s presentation directed scholars toward rethinking the gap between history and our representations of it as a “productive absence” that reveals our alternative pasts and presents. Matt Tierney (Penn State) described speculative fiction as a “strategic vantage point,” a place to stand, from which we might “wield the conceptual tools of the past” not in pursuit of the future, but in defiance of it, seeking instead a liberating version of the present. Brian Attebery (Idaho State University), like Lauro, focused his remarks on the “gaps” or unknowns of history as spaces that speculative fiction might fill with alternative and situated narratives of the past. Fantasy in particular, he argued, demonstrates that “there is more than one history of the world.”

Listen to a podcast of the first roundtable >>


The second roundtable, “Alternative Futures: Ethical Imagination, Social Justice, and Visionary Fictions,” focused on the complicated relationship between the imagined futures of speculative fictions and the ethical demands of the present in which they are embedded. Michael Bérubé (Penn State) began this session with the question, “Why is it so hard to imagine a positive future?” He described a film series hosted by the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State entitled “Bad Futures,” which presented fifteen films (such as Blade Runner, Children of Men, Gattaca, and 28 Days Later) in three days, all of which depict dystopian or apocalyptic visions of the future. Betsy Huang (Clark University) returned the conversation to the figure of the zombie, here in the context of plague fiction and its relationship with race. Huang described the ambivalence of plague narratives that present a “post-racial” future while also demonstrating the horror of “deathly sameness” in a figure like the zombie. These narratives, she argued, force us to confront the consequences of an “anemic imagination” that cannot articulate a radical alternative for the future, thus demanding an “ethics after cynicism” that challenges insidious versions of whiteness “disguised as the harbinger of a raceless future” that are present in contemporary culture.


Claire Colebrook (Penn State) reflected on the term speculation itself in its financial, philosophical, and fictional contexts that emerged in the late nineteenth century. The term, she argued, always exists in a double sense: as a grasp of the whole and an opening to the future, but one which also sacrifices the present and the local in the name of that future. In all forms of speculation, then, futurity itself might be read as ambivalent, if not inherently dangerous. Hester Blum (Penn State) examined Rachel Carson’s 1951 The Sea Around Us in relation to the work of Ursula LeGuin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed to rethink the relationship between the human and “the oceanic” in light of climate change and the Anthropocene. Rather than the rhythm of cyclical return that Carson describes in her book, Blum argued that LeGuin’s notion of a planetary perspective of “continually decentered spiralizing motion” might offer us a new way of thinking our relationship to both earth and sea. Finally, Alexis Lothian (University of Maryland, College Park) discussed speculative fiction in relation to queer possibility. Like Colebrook and Tierney, Lothian described an ambivalence toward futurity, particularly as it is often figured in science fiction, as a concept entangled with racialized heteronormativity, capitalism, and cultural colonization. While “it isn’t easy to leave the future behind,” she noted, fictional futures might also provide experimental sites for working out “radically speculative temporalities,” or “queer temporalities,” that resist the more conservative futures of traditional science fiction.

Listen to a podcast of the second roundtable >>


Like former CALS spring symposia, “Radical Engagements” served the important purpose of bringing together a variety of American literature scholars at different points in their careers into a single conversation. The wrap-up session featured graduate student respondents who synthesized many of the important points raised by the panelists, and then posed a series of questions. This synthesis opened the floor to a dynamic discussion between audience members, graduate students, and panelists on the radical possibilities of speculative fiction. Participants concluded that speculative fiction serves as not only a complex and historically rich literary mode, but also as a tool or reading practice that might harness the power of the imagination in the service of the socially just.

Revisiting the Past as We Imagine the Future: Reflecting on the 2016 Marathon Read

The fifth annual Penn State Marathon Read was held recently.  CALS undergraduate intern Bailey Young ruminates on the event's message and meaning.


Beginning at noon on September 15 and continuing for 24 hours, Penn State students, faculty, and community members came together for the fifth annual Marathon Read at Penn State. Participants stood beneath a tent in front of Pattee/Paterno library, letting their voices emanate with the words of both political documents and contemporary fictional texts that reflect on past, present, and potential future political moments. This year’s theme, “The Political Imagination,” asked readers and listeners to consider the potential of our minds to envision new ways of approaching both personal and national politics. The stirring readings of historic political documents like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and the Seneca Falls Declaration suggested to all in attendance how we might discover how politics mattered in the past in order to find our way forward now.


As members of the community read segments aloud in timed increments, audience members felt the rhetorical impact of these powerful documents.  Joe Bueter, a lecturer and digital education specialist at Penn State who read from The Hunger Games, remarked that “engaging with the political imagination is probably always important, but slowing down and hearing some of the foundational texts and new texts produced for/in a democratic society is especially important. Subtlety is often lost, unless we sit down and read and hear fuller, more considerately composed ideas.” The Marathon Read offered a unique forum akin to how an ideal democratic state might operate: the assembled community listened carefully to one another, allowing each person’s voice to be heard in turn. Paired with the eloquent power of the texts themselves, listeners could easily open their minds to potent possibilities of the political imagination.


Undergraduate science major Jessica Saganowich reflected that the political imagination, for her, means “using creative ways of thinking, expressing, and communicating to describe civic and community issues.” Her definition would seem to coincide with both Bueter’s articulation and with the organizing principle of this year’s Marathon Read: By engaging with inspiring political statements of all kinds—historical, fictional, and poetic—we might be inspired to address the pressing political issues of our own moment.


Indeed, amidst a controversial 58th presidential election campaign, as the United States faces the possibility of having either an entertainer/businessman or its first female as president, we are in the process of redefining the political spectrum set in place by our forefathers centuries ago. Katie Warczak, a master’s student in the English department, suggested that each political moment, including our own, is rife with revolutionary potential and possibility. “The term political imagination conveys a sense of political possibility,” Warczak stated, “in terms of a contrast between what currently exists and what could be. In other words, we, whether politicians or average citizens, imagine how we can get to a specific place, such as a country with greater racial or gender equality, for example, through politics.”  Thus it was especially poignant for Warczak and others to hear documents like King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in the context of present-day political movements like Black Lives Matter.  Similarly, listening to the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments of 1848, which addressed the disenfranchisement and social degradation of women, seemed timelier than ever in a campaign where concerns about gender and equality have been paramount.


Featured on the slate of texts for the Marathon Read, Suzanne Collins’s enormously popular novel The Hunger Games tells the story of Katiss Everdeen, a powerful female fighting political battles.  Collins provided listeners with a look into a dark potential future of politics that, some have argued, may already exist now. Katniss battles a totalitarian and unyielding governmental structure devoid of concern for the political inequalities that result in debilitating divisions of class. The text that followed, The Hour of the Star, similarly features political class divisions under the control of the Brazilian government. Expanding the Marathon Read’s scope beyond the United States’ borders, this novel depicts struggles between the impoverished and the wealthy as well as between rural and urban communities.


Both texts spoke powerfully to the issue of poverty and, in turn, resonated with heated debates today about income inequality and the impoverished condition of our democratic politics. Yet both novels also suggest the possibility for change. Upon hearing these popular works read aloud, Sangowich remarked that “The Hunger Games resonated the most because it shows how the strength of one individual can make such an impact on society.” Likewise, the goal of this year’s Marathon Read was to stimulate people into thinking about imaginative political futures by engaging aurally and orally with texts like these.  “A lot of work remains to be done in a wide variety of areas,” Warczak acknowledged, “but as long as we are able to imagine a different world, the potential for change at least exists.”


Fittingly, then, the event closed with passages from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1860), which sings the praises of a past, present, and future America in the comingling of the literary and political imagination:

O voices of greater orators! I pause—I listen for you!
O you States! Cities! defiant of all outside authority! I spring at once into your arms! You I most love!
O you grand Presidentiads! I wait for you!
New history! New heroes! I project you!
Visions of poets! only you really last! O sweep on! sweep on!
O Death! O you striding there! O I cannot yet!
O heights! O infinitely too swift and dizzy yet!
O purged lumine! you threaten me more than I can stand!
O present! I return while yet I may to you!
O poets to come, I depend on you!

CALS Support: Helping Graduate Students Stand Out

The Center for American Literary Studies offers a wide variety of support for graduate students at Penn State that helps them to mature as scholars and teachers of American literature, offers opportunities for community building and networking, and positions them to be professionally competitive in an increasingly tough academic market. The Dissertation Fellowship, for example, financially supports students as they complete their dissertations. The Summer Graduate Fellowship works similarly to fund students in the summer months, alleviating the need to teach or find other work, so that they can focus on research and writing. Smaller CALS grants allow grad students to travel to archives, libraries, and other research collections, or to attend professional training institutes where they can network with other academics in their field and gain skills that will improve their research and writing. “It is clear to me that such support is crucial to Penn State graduate students, not only in their effort to secure academic positions, but also in their pursuit of developing scholarship that advances our field,” says Robert Volpicelli, a recent graduate who received both a Dissertation Fellowship award and funds to visit a research archive. This support from CALS helped him land a coveted job with Randolph-Macon College after he completed his dissertation in 2014.


That the academic job market is difficult comes as news to few, but support from CALS has helped many Penn State grads beat the odds. Mark Sturges, a 2013 graduate, used his Dissertation Support Award to complete his project on early American nature writing before joining the faculty at St. Lawrence University in the fall of 2014. Katie Owens-Murphy, another 2013 grad, used her award from CALS to finish her dissertation, and now works as an Assistant Professor at the University of North Alabama. She revised her dissertation project into a book manuscript that is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press early next year. Almost more impressive is the way that her funding shaped her relationship not only to her research, but also to her community: “[CALS funding] afforded me the time to begin doing volunteer literacy outreach at a local prison. As a result, prison literature and outreach is now a personal and professional passion of mine. I am completing an article on the relationship between literacy and incarceration and am currently setting up programming at a nearby state prison in Limestone County, Alabama.”


Without the “space” and freedom from extra obligations that CALS funding provides, completing the dissertation on-schedule can be difficult for some. In fact, recent reports show that the time to degree for humanities doctorates is longer than any other field. Summer fellowships, especially, can give grad students an extra boost toward finishing their projects. Robert Birdwell, for example, who is now working as a post-doctoral fellow at Michigan State University, says that his summer CALS fellowship “gave me the freedom to finish a draft of my dissertation early, in time to apply for jobs during my final year of the PhD program,” which led to his current fellowship position. Recent graduate Jason Maxwell also appreciates the extra edge that his summer fellowship offered: “The CALS award gave me the space and time to develop the material in my dissertation in a way that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. The award supported me at a crucial moment in my professional development as a scholar, and its effects can still be felt many years later.” His completed dissertation is now under final revisions before it will head off to university presses as a book manuscript.


Aside from the immediate benefit of providing time for research and writing, CALS also offers opportunities for graduate students to share their projects with others and receive feedback. Mark Sturges used support funds to travel to two different conferences where he worked on ideas that became part of his dissertation, but “more importantly,” he recalls, “CALS organized a graduate student symposium in which recipients of awards presented material from their ongoing research, and I remember this event as a valuable venue for sharing ideas with fellow grad students in various stages of preparing their dissertations and with faculty members beyond their committees.” Erica Stevens, the 2015-2016 Dissertation Fellow, had a similar experience last year. She explains that “as a CALS Fellow, I was lucky to present a chapter from my dissertation at a crucial time in the overall project’s development. Having this more formal setting to share with colleagues and receive feedback provided me with necessary practice for any future job talks.” Presenting work to colleagues early on is essential for both professional development and for sharpening the focus of research projects.


Training institutes also offer graduate students both professional skills and networking opportunities. Laura Brown used funding from CALS to attend the Rhetoric Society of America Summer Institute in 2015 where she participated in an intensive seminar on using ethnographic research methods. “The seminar gave me the practical training that I needed to conduct interviews for my dissertation, but it also prepared me to think through the theoretical and ethical challenges of using those interviews for my project. I was able to make connections with other graduate students and faculty who are pursuing similar work, which has broadened my support system as I work toward completing my dissertation,” she said. Other recipients, like Jace Gatzemeyer (2016) and Micah Donahue (2013), have used CALS awards to attend the Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth College, a week-long intensive seminar that interrogates pressing contemporary questions facing American Studies as a field.


Finally, every year one graduate student serves as the Research Assistant for CALS, an essential job for the Center that also offers excellent professional training. Derek Lee, the 2014-2015 RA, calls his experience “invaluable,” noting that, “Not only did I learn about the planning, marketing, and organizing of academic events (which will be useful in the future), but I got to meet professors and writers working in all kinds of disciplines, from science fiction specialists to nineteenth-century Americanist scholars to alt-ac advocates…. It’s easy to go through graduate school only having a student’s perspective, but CALS helps you see more of the richness of academic life and how it all operates.” Michelle Huang, the 2013-2014 RA, describes her experience as similarly rewarding, especially in the connections she made with the broader Centre County community during the Community Reads project, and through contacts she cultivated while serving as the graduate assistant with the First Book Institute, where she was able to network with several early-career scholars.


CALS research and travel funding has a profoundly positive impact on the lives of graduate students at Penn State in terms of both their professional development and community relationships. This support, made possible by contributions from generous alumni, the Department of English, and the College of the Liberal Arts, helps the achievements and excellence of Penn State’s graduate students stand out among their peers at a time when the academic job market is highly competitive. The time, flexibility, and development opportunities that CALS support provides gives students the tools they need to succeed; this success benefits not just the students, but also the Penn State community as a whole.

Verge and ASAP/Journal Launched

Two major new journals have launched recently under the editorship of Penn State faculty affiliated with the Center for American Literary Studies: Verge: Studies in Global Asias and ASAP/Journal. In the spring of 2015, Associate Professor Tina Chen ushered in Verge’s inaugural issue as the journal’s editor.  Chen, who is located in the English and Asian Studies departments at Penn State, is the author of Double Agency: Acts of Impersonation in Asian American Literature and Culture, and has served on the Executive Board for the MLA’s Division on Asian American Literature. In January 2016, Associate Professor Jonathan Eburne and his co-editor, Amy Elias (University of Tennessee) welcomed the first number of ASAP/Journal into print. Eburne teaches in the departments of Comparative Literature and English.  He is the author of Surrealism and the Art of Crime, co-editor of Paris, Modern Fiction, and the Black Atlantic as well The Year’s Work in the Oddball Archive, and serves as the president of the Association for the Study of Dada and Surrealism and is past president of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present.

"While these two fields have traditionally defined themselves in opposition to one another...the past decade has seen a series of rapprochements." – Tina Chen.


Verge launched in April 2015 at the Global Asias 3 conference, an international gathering of scholars interested in approaching the study of Asia and its diasporas from diverse disciplinary, historical, and geographic vantage points. Sponsored by Penn State’s Department of Asian Studies and published by the University of Minnesota Press, Verge brings into relation—but not necessarily into alignment—work in Asian Studies and Asian American Studies.  As Chen explains, “while these two fields have traditionally defined themselves in opposition to one another, with the former focused on an area-studies, nationally and politically oriented approach, and the latter emphasizing epistemological categories, including ethnicity and citizenship, that drew mainly on the history of the United States, the past decade has seen a series of rapprochements.  For instance, categories 'belonging' to Asian American Studies (ethnicity, race, diaspora) have been applied with increasing success to studies of Asia even as Asian American Studies has become increasingly open to work that is transnational or multi-lingual, as well as to forms of scholarship that challenge the US-centrism of concepts governing the Asian diaspora.”

The journal’s commitment to considering both the potential synergies and the very real antagonisms between these two different fields and approaches to the study of Asia and its diasporas is reflected in its design.  Every issue of the journal begins with a section called “Convergence.”  As Chen explained to Carla Nappi during a recent podcast on the NBEAS channel of the New Books Network, Convergence features are non-traditional in format and emphasize engagement, exchange, and collaboration.  In this section, the journal features six rotating rubrics: A&Q, a responsive dialogue, either in interview or roundtable format, inspired by  a set of questions; Codex, a collaborative discussion and assessment of books; Translation, for texts, primary or secondary, not yet available in English; Field Trip, reports from various subfields of the disciplines; Portfolio, commentaries on visual images; and Interface, texts (and eventually online material) exploring the resources of the print-digital world.  In addition, the journal publishes five to six traditional academic essays in each issue.

Special issues on “Collecting Asias” (1.2) and “Asian Urbanisms and Urbanization” (2.1) have already been published and special issues on “Asian Empires and Imperialism” (2.2) and “Between Asia and Latin America: New Transpacific Perspectives” (3.2) are in production.  Managed by an editorial collective based at Penn State, the journal embraces multidisciplinary collaboration.  With additional special issues on “Frontiers” (4.1), “Indigeneity” (4.2), “Forgetting Wars” (5.2), and “Displaced Subjects: Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Critical Refugee Studies” (6.2) already in development, the journal cultivates scholarship that occupies and enlarges the proximities among disciplinary and historical fields from the ancient to the modern periods.

"What I find most exciting about an intellectual career, about the arts, is precisely to learn things, to confront things that we don't already know which provoke us into creativity." – Jonathan Eburne

ASAP/Journal launched earlier this year, the culmination of over ten years’ effort by the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present.  Published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, the journal promotes the pluridisciplinary study of the contemporary, post-1960s arts and curates a diverse array of interdisciplinary, international, and intersectional submissions. Rather than a specialized, academic audience, the publication brings critics into broader conversations with artists in an effort to foster mutually beneficial relations outside of the market place and to “combat the fracturing of scholarship in the contemporary arts” that leads to “sometimes very territorial specializations,” as co-editor Elias, a Penn State Ph.D. alumna and professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, attests in an interview on the Johns Hopkins University Press blog.  The mission of ASAP/Journal and the broader association challenges its audience develop new forms of scholarship and practice, and to bridge the disciplinary fissures caused by narrow specialization.  The journal provides a space and a place for these disparate groups to converse, a challenge of scope and organization both.  Eburne adds, "what I find most exciting about an intellectual career, about the arts, is precisely to learn things, to confront things that we don't already know which provoke us into creativity."

Because of the commitment of ASAP/Journal to various forms of art, art criticism and artistic movements, submissions to the journal are invited to experiment with the traditional article form.  In addition to six to eight essays, the journal also publishes interviews with artists, conversations, and editorial forums that allow for more plastic models of academic and artistic engagement.  Multimedia content, online galleries, and book reviews will be made available on the journal’s digital platform.  The journal echoes the society’s mission to provide “a forum for dialogue among and between scholars and practitioners of the contemporary, and it seeks to advance our collective knowledge of our own elusive contemporaneity.”

The inaugural issue (1.1), a special issue on the commons, saw conversations on architecture, agricultural foodways, and exhibitions as new ways of thinking, as Elias puts it, about “collectivity in the late Anthropocene.”  The second issue (1.2), which Eburne co-edited with Judith Roof (Rice University), addresses experimentalism and features interviews with poet-novelist Nicole Brossard and poet-critic Nathaniel Mackey, the latter of which was conducted by a collective of Penn State colleagues including professor Aldon Lynn Nielsen, recent Ph.D. recipients Susan Weeber and Abram Foley, and current graduate student Laura Vrana. The issue also includes a forum on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Angry Women anthology. The journal is presently accepting submissions for the next special issue on “Queer Form” (2.2), to be released May 2017.

Update (1/20/17): Verge: Studies in Global Asias has been named the "Best New Journal" by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ).  See story here.

C19 Brings "Unsettling" Conference to Penn State

The historic “home” of American literature, thanks to the efforts of Fred Lewis Pattee of Pattee–Paterno library fame, Penn State has long claimed a fruitful engagement with the theory and practice of American literary studies.  Thanks to the founding efforts of CALS faculty Hester Blum, Chris Castiglia, and Sean Goudie, it is also the birthplace of C19, the Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.  Almost six years ago, CALS hosted the society’s inaugural conference at the Nittany Lion Inn and in March of 2016, the center is pleased to host the return of the biennial conference to State College, marking the continuation of CALS and C19’s shared dedication to inquiry into the objects of American literary studies.  The conference not only allows for the sharing of new and exciting critical conversations, but also furnishes often far-flung scholars with the opportunity to collaborate with each other.

The conference, set for March 17-20, follows the third conference held at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill in 2014 and the second conference hosted by University of California–Berkeley in 2012.  Its return to Penn State prompts reflection on the society’s growth and development since its inception in 2010.  “That first conference at Penn State had extraordinary intellectual rigor, excitement, and—to use a word Chris Castiglia has helped us to claim—pleasure,” Karen Sanchez-Eppler meditates, referring to Castiglia’s work on “pleasure reading” in J19, the academic journal associated with the society.  A professor at Amherst College and current President of the society, she recalls C19’s beginnings, “There was a real sense that these were kinds of conversations many of us were eager to have: an approach to the literary as part of an interdisciplinary field, an approach to the American canon organized more by ideas, genres, or methods, than by authors.”  Such a welcoming and multivariable approach has stood the society and journal in good stead; the success of C19 can be measured not merely by the quality of its critical scholarly work, but also by the increased number of panels and seminars necessitated by an outpouring of submissions.  Since 2014’s event, the program committee has expanded the number of sessions from 75 to almost 90.  Seminars, too, which feature sessions led by top scholars in the field for the benefit of graduate students and early career scholars, have seen an increase from Chapel Hill’s count of six to eight.  All this is done, Sanchez-Eppler mentions, “without, we believe, any loss of intimacy or graciousness.”


Photo Credit to Sara Krulwich/The New York Times


In addition to the growth of traditional programming such as panels and seminars led by top scholars in the field, the generous support of diverse Penn State institutions has allowed for new and exciting conference events, like the staging of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon alongside Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s contemporary adaptation of the play entitled An Octoroon. The original, which explores the fraught racial taboos that governed many love affairs in the literary South, and its contemporary restaging only serve to highlight our own troubled times.  Spearheading the programming at Penn State is Hester Blum, an associate professor of nineteenth-century American literature and a member of C19’s 2016 program committee alongside Sanchez-Eppler.  Blum, who will serve as interim director of CALS during the spring semester, sees the performance, which contrasts scenes from the 1859 play with its 2014 revision, as an extraordinary collaborative opportunity.  “What attracted me to the idea of theater was that theater was a genre that was both enormously popular in the nineteenth century and that is probably the least studied of the literary genres,” Blum says, “we’re going to pair them up to show nineteenth century racial melodrama as well as the revisionist twenty-first century version.”   Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins himself will be on hand to watch the performance staged by the School of Theater, as well as to give a public lecture supported by the Institute for the Arts and Humanities.

By juxtaposing nineteenth-century racial attitudes with those of the twenty-first century, the performance highlights the theme of the 2016 conference, that of “Unsettling.”  The write-up for the call for papers asserts, “In contrast to the assumption of a shared practice or single canon, ‘unsettling’ recognizes the fragmented and contradictory condition of US and American literary studies.”  To a certain extent, challenges to post-race complacency form the core of the conference’s call. Extensive media coverage in 2015 has both exposed and obfuscated cycles of racial unrest, environmental catastrophe, and games of geopolitical chicken.  These issues in many ways prompt scholars to examine the continued effects and affects of unresolved nineteenth-century cultural conundrums. “The theme ‘Unsettling’ is a response to the events of the last year or so in the US – between Ferguson and ongoing institutional and state violence against African Americans, as well as so-called immigration debates – which we recognize have a history that extends to the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries and earlier, and that are very much part of the texts and works that we study,” Blum explains.  “So in one part, the ‘Unsettling’ theme comes very directly from those moments in teaching about those events and the contexts of the nineteenth-century works, which seemed like a logical way to frame the conversation.”

It is a conversation that seems more urgent than ever, with student protests at universities across the country – at Missouri, at Yale, at Claremont McKenna, and elsewhere – revealing the nation’s troubled racial underbelly.  The questions posed by “Unsettling” encourage scholars to revisit the sites and objects of “settlement,” national myths, literary canons and cultural practices in order to rethink and reevaluate our methodologies in the present day. Jacobs-Jenkins’s play is just one such avenue of reexamination.  “The academy is one of the only institutions extant where asking disturbing, unsettling questions is truly the core of our responsibilities,” Sanchez-Eppler concludes.  “When we acknowledge that as a strength, all sorts of good things can happen.”

A Method to the Madness: The 2015 Marathon Read

The fourth annual Penn State Marathon Read was held on September 24, 2015. CALS undergraduate intern Adison Godfrey provides a personal reflection on attending the event for the first time.

Beneath a tent that was filled with people even in the small hours, lights burned into the night and voices carried across a quiet campus as individuals came together for one shared purpose: to read. From September 24-25, the fourth annual Penn State Marathon Read was held in front of the Pattee/Paterno Library. With selections from short stories and novellas such as The Turn of the Screw, Diary of a Madman, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” (among others), the theme of this year’s marathon read was madness—a theme fitting in more ways than one. For many onlookers, including myself, the way in which oral reading proceeds can be maddening, coupled with the fact that readers have the option of reading these texts in their source languages. However, both the unusual format of the marathon read and its multilingual dimension create a sense of community, an objective that is at the heart of the event.

Throughout the twenty-four hour duration of the Marathon Read, students, faculty, and members of the community are able to sign up to read for five-minute intervals. Last year was the first in which more than one book was read; this year, the breadth of selection was even more expansive, though it centered on one central theme. I arrived at approximately 8 p.m., midway through A Madman’s Diary. By this time, the lights around the perimeter were lit, imbuing the tent with an inviting quality. I eagerly took a seat in the back and began to listen. Soon enough, however, my eagerness was overcome by impending frustration as I realized that I had no idea how the story began. For someone who had intended to follow along, I found this both off-putting and alienating. As I listened to reader after reader, questions about what was going on and what I had missed kept looping through my mind.

As the event progressed into the night, I found my discomfort easing as I continued to listen. The point of the Marathon Read is less about following the plot line and more about experiencing it. I had the distinct pleasure of listening to readings in Chinese, Russian, and Portuguese. I wholly enjoyed hearing these stories in their source languages, an experience that I otherwise would not have had due to my own language limitations. However, this multilingual aspect of the read did beg the question: what does the ability to read and listen to texts in multiple languages add to the event? Why did this feel decidedly less alienating to me than listening to readings in English? I asked both onlookers and participants to share their thoughts on the read’s multilingual dimension. One volunteer felt that this dimension added diversity to the read; another enjoyed hearing non-native English speakers read with confidence and fluidity in their native languages, highlighting their strengths and abilities. Perhaps the most profound insights, however, came from the readers themselves.

Yiwen Xie, a participant in the read, read an excerpt from Diary of a Madman in Chinese and then again in English. After a reading is conducted in another language, the next speaker reads that same excerpt in English, ensuring that no audience member is left behind (though I found this inescapable due to the nature of oral performance). Xie was unique in the fact that she read the English translation of her excerpt as well, rather than the next reader. When asked what this was like, Xie highlighted the differences between the original and the translation, stating that the translation oftentimes attenuated the force of the text. She confided that the English translation was milder and less impassioned than the original, an insight that would have otherwise been lost. Luiza Lodder, another participant, read an excerpt from The Alienist in Portuguese. She expressed her excitement when she saw that, for the first time in the read’s history, a text was offered in Portuguese; she stated that Brazilian literature is very rich but does not enjoy the same level of visibility as other Hispanic texts. Of her experience reading, she shared that it made her feel proud of her language, and that she was happy to have the opportunity to share her language with others.

Though some may find the multilingual dimension of the read maddening, Lodder hits on what makes this dimension integral to the read. Through my experience, I have discovered that the marathon read is about fostering a sense of community, more so than about reading and fully absorbing the various texts. Admittedly, I cannot recount the plots of any of these stories, despite my efforts to follow along in the beginning. Perhaps this is why I found solace in the multilingual aspect of the read—as I listened to readings in other languages, I did not feel the urge to follow along and understand everything. Instead, as the hours stretched on, I was content to sit beneath the tent and be soothed by the cadence of readers’ voices. It did not matter the reader’s age, or background, or nationality. This, I believe, is the true strength of the Penn State Marathon Read, and the method to its madness: beneath that tent, individuals from all walks of life come together to share a love of literature, and to create a space where voices can be heard.

The 2015 Community Read: A Thing of Beauty

On February 16th, the State Theater took a step back in time. As guests in evening gowns and suits walked down a red carpet—while posing for photographs by the local paparazzi—Elizabeth Taylor lit up the screen with her infamous portrayal of the Egyptian queen in the 1963 film Cleopatra. Despite almost bankrupting Twentieth Century Fox, Taylor’s box office bomb served as the key to success for Jess Walter’s bestselling novel Beautiful Ruins. An “almost-love” story, Beautiful Ruins weaves together a captivating cast of characters across Italy and Hollywood over fifty years using the production of Cleopatra as the central pivot of the plot. The Hollywood-themed gala at the State Theater was the kickoff event for the 2015 Centre County Reads/CALS Community Read of Beautiful Ruins. Through this classic film, viewers were able to fully visualize the backdrops and romantic themes of Walter’s sweeping drama.

This is the sixth year in which CALS and Centre County Reads have collaborated on the Community Read. A joint effort by local libraries, organizations, and volunteers, Centre County Reads was formed in 2003 with the mission to “encourage county residents of all ages to explore the human condition and the issues of community by reading the same book and coming together in discussions anytime, anywhere, with anyone.” While Centre County Reads and CALS previously sponsored independent reading series at area libraries and Penn State respectively, the two organizations joined forces starting in 2010 to field a more expansive Community Read that would truly unite the local and university communities around a single text. For 2015, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins was selected as the novel to unify several diverse audiences for an exciting month of events.

State College residents and Penn State students learn about Hollywood's Golden Age.

Marsha Gordon and Kevin Hagopian discuss the evolution of Hollywood celebrity.

Following on the cinematic theme of the Cleopatra gala, CALS hosted “Hollywood: A Roundtable” on March 5th at the Mann Assembly Room. Students, faculty, and community members filled nearly every seat to learn about various aspects of the American film industry in relation to Beautiful Ruins and the nightmarish process of filming Cleopatra. Penn State’s Kevin Hagopian, a senior lecturer in media studies, discussed what he called “the death of one Hollywood and birth of another,” as he explained Cleopatra’s role in the demise of studio-era Hollywood. Professor Marsha Gordon (North Carolina State University) traced the evolution of the silent film star to the new form of celebrity created through Elizabeth Taylor’s and Richard Burton’s high profile off-screen relationship. Penn State professor Jim West concluded the event with a lecture on Hollywood’s relationship with literary modernism, using Walter’s novel to comment on F. Scott Fitzgerald and screenwriting. West entertained the audience with anecdotes of meeting the actress Carey Mulligan and reading a skeltonic poem based on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

Jess Walter tells Patty Satalia about his writing process.

The Community Read culminated with two evening events featuring the Beautiful Ruins author. On March 17th, WPSU host Patty Satalia interviewed Jess Walter in the Penn State HUB Robeson Auditorium for “An Evening with Jess Walter.” The night began with an announcement of the CALS’ Beautiful Ruins writing contest winners, whose prizes included an autographed poster by Walter. In addition, Jo Hsu received a two hundred dollar grand prize for her entry, “Forest for the Trees.” During the interview that followed, Walter shared with the audience the origins of his writing career and the fifteen years spent drafting Beautiful Ruins while juggling journalism and other projects. He also discussed how his mother’s failing health motivated him to create a strong female protagonist in Dee Moray. “I wanted to take my mom somewhere she’d never been,” he said.

On Thursday, March 26, Walter read from his work in Foster Auditorium as the 2015 Steven Fischer Writer-in-Residence. He began with a poem from The Financial Lives of the Poets, citing, “I write some of the worst poetry you could ever hear, and I wanted to share some of my writing failures with you.” One piece compared the fabric of America to a thong and prompted the audience into fits of laughter. He also used his encounters with creative writing students at Penn State to discuss his dedication to craft. Several years earlier he believed he had come up with “the best story ever written,” about a sex talk a father drunkenly relays to his son. Finally accepted after years of rejection, he realized that there was always room to improve upon one’s “best” work. For the main event, Walter read an autobiographical work entitled “Statistical Abstract for my Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” a poignant piece with a surprising amount of bicycle thievery. At the end of the story, Walter choked up, claiming that he’d only read the short story four or five times in public—every time he had the same emotional result.

From the grandeur of the opening gala to the accessibility of Walter’s Q&A session, the 2015 Community Read proved to be not only fun and entertaining, but also necessary. It’s not often that Penn State students or State College residents get to interact with a favorite book or its award-winning author on such intimate terms. Writers often arrive at Penn State or the downtown Schlow Library and give short readings.  Yet this event series is uniquely beneficial because it allows multiple opportunities for the wider Centre County community to come together as one and meet the writer while investing in the complete world of the novel. From a viewing of the film at the crux of the novel to a lively discussion of Old Hollywood history to the author’s own reflections on writing, this year’s Community Read has created a high standard for the 2016 Community Read to aim for.


This article was co-written by CALS Undergraduate Interns Diana Allen and Carter Clabaugh.

Click here to learn more about the 2015 CALS Community Read.

Congratulations to the 2015 Writing Contest Winners!

The Center for American Literary Studies is pleased to announce the winners of the 2015 writing contest, “Beautiful Ruins.”

This contest is a part of the 2015 Centre Country Reads/CALS Community Read of New York Times bestselling author Jess Walter’s novel Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins interweaves many stories—an Italian romance, an Old Hollywood miracle, and the struggles of a young filmmaker—in which “beautiful ruins” are embodied in the characters, their memories, and the novel’s multiple settings. Rich with possibility, the theme for this year's writing contest was "Beautiful Ruins."

The winners are:

Grand Prize: V. Jo Hsu, "Forest for the Trees"

Hsu received an MFA in fiction from Penn State and is currently a Javits Fellow pursuing her PhD in English Rhetoric at Penn State University. Her fiction has appeared in TINGEMagazine, BluestemConsequence Magazine, and the Kartika Review among others.

Poetry: Jessica O'Hara, "The Barra Boy"

O'Hara teaches rhetoric courses and the Ireland summer study abroad program for the English Department at Penn State University. She earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina and lives in State College with her spouse and two children.

Fiction: Caitlin Wolper, "The Overlooked Motel"

Wolper is an English major at Penn State University. She has received awards from the Columbia College Chicago Young Authors Contest and Toasted Cheese’s “Three Cheers and a Tiger” contest. She has also been published in the Penn State literary magazine Kalliope and is currently a reporter for The Daily Collegian.

Non-fiction: Cindy Simmons, "Outta Joint at the Joint"

Cindy Simmons is a State College writer who has just completed her first novel. Before moving to Central Pennsylvania, she worked as a journalist. This piece comes from an experience reporting for KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Under-18: Isabel Sicree, "The Party Tree"

Sicree is a home-schooled high school sophomore. She lives in Boalsburg, and she likes to read, write, and roller skate.

CALS Grad Fellows Land Assistant Professorships

Two CALS Dissertation Award Fellows will begin new assistant professorships in the fall of 2015.

Robert Volpicelli, winner of a 2014-2015 CALS Dissertation Award, used the fellowship to finish his dissertation ahead of schedule and enter the difficult job market. “Working on a dissertation gets more intense the further along you go,” he said. “The time and space that CALS provided was a huge deal.” Volpicelli’s dissertation project, “Transatlantic Modernism and the U.S. Lecture Circuit, 1880-1945” traces the development of literary modernism through the lecture tours of celebrated writers like Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and W.H. Auden. According to Volpicelli, the lecture circuit was fundamental to modernism because it changed how the American public perceived literary modernism as well as how the authors themselves understood it. Starting in the fall of 2015, Volpicelli will be an assistant professor of English at Randolph Macon College, where he will teach twentieth century American Literature.

Ethan Mannon, winner of a 2013-2014 CALS Dissertation Award, used the extra time and funding provided by CALS to travel to Ohio State University to explore the archives of Louis Bromfield. Bromfield was one of America’s most influential conservationists and is often mythologized as the pioneering “father of sustainable agriculture.” Mannon’s research paints a more complex picture of a farmer—and businessman—who often partnered with coal companies and sought financial support from industrial giants like Monsanto to help fund his agricultural research. “Bromfield's story reminds us that pairing sustainability and profitability is really difficult,” says Mannon. “It was hard sixty years ago and it’s hard today.” His research directly translated into a chapter in his dissertation, “Reading the Earth Workers: The Georgic Mode in Twentieth-Century American Writing.” Beginning in fall 2015, Mannon will start an assistant professorship at Mars Hill University in North Carolina where his teaching duties will focus on American literature and Appalachian literature.

Congratulations to Bob and Ethan!

Circuit, Current, Connection: Technology and its Literatures

Within the humanities, topics like data and networks are most often associated with contemporary fields such as new media. But the intellectual history of technology—as well as the social relations and cultural production that derive from it—is hardly a twenty-first century phenomenon and in fact has a deep tradition in American literature. On Friday, February 27th, the Center for American Literary Studies assembled six leading scholars to investigate the symbiotic relationship between technology, kinship, and literature traversing the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By exploring radical shifts in media and mechanization over these two centuries, this graduate student-organized symposium aimed to redefine how such transformations have affected the way people related to each other and to the world.

The first panel, “Circuits: Kinship and America,” featured presentations that investigated the relations between print technologies and social relations in America. Nancy Bentley (University of Pennsylvania) probed the ways in which the Iroquois and white New Englanders “remade notions of kinship in relation to each other” via the technology of books; the “publication event,” she argued, helped constitute a modern, state-based society in opposition to an ancient, kin-based one. Scotti Parrish (University of Michigan) described how the “press of disaster” surrounding the Mississippi flood of 1927 helped to cultivate Richard Wright’s politics and aesthetics. The black newspapers of the time sought to expose the Jim Crow conditions of camps where blacks where often forced into rescue labor, and Parrish asserted that Wright thus forged his art as a disaster media critic. Ivy Wilson (Northwestern) discussed The Anglo-African—a daily newspaper and magazine—that formed new reading practices and communities among its black readers. While the daily newspaper was dedicated to urgent political matters (announcing the date and location of a rally, for example), the magazine fostered a new kind of temporality that tutored its readership to “mobilize the protocols of black bourgeois selfhood.”

The second panel, “Currents: America and the Body Electric” emphasized the connection between literary and technoscientific innovation. In his presentation, Maurice Lee (Boston University) located the widespread rise of quantitative thinking—such as statistics, demography, and meteorology—in nineteenth century pulp forms like adventure novels and saw it as a forerunner to today’s “information revolution.” He argued that such “enumerations that stirred the blood” were enchanting since new varieties of numerical excess could lead to new types of wonder. Dana Luciano (Georgetown) also touched on the concept of technological enchantment with her discussion of spirit photography. While modern audiences might smirk at the sepia-toned “ghosts” found in the portraits of William Mumler and his peers, Luciano argued that the camera was an information technology that advanced the spiritualist movement. Indeed, by capturing spiritual and erotic energy that was otherwise invisible, the camera became the primary “vehicle to document and advance queerness” in the nineteenth century. Moving into the twentieth century, Grant Wythoff (Columbia University) argued that the early formation of science fiction predates magazines like Amazing Stories and in fact could be sourced to electronic hobbyist newsletters. Ironically, mundane catalogs of radio parts and transistors eventually led to the imagining of fantastical mediating technologies and the futuristic worlds of modern speculative fiction.

Many of the talks presented various technologies as “events” that reshaped understandings of history and, thus, community. By offering what Bentley calls a “flash of new knowledge,” technology did not erase the past as much as offer radical new ways and structures of thinking. Across the presentations, the technological event also cohered with the affective experience of temporality, from the secular ecstasy of kinship to the public disgust of ecocatastrophe management. Another recurring theme was the recognition of technology as an instrument of truth. Whether in the form of The Anglo-African magazine or spirit photography, new technologies appeared to give society greater access to the unknown. In this respect, technology began to serve both a practical and an epistemological function in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In exploring such timely topics, “Circuit, Current, Connection” helped to further two core goals of CALS: advancing the national research agenda of Americanist scholarship and cultivating the next generation of scholars. Led by its four graduate student organizers (Ting Chang, Juliette Hawkins, Derek Lee, and Erica Stevens), students played significant roles in establishing the symposium’s themes, selecting speakers, marketing the event, and running the panels. The symposium also allowed students to start building networks with some of the most exciting scholars in their fields. As this event amply demonstrated, CALS continues to create wonderful learning opportunities for Penn State students while also producing a forum for path-breaking scholarship in American literature.

Grant Wythoff discusses the technological origins of science fiction.

Panel 1 fields questions from the audience during the Q&A session.

The symposium's organizers discuss overarching themes during the wrap-up session.

Symposium organizers and panelists. Back Row: Derek Lee, Ivy Wilson, Scotti Parrish, Ting Chang, and Sean Goudie. Front Row: Dana Luciano, Nancy Bentley, Erica Stevens, Juliette Hawkins, Maurice Lee, and Grant Wythoff.


This news story was co-written by Derek Lee, Ting Chang, Juliette Hawkins, and Erica Stevens

For more event photos, please visit the CALS photo album.

Banned/Band Together: The 2014 Marathon Read

The third annual Penn State Marathon Read was held on September 25, 2014. CALS undergraduate intern Carter Clabaugh provides a personal reflection on attending the event for the first time.

As night approached, the industrial globe lights around the perimeter of the tent burned brighter. When my name was called, I walked up to the stand. On top of the podium sat a small lamp that illuminated an open copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I stumbled over the words as I hurtled through the first few paragraphs, but I soon slowed down and found myself being pulled into the storyline. I was nervous about reading a book notorious for its controversial language and subject matter, but I kept going, my right pointer finger tracing over each line, developing different voices for the various characters, pausing when the handmaid, Offred, or the Commander needed an emotional break. Before I knew it, my time was up. I handed the book to the next reader and fell back into my seat, wishing for a few more minutes. I later found out that many of my peers had similar reactions, their nerves settling as they kept on reading, each one silently encouraged by the community before them. And this is what we ultimately created out of the words that we cast from the pages into the air: community.

The third annual Penn State Marathon Read, co-sponsored by the Center for American Literary Studies, began on Thursday, September 25 at noon on a small patch of grass in front of the Pattee and Paterno Libraries. Started in 2011 to reinforce our university’s pride in its academics, the Marathon Read now involves volunteers from around campus taking turns reading from a single book for five-minute intervals over a 24-hour period. This year is the first in which more than one book has been chosen, and the three selections—Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—were chosen to correspond with Banned Books Week. Both The Handmaid’s Tale and Fahrenheit 451 have been frequently challenged in U.S. high school reading curricula, and Brave New World has been banned not only in the U.S. but also in Ireland and Poland. The event organizers chose the theme of Banned Books because so much censorship today often goes unrecognized (such as internet search engines that block certain results). Penn State Comparative Literature Professor Jonathan Abel pointed out that censorship in any form can threaten the reading community, and this year’s topic emphasized the community’s commitment to spreading literature beyond safe or comfortable boundaries.

Some students came to the 2014 Marathon Read because they felt strongly about the political importance of reading banned books in a public space. Freshman Graphic Design major Turner Blashford read on Thursday as a requirement for his English class but came back on Friday morning to read Huxley’s Brave New World, a personal favorite. “I think it’s a good thing to read banned books and to contemplate why they are banned, and to spread awareness of censorship,” he said. Junior Skyler Vasallo agreed with this sentiment. “I think censorship in any form is ridiculous. It’s super important to say we can’t censor art…it’s distasteful. We must be able to reach this edge and go past it.” Many students in attendance believed that this community read was not only an entertaining event, but also a necessary one. Our community benefits from hearing challenging works of art, and by deciding for ourselves how to proceed with our own reading and writing practices.


As is traditional for the Marathon Read, even more people came not because of its theme but because they simply love the act of reading. Lauren Davis arrived at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday for a full night of listening, eager for an event designed for people who aren’t “cookie cutter college students.” That Lauren felt comfortable enough with the atmosphere to spend the night armed with a pillow, blankets, and a steaming cup of coffee in her pajamas, listening with her peers, is a testament to the event’s accessibility and warmth year after year. German instructor Juliane Schicker had her entire class read aloud in German, explaining how it would be entertaining and beneficial for her students’ language skills. She also added that she simply loved reading. “I could read all night long. I love impersonating people…trying to form their characters.”

This year’s event emphasized multilingual readings, and performances in Arabic, French, Chinese, German, and Spanish often drew the loudest applause. I believe this not only reflects an appreciation for the beauty of different intonations, but also the importance of the spoken word. It brings us back to nighttime stories read to us out loud by our parents, who first gave us the gift of literary synesthesia; not only could we see the words on a page, we could hear the voices of their people, and then we could see their faces, live in their worlds. In a generation that is becoming increasingly digitalized, it is remarkable to have a public space on campus where we come together to listen to each other and support each other. And when we read works that have been suppressed, it makes us brave enough to create them too. This is an event where people from all backgrounds, from different nations all over the world, are free to read, to re-create and interpret literature that defies the norms, and through this process, a community is created.

Freshman Xin Wei arrived Friday morning to read Brave New World in her first language, Chinese. Afterwards, she asked me why the audience would want to stay for readings in languages they did not understand. “It brings us all back to those moments when we first knew we loved this…to read out loud,” I told her. “Thank you!” she said. “I love your explanation! That means a lot to me.” She hugged me and then returned to her seat, just in time for the next reading.

Large audiences packed the Marathon Read on Thursday afternoon.

The Handmaid's Tale
draws die-hard book lovers deep into the night.

#Alt-Ac, or Possible Futures for the Humanities Ph.D.

What is the career path for academics in the humanities who choose not to become professors? What can graduate students do to prepare for a rapidly evolving employment landscape, and just as importantly, how can the university itself change to accommodate these alternate visions of the academy? On Monday, September 15th, CALS hosted the #Alt-Ac Symposium at Foster Auditorium to explore these questions, which touch upon some of the thorniest issues in higher education today. Short for “alternative academic careers,” #Alt-Ac began as a Twitter-inspired neologism for positions that exist within and around the academy but outside the ranks of tenure-track teaching faculty, such as those found in university libraries, writing centers, and research organizations. In many PhD programs—especially in the humanities—any deviation from the graduate student-to-professor trajectory onto such “unconventional” career paths has often been stigmatized. Such a traditional mindset ignores radical changes in academic employment in recent years, however, including the decline in tenure-line appointments, the increase in adjunct faculty, and the creation of digital humanities and technology roles that previously did not exist. To address this sea change in academic employment, CALS Director Sean Goudie invited thought leaders from the #Alt-Ac movement (most of whom earned their doctorates in fields like English, History, and American Studies) and professors for a full-day symposium to reconsider the alternative academy in the twenty-first century university.

Download the Podcasts

Bethany Nowviskie, one of #Alt-Ac’s leading voices, kicked off the event with a brief history of the movement, including its etymological origins as a response to “non-academic” careers, a term that has historically diminished humanities scholars and discouraged graduate students from exploring novel career paths. For Nowviskie, who serves as Director of Digital Research & Scholarship for the University of Virginia Library, the #Alt-Ac label rejects the academic/non-academic binary by creating a space where the entire spectrum of careers in and around the university can be reassessed with an open mind. After her opening remarks, she led a lively Q&A session with the audience, which drew faculty, administrators, students, and staff from across the mid-Atlantic region as far away as North Carolina. While some audience members voiced their hopes for the event and others shared their future vision of the university, all shared in the timeliness and urgency of the symposium.

Given the rapid evolution of the #Alt-Ac label since its inception in 2009, the first panel attempted to answer the complex question of what does #Alt-Ac mean today? For several participants, #Alt-Ac is an umbrella term for a group of professions they find more satisfying than the standard professor role. According to Paul Erickson, there was “nothing alternative” about becoming the Director of Academic Programs at the American Antiquarian Society since this was the exact type of job he wanted when he started his American Studies PhD program. Tim Powell similarly felt that his work as Director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at the American Philosophical Society, which involves working directly with Native American tribes to preserve their culture, has a far greater impact than a traditional teaching appointment. One of the major themes of the conference was the role of technology in the alternative academy. Both Dan Tripp and Patricia Hswe saw their respective digital strategy roles in the Department of English and University Libraries at Penn State as positions that were fundamentally changing the way the academy operates. For many of the invited speakers, #Alt-Ac also represented a necessary culture shift for departments and individuals alike. As Rebecca Schuman, who served as both a symposium panelist and an education columnist covering the event for Slate, summed up, “#Alt-Ac is a state of mind” for recognizing that all jobs, whether academic or non-academic, are worthy of respect.

The second session focused on training graduate students for #Alt-Ac careers. One recurring message among the panelists was the need for students to acquire non-research related skills while still in school. Megan Doherty, a program officer at the German Marshall Fund, described how she gave historical tours and volunteered for several organizations while a History PhD at Columbia, whereas Professor Rosemary Jolly, Weiss Chair in the Humanities at Penn State, had an editing career planned in case her academic job search proved unsuccessful. Other panelists called for the university to do more for graduate students. Brian Croxall, Digital Humanities Strategist and Lecturer of English at Emory University, proposed that graduate students intern at various academic units to understand how a university worked while gaining non-research experience. Associate Dean for Graduate and Undergraduate Education Chris Long elaborated on this idea with the Graduate Internship Program (GRIP) currently in place at Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts. On the faculty side, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature Michael Bérubé, who also serves as Director of the Institute for Arts and Humanities at Penn State, highlighted the need for faculty to prioritize the happiness of their graduate students, not all of whom would seek tenure-faculty positions.

In the wrap-up session, Nowviskie emphasized that the most important aspect of the #Alt-Ac symposium was a sense of purpose—the idea that alternative academics like her were laying the foundation for new leaders of the movement to build upon. “This is a generational mission,” she said. For Nowviskie and many of her fellow speakers, the symposium marked the start of the overall academic environment changing for the better, and she encouraged others to join her at the forefront of that change.

Brian Croxall proposes changes in higher education to assist #Alt-Ac careers.

Rebecca Schuman explains how #Alt-Ac requires, above all else, a mentality shift. 

Panelists field questions from the audience about future directions of the alternative academy.

For more photos of the symposium, please click here.

Download the Podcasts

Opening Session: A Discussion with Bethany Nowviskie (mp3)

Roundtable 1: What Does #Alt-Ac Mean? (mp3) 

Roundtable 2: (Re)Training for an #Alt-Ac Future (mp3)

The Benefits of Being CURIAS

Over winter break, Schreyer Honors College senior Julianne McCobin found herself in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College flipping through a copy of Ulysses. But not just any copy of James Joyce’s massive tome—one with Sylvia Plath’s notes handwritten in the margins. As she examined Plath’s marginalia more closely, McCobin noticed that the notes were written in different colored ink, and that the different colors seemed to reflect changes in Plath’s thought processes. Later, after she returned to State College, she began the task of incorporating her findings into her English honors thesis, a yearlong endeavor that requires both extensive research and advanced rhetorical and analytical skills.

While archival material often enhances a senior thesis, many undergraduate students lack familiarity with the required research methodologies. In response, CALS director Sean Goudie proposed a three-stage grant program for English majors, the CALS Undergraduate Research in the Archives Scholars (CURIAS). CURIAS scholars undergo two training sessions, one in Penn State’s Special Collections and one in various Philadelphia archives, before they independently select and visit archives relating to their theses. English graduate student Sarah Salter mentored the inaugural class of CURIAS scholars, helping the students navigate Penn State’s Special Collections. For Salter, the opportunity to foster undergraduate research was deeply rewarding. “It was wonderful,” she said, “to see the participants go from feeling a bit overwhelmed at the start of the day to being comfortable, confident, and very intelligent archival researchers in the space of one day's activities.”

At Smith, McCobin was able to sharpen her thesis with the help of Karen Kukil, the librarian who not only oversees the Plath collection but is also the editor of Plath’s journals. Working closely with Kukil provided McCobin invaluable insight that few other undergraduates studying Plath will be afforded. Thanks to her time in the archives, McCobin’s project now examines Plath’s journaling as a material process, rather than merely a product. “The chance to do archival research as an undergrad is really unique,” reflects McCobin, “and this opportunity allowed me to deepen my knowledge of the topic. I really couldn’t have researched my topic thoroughly without this grant.”

CALS looks forward to replicating McCobin’s success with future cohorts of CURIAS scholars. Made possible by generous support from the Paterno Family and the College of the Liberal Arts, the program showcases the Penn State English major as an undergraduate program committed to  scholarly excellence. But just as importantly, the CURIAS program is an exciting reminder of what makes studying literature so rewarding—as McCobin exclaimed, “It’s so amazing to finally see and hold what you’ve been studying for so long!” Igniting and fostering enthusiasm like McCobin’s in Penn State undergraduates is a primary mission of CURIAS, and CALS continues to look for new ways to channel this excitement into rewarding experiences for the Penn State students it serves.


McCobin and Karen Kukil examine Plath's annotations together.


The author of this article, Hannah Burks (, is the 2013-2014 CALS undergraduate intern.

ENGL 111: A Course of Action for the English Degree

“The Possibilities of English” course at Penn State helps students answer the inevitable question—“What are you going to do with a degree in English?”—by featuring alumni speakers who have used theirs to find fulfilling and exciting careers. After graduating from Penn State in 2007, Julie Devaney Hogan held jobs at The Make-A-Wish Foundation, NBC Universal, and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu before landing her current position as Global Director of Account Management and Consulting at Hubspot, a Boston-based company that develops inbound marketing software. Though her duties and roles varied at each organization, for Hogan, each new opportunity reaffirmed the versatile value of her Penn State English major. Accordingly, when Hogan spoke to the class of forty undergraduates enrolled in ENGL 111 this past fall, she enumerated the arsenal of skills English students are equipped with, including creative thinking and problem solving, organizing thoughts and ideas, technical writing, and the ability to respond productively to feedback. “You are the master of the thesis statement,” Hogan reminded the students. “English majors are familiar with the economy of language; they are articulate and get to the point.”

Insightful, practical advice like Hogan’s is at the heart of ENGL 111’s design. Since the course was first conceived by the CALS Board of Visitors and then English Department Head Robin Schulze in 2007, ENGL 111 has been actively responding to a growing need in the humanities to demonstrate possible outcomes for Penn State English graduates. The course, among the first of its kind at colleges and universities nation-wide, shows students the enormous—and for some skeptics, surprising—value of the English major as they prepare to tackle an increasingly competitive job market. CALS Director Sean Goudie, instructor of ENGL 111 for the past several years, regularly fields questions from colleagues around the nation who are interested in adopting the course for their college or university. “Such enthusiasm for the course even beyond Penn State is proof-positive of how necessary this unique course is,” Goudie states.

How exactly does ENGL 111 accomplish its ambitious mission in a single semester?  Goudie invites both Penn State English faculty and successful alumni to speak with the class about how to maximize their degrees and translate their strengths into fulfilling careers. During each visit, students are encouraged to ask questions and engage the speakers. The course’s capstone assignment is the “personal strategic plan,” a comprehensive assignment in which students realistically envision their own futures. They do so first by producing two lists: one indicating their skills and experiences, and another listing their educational and career goals. They then write an essay that integrates the two lists into a comprehensive narrative. The assignment is designed to help students have a clear action plan as they prepare to go on the job market, according to Goudie.

For alumni, speaking to current students is the perfect opportunity to contribute their time and resources to the Penn State community. Terry Deal (Class of 1993), a senior production editor at Random House LLC applauded the course’s ability to provide crucial advice and direction: “I think a class like this, without being threatening, reminds you that you’re working toward something [and] provides context and reminds students to think about the future.” Similarly, Mike Dell’Aquila (Class of 2004) provided the class with tangible examples of how he applies the skills he gained from the English major to the dynamic expectations and duties of his current job. He works as senior copywriter at Recyclebank, a nonprofit startup website that rewards eco-friendly businesses. Dell’Aquila advised the students, “Companies you never thought would need social media now have a presence, because they realized the importance of telling their story—which means they need storytellers in-house to tell that story.” Indeed, English majors are uniquely positioned to become those storytellers, and “The Possibilities of English” course creates the platform for alumni like Dell’Aquila to share their “real-world” professional experiences.

For the students, the class also provides a forum to envision how their experiences as an English major at Penn State will contribute to their careers after graduation. Inspired by Dell’Aquila’s presentation, one student told Goudie after class, “Ten years from now I want to be Mike Dell’Aquila, standing in front of ENGL 111 sharing my experiences and wisdom with the next generation of Penn State English majors.” The strength of the Penn State alumni network was similarly felt during Anne Riley’s visit. A former State College Area High School teacher, Riley (Class of 1964) is a Trustee Emerita and former President of the Penn State Alumni Association. When asked what her motivation for giving back to Penn State was, Riley responded, “Because Penn State gave so much to me! My education, my teaching, my friends, my social life, and my cultural life.” Riley’s enthusiasm for the university was contagious. Luis Villafane, a junior double majoring in English and music, reflected that Riley’s presentation to ENGL 111 was especially reassuring to him. “Anne Riley reaffirmed my decision to become an English major and gave me the confidence to follow through.”

The speakers in “Possibilities of English” range in age, professional experience, and field of work. Some of the careers represented this past semester included information development, copywriting, law, entertainment, art curation, education, marketing, and publishing. Levi Opsatnic, a senior English major with minors in business and comparative literature, remarked, “I was told that there would be several guest speakers, but I had no idea there would be the variety that Professor Goudie provided our class.” Indeed, the course has already created returns on their investment for several students. Sam Tavares, a senior majoring in film/video and minoring in English, signed up for the course hopeful that it would provide him with an “opportunity to network with Penn State graduates.” His expectations were more than met when he landed a videography internship with WPSU with the help of Liz Jenkins, the English internship coordinator and a visiting speaker, who recognized his unique interest in screenwriting.

Goudie notes that it is fitting that the Director of CALS serves as the instructor of ENGL 111, as CALS and the class share the goal of promoting the lasting value of reading, studying, and writing about literature. “By sponsoring the course, CALS and Penn State English are innovating once more and creating a mutually enabling and ennobling set of experiences for past and present Penn State English majors. The course honors how the skills Penn State students acquire in the English major have been, and will continue to be, at the center of their personal and professional lives,” Goudie says. To this end, ENGL 111 will continue to develop in the future. One especially exciting idea, taken from a student’s midterm evaluation this past semester, is to incorporate field trips to the work places of some of the alumni guest presenters into the course. By evolving in these ways, “The Possibilities of English” will continue to help English majors navigate their undergraduate degrees. Likewise, it will point them toward stimulating and satisfying careers after graduation armed not only with the major’s marketability in mind, but also a realistic confidence in “the vast, supportive, and inspiring network of successful Penn State English alumni who,” Goudie observes, “are the course’s true instructors.”

Some photos from the Fall 2013 class:

Mike Dell’Aquila discusses how the skills he learned from his English major allow him to uniquely contribute to his position at RecycleBank.

An ENGL 111 student peruses a pamphlet distributed by Susan Abramowich, Staff Attorney at KidsVoice, a child advocacy organization in Pittsburgh.

Jon Rider describes managing work-life balance at his job as Assistant Curator at Art in General in New York City.

Anne Riley listens patiently to a student’s questions about changes at Penn State since her undergraduate years.

PSU senior Sam Tavares participates in a mock interview during the class’s final meeting.


The author of this story, Hannah Burks (, is the 2013-2014 CALS undergraduate intern and was a student in the Fall 2013 ENGL 111 class.

2nd First Book Institute to Build on Inaugural Institute’s Success

The call for applications to the second First Book Institute, to be held June 8-14, 2014 at Penn State, was recently announced by CALS Director Sean Goudie.  The First Book Institute features workshops and presentations led by institute faculty aimed at assisting participants in transforming their book projects into ones that promise to make the most significant impact possible on the field of American literary studies.

Where do young scholars go to transform their dissertation into a first-rate book manuscript?  This was the question that inspired CALS Director Sean Goudie to found the First Book Institute under the auspices of CALS at Penn State this past summer.  Surprisingly no such place exists, even as this is an especially challenging time for early career scholars given the current state of higher education promotion and publishing.  “By sponsoring urgent and path-breaking initiatives like the First Book Institute,” Goudie states, “CALS is becoming a recognized leader in the field of American literary studies.”  Danielle Heard, a participant in the inaugural institute, agrees.  She lauds CALS for sponsoring the First Book Institute, “a first of its kind institute that has been a long time coming.  It is especially appropriate at this moment in the academy when the job market is increasingly competitive and likewise there are fewer and fewer resources for academic presses.”

Goudie, who co-directs the institute with Duke University professor Priscilla Wald—one of the leading scholars and editors in American literary studies—was astonished when over one hundred applicants applied for the eight participant slots in the inaugural institute.  Such an overwhelming response is reflective of the great demand that exists in the academy for an institute such as this one.  As Wald puts it, “All of a sudden you are on your own after graduate school.  You’re not getting feedback on your writing.  You don’t yet have relationships with many colleagues in the field.”  The institute provides an especially compelling model for how to respond sensitively to that difficult reality, according to Wald: “The vision of the First Book Institute is a profound and a very generous one.”

According to its dual structure, the First Book Institute helps participants in the midst of a first career position as a postdoctoral fellow, lecturer, or tenure-track assistant professor at colleges and universities as diverse as Smith College, George Mason University, and the University of Chicago sharpen their book-in-progress and land a publishing contract with a top university press.  It features workshops in which important issues and concerns are discussed, like how to write an effective book proposal.  In addition, participants read and critique one another’s work.  Collectively participants and institute faculty—comprised of leading professors from the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State—reflect on topics of interest to all first book authors while attending to the writing needs and concerns of individual participants.  Reflects participant Samaine Lockwood, “The institute has given me a whole new perspective on my project. I have all kinds of ideas for how I’m going to go forward from here.”

Especially valuable, according to participants in the inaugural institute, has been the chance to foster an intellectual community of sensitive, like-minded scholars that will exist well beyond the institute itself—a supportive, careful, concerned group of scholars who share a desire to help one another write work that will make a difference.  “I think we made connections among the group and feel like these might be ongoing working relationships.  And that’s the really great thing,” states participant Sonya Posmentier.  Co-Director Wald believes Posmentier and her fellow participants “are taking away a sense of a broader community and a larger conversation in which they’re participating.”  Adds Wald, “One of the things participants said that came across throughout the institute is that generosity and openness are the beginnings of scholarship.  That our work comes out of a place of being generous.  Of being open and listening to others.  The Institute is an opportunity to move from having mentors to having colleagues.”

Start-up funding for the First Book Institute has been provided by Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, the English Department, and Steven Fisher, a Penn State English alumnus and member of the CALS Board of Visitors.  Goudie hopes that once friends of CALS and Penn State Liberal Arts alumni learn about the institute—and how it is impacting the future course of American literary studies by supporting the research of some of the brightest young minds in the field—they will want to follow Fisher’s lead and be part of the enterprise.

Indeed, the outlook for the institute is bright.  Goudie and Wald are grateful to have received letters and emails from senior and junior scholars around the world excited about the First Book Institute initiative and wanting to take part in a future institute.  “Word about the uniquely valuable experience that the First Book Institute provides young scholars is spreading far and wide,” Goudie notes.  And while he acknowledges that the inaugural institute will be a tough act to follow, he is excited about the opportunity to plan and prepare for the second institute with Wald: “Priscilla and I and my CALS colleagues can’t wait to welcome the next cohort of First Book Institute participants to Penn State in June!”

For more information about the First Book Institute, including video testimony about the inaugural First Book Institute held in June 2013 from the participants and co-directors, please see:

J19 Launched

The inaugural issue of J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists was published in April 2013. J19 is a peer-reviewed journal that emerged in part from the founding of C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists at Penn State in 2009 by CALS faculty Hester Blum, Christopher Castiglia, and Sean Goudie.

Most broadly, J19 seeks to publish innovative scholarship on nineteenth-century American literature and culture. Co-edited by Castiglia (Penn State) and Dana Nelson (Vanderbilt), J19 is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Penn State English graduate student Nate Redman serves as the journal’s managing editor.

J19 gives tangible form to the growth and sophistication of scholarship on nineteenth-century culture and society over the past decade” — Chris Castiglia

J19 is an interdisciplinary journal of the nineteenth century—not only does it seek interdisciplinary work from within literary studies itself, it publishes work on the nineteenth century being done in adjacent disciplines (history, music, art history, etc.). This diversity of methodologies and fields is also reflected in J19’s multidisciplinary editorial board, which is comprised of scholars working in departments of English, art history, religious studies, political science, and American history. “Scholarship on the nineteenth century has always been at the heart of the rich interdisciplinarity that characterizes American studies,” Castiglia observes, “and J19 strives to represent the full and deep concept of ‘culture” that such work generates.” Nelson notes that the journal is trying to take up interdisciplinarity in its most robust form, not merely as a matter of including other disciplines in a scholar’s research but as an actual dialogue.  “Our vision is that the journal can become a place where scholars are challenged to respond to questions that are pertinent in other fields, and where conversations take place across those fields in a common forum.”

The journal includes features such as “state of the field” polemics, reproductions of new and significant archival materials, roundtables, and special issues on topics of general interest to nineteenth-century Americanists. The first issue’s articles ranged from Emily Dickinson’s relationship to Haiti, to slavery reparations in the work of Stephen Crane, to the circular logics of democracy in Tocqueville and Melville.  The issue also features a forum on transnational poetics and another on literature and enchantment.

The second issue includes essays on periodization and the Civil War, nineteenth-century translations of Dante and sectional conflict, and The Book of Mormon and theories of historiography, as well as forums on literary formalism and on scholarship on the nonhuman.  “The rich diversity of approaches and topics represented by the first two issues reflects the methodological diversification within nineteenth-century cultural studies today, occasioned by scholarly interests in aesthetics, translation, hemispheric and oceanic studies, political theory, visual culture, post-humanism, and religious studies, among other developments,” according to the editors.  “The journal is designed to facilitate and push the boundaries of those field developments in one of the most methodologically innovative moments in nineteenth-century American studies.”

Apart from article-length essays and forums on recent turns and trends in Americanist scholarship, J19 boasts a unique section on “Pleasure Reading,” in which scholars are invited to write shorter, more personally-inflected essays on some text (unrestricted by period or disciplinary specialty) that has recently, in one way or another, given them pleasure.  “In many ways this is the feature of the journal we’re most excited about,” Castiglia and Nelson report.  “The culture of the nineteenth century was weird and wonderful, and scholars who have dedicated themselves to it did so because of deep pleasures they take in studying the period.  Within modes of scholarship organized around objectivity and strict historicism claiming the pleasure we take in the nineteenth century has long been difficult.  With this feature we hope to bring those pleasures to the forefront, to share our intellectual enthusiasms, and to facilitate critical thought faithful to our pleasures and excitement as students, teachers, readers, and critics.  The responses we’ve received to the journal’s first issues have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the Pleasure Reading pieces, which reflects both the extreme thoughtfulness and craft of the first essays and how eager people are to hear about others’ positive responses to a field they too love.”

Reflecting on the first year of J19 and looking forward to its future, Nelson comments:  “We were a little worried we wouldn’t get submissions but that hasn’t been the case at all:  we are excited at the field’s response to this journal far before the first issue appeared.  It’s clear that J19 is a journal that has a lively future, judging from the first year’s articles, forums and pleasure reading features.”

J19 gives tangible form to the growth and sophistication of scholarship on nineteenth-century culture and society over the past decade,” Castiglia adds. “The first two C19 conferences ignited so much enthusiasm about the range and richness of developments in the field, and J19 is the perfect venue for representing the ground-break scholarship using those archives and methodologies, to articulate various strains of thought within methodological innovations, and to encourage future innovation in one of the fastest growing and entrepreneurial fields today.”

Congratulations to 2013 Writing Contest Winners!

Congratulations to the winners of the Centre County Reads / Center for American Literary Studies 2013 Artifact Writing Contest!

This contest is part of the 2013 Centre County Reads/CALS Community Read of bestselling author Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo, a coming-of-age novel that features an inherited artifact—a rebozo, or shawl—that ties family generations together.

The winners are:

Grand Prize: Rebecca Kuensting, "Fang Swings"

Kuensting is currently finishing up her  MFA at Penn State, and is writing her thesis in fiction. After she graduates in May, she hopes to pursue writing as a profession. Her entry concerns the ways we create personal artifacts - how ordinary objects become sacred when we start to consider them parts of ourselves.

Poetry: Julie Johnson, "Gutterman's Clogs: Hardwood and Leather"

A native of Arizona, Johnson is currently a graduate student in Penn State’s creative writing program, and will complete her Master of Fine Arts degree in May.  In addition to history, her work focuses on the natural world, place, and collective memory.

Fiction: Melissa Michal Slocum, "Down There"

Melissa Michal Slocum is of Seneca descent. She is currently working on her Master’s in literature at The Pennsylvania State University. She loves helping students find that they too can write. Michal has work appearing in The Florida Review.

Non-fiction: Ryan Richins, "Numismatics"

Richins moved to Pennsylvania from his hometown of Salt Lake City, UT, to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Penn State.

Under-18: Pratiti Roy, "Silk Stories"

Roy is a junior at State College Area High School. She's won second place in a local Holocaust poetry contest, first place for her 9/11 essay for the State College Choral Society, and two Gold Keys in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She's been published in Acclivity and The Town & Gown. She's also proud of her Bengali heritage, and she loves saris, even though she still hasn't quite gotten the hang of wearing one by herself!

Thanks to all the entrants! We look forward to reading more fabulous work by local writers next year!

Caramelo in the Classroom

The Center for American Literary Studies kicked off our 2013 CALS/Centre County Reads Community Read of Sandra Cisneros's Caramelo on Thursday, March 14th with a pair of events surrounding the topic of ethnic American literature.


The first event, "Caramelo in the Classroom: Teaching Ethnic American Literature," featured Vanderbilt professor Lorraine Lopez, as well as Penn State faculty members Toni Jensen and Tina Chen, leading the audience through a discussion of the challenges and pleasures of using ethnic American literature in the classroom.

Jensen and Lopez both drew on their positions as writers to argue for the use of creative writing to help students focus on form and genre while responding to ethnic American literature--rather than focusing on flattening ideas of "authenticity" or of "knowing" another culture. Tina Chen discussed the ways in which Caramelo and other books like it challenge the tendency to read ethnic American literature as "auto-ethnography" by disrupting its own text; the book's footnotes, mentioned by the panel's other speakers as well, "puncture" the narrative and thus destabilize it, rather than reinforcing the narrator's authenticity and authority. The panel ended with a lively question and answer segment in which the panelists continued to discuss practical teaching strategies, as well as the pleasures of using these novels in the classroom.

Later that evening, Lorraine Lopez read several excerpts from her published creative writing. She read excerpts from her 2011 novel, The Realm of Hungry Spirits, noting the ways in which her scenes break some of the most tried and true rules of fiction writing (like never starting a scene by waking up a character). Throughout the evening, Lopez's fiction provided a noteworthy combination of humor, carefully wrought language, and fascinatingly drawn characters. Her final story of the night was a "ghost-story within a ghost-story within a ghost-story" from her 2009 collection of short stories, Homicide Survivors Picnic. Lopez went on to answer questions from the audience about her characters, craft, and the challenges of writing young adult fiction--a genre she argues is even more difficult to work in than traditional adult fiction.


Throughout the day, the ties to Sandra Cisneros's work were both overt--Lorraine Lopez's first book was awarded the inaugural Miguel Marmol Prize for fiction, selected by Cisneros herself--and more subtle--like Lopez, Cisneros writes in a variety of genres and for a variety of ages. The final question raised during Lopez's reading--the question of how reaching an adult audience differs from reaching a youth audience--provided a useful lens through which to consider both Caramelo and the community read companion book, Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, which is regularly taught in secondary school classrooms around the country, and thus helped to illuminate how ethnic American literature can be taught at all educational levels.

The day's events provided a great opening for the community read of Cisneros's novel, and we look forward to the rest of the spring's community read events. Find more information about our related CALS/CCR community read events here. A podcast of the "Caramelo in the Classroom" event will be available soon.

More photos from the event can be found here.

Event photos by CALS intern Shannon Brace.

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