Thursday, May 22, 2014

Graduation Photos

Here are a few photos from yesterday's Rutgers-Newark's 2014 Commencement, the first I've attended (I was out of town last spring), and the first ever held in the Prudential Center, where the New Jersey Devils ice hockey and other sports teams play. It also was the first Commencement that our new chancellor, Nancy Cantor, presided over.

It is always so inspiring and invigorating to see students graduating, and given the challenging journeys that many of my current students have made to get to and through school, I am so deeply proud of and happy for them. I saw a number of them as I marched in with the faculty, and got to congratulate them in person on receiving their degrees; I beamed and cheered as several received graduation honors.

As is widely known, there was considerable controversy surrounding the selection of former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, one of the architects of the disastrous Iraq War and a chief actor in the disgraced George W. Bush regime, as Rutgers' New Brunswick commencement speaker. She was to receive not just an honorary degree, but $30,000 as well. Student, faculty (including yours truly) and alumni petitions and protests over her selection and way she was selected, as well as the fee she was to receive, however, led her to withdraw.

At Rutgers-Newark, there thankfully was no brouhaha at all surrounding our commencement speaker, Don Katz, an noted author, former journalist and the CEO of Newark-based Audible, Inc., the largest global producer of downloadable audiobooks. (If you listen to any, you probably have an Audible, Inc. product flowing through your ears. And yes, it is an Amazon company....) He received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Ironically because of the arena's audio situation, which created a doubling effect for certain speakers, including Katz, I could not make out much of what he said.

The ceremony itself went very long (degrees were conferred by school, with the names of students from every division, save the Law School, read aloud), but we received an assurance that this approach is thankfully under review.

Afterwards the MFA Program in Creative Writing held a party for this year's graduates, and all three of my wonderful thesis advisees, Adam Bowser, Craig Chanin and Serena Lin, and their families and friends, along with all the other MFA graduates I've had the opportunity to work with, were present, so although I had risen very early to get to the Prudential Center by 7 AM and had been flagging, I felt momentarily revived.

To the 2014 graduates and their families, congratulations again!

Lining up before the march in,
faculty at left, students at right
Students lined up (including
some I've taught!) 
The Prudential Center, before the students
and faculty enter
Procession of the schools
(led by my colleague Professor Rob Schneider,
head of the American Studies Program
Graduates on screen
A full arena! 
Don Katz, Audible, Inc. CEO
giving his commencement speech
At the MFA party, from left, Adam
Bowser, a friend of Serena Lin's,
 Serena's brother, and Serena 
Another photo of the MFA party,
with my colleague Alice Elliot Dark
in the foreground, and graduates
Jake Slovis (l) and Dana Jaye Cadman (r)
Serena, my colleague Tayari
Jones, and yours truly, in regalia
(and barely standing!)
Photo © Serena Lin

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Semester's End

Congratulations and best wishes, Class of 2014!

It is mid-May, which means the end of the semester at Rutgers. Courses concluded last week, and exams today, with graduation to follow in Newark next Wednesday. Spring semesters (or quarters, as was the case at Northwestern) have always been my busiest terms, and this year's stretch, from January to now, has been no less so. Between my two courses, my supervision of my great MFA thesis students, all three of whom will be graduating and should very proud of their manuscripts, my work on other university-related projects which appear to be bearing fruition under our new Chancellor, the publication of the Hilda Hilst translation and promotional activities for it (which are ongoing--do pick it up), a number of conferences and similar events and gatherings, and my completion of a new fiction manuscript which has been accepted and will be published next year, I believe, things have not slowed down yet. I am set to present a paper on James Baldwin at the very beginning of next month, in Montpellier, France, so as I am marking up final papers and projects and entering grades, I also am rereading (at the fastest pace I can recall) Baldwin's mammoth final novel Just Above My Head (1979), the copy in my hands the very Dell paperback copy my mother bought right after it came out, as well as some recent queer theory. (It pays to teach undergraduate and graduate classes that push you intellectually; my LGBTQ literature since Stonewall class, one of my last two at Northwestern, provided an excellent opportunity to resurvey the basic theoretical literature from the late 1960s through today). I will be looking forward to the trip, of course but even more so to the garden of time from mid-June through September when I can mentally relax, catch up on reading, and continue work on another fictional project which is much closer than ever before to completion. Then, I hope, even more....

In terms of the two courses, both entailed a lot of new reading, which was both edifying and exhausting, but I am glad I taught both, not least because of the excellent students. In the undergraduate class, "History and Myth in Contemporary African Diasporic Fiction," which fell under the rubric of Topics in African and Caribbean literature, I tried both to frame the course in terms of the parallel themes of history and myth, within the larger conceptual firmament of the African diaspora, and to decenter the United States as a way of thinking about the topic, though it nevertheless kept creeping into the picture. In part because of the disruptions caused by the snow storms, the class felt a bit stitched together, and I learned that it probably is a good idea in the future to mix short and longer fictional works, and to limit the number of long novels, since they proved hard for all the students to finish in a timely manner. The novel several of them cited as their favorite and the most intellectually engaging was, unsurprisingly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun (2004), which explores the early post-independence era through the Biafran War in Nigeria. It struck me as quite salient and topical given the recent attention Nigeria has received because of Boko Haram's abduction of over 270 schoolgirls and other attacks on the government and society, and the students and I were able to see in Adichie's novel how colonialism, tribalisms, ethnocentrism, religious chauvinism, nationalism, poor federal leadership, unequal distribution of resources, and corruption from Nigeria's earliest days have set the stage for the terrorist group'srecent horrific actions that have shocked the globe. 

I unfortunately had to snip one book, Zakes Mda's powerful novel Cion, from the syllabus, because of the lack of time, and I will think in the future about balancing texts even better to provide the best experience possible. The inner architectural thread of linked African spiritual practices managed to surprise me; that could easily have been the course's focus, so I may think about that for a future iteration. When we shifted from Ishmael Reed's invocation of the Loop Garoo Kid as a heroic figure to Edwidge Danticat's account, in "Nineteen Thirty-Seven," of a woman being denounced as a "Loup garou" for her heroism as a form of witchcraft, I wondered if I had assembled the readings not simply based on my knowledge of them and how they would work together but on some hidden, unrecognized frequency. Whatever it was, I think it worked. Another thing I have learned is that if you help to prepare students as best you can to do their best work, most will strive to do it. I usually now ask my undergraduate students to write their final papers but given the time constraints, they instead cleared their final topics and theses, and in some cases initial paragraphs, with me. This, coupled with their attentiveness to my marked up versions of their earlier papers--and their midterm exam--has meant much stronger final papers that are enjoyable to read. (And while it is difficult to do for many classes, making them combine unusual, less-commonly explored texts also cuts down on possible plagiarism.)

The graduate course, also a new preparation for me, was Writers at Newark II, the reading and discussion course that accompanies the semester-long reading series. Although I had not say in selecting the texts, one thing I did feel by the midpoint of the course was how well they worked together, and in some cases, as when we read Natasha Trethewey's Thrall and Edward P. Jones's The Known World together, or Matthea Harvey's Modern Life and George Saunders' The Tenth of December side by side, the conversations arising from pairings felt organic, as if the writers themselves had been in conversation with their peers. The students wrote reviews and short writeups of the books, posting the latter online, and in light of their status as creative writing students, I also invited them to produce new short works inspired by the visiting authors. Reading these at the midterm and now at the course's end has been a lot of fun, and I hope all of the students left with an even deeper appreciation not only for the texts we read and their authors, but also for their own deep capacity for insight, inventiveness, and collegiality. Like the undergraduates, these MFA students, some of whom I'd taught before and others I hadn't, were a joy to have in class, and I will miss the imminent graduates tremendously.

I'll end by thanking all of this year's students for another great experience, rounding out my second full year at Rutgers-Newark, and wishing all of them who are graduating, including the ones I taught earlier this year and last, the BA, BS, MA, and MFA recipients, the heartiest congratulations and every best wish for success and happiness in all they do in the future. Please also do stay in touch!

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Random Photos

It is been a long while since I posted any photos, as my posts in general so far this year have appeared rather sporadically. But it has been that kind of six months, very busy, with so much going on that even posting photographs has proved a challenge. Here are a few. Enjoy.

Dr. Khalil G. Muhammad, Director of the
Schomburg Center, speaking at Rutgers-Newark
during Black History Month 
Julian Simmons & Sarah Lucas
project, Tittipussidad, Karma, NYC 
Filming, Washington Square Park
NOTICE, Manhattan

In Bryant Park, late winter 
George Saunders, Matthea Harvey,
and Jayne Anne Phillips, Writers at Newark
series, Rutgers-Newark 
The ongoing renovation of
Fulton Street Station, lower Manhattan
On the street, Jersey City 
My former colleague Brian Edwards,
after his talk at New York University
At a bus stop, Manhattan 
A temporary arcade in front
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bettye Saar, at the opening of her show in March 
Malcolm Gladwell, West Village
The cast of Alban Berg's Wozzeck,
expertly performed at the Met Opera,
and conducted by James Levine

Railroad track bed in Jersey
City (when the light rail train abruptly
stopped without explanation between stations)