Homepage Features

Dispatches from 21st-Century Europe

Posted by on Feb 18, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Dispatches from 21st-Century Europe

As a specialist in the literature of Britain’s Romantic period, I had little occasion during graduate school or the first twelve years of my professorial career to venture outside the Anglophone world in my teaching and research. This suddenly changed, though, in 2012, when I began a five-year stint running BYU’s European Studies program. Besides providing regular opportunities to learn more about the history and politics of individual nations and the continent as a whole, this position brought new course assignments requiring me to expand my literary horizons in a hurry. Eight years later, I am now teaching my fifth iteration of a European Studies course that uses contemporary fiction as a lens for examining major social, political, and aesthetic trends in modern Europe. Although I still have much to learn on the subject, I thought I would use this crack at writing the Humanities Center blog to recommend five newish titles that my European Studies students have especially appreciated. Here they are, then, in descending chronological order: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009 in Polish; English transl. 2018). Few contemporary writers better illustrate the hit-and-miss nature of what gets translated and when than Tokarczuk, whose works were only just beginning to appear in English when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Along with her memoir-fiction hybrid Flights (also published in English in 2018), Drive Your Plow has been one of the breakout books of European “literary” fiction in recent years. A thoroughly engaging “eco-thriller” – and an all-too-rare example of a tale narrated by an elderly woman – this is a must-read for fans of William Blake (the protagonist is a Blake translator and aficionado) and those looking for smart and compelling dramatizations of modern environmental crises. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (especially Books 1 and 2) (2009–11 in Norwegian; English transl. 2012–19). One of the landmark artistic undertakings of the new century, Knausgaard’s six-part, 3,600-page autobiographical “novel” ranks among the most least likely literary sensations of any age. Although controversially titled Min Kamp in the original Norwegian, this series avoids referencing Hitler’s similarly titled memoir until its final installment. Until then, My Struggle painstakingly retraces both mundane and momentous scenes from its forty-something author’s largely unexceptional life. What would quickly grow tedious in most writers’ hands is inexplicably enthralling, as evidenced by the consistent levels of Knausgaard-mania among the students I have assigned to read Books 1 and 2. Contrary to my expectations and theirs, my students have consistently reported that the middle-aged Knausgaard’s neo-Proustian musings trigger a flood of reflections about their own childhood experiences, family relationships, and current place in the world. Laurent Binet, HHhH (2010 in French; English transl. 2012). Were I to poll my present and former students, the likely winner of the “People’s Choice” award would be HHhH. This riveting postmodern historical novel retells the story of Operation Anthropoid, the 1942 Czech Resistance plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious SS commandant then serving as the Governor of Prague. Taking his title from the German aphorism “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich” (“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), Binet recaps Heydrich’s rise, the atrocities he oversaw, and the heroism of Jozef Gabčik, Jan Kubiš, and other “parachutists” tasked with killing him. More than just a thrilling war story, though, HHhH offers extended meditations on the methods and ethics of historical fiction. Binet regularly pauses to detail his research process, question his assumptions, and interrogate the efficacy of the historical novel in general. As a result, this winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt for 2010 has been widely hailed as a...

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Unorthodox Academia

Posted by on Feb 10, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Unorthodox Academia

Here’s a question: could the mediated essay be an underutilized opportunity to expand the scope of academia? >> Intro music and graphics Hey guys, welcome back to the channel! Huge shout out to Squarespace for sponsoring this episode, and of course, thank you to all the patrons who support the channel. Without all of you, this kind of content would literally be impossible. If you enjoy what you see here today be sure to like and subscribe, or you can check out the links for our Patreon in the description below.   Today we’re collaborating with the Eliza R. Snow Undergraduate Fellowship at BYU to give some final thoughts before we wrap up this series on the Humanities. Now, if you’ve hung around the show for very long you’ve probably noticed that we’re really interested in the formation of questions, themes, and innovations that materialize in the overlap between art and the realities of student life. But those discussions have always had an inherent assumption—that the functioning voice of the episode was that of a student within an academic institution. What happens if we removed that assumption? What if the individual speaking about interdisciplinarity, tradition, or pedestrian readings was neither matriculated student nor tenured professor? Could an agent external to and independent of the academic orthodoxy be allowed room to express similar thoughts and feelings? To answer this, let’s turn to the growing enclave of content online and in new media (which for our uses here will narrowly refer to alternatives to traditional broadcast media) consisting primarily of video essays and podcast audio. Though the quality and breadth of these formats differs broadly in their numerous iterations, usually found on platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud, the video essay and the podcast are to me like mediated essays—collections of writings like any other—that are then expressed in media files, visual attachments, and sound clippings. And I find this phenomenon springing up through podcasters and creators fascinating in a couple different ways.  >> ad break >> Wanting to improve your writing but don’t have time for a university compositions class? Check out our long-time partner Skillshare. Whether it’s technical editing or creative drafting, Skillshare gives professionally taught classes that can strengthen the skill of any scholar. Be one of the first 500 to follow our promo code for a two months free subscription. And now, back to the show. And we’re back, talking about the rise of the mediated essay. First, any podcast or video essay that takes on the qualities of a nonfiction, thesis driven essay, emulates my experience in real university classrooms. The channel description or show notes act like course objectives, explaining what the content is all about and trying to accomplish, and then the mediated essay goes on to demonstrate its author’s reflections on a subject, bringing in critical research, differing viewpoints, offering evidence of ulterior examples or the development of specific perspectives. Now obviously not every video essay is created equal, and you may have to learn to sit through some lower-quality content before you discover videos and podcasts that are really hitting the mark. I’ll give some links below for some favorites from my personal feed. Second, these mediated essays are unlike my undergraduate classes in many ways. They bring together a wide diaspora of subjects, threading together ideas that bring attention to areas that we simply don’t seem to have enough time for in the orthodox of “the Academy.” Which is why I can really get behind the establishment of these mediated essays as potential academic work worthy of consideration. There is so much...

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“Affected by the Things We Study”: Professor Marie Orton on Merging Scholarship and Service

Posted by on Feb 3, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog, Uncategorized | 0 comments

“Affected by the Things We Study”: Professor Marie Orton on Merging Scholarship and Service

If you ask Professor Marie Orton for her philosophy on life, she will answer, “In my family, we say for most any experience: it’s either a good time or a good story.” She exudes a contagious fervor for her work, for mentoring, and for life in all of its complexities. And she captures this fervor in her scholarship, which focuses on the literary productions by migrants to Italy and the larger cultural implications of migratory movements. Dr. Orton herself is a labor migrant of sorts, a relative newcomer to BYU. She arrived in 2016 from Truman State, a small liberal arts college in Missouri, where she taught with her spouse, Brent, whose doctorate is in the History of Culture. “We were living the dream,” she recalls, “We had planted fruit trees!” But she and her family uprooted that life and headed west. When she interviewed at BYU, Dr. Orton felt drawn to the university in a way that she had never felt before—impressed by its well-supported language programs and committed faculty. And, while she appreciates the spiritual atmosphere, she admits, “Gospel values are ethical values; anywhere you are, everything you do, you live your values and teach your values.”  Her research interests were certainly inspired by these ethical values. During her graduate program at the University of Chicago, she served with the youth in the Hyde Park ward, many of whom were growing up amid the violence and poverty of the inner-city. She became concerned with the way these teens talked about their future—in terms of “if I grow up,” not “when I grow up”—and so she became involved with a charitable trust founded by several members in the ward in order to help the youth. The program, now called the Inner City Youth Charitable Foundation, still exists today. This experience brought Dr. Orton to the question that initially informed her research: “It was evident that violence alters an individual’s whole concept of identity. A life marked by violence doesn’t just give one a different life; it gives one a different identity.” Her dissertation examined autobiographies of those who experienced trauma and explored instantiations of violence, how people’s identity is tethered with their experiences of violence. Dr. Orton interviewed Italian Auschwitz survivors, African migrants to Italy, and former members of the Red Brigades. “My students would ask me, ‘How can you study those things and not be depressed all the time?’ And I thought—there would be something wrong with me if I weren’t. We should be affected by the things that we study.” Two of her current research projects are translating a history of Jewish women in Italy and co-editing a volume entitled Fictional and Critical Stories of Transmigration through Italy. This will be the first critical study of migration literature in Italy that includes original creative works by migrant authors alongside the scholarly articles that discuss them, mitigating the typical power differential displayed when critics talk from a position of privilege and distance about the work of minorities. “It’s a collaborative work—it shows that we’re all talking about these issues together,” Dr. Orton explains. There is certainly a kind of holism evident in her work. As she continues to research and bring attention to the cultural productions of minorities and migrants, she also practices an ethical pragmatism in the mentoring and service she performs in her capacity as a professor. One her favorite courses to teach is Italian 446, “Multicultural Italy,” and she is currently teaching a course entitled, “Women and Global Migration” (GWS 390R), with Professor Kif Augustine-Adams of BYU’s law school. She also supervises and trains...

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Rereading, Revisiting, Refining

Posted by on Jan 27, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Rereading, Revisiting, Refining

Over Christmas break, I made the pilgrimage with my mom and sisters to see the latest Little Women adaptation. I found the film absolutely brilliant; director Greta Gerwig reimagines and restructures the story in a way that translates beautifully for a twenty-first century audience. I (a Jo, through and through) began crying right around the halfway mark and did not stop until the credits rolled. Even my youngest sister (an absolute Amy at eleven years old), whom we had to persuade to join us, admitted that she “didn’t even get bored!” Before we saw the movie, I made a point to read the novel because the last time I had attempted it was in elementary school, and Alcott’s 1800s moralistic plot line didn’t captivate me the way the then-new Harry Potter series did. Quite frankly, I thought Little Women was dull, so I gave up halfway through. This time around, however, I was awestruck—in both the novel and the latest movie rendering—by the realistic family relationships, the characters’ genuine goodness (without seeming saccharine), and the simple assurance of knowing the plot before it happens. The difference, of course, was not in the text, but in myself. I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of revisiting lately. This year I’ve assisted in teaching British Literary History and Intro to Literary Theory, two courses I took myself when I began the English major several years ago. In preparing for this work, I’ve had the opportunity to revisit texts that I had not read since the first time I encountered them. And, because I’m an avid margin-writer and digital hoarder, I’ve also delved into my textual comments and (deeply embarrassing) previous response papers and literary analysis assignments. It’s a fascinating process, skipping across a chasm of nearly six years of incremental shifts to see the drastically different person I was when I first came to BYU. I can see my cognitive dissonance in my response to Marxist theory and the epiphany behind the tiny, hand-scribbled question in the margins of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” that reads, “Am I a feminist?” In the subtext of my barely-legible notes I recall the student who had strong reservations about switching to the English major, who saw school as a mere hurdle, and who was in the process of a transformation she couldn’t yet recognize. As I revisit these texts, it’s been especially interesting to see which Wildean epigrams still make me laugh, which of Saussure’s concepts have become clearer, and which philosophical ideas I’ve adopted or discarded along the way. Zadie Smith speaks of this kind of personal change in her essay, “Some Thoughts on Attunement,” in which she reflects on her own process of becoming receptive to Joni Mitchell’s music: But when I think of that Joni Mitchell-hating pilgrim…I truly cannot understand the language of my former heart. Who was that person? Petulant, hardly aware that she was humming Joni, not yet conscious of the transformation she had already undergone. How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur? The shift toward openness to Mitchell felt drastic for Smith because, as she writes, “I didn’t come to love Joni Mitchell by knowing anything more about her, or understanding what an open-tuned guitar is, or even by sitting down and forcing myself to listen and re-listen to her songs. I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me completely.” Yet, however untraceable, there were certainly life experiences that...

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Happy New Year?

Posted by on Jan 20, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

Happy New Year?

Happy New Year! Am I too late? What is the last day that this is allowed? I generally shoot for mid-January and after that, I just say hi, so I take back my Happy New Year and just say hi so as to keep with my own set of rules. There are many traditions around the world on how to welcome in the new year. In Spain, for example, it is customary to eat 12 grapes—one at each stroke of the clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve. If one is successful, then each grape represents a month of good luck in the upcoming year. This is even more impressive given that seedless grapes are not common in Spain and every time I have participated in this, the grapes have also been rather large and it has been challenging to choke down twelve in 12 seconds. Colombia and Brazil have many traditions to welcome in the new year, such as wearing yellow clothing or yellow undergarments to symbolize prosperity and good energy for the new year or wearing red clothing in hopes of finding love in the new year. One might also see Colombians out and about at midnight with an empty suitcase in hand in the hopes that their dreams of increased travel to exotic locations will be fulfilled. For many in the United States, it is customary to watch a big lit ball drop in New York City and then hug and/or kiss loved ones as the new year begins. In my case, to welcome in 2020, I found myself in Twin Falls, Idaho, with my older sister, my oldest daughter, and one of my daughter’s friends. The ball being dropped was some $14 ball purchased at an auction for “no apparent purpose,” stated as weighing as much as a “bag of dog food,” lit with a string of Christmas lights and lowered by an old truck while attached to a long rope hanging from an abandoned grain silo in an industrial part of town. In other words, it was comparable to New York­—and exactly where I wanted to be. It is interesting to think of the new year and new decade because so many of us pause for a moment reflect on the previous one and set goals for the upcoming year. While our new year commences on January 1st, different cultures and peoples celebrate their new year not following the Gregorian calendar, but rather their own calendar commonly based on other lunar phenomena or on different religious traditions. For the Chinese calendar, January 25th is the beginning of the new year in 2020 and it will be the Year of the Rat. The Islamic New Year takes place in late September, and there is a Hindu New Year in late March. Each country or region hopes and often prays for joy and prosperity in the new year. In the United States, we often set goals and make New Year’s resolutions. Typically related to personal goals such as losing weight, getting in shape, eating healthier, saving money, traveling more, etc. Often our resolutions are quickly forgotten; a bishop I know lamented how much he hated the start of a new year because all of the treadmills at his gym were full for the first two weeks in January, so he would have to wait for time to pass until they all opened up again. 2019 was a very interesting year in my life and a cause for deep and poignant reflection. May I encourage all of you to consider some new resolutions to increase your humanity...

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Towards a Transnational America

Posted by on Jan 13, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

Towards a Transnational America

Though I’ve never been overly enthusiastic about New Year’s celebrations, the prospect of beginning both a new year and a fresh decade felt weightier and more significant for me this time around. During the anticipatory build-up towards the night of December 31st, I felt, as many do, the impulse to impose improved exercise regimes, implement healthier diets, and establish goals for productivity, self-discovery, and spirituality in the coming year and decade. However, barely three days into 2020, I felt jolted out of my quixotic goal-setting by the flood of startling headlines concerning the United States and Iran. Before processing my own shock at the news of the attack, vehement political attacks and grotesquely satirical memes captioned with #WorldWar3 overran my social media feeds and text messages. I marveled that, after a mere week’s worth of time removed from the start of the decade, my country seemed to be teetering again on the edge of another dangerous and ominous global conflict. On a broader scale, I felt reawakened to the grim fact that that the America I’ve known since birth has never existed unaccompanied by some form of violence, war, or geopolitical combat with another nation, nor have mainstream American ideologies, practices, or communities ever been untethered to some sort of combative comparison against another culture or country. Now before I write further, I want to emphatically state that this post is not a commentary or analysis of the conflict at hand nor an attempt to make a political point. I will not speak directly on the particular circumstances between the United States and Iran due to my lack of detailed knowledge and expertise on the matter. Rather, I’m writing this post as a reflection on how the tumultuous first days of the upcoming ten years have reshaped my understanding of America itself, as well as the ways in which I aim to think, read, and write about America in the future. I’ll specifically discuss how wider and more willing adoption of transnational methodologies and culturally interconnective approaches both in American Studies and in the humanities broadly can help prevent wars and conflicts like those brewing today and generate greater global compassion. For me, the alarming start of the 2020s has reinforced the essentiality of transnational methodologies and hermeneutic approaches in academic study of America. In 2004, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, then the president of the American Studies Association, gave an address titled, “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies.” During her talk she asks the question, “What would the field of American studies look like if the transnational rather than the national were at its center?”[1] Since Fishkin’s address, scholars across the humanities have produced a vast array of answers to this question by pursuing “fresh syntheses and connections” between American and non-American cultures, languages, histories, and literatures. More and more, “comparative, collaborative, border-crossing research” is reassessing the inherent complexities, hypocrisies, and potentialities of America.[2] As I compare the growing prominence of these methodologies in the humanities today with what I’ve been reading, hearing, and worrying about in the news, I’ve felt an increased resolve to embrace this scholarly attitude in the day-to-day practice and experience of being an American. I wonder whether Americans might, to revise Fishkin’s words slightly, construct a more enriching, empathetic, and peaceful America if we would more often consider how outsiders view the world and our own nation. Might we, with some modifying of Fishkin’s wording, ask the question, “What would America look like if the transnational rather than the national were more centered in our day-to-day behaviors, politics, and relationships?” I deeply treasure...

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