Author Archives: Iris Cushing

The Lesbian Herstory Archives and the surprises of material culture

By: Iris Cushing

This past Monday morning I visited the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I had been wanting to visit the LHA since encountering archive founder Joan Nestle’s writing on queer New York history last summer. The LHA is staffed entirely by volunteers; Kayleigh and Celeste were both there on Monday morning to show me around the space and tell me about how it works.

Founded in 1974 by writer Joan Nestle (whom Jennifer writes about in her previous post), the LHA existed for its first 15 years in Nestle’s Upper West Side apartment. With collectively-raised funds, the LHA was able to purchase a limestone building in Park Slope in 1990 to house its ever-growing holdings. The history of the space itself is fascinating. The ground floor features an extensive library of writing by and about lesbians, women, and a wide spectrum of queer discourses. The second floor contains extensive files about individual lesbians, as well as a materials related to lesbian history based on region and topic. In addition to material holdings, they also have digital audio, video and photo archives. The space is full of framed photos showing lesbian activists over the years, posters, and things like jean jackets bearing loads of buttons and patches–the physical correlates of a vibrant and diverse culture.

One goal I had in visiting the LHA was to see if they had any archival film footage (in any format) of poet Eileen Myles reading her poetry in the 70s, 80s or 90s. Recently I agreed to help a filmmaker named Catherine Pancake locate footage of Myles from this time period; I had found several films online, but wanted to see if there were any undigitized films (on VHS, for example) there at the LHA. Pancake is making a documentary about four New York-based lesbian artists and writers, including Myles and Jibz Cameron, whose recent work I’ve reviewed for Hyperallergic. Participating in Pancake’s material-gathering process for her documentary seems like a good opportunity to get some insight into one of my academic areas of interest: feminist and queer literary communities in postwar America in general, and in New York in particular.

I asked Kayleigh about the possibility of vintage Myles footage at the LHA; she looked Myles’ name up on the LHA’s database, but all that came up were Myles’ books and the biographical file on her. She told me I was welcome to look through the LHA’s VHS collection and see if I could find anything there, but warned me that there the VHS collection had not been organized in any way whatsoever, so it might take a long time. She led me to the kitchen, where the VHS tapes were arranged on a shelf in the corner. There were at least 500 of them, most of them home recordings with handwritten labels. They ranged from recordings of radical women’s collective meetings, to indy films, to DIY tapes of lesbian love scenes collaged together from mainstream movies. It seemed entirely likely that there could be Myles footage in there.

It was at this point that I looked around me and really considered the social and aesthetic nature of the LHA. The kitchen was occupied by a well-used copy machine that appeared to be at least 15 years old, a refrigerator decorated with hand-drawn fliers and rainbow magnets, and a coffee pot ringed with years’ worth of drip coffee. It reminded me, quite movingly, of many of the radical community activist spaces I spent time in on the West Coast: anarchist “infoshops” and feminist bookstores, places with necessarily nonhierarchical power structures and all-donated resources and time. The phenomenon of the LHA struck me as a subject of study unto itself (as, I suppose, all archives are). I felt drawn in by the physical qualities of the space, the smells and the light, the sense of how people have moved through the rooms over the years. It felt very alive and particular, an organic hybrid of library, museum, house, cafe, and something else that I can only describe as a sort of lesbian church.

I elected not to sort through the hundreds of VHS tapes, and headed upstairs to look at the biography files. Both the files and the library are organized by the subject or author’s first name, which I imagine is an anti-patriarchal organizing scheme, although I cannot find any mention of the alphabetizing scheme on the website. The file on Eileen was thick. I plunked down at the long oak table (half-covered with boxes of unsorted papers) and began to read.

The gathering of Myles-related letters, notes, fliers and clippings in the folder felt entirely appropriate both the LHA and to Eileen Myles herself–her poetry and her way of being in the world. Casual, funny, covertly challenging of “normal” social formalities. As I leafed through about a dozen mailed postcard notices for readings, addressed to Joan Nestle and bearing 19-cent stamps, an awesome sense of intimacy opened up. This felt like an archive that could only exist between friends, between living people who knew each other—one whose work is gathered, one who is doing the gathering—as opposed to a preservation of documents and artifacts from the past.


I was also fascinated by the sudden immediacy of the material nature of literary communities as they existed “back then” (in the 80s and 90s, in this case). A poet like Myles would have to send out Xeroxed postcards to people if she was having a reading, or releasing a new book; she would have to make posters to put up in bookstores. It struck me as odd that I had literally never considered the simple material and location-based ways in which literary events were promoted–and literary communities built– before the digital age. In that way, looking at these pieces of paper did feel like making contact with the past.


The majority of the Myles file was devoted to Myles’ 1992 write-in presidential campaign, which I had always known about (she includes it in her brief bio) but never knew the details of. In the chapter on Myles in Maggie Nelson’s Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, Myles is quoted as saying that she talked about the campaign everywhere she went as it was happening, but she did not describe the writing and material-based elements of it. I was delighted to discover that the campaign, which Myles first announced in 1991, was a real grassroots campaign, complete with weekly Xerxoed letters to her constituency, posters, buttons, brochures, and information about rallies to support Myles’ candidacy. The letters include prose paragraphs and poems, and were wonderful to read: details about Myles’ childhood in Boston, her views on housing issues and homelessness, her claim that as a marginalized and poor person, she represents “the average American” more accurately than Bill Clinton or George Bush. It was wild to encounter a poet’s presidential campaign materials. To me, they are documents of a singularly unique literary project, almost a piece of performance art: joking but serious, propagandizing but also entirely liberating.


Before leaving, I decided to take a quick look at the “Regional” archives, a collection of sundry lesbiana organized by states within the US and by country. I took out the file for Arizona, where I used to live. The American Southwest, in my experience, is a site of both vehement homophobia AND radical queer countercultures (and everything in between); I was curious what kind of documentation of lesbian culture I would find in this file. There were things like brochures for women’s circles in Tucscon, newspapers about AIDS activism, posters for the first Gay Pride March in Phoenix. But what really blew my mind were the numerous newsletters and print ephemera about the lesbian rodeo scene in Arizona in the 80s and 90s. I had never imagined that lesbian rodeo riders existed, let alone a whole subculture devoted to promoting them and the culture (bars, dances, concerts, gatherings) surrounding them. Reading about these riders, their occupation of a historically very patriarchal space, resonated beautifully with the uncannily performative aspects of Myles’ presidential campaign. I ended up looking at that stuff until the LHA had to close for the day.


These encounters with the material traces of lesbian literary and social histories were tremendously eye-opening to me. I am looking forward to returning to the LHA, perhaps with the sole intention of sorting through those VHS tapes.

Thoughts on texts, authors and word-communities

Planned Obsolecence articulates much of the anxiety about the various shifts from print to digital culture that I’ve felt for years, but not really been able to put my finger on. In reading the chapters on Authorship (2) and the nature of Texts (3), I found myself really excited about Fitzpatrick’s readings of poststructuralism, the ways authors have been constructed historically, and the various ways that readers engage with texts; specifically, I am curious about how the ideas that she posits here for academic communities play out in contemporary poetry communities (with which I am much more familiar). Fitzpatrick’s examination of “the cultural significance of the ways in which we use [our tools]” (p. 60) —we being academic scholars and the tools being the spectrum of print and digital–helps me think in a larger sense about the nature of the interactions that shape the poetry communities I’ve studied and participated in. This is pretty wonderful for me, because the formation of literary community is something that I know I want to focus on in-depth during the course of my studies here.

There were a few particular instances of resonance between Fitzpatrick’s ideas about  publishing (print or digital) and knowledge production, and my own experiences as a maker and participant in the reading, writing and publishing of poetry and its attendant discourses. One was on page 57, where she talks about “the fear of loss of community” that online publishing engenders. She suggests that this fear may not be one of a loss of community, but rather “the loss of individuality, revealed in the assumption that ‘coherent imagined selves’ require separation rather than interconnection to be thought coherent…” This put me in mind of the intense interdependence between reader and writer that I see happening in most poetry communities, and, I would argue, in New York in particular, where people are already very interdependent with each other when it comes to social, economic, and municipal needs. There is a sort of necessary blurring that happens between poets and readers, poets and editors/publishers, even poets and institutions; often the same people play all of the different roles, and one’s identity (or individuality) is intimately linked to this multiplicity. I wondered, how are scholarly communities different from this (roughly-described) model? What are the ways in which the rise of digital culture has transformed poetry communities?

Another instance: in the chapter on Texts, Fitzpatrick writes about the various ways in which people encounter texts, as readers and as commenters/reviewers/editors, and advocates for “a more communicative sense of interaction across texts.” This got me thinking about all of the various ways, as a poet and thinker, that I interact with texts; I suppose I take them for granted. The question of “generativity”–how reading a text generates writing by making you want to write–is one that I think carries over between “creative” and “academic” writing. This chapter got me interested in being more attentive to the ways that different modes (print, digital, audio, etc.) enact generativity for myself and others. For example, I have listened to audio recordings of poetry readings for years and found them amazingly generative; could the same be true of audio recordings of (really juicy, intellectually exciting) academic prose? What are the various ways in which this generativity is shared? Rather than “keeping” the writing I generate after reading something, how could I have this writing be more in-dialouge with what I’ve been reading?  I am grateful to Kathleen Fitzpatrick for giving me access to these questions. I found her book itself pretty damn generative.

Annotated Bibliography: Sontag’s aphorisms, public and private

By: Iris Cushing

I am using this annotated bibliography assignment as a way to gather materials for a paper I’m working on for our Postwar Women Writers and Intellectuals course. The paper looks at two texts of Susan Sontag’s: her iconic collection of essays, Against Interpretation, published in 1966 (and consisting of writing she’d been making for the previous seven years); and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963, edited by her son David Rieff. I’d like to take a look at what Sontag was writing privately in the years she was writing Against Interpretation,  and how the formation of her signature aphoristic style emerged in her journals and in her responses to the literature and art she was exposed to at that time. Specifically, I would like to trace the influence of French cinema, theory and philosophy on the development of Sontag’s unique style of writing and thinking. I am approaching this bibliography as an opportunity to gather a wide swath of materials, the study of which will certainly lead to a narrower scope in terms of the what information I’ll use. ~Iris

Berman, Jeffrey. Dying in Character: Memoirs on the End of Life. Amherst: University of Massachussets Press, 2013. Print.

Jeffrey Berman is a Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University of Albany, and has authored numerous books around the themes of grief and loss as they relate to literary figures. Chapter 5 of this book is titled  “I Have Never Been Tempted to Write about my own life”: Susan Sontag, David Rieff, and Swimming in A Sea of Death. The title referred to here is Sontag’s son’s memoir about his mother’s 2004 death from cancer. The chapter deals with Sontag’s extreme (and well-known) reticence about exposing any details of her private life, which Reiff had to face in his decision to publish Reborn and the subsequent volume of Sontag’s journals, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. Since Reiff was small child being raised by Sontag at the time she was writing Against Interpretation, his perspectives on his mother’s life will be useful to me. I am interested in Berman’s analysis of Reiff and Sontag’s relationship in the context of other literary life writing by critics and theorists, such as Roland Barthes and Edward Said.

Ching, Barbara, and Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer A, eds. Scandal of Susan Sontag. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 October 2014.

Barbara Ching, a contemporary culture scholar and associate professor of English at the Univerisity of Memphis, co-edited this book of essays on Sontag with Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor, an associate professor of women’s studies and English at Penn State University. This book, published at exactly the same time as Sontag’s journals (October 2009), compiles critical essays by scholars on Sontag’s life, writings and greater influences. Both Terry Castle’s essay on “Notes on Camp” and Jay Prosser’s essay on Against Interpretation and the Illness books (Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors) address questions of Sontag as a public intellectual in the early 1960s; I am interested in comparing those analyses of Sontag with what emerges in her private writing. Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay in the book takes up her aphoristic writing style and its evolution over the course of her writing career.

Kaplan, Alice Yeager. Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis. Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press, 2012. Print.

In this book, Alice Yeager Kaplan, the John M. Musser Professor of French and chair of the Department of French at Yale University, takes up three iconic American women’s experiences living in Paris in the Sixties. As far as Sontag is concerned, this book covers the time spent in Paris, as she was doing graduate work in Philosophy at Oxford,  that she writes about in Reborn; Paris was, naturally, the site of much of Sontag’s discovery of the French theory, literature and cinema that she writes about in Against Interpretation. I am especially interested in Kaplan’s analysis of the perspective that Paris offered Sontag on New York (and America in general).

Lopate, Phillip. Notes on Sontag. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. Print.

This book, by well-known critic, essayist, writer (and fellow public intellectual) Phillip Lopate, uses both Lopate’s personal encounters with Sontag and an in-depth biographical study to examine Sontag’s ongoing influence on cultural criticism since the 1960s. I am interested in Lopate’s analysis of Sontag’s “taste for aphorism” in her writing, as well as his anecdotes about meeting her in the time she was writing Against Interpretation (and keeping the journals published as Reborn). I am also interested in comparing Lopate’s thoughts on Sontag as a person with those of Sigrid Nunez and David Rieff.

Muriel, ou le Temps d’un retour. Dir. Alan Resnais. Perf. Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Kerien, Nita Klein. Argos Films/Arte France Développement, 1963. Film.

This film, directed by French New Wave/Left Bank director Alan Resnais, is one of the numerous films that Sontag–a notorious Francophile–wrote about in Against Interpretation. It was Resnais’ third film, after Hiroshima, Mon Amour and L’Année dernière à Marienbad; Sontag cites it as Resnais’ most difficult and complex in terms of its attempt to combine what his previous films had done independently:  “deal with substantive issues” (the Algerian war among them) as well as “attempt to project a purely abstract drama.” This film in its original language will be useful to my project, as it is something that Sontag watched and wrote about in her journal when it was released in 1963. The ambivalence she expresses about it publicly is characteristic of her rhetorical style.

Nunez, Sigrid. Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. New York : Atlas & Co. : Distributed to the trade by W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

This memoir by novelist and professor Sigrid Nunez documents the years she lived with Susan Sontag and her son, David Rieff, whom Nunez was dating. I am interested in Nunez’s take on Sontag as a friend and mentor, as well as how Sontag negotiated the line between public and private writing and thought in the years following the publication of Against Interpretation.

Reiff, David. Swimming in A Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008. Print.

David Rieff, Susan Sontag’s only child, is a political policy analyst, Senior Fellow at the New School for Social Research’s World Policy Institute, and a Fellow at NYU’s New York Institute for the Humanities.

Sontag held on to her life until its very end; her tenacity in the face of intense physical suffering (as a result of the blood cancer which led to her death) resonates with her lifelong interest in the various phenomenologies of pain, illness, atrocity, and human rights. I am interested in Rieff’s memoir about her life (and death) primarily because of its portrayal of her encounters with the moral and ethical questions that would guide her thinking and writing at the time she was making Against Interpretation. I am also interested in Rieff’s contentious decision to publish Reborn and As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh after Sontag’s death, considering how notoriously private of a person she was.

Rush, Fred. Review of Notes on Sontag by Phillip Lopate and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Vol. 68 No. 2 Spring 2010. Print.

This article by Fred Rush, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, reviews both Lopate’s memoir about Sontag and Sontag’s journals themselves. It provides a useful comparison between writing about Sontag as a near-mythic public figure and a private, complicated person.

Solway, David. Random Walks: Essays in Elective Criticism. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997. Print.

David Solway is a poet, essayist and professor of English at John Abbot College. In this book’s chapter on Sontag, “Never on Sontag,”  Solway takes up the titular essay in Against Interpretation and examines the rhetorical relationship between the essay’s discrete sections, arriving at the conclusion that the essay’s “intended ideological payload” is “erotics replacing hermaneutics.” I think Solway’s take on Sontag’s use of aphoristic language could contribute meaningfully to my examination of Sontag’s use of aphorism in her “public” published prose.

Sontag, Susan. As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Print.

This is the second edition of Sontag’s journals, tracing the years that include the publication of Against Interpretation and follow the publication of her first novel, The Benefactor. This book is Sontag’s notation of day-to-day life as her lifelong dream of becoming a full-time writer–a dream articulated in great detail in Reborn–was being realized.

Vivre sa vie : film en douze tableaux. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Anna Karina and Sady Rebbot. Panthéon Distribution, 1962. Film.

This film, a lesser-known work by French New Wave Director Jean-Luc Godard, was another that Sontag wrote about in Against Interpretation, calling it “one of the most extraordinary, beautiful, and original works of art that I know of.” This was another film that made a significant impact on her in the time span covered in Reborn. In Against Interpretation, she makes use of a series of numbered propositions to create her critique of Godard’s film, something she does at other points in the book (such as in “Notes on Camp”) and in other forms in her journals. Like Resnais’ Muriel, seeing this film in its original language will give me a sense of the experience Sontag was having at the time she was formulating her style and identity as a writer.

State of the Field: American Postwar Poetry and Poetics/Queer and Feminist Theory

By: Iris Cushing



This journal publishes a lot of scholarly articles about the 20th-century American poetry tradition I am interesting in, including the New American Poetry. There are essays on Charles Olson, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, etc.

Feminist Review

This journal appears to include scholarship about  feminist literary discourse and is really diverse in terms of time period, genre, language and theory.

Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy

I find this journal’s stated mission of “promoting diversity within feminist philosophy and philosophy in general” really interesting; it seems like it would be a great resource for looking into the relationship between feminist theory and writing and mysticism studies.

Contemporary Literature

MELUS Journal


Among Friends: Engendering the Social Sites of Poetry, ed. Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin

University of Iowa Press, 2013

This was a text that I read and drew upon extensively when putting together my applications for doctoral programs last fall. Many of the essays in it really helped me figure out what I wanted to study and why: for example, Lytle Shaw’s essay on the literary “hippie” culture in 1960s Bolinas, California showed me that Sixties counterculture was something that could be considered critically alongside the literature being produced during that time. The book is based somewhat on various epistemologies of poetic friendship, which I found delightful. As a poet in my own time and place, friendship and affinity are the “currency” that makes my community function. Having a thoughtful articulation of how that has happened in other poets’ places and times was (and is) tremendously useful to me.

Rednecks, Queers and Country Music by Nadine Hubbs

University of California Press, 2014

Critical analyses of “pop” texts (such as the language of Country Western songs) is something I want to get into over the course of my doctoral studies. I am super curious about how music scholar Nadine Hubbs applies queer theory to American country music traditions and culture.

Virgin Microbe: Essays on Dada by David Hopkins and Michael White

Northwestern Press: Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies Series, 2014

The relationship between “the avant-garde and mass culture” that this book addresses is something that seems very relevant to my area of inquiry. I am also curious about the bearing metaphysics has on modernity, which this book also takes up.


Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference

This conference seems to be a space in which I might learn a lot about the intersections of popular culture (music, performance, literature) and traditions associated with the peoples of the American Southwest (especially in my main areas of interest: American mysticism and queer/feminist theory). I used to live in Arizona and have written and thought extensively about the American Southwest; I love the idea of presenting a paper at this conference on some aspect of mystic practice and queer identity (as it emerges, say, in Anges Martin or Georgia O’Keefe’s writings, both of whom were queer and lived in the Southwest).

From this conference’s “About” page: The mission of the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association (SWPACA) is to promote an innovative and nontraditional academic movement in Humanities and Social Sciences celebrating America’s cultural heritages. To provide an outlet for scholars, writers, and others interested in popular/American culture, to share ideas in a professional atmosphere, and to increase awareness and improve public perceptions of America’s cultural traditions and diverse populations.

Conference of the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto

This conference seems to combine theory and philosophy scholarship with literary scholarship. Although I am obviously not in Comp Lit, I would definitely like to make some kind of contact with Asian literature as it relates to Asian spiritual traditions over the course of my career.

Association of Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference:


University of Iowa Press Contemporary North American Poetry Series

I find almost every title in this series incredibly exciting. The scholarly books on the likes of Lorine Neidecker, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Frank O’Hara are all things that I not only should read, I very much want to read. Many of the series’ authors (such as Elizabeth Willis, who wrote the book on Neidecker, or Rachel Blau du Plessis, who wrote the book on “the end of patriarchal poetry”) are also poets. The book that I consider my main impetus and inspiration for applying to doctoral programs, Maggie Nelson’s Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, was published by this series (it was also her dissertation for our very program).

Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series, University of Alabama Press

This series, edited by poet-scholars Charles Bernstein and Hank Lazer, focuses on Postmodern American poetry and includes many titles that I know will be useful to me in the course of my studies (I’m reading one of them right now, Miriam Nichols’ Radical Affections: Essays on the Poetics of Outside, for Ammiel Alcalay’s class). Before checking out their website, I did not know that one of my all-time favorite poets, Harryette Mullen, had published a book of critical prose, and now I am really excited to read it.

Gender and Culture Series, Columbia University Press

This press was founded in 1983, the year of my birth, by feminist scholar-theorists Nancy K. Miller and Carolyn Heilbrun. One of the titles in the series, The Scandal of Susan Sontag, is something that I have read and been informed by in my creative work; the book also helped me formulate where I see myself in relation to feminism, queer studies, and the life of the public intellectual.

Other Press Series: Duke University, The Feminist Press


Penn Humanities Forum at the University of Pennsylvania:

The Penn Humanities Forum is an interdisciplinary organization for humanities scholarship that focuses on a different topic each year. I find the lectures and events offered through this forum really exciting and relevant to my interests for two reasons: first, its engagement with the visual and performing arts. The PHF collaborates with museums, galleries and performing arts organizations ( in addition to bringing in academic scholars) for its event series. Second, I find many of the topics that have been explored since the PHF’s inception in 1999 incredibly exciting and resonant with the scholarly work I’d like to do (such as Style, Change, Virtuality, Violence, Word and Image). (The list of topics by year can be seen here:

Critical Encounters Series at Princeton University:

This interdisciplinary speaker series incorporates poets, historical reenactment theatre, film studies, and feminist theory, among many other diverse and fascinating areas of discourse. I am especially thrilled by the event that focused on Chang and Eng Bunker (the original “Siamese Twins”) and on the film Lovelace (about the relationship between feminism and porn). This seems like a rich and boundary-pushing series.

Lecture Series at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas, Austin:

This series brings in speakers whose work I find fascinating and important to my area of inquiry. I see that Rebecca Solnit is speaking there on November 7th; Solnit’s writings about the American West, the ethics of representation, political activism and feminist discourse have been a huge source of inspiration to me for years. Like the other series above, this one is interdisciplinary, bringing in film critics, poets, and artists. I also see that the Lecture Series is related to other events held at the Ransom Center (film screenings, readings and discussions).


University of California at Berkeley’s English Department Blog:

This blog of Cal’s English department has a number of interesting sections (such as one on literary archives and one of theatre criticism, both of which I am interested in engaging over the course of my studies). It also is searchable by keyword, has an event listing page, and a section of “Grad Notes” which lists accomplishments and news for graduates of the program. This last section was especially useful to me in looking for conferences and journals that other scholars have made contact with.

Ron Silliman’s Blog on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics:

This is a wonderful resource for all things having to do with contemporary American poetry, as well as critical writing about the Language Poets and New American Poetry.

Arcade (a Humanities Salon) at Stanford University:


Judith Butler: @JudithButler_

Margaret Galvan: @magdor

Kaplan Harris: @narrative

Julia Bloch: @julivox

Ron Silliman: @ronsilliman







Thoughts on Underwood, etymology, Comp and Adrienne Rich

This week’s reading (of Underwood) and discussion (of Graff and Comp) has sent me back to one of our own CUNY Lost and Found Initiative chapbooks, Adrienne Rich’s ” ‘What We Are Part Of’: Teaching at CUNY 1968-1974 (Parts I and II).” These little books trace Rich’s correspondence and notes around her pedagogy in teaching in CUNY’s SEEK program, described in the book’s introduction as “a result of the efforts of social activists and progressive politicians whose vision was to provide access to CUNY for poor students, then largely African-American and Puerto Rican, who graduated from high schools that had not prepared them for the rigors of college.” In a 1968 letter about her teaching to CCNY Pre-Bac Program director Mina Shaughnessy, Rich asks,

I meant to ask also about direct vocabulary work. Have people been telling students to look up words they don’t understand, and raise questions about them in class if the dictionary definition doesn’t satisfy? (As it won’t, in poems, of course.) How much stress on this is necessary? I’ve always been lazy about using the dictionary myself, words exist for me extremely contextually. But it seems to me that an active energetic vocabulary is important–more so–than the grammar. Has anyone tried doing a little with etymology?

It was Underwood’s section “Better Writing Through Etymology” that put me in mind of this question of Rich’s; the emphasis on etymology as a means of improving students’ skill as writers in pre-1840s literature pedagogy that he writes about surprised me, and I found myself curious if or how that emphasis still resonates in more recent times. I am used to thinking of etymology as a specialized, borderline-philosophical concern, the purview of linguists and poets. Its place in a Comp classroom (which Rich inquires about) seems hard to imagine, to me. But reading this part of the history of English literature pedagogy, I get a sense of the sheer diversity of relationships, over the centuries, between the teaching of etymology and radical, anti-oppressive teaching practices. I found myself reading really attentively for overlaps between the ideas of, say, teacher-activist John Horne Tooke and teacher-activist Rich, in entirely different centuries and contexts.

Shaugnessy wrote back to Rich,

Everyone agrees that vocabulary is terribly important. Students seem to ignore the things that they cannot deal with in words. The problem is how to get genuine vocabulary growth–that is, growth of awareness itself. This involves some kind of change that is difficult to bring about by any of the vocabulary-building methods I have encountered. We had a series of language lectures last semester that covered the history of English, usage, levels, prefixes-suffixes, metaphor, dialect etc. I don’t know what it accomplished–perhaps a sense that words can be the objects of study….slow as it is, I tend to trust the method that keeps the word in its setting, that gives it the special meaning that it gathers from its context (this by discussion, dictionary etc.) and trust that the students, following the same impulse for analogy that has produced his present vocabulary, will know where to take it from there.

What interests me is the huge difference between a teacher making use of “the impulse for analogy that has produced [a student’s] present vocabulary” and a teacher using vocabulary and the etymologies of words as ways of shaping a not only a student’s vocabulary, but her speech, writing and thought. I found Underwood’s description of Tooke’s investigation into the etymologies of “law” and “right” on page 89 fascinating, and something that Rich might have done in some form in her own classroom. I also zeroed in on this section of the Rich chapbook because I have almost never seen discussions of how to study individual words and etymologies meaningfully in a writing classroom (Comp or otherwise). I’d love to talk about this, as well as Underwood’s amazing articulation of periodization as an invention for the benefit of England’s middle classes, in class tomorrow!

Lastly and quickly, I am grateful for the illuminating words from Lindsay and Kate around teaching Comp versus teaching literature, and who has historically benefitted from, and been left out by, the teaching of each. Kate’s caution about insulting comp instructors by thinking of Comp as remedial is interesting to me; I have long been curious about the assumption that because of its perhaps-remedial nature, teaching Comp is somehow “easier” or less cool than teaching literature–or Creative Writing, for that matter. If I were to meet a writing professor, say, on an airplane, would I be more impressed if they told me that they taught Comp, or Medieval English Literature? My first instinct is that the latter is more impressive, but in light of what Lindsay wrote in her comments about the dazzling complexity of Comp (as well as what numerous and diverse thinkers have articulated for decades) I believe that addressing the historical, social, racial, and economic rifts in education systems in the alive space of a Comp classroom–while also teaching and engaging students– is very impressive indeed.