Author: Brianne Jaquette

Mini-Post on Amelia Morris’ Bon Appetempt


I picked up Bon Appetempt by Amelia Morris because of a Year in Reading post by Tess Malone on The Millions. I don’t actually know why I decided to look that book up rather than the other ones in Malone’s post. It could have been when Malone described the book as being about “owning up to your own failures” but honestly, I think it might have been the pretty cover. Regardless, I was pleased to read that Morris had grown up in western Pennsylvania. When you come from a place that doesn’t feel like it is represented in print that much, it is pleasant just to be familiar with the places discussed. Although we both went to high school in suburban Pittsburgh and I think are pretty similar in age, our upbringings and our relationships to our families don’t have that much in common. I related more (not that a book has to be relatable) to her desire as an adult to be creative and have concrete evidence of her creative endeavors. She explains how she started her blog, the titular Bon Appetempt, to show “the inherent ridiculousness of the faux perfection found in food magazines.” But she also started the blog as a way to have a designated and structured space to write and show evidence of her writing. She writes about sending out a draft of a novel and waiting to hear from agents. Morris says, “All summer long, my life had the potential to change, just like that.” But her life was already changing, because she was steadily working on her writing in the form of Bon Appetempt. What I found appealing about her description of her writing is a variation on “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” but Morris gets the reader to that feeling much more eloquently than that cliche can.


The Spaces of Gentrification and August Wilson



ECU Archives via Eat That, Read This

As Pittsburgh is officially anointed a cool place, new residents, new construction, and new revitalization projects begin to dot the landscape. Many of these changes are thrilling for Pittsburghers and citizens across the region. However, not all of these changes are positive and the negative impacts are shouldered by specific neighborhoods with large populations of people of color. When reading and thinking about these changes in the city, I have turned to August Wilson’s texts which can help us understand the consequences of disenfranchising neighborhoods by showing the impacts marginalization has on individuals in specific communities.

Much of the current discussion about changes in the city centers on East Liberty. As the Post-Gazette has reported for a few years, the real estate costs in East Liberty and surrounding areas are increasing. These higher costs are associated with the movement of tech companies, like Google, into the area. In 2015, the Black Homes Matter booklet documented the effects this has had on residents pushed out of East Liberty. Former resident Aaron Vire says that his family moved to Millville for affordable housing. Now, he laments, “I had to buy a car to commute back here to my job, and then I had to take another job to pay for the car. I work 48 hours at one job, 32 at the other. I get very little sleep. And I miss my neighborhood.” Other residents being forced out of the area include those living in Penn Plaza Apartments. Like Vire, many of the residents are finding it difficult to move and stay in the same neighborhood because of the rising costs in the community.

There is growing concern that such developments will exacerbate not only income inequality but also racial segregation in the city. As Damon Young points out in a recent piece—told through his relationship with his barber—the growth in East Liberty  “coincid[ed] with a radical racial demographic shift.” When discussing the architecture of the Penn Plaza Apartments, John Conti notes that the new residents will be “almost surely be white, younger and wealthier” than the current residents.

The worries about the changing demographics of specific neighborhoods is tied to the lack of diversity in the city itself. The 2016 “Pittsburgh Regional Diversity Survey” provides a glimpse of the situation facing people of color. The survey found that “79 percent of whites feel the region embraces racial and ethnic minorities.” Unfortunately, only “41 percent of minorities” answered in a similar way (5). The African-Americans surveyed were the “least likely to feel the region and their workplace are very diverse and to feel welcome in the community” (11). The survey results showcase issues that will be exacerbated if the city continues encouraging heedless development.

Following this news in Pittsburgh, I found myself wondering about how August Wilson would represent this time in the city’s history. Wilson so astutely noted the forces of change in the city and how those changes affected African American communities. Just as East Liberty becomes a microcosm for the current state of the city, Wilson writes about change by focusing on the small—small neighborhoods and small community networks. The larger historical forces changing the city and impacting the character’s lives are in the background of his tight focus, which is largely on areas in the Hill District.

Wilson cannot write us a new play to comment on this time in Pittsburgh’s history, but his past work can serve as a reminder of what transformation without progress looks like.

Picture1Wilson’s plays demonstrate the consequences of thoughtless change and illustrate how Pittsburgh has a history of pushing vulnerable citizens to the margins. In the stage directions for Fences, Wilson writes about the African Americans moving north during the Great Migration. He says of the reception that they found in Pittsburgh, “the city rejected them and they fled and settled along the riverbanks and under bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses.” Right before this passage, Wilson describes how the city embraced the immigrants of Europe and allowed them to capitalize on the dreams that they “dared.” For African Americans in Fences, their dreams are harder to see and achieve because of the spaces the city has allowed them to exist in. The characters in Fences struggle to assert themselves in a place where they are constantly reminded of boundaries and limitations.

The idea of “fences”—what fences keep in and what they keep out—is the central throughline of the play. The main characters are building a fence to encompass their yard, but in most instances throughout the play, they are subject to fences that are not of their own making. Troy, the protagonist, started his baseball career at a late age because he spent time in prison. Troy’s wife, Rose, cannot keep him from cheating on her and cannot mend his relationship with his children no matter how hard she tries to get a fence built to box them all in. Cory, Rose and Troy’s son, is forced out of his parents’ house, and Troy makes it clear that Cory is not welcome back by placing his belongings on the other side of the fence.

Everyone in the play is trying to negotiate what occurs in their space. Space becomes a marker for what is happening in their lives. If you cannot control your own space—if you cannot take literal or figurative ownership of the space you are afforded—then you face a more precarious future.


In Two Trains Running, set in the decade after Fences, the focus is on a small restaurant run by the character Memphis. The restaurant is the center of the action in the play. All of the characters are shaped by their interactions with each other in that small space. It is in the restaurant, for example, that Sterling, recently released from prison, reconnects with his childhood playmate, Risa. He is scarred from his time in prison, and she has scarred her legs to keep men away from her. But regardless of these scars, they share a moment of passion and connection while dancing to Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look.” This moment perfectly encapsulates Wilson’s ability to focus on the small moments while connecting them to much larger cultural currents.

Memphis’ restaurant is soon to close because of larger forces. The city plans to take over the block the restaurant is on. As the city begins buying up property on the block, West, a neighboring businessman, tries to purchase the restaurant from Memphis, but Memphis is determined to hold out and get a fair price for his restaurant. Memphis’ plans for what he will do with the money involve going back to the south from which he was forced to leave. Memphis is determined that he will go back and reclaim the land he was run off of. He says, “I’m going back to Jackson and see Stovall. If he ain’t there, then I’m gonna see his son…I’m going on back up to Jackson and pick up the ball.” After his trip to Jackson, Memphis plans to come back to Pittsburgh where he is “gonna open me up a big restaurant right down there on Centre Avenue.” Memphis’ words are hopeful, yet he also repeats “if I get back” every time he says what he is going to do “when I come back.” Memphis has a plan, knows the perilous nature of that plan, and is proceeding because he believes in what is owed him. Here, Wilson shows us resilience in the face of circumstances that give the characters few choices.

Wilson writes about African Americans who have made space for themselves as they are continually pushed into corners of the city. He wrote from personal experience of the city, and the current experiences of many in Pittsburgh echo Wilson’s sentiments. Connecting Wilson’s texts to the present conversations about gentrification illustrates how long and deep these discussions go in Pittsburgh and gives us a jumping off point to ask if we can do better. Does the city have, as Nick Coles asks, “the courage to implement equitable development”?

While Mayor Bill Peduto  gets so-so reviews on affordable housing, there has been a lot of activism and attention around these housing issues in recent months and some positive news is slowly trickling out. For instance, Diana Nelson Jones reported on nonprofit and corporate work to protect fair housing prices in Lawrenceville, Oakland, and East Liberty. If Pittsburgh is going to be a #livablecity that thrives, access to affordable housing needs to be an issue addressed now and going forward. To continue in this manner regard should be given to voices like Wilson’s. While he is writing about fictional characters, he is also writing the history of his city, and he encapsulates how devastating destruction of communities through discrimination and development can be. If we listen to Wilson, sustainable development in the city will be more of the norm and less of the exception.










Bill Nye—Not the Science Guy

If you mention the name Bill Nye today, you are probably talking about the science guy. However, there was another exceptional Bill Nye in American history. Nineteenth-century humorist Bill Nye was celebrated in his lifetime for his humor writing and his live tours. While he is not wLaramieBoomerangLogoell-known today, he had a large impact on humor in the nineteenth century. Nye was a prolific writer and according to Bill Kesterson, “rivaled Mark Twain for preeminence among America’s literary comedians” (9). Nye was born in Maine, grew up in Wisconsin, and was most famous for his time in Laramie, Wyoming (9). Nye was the first editor of the newspaper, the Laramie Boomerang, which he named after his mule. It was his humor columns in the Boomerang that brought him to national attention as a humorist. While he was successful in Laramie, he left the harsh climate for health reasons; his health issues would continue to plague him until his death at the age of forty-five in 1896. Even though his health was unreliable, he still maintained his status as a distinguished and popular writer over the course of his lifetime and was also celebrated for his lecture tours with James Whitcomb Riley.

There are a lot of reasons to be interested in Bill Nye, but one of the aspects of his writing that strikes me is the way that he included his audience in the construction of his quips and jokes. This is also why his humor works so well today; many of the jokes in his columns are not specifically topical but are about language and how skillfully he plays with language. In newspaper columns in the Pittsburg Dispatch that I have studied in my work, Nye does not treat his audience as if they are distant from him. He includes his audience in his understanding of writing and shows them how he plays with language to entertain them. In specific columns, Nye uses literary language and draws attention to his own act of writing in order to acknowledge that he and his readers share a common culture of reading and writing.

Nye relates to his readers by discussing the work of writing his columns and drawing attention to his own writing. When Nye makes fun of his own literary endeavors or calls attention to the act of writing, he is including his audience in his authorial experience and validating their participation in the same print culture that he is a part of. Nye does this by repeatedly gesturing toward his own act of writing and making jokes about language to let his readers understand his writing process. He gives his readers access to the way his writing works and provides them information about how and why he decides to write what he does. On a trip to Niagara Falls, he writes, “I went there thinking that if the falls really deserved scathing I would scathe them through the press and inquire their business, but I must say. . . they deserve their great success” (“Nye Nigh to Niagara”). Nye refers to his own acts of writing about the reputation of the falls not only to make a joke but also to include his readers in his print culture community. He does not just write of his experiences with the falls or write about what he saw on his trip to Niagara. He explains to his readers how his column came to be and how his plans for writing were thwarted by the true beauty of the falls.

Nye calls attention to the way he uses language to construct jokes and showcases his dexterity with language to his readers. When Nye was in Niagara to see the falls, he told one of his friends that when he went there he “was going over the falls and through the whirlpool.” His friend was worried for him until Nye told him that he “meant to be figurative.” He is including his readership in this joke at his friend’s expense; this illustrates how he views his relation to his readership as being communal. He also shows connections among him and his readers by using the repetition of language. Nye writes that what people expect to find in the American west is places that are “oh! So crude, and oh! So coarse.” Instead of leaving it at that and letting “coarse” stand as a way to make fun of the west, Nye follows this statement by using the same word to apply to the east. He writes later in the article that “when you come West you lose that cool, cultivated look of refined vacuity which we of the East constantly dote on.” Westerners do not like that look in easterners because it is “real coarse.” Nye repeats the word, “coarse,” to illustrate through humor that makes fun of both the east and the west that his readership shares the word “coarse.” Nye’s language choices bring all of his readers together into a shared space of print culture.

Nye’s jokes about language and his references to his own writing might seem like they could alienate his readers because he is often showing his own skill. However, Nye was writing at a time in the late nineteenth century when print was expanding and more and more people were participating in print culture. Carl Kaestle and Janice Radway write in Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940 that starting in 1880 and through 1940 “print circulated faster, more widely, and more effectively” than it had previously (535). They continue on to say that during this time “virtually anyone with an idea, point of view, aim, desire, or intention had to engage within its precincts” (535). Nye’s readers would have been participants in the developing print culture. Just as he was inviting them to experience different places with him, he was also letting them see his writing practices and letting them share his acts of writing. He used his writing to help readers understand themselves as part of a community of readers.

Nye’s work demonstrates that print culture in the nineteenth century circulated in a system where readers and writers in various places were influencing each other and influencing the products of print culture. He also showcases not only how influential now long forgotten writers have been but also why it is useful to reclaim such writers from the past.

Emily Dickinson, Flowers, and the Foreign

4184485 copyThis piece by Shelley Nituama on the EDSITEment! page at the NEH about using Emily Dickinson’s relationship to flowers to teach her poetry points out how sending and giving flowers were forms of communication for Dickinson and her peers. I have been interested in this connection formed through nature for Dickinson for a while and have specifically explored how for Dickinson elements of nature are conduits to explore foreign places.

One of my favorite examples of this idea that a piece of nature can act as a way to imagine a foreign place that one has not personally traveled is from a letter Dickinson wrote to Elizabeth Holland. Dickinson described the feeling of being in a faraway place that she achieved through the flowers she cultivated. In this letter Dickinson wrote about the foreign flowers she had in her conservatory. Dickinson wrote, “My flowers are near and foreign, and I have but to cross the floor to stand in the Spice Isles” (L315). She was suggesting that having access to these flowers erased the distance between her location in her Amherst home and the Spice Isles. Dickinson did not write that she felt as if or thought that she was in the Spice Isles; she was “in” the Isles.  The flowers were her main connection to this other place; she used the flowers to transcend her local environment and experience a place she could not have contact with otherwise.

Dickinson’s poem, “Between My Country—and the Others—” illustrates quite explicitly how Dickinson uses nature to imagine moving from one place to another. The poem reads in full:

Between My Country – and the Others –
There is a Sea –
But Flowers – negotiate between us –
As Ministry. (Fr 829)

The short poem moves very quickly between two disparate places—“My Country” and “the Others” (364). The sea acts as the barrier between the two places. The speaker will not be moving from “my country” to access other places. The barrier is set; however, the speaker has the advantage that the flowers will communicate between the two places for the speaker. And the flowers will not just be the receptacles of messages. They will minister; they will aid the speaker in communicating with people in the other countries. Communication from these places cannot take place without flowers to act as a channel for the stationary speaker. The speaker wants access to all of these places but will never visit them, and therefore needs to have a messenger to act as a communicator.

A further illustration of nature traveling around the world for a speaker is “As if some little Artic flower,” which shows that interpretative power provided to the poet and her speakers through nature. This poem imagines a flower from the Artic traveling around the globe:

As if some little Arctic flower
Upon the polar hem –
Went wandering down the Latitudes
Until it puzzled came
To continents of summer –
To firmaments of sun –
To strange, bright crowds of flowers –
And birds, of foreign tongue!
I say, As if this little flower
To Eden, wandered in –
What then? Why nothing,
Only, your inference therefrom! (Fr 177)

The poem asks an important question: “What then?” about the results of the traveling flower’s journey. To describe the flower’s journey, the poem uses the conditional “if” to highlight the fact that the Artic flower cannot really travel around the world. The journey being real or not is not of consequence in face of the larger question about what it means to imagine this kind of journey. The turn at the end of the poem makes the point that the interpretation of the journey can take place regardless of if this journey could, would, or did occur.  The last two lines of the poem conclude about the imagined journey: “What then? Why nothing,/Only, your inference therefrom!” (Fr177).  The conclusion drawn from the question, “What then?,” about the significance of the flower’s travels is that the “inference therefrom” is the most important part of the flower’s journey.  In fact, without the “inference therefrom” the answer to the question of “What then?” is “nothing.” Without a person there to imagine, make sense of, and interpret the flower’s journey, the journey has no consequence. But it is not only that the person addressed has the power to interpret the flower’s journey, it is also that regardless of whether this journey is real or not it can be interpreted and that the act itself—a piece of nature traveling around the world—opens up the possibility of interpretation.

As Nituama points out nature is a great way to get students to find avenues into Dickinson. Dickinson’s use of flowers and other forms of nature also provide a means of interpreting how Dickinson thinks through her access to foreign places. The speakers in her poems do not need to take literal trips in order to explore the world. That sentiment is a powerful one for understanding Dickinson and, on a larger scale, for thinking about the interconnectedness of  places and spaces across the world.

Mary Roberts Rinehart and War

On Pitt’s Special Collections blog a few weeks ago they featured translations of novels by Mary Roberts Rinehart. I would say that almost no one currently knows who Mary Roberts Rinehart is, but in the early to mid-twentieth century she was a well-known popular novelist. Her most widely read works were mystery novels, but she wrote in a variety of genres. Legend even has it that Batman was inspired by one of her plays.  There is a really great literary biography of her written by Jan Cohn in the 1980s but that is pretty much the only scholarship out there on her. Therefore, I was glad to see her being covered by the Special Collections blog.

One of the fascinating aspects of Rinehart’s career is the fact that she traveled overseas during World War I to write about the war. She was not trained as a journalist, but she was a popular enough writer that she put pressure on the editor of the Saturday Evening Post and convinced him to send her oversees to report about the war. This was unusual because of her gender, age, and place and position in society. In the literary biography, Cohn writes that the idea that Rinehart would go visit the front was “extraordinary, preposterous” (78).  When the war broke out Rinehart was “thirty-eight years old, married, the mother of three children” (78).  Rinehart, however, was determined and wrote that she did not “‘intend to let the biggest thing in [her] life go by without having been a part of it'”(78). So she did go to the front and wrote dispatches from the front lines which eventually were collected into a nonfiction book, and then later she used her experience to write a novel, The Amazing Interlude,  about a young American who feels called to the Belgian front.

I wrote about Rinehart’s trip to Europe in a paper I wrote for the SSAWW conference in November. The panel was about women writing war a subject I also wrote a little bit about with Shelli Homer for United States Studies Online. Find parts one and two of the posts here and here.

Even though women have written extensively about war and even though more women are writing about direct combat experience, when we talk about war writing we almost exclusively frame the experience in terms of men. An example I used in my paper that Shelli found for the article was a 2014 essay by George Packer for the New Yorker. Packer was specifically interested in the writing of soldiers who had directly experienced war. What a trained eye might quickly notice about this piece is that Packer mentions no women. He does not write about women who served in war, such as Iraqi veteran Kayla Williams, and he does not mention American women writers who couldn’t serve in war but experienced it as war correspondents or volunteers on the front lines.

Rinehart is one of many writers neglected in such formulations.

One of the most intriguing parts of Rinehart’s nonfiction work is when she disrupts her narrative to introduce texts from German soldiers into her writing. For example, she writes of a postcard that she saw from a dead German soldier. It was a card that he had received from his wife, and it had been found on his body after he died. Rinehart quotes the note in full in her text. And then she sums up her feeling about the card and all of the soldiers that left their families to go to war. She writes that she found it all “very tragic and sad and disheartening.” Rinehart spends a fair portion of her narrative trying to report on what she sees rather than commenting on it at length. However, it is after these narrative interruptions where she sums up her general despair about the state of war. She also writes of a German soldier whose journal she read. The soldier died from a shelling in the middle of writing in his journal. Rinehart quotes the section of the journal right before he died. He wrote “The situation here is still all confusion; we cannot think of advancing—.” According to Rinehart that is the last thing that was written in the journal. She quotes these German men not to give a sense of the “other side” or try to remain neutral. Rather the texts from the soldiers disrupt her narrative in a way that echoes her experience of trying to understand the situation and finding no clear narrative in what is happening. She writes that one of her big takeaways from the experience is that “war is a series of incidents with no beginning and no end.” Her narrative without a straight trajectory from start to finish emphasizes her inability to impose an arc on what she is finding and responding to.

In her fiction derived from these same experiences, she creates a much clearer arc from start to finish but still leaves the reader with many gaps and silences that work in a similar way as her nonfiction. For example, she refuses to tell the reader the last name of the main male character because he is a spy who regularly crosses into German territory. It would be too dangerous to reveal such information even though, of course, these details are all made up. The entire novel has a very impressionistic quality. She sketches details and scenes, but leaves the reader to fill in many details that aren’t about the female protagonist, Sara Lee, or the work she is doing feeding soldiers.

Part of the reason for the impressionistic aspects of other parts of the novel is Rinehart’s desire to make Sara Lee her focus. Rinehart writes that the story of Sara Lee is not “a tale of the wounding of men” (63). The novel, in fact, is a lot about wounded men, but what she is suggesting is that the voices that are elevated in her work are ones that are not always heard from in war narratives. The importance of this for Rinehart is not only to represent women’s voices but to also represent how women are shaped by and are shaping experiences of war.

Lee Rumbarger writes about women writing from the home front during war that these tales “insist on women as participants in their time” (4). Rinehart uses her nonfiction and fiction to write both expansively and intimately about war and tells of the expanding spaces that women were presented with because of the war. Rinehart does this in her own narrative and also to an even greater extent in the novel. When the character, Sara Lee, returns back from her trip abroad she finds that she is stifled by the experiences in her hometown, especially the relationship that she has with her fiancé, Harvey. When Sara Lee comes home she has a “terrible feeling of being fastened in” by her life (105). Before she started her journey to the front she had “resigned [herself] to being tucked away in a corner and to having no particular outlook” (4). Sara Lee thrives more when she is at the front serving soup to the Belgian soldiers than she ever did, or ever could have even imagined when she was at home. Sara Lee, in fact, ends the novel by breaking her engagement and returning to Belgium.

As just this bit of evidence shows Rinehart wrote intriguingly about war and her experiences overseas. An exploration and emphasis on Rinehart and this kind of work in war literature will, hopefully, shift the paradigm away from views of war writing which rely on outdated understandings of what it means to write about war.



A Short Note on “The National Labor Tribune”

My journal article on Pittsburgh’s labor newspaper, “The National Labor Tribune,” officially exists. See pictorial evidence!
CPwJ2dVUkAIaJlv.jpg-thumbCPwJ2YoUsAA6RDE.jpg-thumbThis newspaper has been cited a lot as evidence, mostly in works about the history of labor and/or the Homestead Strike, but, as far as I know, this is the first article solely about the “National Labor Tribune.” My article deals with the men who wrote into the paper, but I am working on a presentation for the Society for the Study of American Women Writers right now that does a little more digging into the women who also read and wrote to the paper.

The newspaper is not currently digitized, so one (me) still has to slog through microfilm to do anything with it. I don’t really mind this, but I fear that the fact that this newspaper and many other historical newspapers from Pittsburgh and western PA are not digitized is causing the region to be left out of a lot of scholarship. So much of our research relies on items that have been digitized. And, for example, there is only one Pittsburgh newspaper on “Chronicling America.” This is bad for people who care about Pittsburgh, but it is also detrimental to those studying newspapers and print culture in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. I predominantly have anecdotal evidence right now, but Pittsburghers in the nineteenth century at least liked to talk about how many newspapers and newspaper writers were in the city. Also, the 1880 census shows that Pittsburgh had twice as many newspapers as similar cities of its size. I think there is a lot more to be done on Pittsburgh and newspapers, but the work would come a lot faster if there was more access to historical newspapers online.

Crochet, Creative Outlets, and Academia

None of these people are me. Via looking4poetry.

None of these people are me. Via looking4poetry.

In high school I was a majorette, and while that has little bearing on my life right now, I was reminded of it when I read this recent piece by Anne Curzan on the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the post, Curzan describes the tendency for academics to think they need to limit their outside activities if they want to be considered “serious academics.” Curzan explains what is wrong with this attitude and cautions against perpetuating it. This piece made me pause because I have noticed in the last year or two, as I came out of the tunnel that was my graduate education, that I had slowly lost touch with a lot of the sports and hobbies I used to participate in and enjoy. I was always what we call “a well-rounded individual.” In high school and college, I was involved in academic activities and also played sports and joined lots of clubs. However, if you had asked me a year ago what my hobbies were I would have said, “Uh, hanging out with my cat?” And while my cat is truly excellent, he is not a hobby. It was never a conscious choice to slowly shed my hobbies and many of them I would have outgrown anyway but not having enough ways to channel my energy was draining.

Luckily in my last year of graduate school, I made friends with our department’s fiscal officer, and she taught me and a few other department members how to knit and crochet. I still have only the very basics of knitting down, but I took quickly to crochet. Learning to crochet not only gave me an outlet to expend some energy and enjoy the health benefits you can often achieve from such activities, but it also taught me a lot about my work patterns. I’m not learning how to make things in order to glean lessons about my writing and work habits—that seems to go against the point of having a hobby—but it is an added benefit of having other focuses in my life.

What I have learned most from crocheting is that mistakes are part of the process and that they should be embraced rather than avoided. There is a part of me that wants to get things right the first time—wants to cut the mistakes off before they even happen. This tendency has always been with me, but it has gotten worse as I have gotten older. I was even hesitant to start learning to crochet because I was nervous about being bad at it. Turns out you can’t really be bad at crochet. You can only be where you are and where you want to be. Plus, mistakes are important in handmade goods. It’s okay to make mistakes. It is actually completely necessary to do so. Mistakes can be undone or they can be incorporated, but they are part of what makes working on a project worthwhile. A machine can make something perfect, but it can’t make something handmade.

I made these.

I made these.

If you are working on a crochet project and things aren’t going well, you can start over completely. Or you can pull stitches out and backtrack. Or you can just keep going. This is true of writing and other kinds of intellectual labor too, but working on a crochet project is so much more tangible than writing. Yes, you can see the progress of writing in terms of the words that exist on the page, but you can’t quite hold it in your hands the same way. Each stitch cannot be pulled apart or examined. You can’t take it downstairs and say to another person in the house, “Hey, look at this!” Maybe, we should all start printing out our drafts and making people take stock of them, not for the content on the page but for the fact that we made something that exists.

Bringing something into existence is one of the greatest benefits of a craft project, and another advantage to working on something concrete is that you can see the evidence that you are getting better. There is a steep learning curve at the beginning with crochet and then the progress slows down, but at every step of the way I can see how I am improving. My stitches are more even, and I am much better at actually having the correct number of stitches in the row. Again, I know that I am also always improving my writing skills, but it is hard to see that. The biggest gains I see in my own writing are when I look back at what I wrote years ago. From that perspective, I can see the leaps and bounds I have progressed in terms of organization and style. But I can see the changes in my crochet skills immediately. This helps me remember that with work and patience I am also growing in my writing.

I have also learned some things about my work habits that I need to consider changing from crocheting. For example, I love starting any kind of project. I want to prepare all of my materials and get started on whatever I decide to work on immediately. I will dive into my work and work vigorously on figuring out how to get going on a project. And then, I will stop. I won’t pick up the project for days or weeks or months on end. When I am moved again, I will take up the project in a similar spirit of intensity. I work on projects in very big chunks. For hours on end until my eyes cross, I will labor on a project. I will sit up late at night and stare at the computer screen until I figure things out. This is not to say that I don’t know better. I make my students tackle writing by slowing down their writing process. We plan, we draft, we move methodically from start to finish. I know I should follow this advice, and I am getting better at doing so. But seeing these patterns in places other than my writing has made me want to pay more attention to them in all of my work. It hasn’t really made me realize anything new—I knew these were my tendencies before, but a repetition of the patterns has made me want to learn how to recognize them quicker and find strategies for curtailing them.

Finally, and this is no surprise, but it was important to have it reinforced, taking a break from my work and allowing my thoughts to percolate have made me more creative. There is a lot of information available about how creativity works, but anyone who has had the most brilliant thought pop into their head in the shower, does not need to read the books to know that creativity happens when you are not trying to make it happen. I have been more productive in my writing, since I have found another creative outlet to focus on. I’m very grateful that I have learned to focus on other channels now, before I was completely burned out from writing. What are your hobbies, reclaimed or new, and how do they help you in your professional life?

Teaching without Expending all of your Energy: A Pamphlet

At the end of a long teaching day, I tweeted about needing a pamphlet to learn how not to use all of my energy in the classroom.

I decided to write this pamphlet myself. (Well, this isn’t really a pamphlet, but it seems like the kind of information that could go on one. If someone gives me the budget, I will find some stock photos, print out this blog, and fold it in threes.)

I’m teaching four classes this semester, which is the most I have ever taught, but even when I have taught two, I have had trouble controlling how much energy I expend in the classroom. I don’t use too little energy in the classroom. I use all of my energy for the day. At the end of the teaching day, I can often be found draped over the couch. Feel free to imagine me resting on any of these couches.daybed_web6

My friend, Alison Rutledge, described feeling like a “puddle of goo” at the end of a long day. And, yes, that is exactly it.

Even if we weren’t also trying to be researchers and fulfill service requirements, we would probably not want to spend the early evening hours in a stupor. It shouldn’t be okay to use all of your resources on teaching, so how do we dial it back?

I want to talk about particular strategies I plan to work on in the classroom to combat some of my energy drain, but I don’t want to do so before mentioning gender and emotional labor because they are important factors in these feelings I am observing. First, some of the exhaustion from me and my friends (everyone who responded to me about feeling the same was a woman) stems from the fact that male professors get higher evaluations as a result of being men. At least a part of my extra hustling is to make up for that gap. Of course, men also work hard to be good teachers but starting with a group of students who already assume you have the authority to be doing what you are doing must be just a little less draining. Additionally, many men approach their roles in the classroom differently in terms of how they connect with their students. Women are often viewed as caregivers and nurturers, and this perception acts itself out in the classroom. Students seek their female instructors for different kinds of attention than they do their male instructors. An essay by Holly Ann Larson in the journal Currents in Teaching and Learning illustrates this emotional labor by describing the work of teaching and interacting with community college students. As an example of the energy she spends on her students, Larson details the anxiety of having to telling a struggling student that she cannot turn in a paper late. This example succinctly showcases how much the interactions with her students affect her personally. Larson writes from personal experience but cites other research on this topic, including what is considered the premier scholarship on the issue of emotional labor Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart

It’s important to address these larger issues, but I also want to note some strategies I will do in the short term to save my own classroom energy.

I know a few peo02RBF_COMBO1-master675-v2ple who have a quiet energy that draws people in. This kind of energy can work great in a classroom because it causes students to focus on you. I don’t have that energy; if I am being quiet, I look like Kristen Stewart, January Jones, and Victoria Beckham in these photos. I think they look fine, but we have been taught to read these expressions as “bitch face.” Partially for this reason, I have learned to use a more upbeat energy to engage my students. That energy is something I will maintain, but I am going to work on being quiet more. For me, this will take the form of 1) not over-explaining answers or directions 2) letting student comments sit for a minute before responding 3) generally slow down.

Since I sent that above tweet, I have been observing where my energy goes in the classroom and have noticed that I will over-explain directions or instructions. If my students are looking at me like they don’t understand something, instead of giving them a minute to absorb it, I will launch into several different alternate explanations for it. I think that this is helpful but honestly it just might be more confusing. A principle from one of the professors in my master’s program should be of use here. I’m not exactly sure if I am getting the phrasing right, but he used to say that he believed in “embracing the pause” in the classroom. He was specifically referring to the pause between questions that are asked of students and the time that the first person begins to answer it. I would like to apply this concept more broadly and use the pause to slow down the pace of my classroom a bit. I will also try to talk slower. I talk fast and move fast. Yes, I am one of those people that passes other people on the sidewalk. Just being more conscious of the pace of my talking will help expend less energy and probably lead to my students also following me a bit more. If I can maintain it, it looks to be a win-win for everyone.

Those are my energy-related ideas. I will let you know how well I follow through with them. What is your advice for yourself for better managing your emotional resources in the classroom?

“Lyric Facts,” Pittsburgh Writers, and Richard Realf

I wrote in my bio recently that I am interested in Pittsburgh writers, but I am not sure that I am because I am not sure that it is a thing. Can we define writing from a place? Could the totality of what has been written from or about the city of Pittsburgh be described with a label? Probably not. But we have to have ways to talk about what we are designating, so I’m interested in Pittsburgh writers.

The most predominant theme that I have outlined in literature about Pittsburgh is work. I touched on this idea a little bit in a piece I wrote for Belt Magazine, but it is one that I keep returning to over and over again as I think about writing from Pittsburgh. This is a theme that I have seen in newspaper writing from the nineteenth century and more contemporary writing of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From steel mills to the intellectual labor of professors, work comes to define the way that Pittsburghers not only organize their lives but also understand themselves.

Work, of course, defines a lot of people’s lives. Is it special in Pittsburgh? I have thought about this a lot, and I can’t say that I have a definitive answer. As Americans are known for being workaholics, can I really say that this is a defining principle of only Pittsburgh? Probably not, but I can say that work is not only a theme in Pittsburgh writing, but it also becomes the impetus for creative energy in the work. While work might be common to a vast majority of people, I see in Pittsburgh writing a direct link between labor and creative endeavors. One of my favorite examples that provides a blueprint for how this works is Richard Realf’s poem, “The Hymn of Pittsburg.”

Richard Realf via Kansas Historical Society

Richard Realf via Kansas Historical Society

You have probably never heard of Realf, but he was a minor literary figure in the nineteenth century. He was best known for being friends with John Brown; he also had a series of marriages that were various degrees of lawful and committed suicide in California in 1878. He lived in Pittsburgh for several years before his death and wrote the “Hymn of Pittsburg,” which encapsulates how centrally Pittsburgh was tied to the industries that dotted its rivers. The poem reads in full:

My father was a mighty Vulcan;
I am Smith of the land and sea;
The cunning spirit of Tubal-Cain
Came with my marrow to me,
I think great thoughts, strong-winged with steel,
I coin vast iron acts,
And orb the impalpable dreams of seers
Into comely, lyric facts.

I am Monarch of all the Forges,
I have solved the riddle of fire,
The Amen of Nature to cry of Man,
Answers at my desire,
I search with the subtle soul of flame
The heart of the rocky Earth,
And hot from my anvils the prophecies
Of the miracle-years leap forth.

I am swart with the soots of my furnace,
I drip with the sweats of toil;
My fingers throttle the savage wastes,
I tear the curse from the soil.
I fling the bridges across the gulfs
That hold us from the To-Be,
And build the roads for the bannered march
Of crowned humanity.

Throughout the poem, Realf uses the history of labor and capital in the city to describe its role in an industrializing landscape. Pittsburgh is pitched as a ruling force in industry, a “Monarch,” but the poem is not exclusively about the superiority of Pittsburgh from an industrial perspective. Rather Realf links the production of goods and materials to the development of creative forces. Realf writes from the perspective of Pittsburgh, “I think great thoughts, strong-winged with steel” (142). In this quote, the “thoughts” are fortified by the addition of “steel.” The steel is not an impediment to creation or generation of thoughts; it is what is supporting the thoughts. By the end of the first stanza, the reinforced thoughts have become dreams. Realf writes that in Pittsburgh the “impalpable dreams of seers” are being turned into “comely, lyric facts” (142). To describe “facts” as “comely” or “lyric” defies conventional ideas of what a fact is but in this case it is an appropriate part of the mixing of the elements of industry and poetry. Lyric connotes expression and feeling, which are not things associated with facts, steel, or Pittsburgh. Realf is suggesting that in the facts, in the industry, in the hard-nosed grit of Pittsburgh is expression and beauty. The production of iron and steel and the other industrial aspects of Pittsburgh add to creative acts rather than detract from them.

Pittsburgh in the mid-nineteenth century via Pitt Libraries

Pittsburgh in the mid-nineteenth century via Pitt Libraries

As the poem continues it is industry and labor that produces the progress of, as the poem says, “humanity.” In the second stanza of the poem, the king and monarch imagery continues and so does the idea of Pittsburgh as a revealer of the potential in the natural resources that are used to make industrial products. Once again the poem does not just formulate the usefulness of the labor in terms of production or in the literal terms of the use value of the industry. Here the industrial work results in “prophecies.” The last few lines of this stanza read: “I search with the subtle soul of flame/ The heart of the rocky Earth,/And hot from my anvils the prophecies/Of the miracle-years leap forth”. The “prophecies” come directly from the earth, but they are only brought forth by the “anvils” of the speaker. The labor here gets translated into inspiration; instead of divine inspiration or the prophecy coming from a spiritual source, it comes directly from the earth through industrial labor.

In the last stanza, it is the energy supplied by the labor that becomes the impulse which is thrusting forward the progress of “humanity.” The “I” in the stanza works through amazingly tough physical situations—”soots of my furnace,” “sweats of toil,” and “savage wastes”—but instead of being defeated by or succumbing to the work the “I” “tear[s] the curse from the soil” and “fling[s] the bridges across the gulfs”(142). This work stops the things that “hold us from the To-Be” in order to “build the roads for the bannered march/Of crowned humanity” (142). Pittsburgh is the force that is moving humanity forward. The argument that sets up that claim is not one that might be expected. In order to argue that Pittsburgh is a place for progress one might make the claim that industry moves the country forward, but Realf is making a much more complex and bolder claim that industry produces creativity and inspiration that moves us forward.

What Realf sees in Pittsburgh is what I want to capture when I discuss the literature of Pittsburgh. The literature of Pittsburgh is not monolithic, but it shares a common thread of work and labor and the creative inspiration inspiration of the city comes from that history.