Alumnus Highlight: “Why Visit America” author Matthew Baker (’09)

English Department alumnus Matthew Baker (2009) is still on a roll. His new story collection, Why Visit America, was named one of Esquire‘s “20 Must-Read Books of Summer 2020” and received a starred review from Booklist, which wrote: “Bold, captivating, and deeply relevant, Baker’s imaginative stories offer approachable, optimistic perspectives on morally ambiguous topics facing Americans, including what it means to be one nation.” Netflix, Apple, and other studios are reportedly vying for film rights.

Baker was featured in the Tom Andrews Memorial Reading of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series in 2015 and again in 2018. For more about him, see his website and recent interviews in LitPub and Port.

Matthew Baker, 2009 alumnus of the Hope College English Department. Image courtesy of the author.

He shares his thoughts on the Hope College experience and some tips for current English students below:

What are you doing now?

Writing—writing stories, writing novels, writing screenplays—writing basically constantly.

How did your Hope English education shape you?

I’m most grateful for two things: having had the opportunity to volunteer as an editor for Opus, and having had the opportunity to take Modern English Grammar, which at the time was taught by Rhoda Burton. Every writer should take a grammar course and learn how to diagram sentences. I very passionately believe that. You can’t break the rules if you don’t know what the rules are to begin with.

I also did an independent study on graphic novels with Beth Trembley, which had an enormous effect on me as a writer. Curtis Gruenler’s course on the history of the English language was essential. Jack Ridl taught me sage wisdom about poetry. Heather Sellers taught me sage wisdom about fiction. Kathleen Verduin let me sleep in a spare room in her basement one summer when I didn’t have anywhere to live.

Also, Julie Kipp during class once made an offhand remark that films were literature too and that as students of literature all of us had an obligation to study film history (I think she was upset that nobody in the class had ever seen Apocalypse Now) and I actually took that to heart and I did—that summer I rented over a hundred classic films from Van Wylen Library, and I can say that despite being an unofficial assignment, that was probably the most important assignment I was ever given.

What advice would you give to current English majors or students considering an English major?

Read every issue of The Paris Review (which by the way you can read for free at Van Wylen Library) and learn to code.

If you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

Seditious Texts.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.

Anything else to add? 

There are secret tunnels beneath Lubbers Hall, which are worth exploring if you can find a way in.

Why Visit America by Matthew Baker, on sale now. Image courtesy of the author.

You can find more about Matthew Baker here:

Instagram: @mwektaehtabr

Twitter: @mwektaehtabr

“Learn to love, and leave all else”: Piers Plowman and Pandemic

The worst pandemic in European history, the Black Death, helped prepare the way for the first great flourishing of English literature not long after. How the first makers of modern literature responded to the traumas of their time can help us think about how to respond to the pandemic and injustice we continue to face.

Geoffrey Chaucer was a child in 1348-9 when the plague first struck England, killing up to half the people in some towns. His works refer to it obliquely. But his older contemporary, William Langland, confronts “pestilence” directly and implies that it shaped his decision to spend much of his life writing, revising, and expanding the long sequence of dream-visions known as Piers Plowman.

Medieval thinkers, including Langland, understood sickness theoretically as a divine judgment against sin—though the indiscriminate mortality of the Black Death also led them to start looking more at natural causes. The last episode of Piers Plowman, however, presses further into the social and spiritual effects of pestilence. Its satire of corruption seems more prophetic the further we live into our own pandemic. Langland exposes the most insidious dangers of any time of crisis—dangers that keep us from receiving what might be its hidden gifts. 

Langland’s final action begins when the allegorical farm that represents flourishing society, under the spiritual leadership of Piers the Plowman, is attacked by Antichrist. The crop of truth is turned upside-down and its root tilled over. Falsehood springs up instead, gratifying people’s desires. Conscience, left in charge by Piers in his absence, calls together the “fools” who remain faithful and leads them in prayer to Kynde, a name for God as creator of the natural world. Kynde’s response is surprising: pestilence, including the symptoms of plague. When Conscience asks Kynde to stop and see if people will “amend,” the living are instead flattered by their good fortune. Fortune calls in Lechery, followed by Greed.

As our pandemic has begun to abate, we have seen people unsheltering as if fortune has returned. At the same time many others have taken to the streets to draw attention to more persistent social plagues. Langland’s agricultural allegory recalls the imagery of many Gospel parables but emphasizes a view of evil that is not so much personal as systemic. We still face the same evils in new guises, made more apparent by crisis: “post-truth” cynicism, contagious social media, populist demagoguery, flagrant individualism, predatory global capitalism, white privilege.

The situation becomes more personal to Langland’s narrator when Old Age, chasing after Life, runs him over. His wife even rues that “the limb that she loved me for” won’t work “at her will.” As he sees Death draw nigh, he cries out to Kynde for both deliverance and vengeance. “If you want to be avenged,” answers Kynde, “go into Unity…and learn some craft before you come out.” Unity is a barn that stands for a sort of ideal church, which the narrator enters through contrition and confession, the sacramental process of repentance.

Calling this stronghold Unity, however—before the Reformation, when there was only one church in England—suggests a deeper call to conversion. Being in unity requires embracing the fundamental reality of human equality and interdependence. As an answer to a prayer for vengeance, the call to unity and repentance urges reconciliation instead of blame, which requires turning from the desires that put us in rivalry with each other and confronting the injustices that have resulted.

But Unity fails. Here it happens through the undermining of the penitential process, a problem specific to late medieval Christian society. Yet we are familiar with this failure. It still comes from what undermines our own capacity, individually and together, for self-examination and repentance: strong incentives to bend the truth toward our own interests at the expense of others. We now have medical doctors to treat physical illness, but what do we need for what ails us spiritually, what alienates us from one another?

In the poem’s final lines, Conscience, forsaking Unity, resolves to become a pilgrim and seek Piers, who seems here to stand for holiness and wisdom unattached to institutional power structures. Conscience hopes Piers can “destroy pride.” I take this to be not just a personal sin but even more a collective complaisance, a confidence in any human group that sees itself as superior and constitutes itself by exclusion. To find a new unity, we may have to leave the old, or at least be a lot humbler about our communities. To seek Piers is to identify with the excluded.

Langland’s word for this comes earlier when the narrator asks Kynde: “What craft is best to learn?” Kynde replies, “Learn to love, and leave all else.” The current pandemic, by exposing the weaknesses of our society, taking away most of our usual ways of being together, and dramatizing our connectedness and the everyday sacrifices we can make for each other, forces us to be more intentional in loving—to begin again in learning the only craft that matters.

How do we learn? One way is literature itself, stories like Langland’s that aim to be more than entertainment on one hand or moral instruction on the other. Piers Plowman demands a deeper engagement with its enigmas. It pushes language to its limits in the face of mysteries human and divine, especially as known in times of affliction. It uses the literary resources of its time to invite us to imagine, feel, and consider how we love each other—and how we fail to. 

Chaucer would use what he learned from Langland about social satire, perpetual pilgrimage, and genre-crossing stories in an even greater response to the fourteenth century’s series of traumas, The Canterbury Tales. These make for more playful reading during the pandemic, but nothing diagnoses our predicament and points to hope as truly as Piers Plowman.

Centering Black Voices

A book is not enough right now. We need more than a book to recognize, address, and reckon with the violence against Black lives which has long been ignored and normalized. Even so, reading is a place to start and bolster change. Literature aids us in educating ourselves, exercising our imaginations, enacting empathy, dispelling isolation, and providing comfort, discomfort, invigoration, and illumination. 

Reading is not enough. But it is also not nothing. 

This list is a witness to Black experience. The poems, essays, stories, and other texts speak of and to lives that matter. The list is not exhaustive but representative. Please stay tuned for more posts and broader lists addressing literature and race. Until then, members of the English Department offer a book or two (or ten!) to begin exploring the depth, texture, struggle, and courage of our current moment. 


Memoir and Essay

Hunger by Roxane Gay (2018). In the memoir-happy mainstream, this rare, raw portrait of a Black woman coming to terms with her body is as sobering as it is refreshing. One reviewer perfectly describes it as “an intellectually rigorous and deeply moving exploration of the ways in which trauma, stories, desire, language and metaphor shape our experiences and construct our reality” (New York Times). 

There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald (2018) is a story about authenticity and identity, anger and action. Gerald, a young African American gay man who graduates from Yale, writes about issues that are central to America’s current conversation about race, privilege, and politics. The book departs from the usual memoir convention of pinning the narrative on insight and experience that have transformed the author’s life.

Hook: A Memoir by Randall Horton (2015) responds to the idea of the American Dream with a tale of radical self-reinvention. The narrative moves fast among Horton’s different roles: Howard University undergraduate, international cocaine smuggler, addict, felon, scholar, activist, educator, poet. Horton came to Hope as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series in 2018.

The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, by Toni Morrison (2019). Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s last publication before her death collects titles like “Racism and Facism,” “A Race in Mind,” “The Price of Wealth, the Cost of Care,” “The Slave Body and the Black Body,” and “Women, Race, and Memory.” Morrison’s celebrated novels depict Black life during various eras of the African American experience, but these writings show the work of a literary genius when applied to problems of equity in the 21st century.

Fiction

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016). In this novel, you’ll follow two sisters through eight generations from Africa’s Gold Coast to current times in America. In chapters that alternate from sister to sister—one in Ghana and one in the U.S., this unflinching story portrays the terrifying legacy of slavery, “both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation” (Publisher’s page, Penguin Random House).

“Who’s Passing for Who?” by Langston Hughes (1956). A very funny short story that, nonetheless, raises some very serious issues of race. The plot is a modern re-working of the classic African American trickster tale.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937). Hurston’s classic story of a woman coming into adulthood and gaining her own sense of self in rural, Depression-era Florida.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson (1912, 1927). First published anonymously, this novella gives readers a succinct but comprehensive look at issues of “the color line” in early 20th century America.

Pym, by Mat Johnson (2011). In Johnson’s satirical 3rd novel (Johnson visited Hope in 2010 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series), Chris Jaynes (the protagonist), a scholar of literature, loves Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, because it reveals Poe’s deep and complex 19th century racism. Jaynes takes Poe’s novel as semi-autobiographical, and mounts a rag-tag expedition of African-Amercian adventurers who would trace the path taken by Arthur Gordon Pym to Antarctica. The book is both side-splittingly funny and profoundly painful in its investigations of African American and White American biases and desires.

Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928). Powerful short novel that examines the issues facing a mixed-race woman in early 20th century America and Europe. 

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z. Z. Packer (2003). This versatile collection of short stories offers characters on several different social margins facing dilemmas impacted by wrestling with racial identity. Including the highly lauded “Brownies,” where a troop of Black girls must face a troop of white girls, among other intensely intuitive, clear, and vivid stories, Packer’s fiction–her debut, and the first of these stories published when she was 17–is consistently compelling. 

Cane by Jean Toomer (1923). A path-breaking book set in the deep South, Chicago, and Washington DC and composed of poetry, short fiction, and a story that reads more like a drama script. Toomer’s writing can be cryptic, but its densely imagistic vividness greatly rewards close reading.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982). Widely regarded as a contemporary classic, this epistolary novel provides unflinching commentary on the effects of domestic and sexual abuse even as it keenly affirms the growth, bravery, and companionship of two separated sisters and their experiences over twenty years. Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery, and Sofia still have much to teach us about pain, power, and belonging. 

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward (2012). A stirring novel about a family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the bonds they make, the dreams they dream, all of it interwoven with references to myth and legend. Beautifully written with music in its lines.   

Hybrid Genres and Graphic Novels

Kindred, by Octavia Butler (1979, 2017). Damien Duffy and John Jennings offer a graphic adaptation and profound tribute to Octavia Butler’s classic science fiction novel, in which Dana, a Black Californian in the 1970s, is mysteriously transported back and forth in time to the pre-Civil War South, becoming entangled in the lives of both the slaves and the slave owners. Lauded as foundationally intersectional for its scorching look at race and gender across history, the graphic adaptation recreates this critically acclaimed and internationally celebrated text in a new, rich format.

Incognegro: a Graphic Mystery, by Mat Johnson (2009, 2019). In this historical graphic novel, Zane Pinchback, a depression-era, Harlem Renaissance reporter, goes undercover to visit his home town in Mississippi when his brother is falsely arrested for the murder of a white woman. Pinchback can pass for white, but his brother cannot. This gripping novel covers the difficulties of colorism, Jim Crow-era violence, the plague of lynching in America, and racism in a visceral black and white format. Johnson visited Hope in 2010 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series.

March Series by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin (2015). This award-winning graphic novel trilogy portrays the Civil Rights Movement as experienced by U.S. Congressman John Lewis. Illustrated and lettered by Nate Powell, the black and white autobiography of Lewis as a civil rights activist is offered in three volumes of gripping and powerful story-telling, bringing to life the cursory and sanitized paragraphs offered in school textbooks.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014). Though Rankine (who visited Holland, MI in 2010) has been publishing books that defy genre for some time—Citizen won awards in poetry but also creative nonfiction—this collection landed on the New York Times bestseller list. In it you’ll find short vignettes detailing racial microaggressions, journalistic reflection on Serena Williams and other Black athletes, and lyric meditation on police brutality and the erasure of Black experience mixed with stunning visual artwork by Black artists. The combination of these genres and media (look for collaborative “Situation” videos online, the origin of some of Rankine’s writing here) results in a volume of hybrid work equally enthralling and disturbing—and well worth your attention. You won’t want to miss her previous genre-bending book either, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004).

Poetry

Riot: a Poem in Three Parts by Gwendolyn Brooks (1969) Brooks’ chapbook Riot documents and contextualizes the violence of the 1968 Chicago riots after the asssination of Martin Luther King Jr. With controlled, focused language, these three long poems (first published in a slim 22 page volume and later included in her full-length book Blacks) lament, accuse, and decry allies who talk and do not act: “But WHY do These People offend themselves?” say they / who say also “It’s time. / It’s time to help / These People.” Brooks (who visited Hope College in 1993) was the first Arican American to win the Pulitzer Prize, served as U.S. Poet Laureate, and was the first African American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The Tradition by Jericho Brown (2019). This book won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. A poet of great feeling and intensity, Brown describes the emotional and social struggle of being black and gay in America in the 20th century. Brown investigates the issue of safety in America–and the tradition of African American people feeling very much not safe—through intimate poems about family, love, desire, and history, all grounded in lovely, tight verse forms.

1919 by Eve Ewing (2019). A community organizer and sociologist at the University of Chicago, Ewing revisits the violent but lesser-known Chicago race riot during the “Red Summer” of 1919. By blending speculative and Afrofuturist modes in her poetry to explore the stories of those who lived through and those who died in the riots—in 8 days, 38 died and over 500 were injured—Ewing reveals and recasts the past; in doing so, she helps her readers understand how very close it is to the present. 

Collected Poems by Robert Hayden (1986) Hayden was a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in the 70s, and was the first African American to hold that office, which later became the U.S. Poet Laureate. He lived virtually his entire life in Michigan, having been born in Detroit. His poetry, which describes the difficulties of growing up Black and academically motivated in urban Michigan, uses more traditional forms and meter. In this way, he links the tradition of English verse with 20th century Black life and spiritual awareness to create a new understanding of American English.

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (2018). Hayes’ (who visited Hope in 2010 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series) sonnets track the frustration of a Black man living in America in the year after the election of the 45th president of the United States. Using a loose version of the sonnet, Hayes tracks experiences that reveal the complexities of status, desire, and agency in a Black body. Powerful and sometimes densely written, the poetry demands deep attention and engagement—just like our national inheritance of racism demands.

Montage of a Dream Deferred (or Harlem) by Langston Hughes (1951). A book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred looks at the frustration felt by African Americans in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood at the lack of equitable advancement for African Americans. In this poem Hughes expresses the impatience and disappointment of racial trauma and hundreds of years of oppression while using the sounds and rhythms of mid-20th century jazz, swing, and bebop.

Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa (1993). The Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry in ‘93, Neon Vernacular displays Komunyakaa’s range of subjects and skill. Komunyakaa’s poetry often uses jazz rhythms to describe his childhood in Bogalusa, Louisiana, his service in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and Black life in the U.S., while addressing deep moral questions. Komunyakaa (who visited Hope College in 1994) has long been considered one of the most musically gifted poets writing in America.

Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae (2014). Kidnapped from his black father to be raised by violent, racist white maternal grandparents, McCrae does incredibly thoughtful, imaginative, and painful work in his poetry—seven books and counting—to interrogate the spiritual and cultural task of being Black in America. If his previous poems both adhered to and disrupted form and meter, chafing against tradition like the historical consciousness imbued in the lines themselves, this volume fractures language and line in dexterous, disconcerting ways, perhaps like the shattering of one’s identity and humanity when internalizing oppression. 

Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith (2018). This Pulitzer-prize winner and recent U.S. Poet Laureate offers in her third volume a variety of poetic modes—erasure, found poetry, docupoetics, epistolary fragments—to explore our nation’s original racial sins while tying those historical moments to the current moment. These are bold, blunt, and deeply spiritual poems.

Pairings 

Jason Reynolds (who visited Holland, MI in 2018) and Brendan Kiely’s young adult novel All American Boys (2015) takes on racism and police brutality and its impact on their community from the perspective of two teens—one Black, one White. Pair with one or more of the following #ownvoices contemporary YA novels: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon, Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina, and Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois (1903) and Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington (1901), two very different lives, two very different perspectives. Washington was born into slavery; Dubois was born after the Civil War into a upper middle class family. Although there were fundamental differences in their approach to issues of racism and inequality, both became leaders in the fight for civil rights.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015) and Please Stop Helping Us by Jason Riley (2014). Somewhat like the Washington-DuBois debate, Coates and Riley represent two very different views of current issues lived by African Americans.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963) and The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, ed. by Jesmyn Ward (2016). This anthology of poetry and essays was envisioned as a response to Baldwin’s seminal essay collection. Various prominent voices (among them Edwidge Danticat, who visited Hope College in 2015 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series/The Big Read) use creative nonfiction and poetry in exploring the violence of both our past and our present, recognizing that the moment Baldwin asserted would come–the fire next time–is here, and we need to talk about it. 

Untitled, (1947) Oil on masonite, © Estate of Beauford Delaney by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator
Beaufort Delaney was a leading painter of the Harlem Renaissance and a close friend of James Baldwin.

Pandemics in Literature

As we face our current time under the veil of COVID-19, the English Department has put together a list of texts that are pandemic-related.


Dr. Kathleen Verduin’s Suggestions:

Dr. Kathleen Verduin

Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe

The Plague by Albert Camus

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

The Stand by Stephen King

Love in a Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez


Dr. Jesse Montaño’s Suggestions:

Dr. Jesse Montaño

A Dying Colonialism by Franz Fanon has an interesting chapter on the intersections between medicine and colonialism.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor: though it is about an alien invasion, the aliens transform humans.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is a “space exploration” allegory of the Americas. The Martians die of chickenpox and are mostly wiped out, much in the same way that colonialism followed disease in the Americas. In many ways, the very history of the New World is written in a weaponized pandemic.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline


Dr. Stephen Hemenway’s Suggestions:

Dr. Stephen Hemenway

The Diary of Samuel Pepys has vivid descriptions of the plague that disrupted London life in 1666.

The Poetical Works of John Keats: A Memoir includes the description of when he was quarantined for 10 days on a ship in the Bay of Naples; he lived only four months after this experience.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

Journals of the Plague Years (AIDS) by Norman Spinrad

Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood


Dr. Marla Lunderberg’s Suggestion:

Dr. Marla Lunderberg

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne. This provides a somewhat gory devotional, tracking the course of his experience of disease in late 1623, and connecting the physical symptoms of his illness to his meditations on his spiritual life. Selected chapter titles for your pleasure: “The Patient Takes to His Bed.” “They Use Cordials, to Keep the Venom and Malignity of the Disease from the Heart.” “Upon These Indications of Digested Matter, They Proceed to Purge.”) His illness, “relapsing fever,” was probably typhoid. It’s from this work that we have the famous “for whom the bells tolls” lines.


Dr. Curtis Gruenler’s Suggestions:

Dr. Curtis Gruenler

The Plague in Literature and Myth” by René Girard.

What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us” by Orhan Pamuk in the NYTimes.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was our Big Read book of 2018.


Dr. Pablo Peschiera’s Suggestion:

Dr. Pablo Peschiera

The 1918 Flu Pandemic Killed Millions. So Why Does Its Cultural Memory Feel So Faint?” by Rebecca Onion in Slate. It’s an article/interview about the influence of the 1918-19 flu pandemic on modernist writers – super interesting! (Also, “influence” and “influenza” are very interesting etymologically: both words are tightly linked through the Latin “influere” meaning “to flow into,” or “a flowing into” and in Latin often referred to an “in flow” from “the stars.” Both the words “influence” and “influenza” come from the core metaphorical communication that struggles to explain the transference of a thing from its source and then into another thing.)


We’ll be sharing more in-depth blog posts on the topic of pandemics in literature later this year. We hope you’ve picked up some ideas for some summer reads & we’ll see you in the fall!

#KeepingHope: Hosting the First VIRTUAL Michigan Medieval & Renaissance Undergraduate Consortium

by Marla Lunderberg

“Thank you for your presentation. Does anyone have any questions?”

A pregnant pause. The kind that sometimes tempts me to fill the silence with my own voice, my own questions. But after a moment, my computer screen shows a mic being unmuted. A student’s voice rings in my headphones. My student is posing a question to a peer from another college, a peer who has just presented a paper on this Saturday morning in late March.

Hope College had just completed its first week of virtual classroom experiences, and here we were, hosting and encouraging students’ participation in an online conference.

The Michigan Medieval & Renaissance Undergraduate Consortium hosts a call for papers every fall, leading to a regional conference for undergraduates every spring. Recent years have seen the conference held at Calvin University and Albion College; Hope College had agreed to host the Spring 2020 conference. By mid-February, papers had been accepted from students from Albion, Calvin, Olivet and Hope; rooms were reserved; plans for an early breakfast and a midday luncheon were ironed out—and then, in mid-March, plans for gatherings across the nation were curtailed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

It would have been easy to cancel the conference, to apologize to students for the lost opportunity, to offer a verbal affirmation of their submissions, and to express the hope that they’d continue their work as scholars as soon as new opportunities opened up. It would have been understandable if everyone, students and faculty mentors alike, were to breathe a joint sigh of relief: one fewer obligation to meet during the coming days of uncertainty and new challenges. But instead, we sent an email to students to ask if they wished to try something new: participating in a virtual conference experience. It took a while before we heard back from the students—and I held my breath as I waited.

This was a leap of faith for us all. For my part, because we sent the invitation the week before spring break, I’d not yet hosted a video classroom of any sort. My experience was limited to a single CIT training session on how to send out an invite for a Google Meet. I had attended enough small ZOOM meetings, though, to have seen what can go wrong: fuzzy video feeds, wonky audio connections, too many people trying to talk at once or not at all.

Nevertheless, we were convinced it was worth it to take the leap. Conferences are more than just a list of speeches: they give people who share a common interest and expertise the opportunity to communicate together. New research is shared; questions are posed; arguments are interrogated. Undergraduate conferences are particularly important in providing students the opportunity to practice critical thinking habits that will serve them well in whatever field they pursue.

One by one, students returned from spring break and emailed us to see if it was too late to confirm their commitment and to ask last-minute questions. We promised to help them prepare for the newness of this event. We offered technical guidance and we encouraged them to consider the opportunity to put this on their future resumes: “Paper presentation at the first VIRTUAL Michigan Medieval & Renaissance Consortium, a learning community responding in a creative way to the early challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.” Of the eleven students signed up for the original event, all but one committed to the online conference.

Although we were learning on the job, we came up with a set of guidelines that I can recommend for anyone in a similar situation. We reminded students to practice their presentations in advance, with an eye to the time limit and to the pace of their speaking voice. We suggested they review their material so as to see it afresh and to be prepared to answer questions. We reminded students to dress for the event, just as they would dress up for a virtual interview. We asked them to think about the lighting and the background for their virtual presentations. We offered practice sessions for two evenings before the Saturday morning event, so that students could sign in to the Google Meet, talk with us about any questions they might have, and practice going into “present now” mode. These sessions offered great opportunities to talk more generally about professional conference goals and to encourage the students to be active in listening and responding to each other’s papers.

That active participation was my favorite part of the Saturday experience. Sessions on Christianity and Culture, on Medieval and Early Modern Marriage, and on Women’s Agency invited students to listen to each other, to learn from each other—and to practice interacting with their peers through the Q & A at the end of each session. Before the conference, I’d feared that students might be tempted to present their papers and then disappear from view, but these fears were unfounded. The energy that otherwise would have fired across a room now lit up our screens. Questions about Lear’s Fool and about the staging of The Taming of the Shrew invited students to think on their feet. Together, we could explore new paradigms and engage with the world of ideas—no matter the current challenges of distant socializing.

“In the Meantime”: An Alumni Feature by Sam Mason ’19

March 2019 in the Midwest was a continuation of the previous two months: windy, gray, and bitterly cold. No promise of spring in sight. It had been two months since my graduation in December and I was immersed in the uncertainty that accompanies the great undergraduate unknown: the job search.

Sam Mason, Hope class of ’19

As a recently engaged and currently unemployed graduate, I had already been on a kaleidoscope of interviews and filled out what seemed like countless applications. The interviews seemed to meld into one another, usually beginning with a quirky introductory joke accompanied by some folky wordplay that explained how my English major was relevant experience. I tried to find what suited my skill set. I interviewed for publishing companies, government organizations, news outlets, and non-profits, among many others, still searching for my best fit. As the days turned into weeks and weeks into months, I wondered if I had chosen correctly. Did I rush my major decision? How did this degree separate me from anyone else?

In the meantime, I read, wrote, and interviewed.

I had chosen my major in October of my sophomore year. I knew I wanted to be a part of the English department from the day I set foot on campus. I had always loved words and the structure of language and that’s why I chose English. I enjoyed reading a range of works, from authors like Shakespeare and Hemingway to columnists from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among many other outlets. However, I found myself wondering whether my degree truly delivered the functionality I had hoped.

My years at Hope had afforded me a couple of invaluable internship experiences where I began to shape my career path. My first internship was in Washington, DC as a part of the Washington Honors Semester. I was a congressional intern working on Capitol Hill for a representative from my hometown. This may be unusual for an English major; however, I had always been keen to learn about the inner workings of policy-making and legislation. I was fascinated with how my English major could be malleable toward these purposes.

Following my internship in DC, I was fortunate enough to continue my career with the State of Illinois, where I helped compile research reports and develop policy analysis through the skills I had acquired from the English department at Hope.

I reassured myself that I had made the correct decision, and during the spring and summer of 2019, I read a lot, adding to my list of intriguing words and phrases that I had started in college: ersatz, vaunted, jejune, anodyne, athwart, barmy, inimical, suffuse, ineluctable, and erudite, to name a few. Writing on occasion helped provide a structure to my unstructured career path. I felt a new confidence in myself, my degree, and my education, believing that the right position lay ahead.

In the meantime, I continued to read, write, and read some more.

It was in the fall, October 2019, when I finally found the path that had once seemed so elusive. I found something that allowed me to read, write, and summarize detailed documents and utilize my creativity for project and partnership development through language. I am a Global Partnerships Specialist at Lions Clubs International Foundation.

The title does not necessarily explain itself, but essentially, I help identify and forge partnerships and relationships through prospective research, cultivation, and networking events, and through the writing, drafting, and developing of project proposals, in collaboration with my fellow team members. These projects range from global health initiatives to disaster relief assistance. I count myself as lucky to do what I do. I work for a Foundation who prides themselves on their ability to serve in their communities. I use my writing and communication skills to effectively develop and connect others to impactful projects.

And then… just when I began to settle into the regular routine of work, commuting, coffee, and leisure, yet another unexpected twist along the path occurred. As an international organization, we were aware of the threat that COVID-19 posed early on. In fact, I had initially helped in a search for the procurement of masks and other medical supplies for our members in the Asia Pacific region in late February. However, I had no idea the impact it would have on my own work and how swiftly it would change the dynamic that I had settled into.

March 2020 was upon us. Our organization closed its office and work from home became mandatory. Many people experienced a lag in workflow, whereas our work has only intensified. We have had to provide quick, strong, and precise statements which convey our work in light of the current state of affairs to many of our partners. All the while, we are continually working to support and assist our members who are in the direst of straights and also keeping our eyes ahead, staying focused on what we can do to assist.

I will not lose hope, and will continue to read, write, and work.

Hope College Academy of American Poets Prize 2020

By Pablo Peschiera

About the Prize

The Academy of American Poets (AAP) Prize program begin in 1955 at 10 schools, and now sponsors nearly 200 annual prizes for poetry at colleges and universities nationwide. Poets honored through the program have included Mark Doty, Louise Gluck, Joy Harjo, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Charles Wright. The winning poet receives $100 from the Academy of American Poets.

About this Year’s Judge

Wayne Miller was born in Cincinnati and earned his BA from Oberlin College and his MFA from the University of Houston. His books of poetry include the chapbook What Night Says to the Empty Boat (Notes for a Film in Verse) (2004) and the full-length collections Only the Senses Sleep (2006), The Book of Props (2009), The City, Our City (2011), and Post- (2016). Miller has translated the Albanian poet Moikom Zeqo’s I Don’t Believe in Ghosts (2007) and Zodiac (2015). His honors and awards include a Bess Hokin Prize, a George Bogin Award, a Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Lucille Medwick Award, and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry. Miller currently teaches at the University of Colorado-Denver. He edits the journal Copper Nickel and, with Kevin Prufer, co-curates the Unsung Masters Series.


Winner

Mitch Van Acker’s “To a Mummified Fish”  

Wayne Miller writes:

I find this poem compelling because of its subtlety and economy. It’s an object poem about a mummified fish, but it begins in motion, the fish being carried by a river (of time) into the sudden stillness of the present moment. I admire the odd inversion of the fish being “rescued / from [its] guts,” as well as the apt, sensory description of the fish’s “drum-tight skin.” I find it really interesting, in the best sense, that the sun, which by its nature is always of the present, is a “friend” of the living speaker (though presumably not of the mummified fish). And I’m genuinely surprised by the poem’s closing lines—a direct apology for the oddly human act of “poach[ing]” the fish “from oblivion,” which is ultimately about humanity’s strange and unnatural impulse toward art. For all its quiet restraint, this is a really smart and ambitious poem that takes on core questions about what it means to be human.

To a Mummified Fish

                        —Museo Egizio, Turin

Down surging watercourse, 
swept from your silent blue home,
you became a prop
for our old dilemma 
wrangled, wrapped, and rescued 
from your guts.

Your drum-tight skin
leafs beneath cloth and honey-lacquer
to snare the spirit of holy dregs,
fleshpots, sweet incense at interval 
in the morning air
capped from the widening jaws
of the moon-door.

On behalf of my friend, the sun
(author of many gods)
and the priestess 
who poached you 
from oblivion, 
Little fish, I’m sorry.


Honorable Mention

Julia Kirby “A Strand of Related Things”

Wayne Miller writes:

I admire this poem for quite different reasons than I admire “To a Mummified Fish,” and deciding between them wasn’t easy. In “A Strand of Related Things” the poet offers an interiorized address to a “you”—a crush, in my reading—in which the reader is given access to a series of intimate self-assessments. I find the particularity of voice, thinking, and image really compelling, from the speaker’s multiple attempts to describe dust motes, to the speaker’s assertion that the “you” pushes up his sleeves so obsessively that it’s hard to recognize him with them down, to the realization that a car is the only place where the speaker can be alone without feeling lonely. Finally, in the poem’s closing moment, we find the speaker in that private space of a car with the “you”; this closes the gap between them without resolving the “you’s” unattainability, creating a compellingly poetic sort of semi-closure.

A Strand of Related Things

I pretend the bits of dust
suspended in air
and late afternoon light
are bits of sugar
or crystals or snow,
something less frightening
to inhale than particles
of lint, dog hair, dirt,
and dead skin.
You said, once, that you
have a thing for blondes,
that night I pulled
my brown hair
from the shower drain
and buried it in the trash
with bits of used floss
and crusty tissues.
The dust gets in my eyes,
I end up staring
at the stain on my rug –
spilled soy sauce –
and my calathea plant
with its sunburnt leaves,
straining between life & death.
Suddenly I smell pot stickers,
damp earth,
and the sleeves of your sweater
pushed up to your elbows,
always scrunched
so that you don’t quite
look like you
with your forearms covered.
I smell gasoline, too,
because my car
is the only place
where being alone
doesn’t feel lonely
with harvested fields,
shivering trees,
and clouds of swallows.
I don’t think
you’ve ever touched me
which is a blessing
because your being
makes me be a little less,
your voice
makes me question my being,
and I’m afraid your skin on mine
might make me dissolve
into window dust.
I hate driving over bridges
because I figure
they have to crumble
at some point.
I hate opening
the car windows
because I might slip out
and roll into traffic.
You were right,
when I was driving
through the blizzard
and you said
you couldn’t help me
stop the snow from falling.

Searching for Marriage: From Primary Sources to Digital Tools

Marriage. One of the world’s most traditional institutions, present in every culture, the same across centuries and millennia — at least until recently. Right?

Um, not quite. In fact, as Hope students taking the new Cultural Heritage course “Marriage in the Modern Age” this semester could tell you, none of that is true. Everything from the reasons why people chose a partner (and who does the choosing); to who was or wasn’t permitted to marry; to whether marriage was a legal, religious, or purely personal agreement; to what rights, if any, a woman retained after marriage; to the gains that people sought to marry for — they’re all drastically different in different times and cultures. There’s even been one known culture without marriage at all (but to learn about that, you’ll have to check out Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage: A History).

History books can give us a big picture, and literature can give us personal stories; together, the two have told our class a lot about different views and forms of marriage in Western Europe and North America over the last 250 or so years. But while tales like Pride and Prejudice, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and A Doll’s House do hold truths about real lived experience in their respective times and places, they’re also fictionalized for our entertainment. That’s where the class’s Group Digital Projects fit in.

The idea behind the project was simple: pick a region and a decade, and see what marriage was like for real people in that place and time. Look only at primary sources: laws, trial reports, government documents, art, illustration, cartoons, journals, diaries, letters, advertisements, historical newspaper articles, magazine articles, op-eds, advice columns, and so on. Quantity is key — to notice patterns, draw conclusions, groups had to find enough material to know what was common and what was a fluke. Every community has its oddballs, after all!

Here are some of the topics the groups came up with:

  • Interracial marriages in America, 1965-1975
  • When polygamy became illegal in Utah (late 19th century)
  • The Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, banning secret marriage in England
  • Unofficial same-sex marriages in the 1980s
  • The ideal marriage of 1950s sitcoms vs. the reality

Nifty, right? But where, you may be wondering, does the “digital” part come in? Well, after looking at all these great topics, the researchers needed a way to present their materials effectively, mixing different media and keeping the flavor of the historical sources while clearly getting their key findings across. Fortunately Tori Longfield, Hope’s Digital Arts Librarian, had just the tool for us: ArcGIS StoryMaps.

As Longfield taught the class, StoryMaps are cool because they can present images alongside text alongside interactive maps, charts, or timelines. It’s flexible, yet focused and contained: kinda like what you’d get if a PowerPoint and a website had a baby.

While they’re all very much worth a look, here I’ll highlight two of the students’ group digital projects.

Marriage During WW2 in Germany

by Gracien Lorincz and Emily Damstra

Fascinating finds in this project included a video of a Nazi wedding in which Hitler was the best man, and a touching profile of a concentration camp marriage.

Mixed Marriage: Catholic-Protestant Unions in Holland During the 1950s

by Jayla VanMaurick, William Harahan, Julia Hopkins, & Grace Goszkowicz

This group made use of the Joint Archives of Holland to look at what marriage was like between Catholics and Protestants in town during the Fifties. Disapproval in the newspapers! premarital contracts! what about the kids?!

In “Marriage in the Modern Age,” we’ve had a great time discussing the ins and outs of marriage — from a personal as well as societal angle. Has marriage become harder in the Western world as expectations for individual happiness continue to rise? How do some people like (Madeleine L’Engle, whose memoir we read) make marriage last a lifetime? Why do some choose not to marry at all, and how do they build alternative core relationships? The search for meaningful bonds between humans is relevant, after all, in every time and culture.

Reading at the End of the World

Dr. Lauren Eriks Cline, a Hope ’08 graduate, recently got her PhD in English from the University of Michigan and is now an Assistant Professor of English at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

It’s March 20, 2020, and like millions of other people around the globe, I have spent the past week isolated in my house, watching red dots on a map expand as angry numbers on the margins tick upwards: 80,000 cases; 124,000 cases; 284,000 cases. While I wait for more news on the pandemic of the novel coronavirus, I am also recording and re-recording videos to orient my students at Hampden-Sydney College to the emergency distance-learning version of our English classes. When I told people last summer that my goal for my first year as an Assistant Professor was just to survive, I never imagined that word would feel so literal.

The semester I thought my students and I would have is now sitting in my laptop’s trash files. And as I prepare to begin take four of my walk-through of the new calendar of readings in my Shakespeare class, I find myself asking, not for the first time: “should I still be doing this work at a time like this?”

On the one hand, it’s clear that some of this work can and should definitely go. It’s been helpful for my sense of perspective that my partner is a healthcare worker at a community hospital. Thinking about that lifesaving labor sheds a newly stark light on the aspects of academic work that we could always have done without. Grading, for example, seems more clearly than ever to be an exercise in ranking that fails to accommodate barriers in our environment or differences in our needs. The urge to change grading standards now reveals that those standards were always built too narrowly. And every change I make to my teaching in this moment is a lesson for later: don’t forget what you dropped when we could only carry what we needed but we needed to carry everyone.

On the other hand, staring out at the world that today’s college students will inherit also casts a more hopeful light on my core commitments to literature. My “Monsters in Literature and Film” class is about to embark on our unit on zombies, sinking our teeth into post-apocalyptic stories from Colson Whitehead’s Zone One to Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. To engage these texts is to ask newly topical questions: what conditions create contagion, protect status quos, or allow for change? Reading them encourages us to entertain more radical possibilities than reading the news alone.

Speculative fiction in particular pushes beyond what we think could exist all the way to the edge of what might be thinkable. My class’s big discussion question for the week was “why do people keep producing and consuming literature even when it feels like it might be the end of the world?” One answer might be this: that the end of the world as we know it is precisely the moment when we most need our capacity to imagine different worlds.

But as I contemplate the question of what it means to study literature now, it’s not just reading that I want to fight for. It’s reading together, and reading in ways that ask us to be responsible to each other. When I collect mid-semester feedback from my students, two of the questions I ask are (1) whether they feel supported to take risks in our class, and (2) what would help them feel more supported to take risks. Prioritizing risk might seem strange at a time when we’re rightly urging people to take physical precautions, but becoming daring in our thinking can become even more important as our material world gets more dangerous.  Every time I read my students’ reflections on risk, I am reminded that – more than any individual choice made in the class – students thank the class as a whole for making it possible to take intellectual chances. It’s the curiosity and care of the other people in the room that allows them to try out new ideas and to practice being uncertain – even wrong.

The activist Mariame Kaba wrote recently that “we have to prefigure the world in which we want to live. That’s a minute-by-minute practice of aligning values with actions.” We’ve all just been forced to clear and reset our calendars. Our minutes are not exactly up for grabs – indeed, too many people may find that they are facing exhausting new demands on their time – but a wrench has been thrown in our day-to-day lives, which gives us a new chance to scrutinize our habits. So what do we bind and what do we release? How does what we’ve read shape the values we’ll use to make that choice? And what stories are we sharing or creating now that could make new configurations of our world thinkable?

Coming Out of COVID-19: The Early Bird Catches the Worm

By Ernest Cole

COVID-19 has disrupted a good part of our daily routines or what was considered normal living: life as we knew it. From waking up in the morning to going to bed at night, Americans are confronted with the challenges of a different mode of living. For us in the teaching profession, COVID-19 has had a considerable impact on methods of delivery of instructional materials. From our usual PowerPoint presentations and Google docs to Zoom and Google Hangouts, professors at Hope College, and indeed across the nation, have been tasked with transforming content from in-person to online structure and format. This transformation has significantly affected not only course content but also approaches and methods of teaching. Pedagogy is being transformed and the changes are clearly discernible.

Last week, as I listened to my colleagues in English grappling with the structural and pedagogical changes to instruction, something became clear to me: we are in the process of a digital revolution and teaching will never be the same again. I suspect we will come out of COVID-19 very differently and our instructional structures and modes of delivery, assessment, and evaluation will change. We will come out of COVID-19; that is beyond question. The question is not whether we will come out of this situation, but rather how we come out of it and how we are prepared to handle the pedagogical shifts and assessment changes that the digitization of our courses would present.

In such moments, my grandmother’s words came clearly to me – “the early bird catches the worm.” If the above premise is true, then institutions that begin to put in place the necessary academic, administrative, and technological structures to accommodate these digital changes relating to the choice, delivery, and assessment of instructional materials now will be better served in the future. If we are to stay ahead of the “digital revolution” and its implications for our students, programs, and institution, we must begin to put these structures in place now.

As I see it, the first of these structures relate to faculty capacity building. There is a need for expanded programs relating to online teaching and coaching, and support from technological units and centers on campus. Faculty must be trained in the dynamics of online teaching and receive instruction on online delivery and assessment of courses. I foresee a situation where faculty would develop courses that meet the requirements for in-person, online, and hybrid instruction, and perhaps offer students these choices for enrollment in courses.

From an assessment perspective, I suggest we begin conversations on processes and procedures for online assessment that will maintain standards, integrity, and rigor. We must begin to ponder and reflect on the implications of online teaching for various disciplines on campus and what it would mean to shift courses to this mode of instructional delivery. We must begin to engage in conversations on the impact of COVID-19 on how we conceptualize education and methods of implementation.

Next, I would like us as an institution to reflect on lessons that COVID-19 has taught us in terms of global education. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the pandemic has taught us that we are more connected than we imagined and that the “big questions” of life cannot be solved by either a single discipline or single country. To that end, I would like faculty across campus to begin rethinking global education. If my assumptions are true, then it seems to me that we need to identify and restructure courses that address these “big questions” and approach them from an interdisciplinary perspective.

I am talking of creating a “hub” or “consortium” of courses with global content (such as immigration, public health, international trade, public finance, nursing, social work, medicine, etc.) and finding a place for such courses in the revised general education curriculum at Hope. This would truly equip our students with the knowledge and skills to function effectively in a global society. I suggest we begin a rethinking of our collaborative efforts with regional and international partners (GLCA & GLAA); our conception of study abroad; other experiential courses; and the ways in which these are assessed. Can we, for instance, begin to think about a “virtual study abroad” program and what that would look like? Can we begin to think of how we collaborate virtually with our partners beyond flagging courses and doing the usual conjoined courses? Can we transform these conjoined courses to virtual study abroad courses that will count for study abroad requirements for our students?

I would like to end with a bold suggestion, and this has to do with the current conversations regarding 3-credit and 4-credit courses. Part of the problem, as I understand it, with our current 4-credit system, at least in the Humanities, was the absence of faculty-led activities and instruction for the 4th hour. Again, this difficulty was also due to lack of creative ways to engage students in the 4th hour. I think what COVID-19 preparations have done for us is to equip us with online content and digital platforms to engage students in faculty-led projects that will count for the 4th hour. It seems to me that this is a valuable way to reconsider our conversations on 3-4 credit courses and to utilize the range of activities that Associate Provost Gerald Griffin has come up with that qualify for 4th-hour instruction. I encourage him to continue working with departments on online pedagogical instruction, but also to incorporate the 3-4 credit hour possibility that remote teaching has afforded us into the conversation.

I again commend the tireless efforts of President Scogin, Provost Short-Thompson, the Deans’ Council, faculty, staff, and students in addressing the current challenges we are facing. I reiterate the point that the workplace has considerably changed and will never be the same again. How we think of place and space, and how these constructs impact instruction, has also changed. Our conception of education, nationally and globally, and methods of implementation have changed; and with such changes, we must begin to create academic and administrative structures that will meet and accommodate the pedagogical shifts. Building and expanding technological capacities and training faculty to rethinking courses and curriculum are good ways for the early bird to catch the worm.