Academics in the Middle

Over the summer, at a conference-closing roundtable, the discussion turned to what senior scholars could do for younger ones, with the latter meaning mostly graduate students. As neither category applied to me, I slipped out of the room for more coffee. Across a table piled high with maple bear claws, I told a fellow caffeine-seeker that the whole conversation was making me feel very middle-aged.

“Maybe a little middle-aged,” he replied.

But the truth is that I don’t know where I fit in terms of career-stage. “Early Career Researcher” can be used to refer to recent PhDs, but how many years is recent? Five years? If that’s the measure, I’m on the edge. Or is it measured by publication of a monograph, in which case I’m already in some other category? Or maybe it has to do with your job, in which case I’m confused again. I work at a community college in the middle of the Pacific that does not have tenure, but on the other hand I have a leadership position as Chair of my department. In that position, I sometimes advise more recent PhDs on how to keep publishing despite the heavy load of teaching and service we require. And I do not experience the insecurity typically faced by faculty working in contingent positions.

I’m also in a different kind of middle because I do both critical and creative writing. I finished my MFA five years before I started my PhD. Back then I only wrote poetry, but more recently I have worked in prose fiction and creative nonfiction as well. My personal essay about my issues with forgiveness culture has affected more lives than anything else I have ever written. So how should I be distributing my writing time?

With these competing positions, identities, and demands on my time, I never seem to fit easily into any community, academic or otherwise. Marginality is not a new experience for me, but I’m wondering how common my sense of being in-between is in academia today and what, if anything, disciplines should do to address it.

The Value of a Literature Course

At Chronicle Vitae, Rob Jenkins has written about the ways he tries to sell students on taking literature courses. I quibble with the idea of literature as “a record” of what people thought: while the ideals, lifestyles, and assumptions of a time can be read into and with a work of literature, the connection is not straightforward enough to call a literary text a record of historical thought. It is within this quibble that much of the value of a literature course can be found for those students who may never pursue literary studies again: these courses help students develop their abilities to understand how a story or other expression is designed to act upon them, to understand what is shown, what is hidden, and what lies somewhere in between.

I am not talking only about a hermeneutics of suspicion: I am talking, too, about how we understand the relationship between teller and told, between creator and society. Practicing thinking about these questions will allow students to make better future judgments not only about texts that already exist but also about those that we cannot yet anticipate. How do we think about a politician’s narrative or about a rambling monologue from a guy at the pub? How do we think about the uses of poetry by the State?

For my students in the Marshall Islands, the role of literature in cultural survival is also urgent. It may not seem to be so important for the vast majority of American college students. However, when we consider the survival of marginalized subcultures, the importance becomes greater. There is also the question of how the perspective of the strange or marginalized individual on society survives, which I think is how I got started with poetry and other forms in the first place. (The line between literary studies and creative writing has never been especially bright or wide for me.)

Sometimes it seems frustratingly utilitarian to have to justify the value of literature courses, but as long as we refuse to reduce it to “employable skills,” we are doing both ourselves and our students a service. Remembering why we do what we do can only make use more careful thinkers and writers.

Poem: Neutral Buoyancy

an orange kitten with a copy of Hawai'i Review: Occupying Va

Shem approves of this publication.

At fifteen, I started taking courses at the local community college full-time through Running Start—Washington state’s dual enrollment program. Except for my penultimate quarter, when only a 6:30 am Composition II had space, I would usually arrive on campus hours early because I would come straight after swim team practice or else get a ride with my dad who would catch his bus into the city from the park and ride next door. I spent those mornings in the library, building my first website on GeoCities and reading through the back issues of literary journals. I can still smell their cardboard file boxes.

One of these journals was Hawai’i Review, so it is a special joy to see my poem “Neutral Buoyancy” appear in HR’s 85th issue, Occupying Va: The Betweenness. The poem is also the first in a sequence of SCUBA-related poems that I am currently working on.

2016 in Review

The last half of 2016 almost seems like a different year from the first. It is that the resurgence of rightwing populism was sudden but that the power it has amassed became suddenly undeniable. The danger no longer looms: it is fully present.

Resistance, however, should not be purely utilitarian until it has to be. If we begin to shape all our actions with the question of how it responds to monsters, then we allow monsters to limit who we are. Resistance also means continuing to build the culture of art and inquiry we want, without ignoring what goes on outside the areas in which we can build it.

How have I contributed this year?

  • I published my doctoral dissertation as a book.
  • I started moving my literary inquiry beyond that first major project by:
  • My own creative writing has fallen back as a priority. I have been incubating an idea for long fiction and trying to find homes for poetry books that keep coming up as finalists. I need to refocus here. The recent death of David Meltzer is a reminder that poetry always already has a power outside the self that puts it into words.
  • I have taken up the challenge of serving as department chair. For me, it is an opportunity not just to teach but to support the pedagogy of others and to find the millions of systemic ways small and large that an institution can contribute to learning. There are times that point of view feels impossibly optimistic, times when I can barely keep up with the rising waters of assessment and paperwork.

Then again, I can breathe underwater.

When I think about how I will move forward into 2017, the most important thing I did this year, however, is not something I did or gave. This is the year I learned to SCUBA dive, and I’ve managed to gain a fair amount of diverse experiences since being certified. There is something sacred under the surface, about remembering first of all to keep breathing as you pass through the cities of coral, the only cities more readily threatened by climate change than the ones that humans have built by the shore. The project that I will pursue as I return to my poetic work comes out of these experiences—and the first piece is forthcoming in Hawai’i Review.

Why Hamilton Isn’t Just a Distraction

Some have argued that Trump sent Pence to see Hamilton knowing it would provoke a reaction and thus distract the public’s attention from the Trump University settlement. There may be some truth to that, and certainly we should not overlook the historically unprecedented event of a president-elect spending $25 million to make a class-action lawsuit for fraud go away. However, whether planned or not, what happened at Hamilton, also let Trump do something at least equally sinister when he made clear to all who follow or would work with him exactly what he expects art to be.

“Safe and special” are harmless and seemingly positive words, but what do they mean in context? When he speaks of safety, he means a powerful man’s being safe from even the mildest of criticism or from the most reasonable of demands being placed on him. What is special, then, is the clean separation of Trump’s ideal theater from the world, from politics and social issues. No politics, no challenges to one’s ordinary perceptions. Neither Shakespeare nor Artaud would be welcome, though a zombified Shakespeare—an undead artifact representing high culture—might be staged.

Put another way, Trump is trying to delegitimize socially engaged art. Instead of banning it, which could backfire, he is suggesting that those forms of media which serve as nothing more than escapist entertainments are more valid. He is trying to neutralize art before it neutralizes him.

But we won’t let him.

Artist friends, what are you making right now?

A photo posted by Porochista Khakpour (@pchza) on