Senior Brunch! (2015)

As the Spring 2015 semester eases into its end, the graduating English and English education majors shared a lovely brunch with the English faculty. This gave students a final hurrah! with the peers and professors that guided them through their undergraduate careers. The morning was lively with exciting conversation and tasty food; students reflected on their college experiences and talked about what is still to come. Senior brunch was the perfect opportunity to shake off a crazy—but memorable—semester.

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The Medieval and Renaissance Forum at Keene State College: A Narration of Before, During, and After the Experience

“Looking at the program of the day’s readings, it felt immensely empowering to see my name alongside college professors, scholars, and other very impressive people—getting to discuss my own piece with these folks as well, was even more of a privilege.”—Molly Olsen

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From left to right: Molly, Eric, Tyler, Sam, and Misty

It’s proven quite difficult to stop talking about the Medieval and Renaissance Forum at Keene State College! On Friday, April 24, Molly Olsen, Sam Oppenheim, and myself hopped into a UMF van with Dr. Eric Brown and Dr. Misty Krueger to head for the long awaited trip to Keene, New Hampshire. The trip started early Friday morning and lasted through Saturday night.

Although I was really excited to be invited to join the conference, I was also nervous about presenting to people that were perhaps more knowledgeable in the field than me. Luckily, Eric and Misty provided us with ample time to revise and edit our papers as well as rehearse the presentations. By the time of our presentations (Friday at 2:25), I felt amply prepared to give it my best!

I wasn’t alone in my feelings of nervousness; Molly said,

When someone at the conference asked me if I was a Medievalist I was quick to reply, “Well, I’m an English teacher.” Because, although through my studies I have found history and historical works incredibly interesting and important, I am not particularly drawn to this time period (well, at least not beyond wishing that I was Daenerys Targaryen, but that’s a story for another day…). Coming from this mindset, I knew that this event was going to be very different from anything I’d ever experienced, and I was excited to see where it took me.

All of our presentations turned out really well and elicited questions and positive responses from several attendees: three of which were undergraduates from Dartmouth and their professor, Dr. Tom Luxon. Our audience was attentive and inquisitive, challenging us all. Sam said, “Having Tom Luxon sit right across from me and stare me down during my reading was intimidating, but a challenge I was willing to take on!” Perhaps the best part of the presentation was that it gave me a sense of life in English academia, and also provided me with the opportunity to share my work with my peers by choice; rather than with my professor and peers for a grade. This distinction changes everything.

Molly: Presenting a paper I wrote at an academic conference was not only truly educational, but also gave my thoughts and opinions a validation I had never gotten to experience before. The whole event reminded me how glad I am that we have professors at this school who are willing to help us find, participate and thrive in these kind of opportunities.

Other key moments from Friday:

  • Delicious food (Italian and Thai)
  • A memorable reception with hors d’oeuvres and refreshments at the president’s house.
  • Molly tried Thai food for the first time—ever—and loved it!
  • I ate duck for the first time (sorry, Sam, it’s totally not my thing).
  • I had the most comfortable king size bed in the whole world all to myself.
  • Molly and I stayed up Friday night to make crowns fit for the occasion. Alas, they never would have survived the ride home.

On Saturday, we decided to separate and go to the sessions that appealed to each of us. In total we saw 8 panels: some of which were amazing (For those, I felt like I couldn’t write quickly enough or take enough notes), some merely average, and some terrible. The variety of work, both in topic and quality, was amazing. The breadth of work that I saw at the panels provided me with considerable context in which to place myself as an academic—in a sense, the forum validated my confidence in myself. By the end of the presentations, we all seemed to be in agreement about the breadth of the work presented.

Molly: The entire conference was incredibly informative in many different ways. Watching so many people present their papers and ideas in one day, really made me think about the way in which I, as a future educator, will teach my students about these sort of topics. The pop culture integration, the jokes, the anecdotes, the passion, as well the overall ways in which people presented, showed me what will keep your audience’s attention, and what may leave them doodling on their notepads. Knowing how to present your ideas in a dynamic and informative way is such a tremendous skill to have, and I felt like I was getting a sort of boot camp in the entire practice.

Sam: It was incredibly fun listening to all of the different papers, some great and some really terrible. The best, believe it or not, came from our sister school. Robert Kellerman of UMA had this amazing essay on Pericles and made me want to read the play!

After the panels, we were all exhausted; but we still had the keynote address by Coppelia Kahn, a founding member of Shakespearean studies. She presented a hypothesis on how Shakespeare became so popular in modern societies. A point that I thought was particularly noteworthy was that after Shakespeare’s death, his plays were ignored for 44 years, only to be revived by William Davenant. Thus, Davenant is responsible for Shakespeare’s preservation.
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Following the keynote presentation we headed to the medieval feast. The themed dinner was relaxing after a long day. Dinner boasted delicious herbed chicken, corn on the cob, diced potatoes, and much more. Aside from the corn, none of these foods were traditionally finger foods. Alas, for the sake of “historical accuracy” and role playing, we had to giggle our way through our meals with nothing but our hands as tools. Between that, the music, and the metal knights guarding the two food tables, I’m sure that the medieval feast will prove hard toforget!

In hindsight, the Medieval and Renaissance Forum at Keene State College was a developmentally significant event in my undergraduate career, and I hope that I’m able to attend more conferences in the future! I want to thank Eric and Misty for the chance to participate. Additionally, I want to thank all four of them (Eric, Misty, Molly, and Sam) for all of the great conversations and memories, as well a their support throughout the event. I’ve spoken to Molly and she also hopes to attend other conferences; she said, “I hope to attend more conferences in the future, although I doubt that any of them will ask me to eat chicken with my hands again—huzzah! for arguable historical choices (and wet wipes)!” Likewise, I’ve spoken to Sam and he wanted to add the following: “Above all else, it was a blast getting to know Tyler and Molly and having many intellectually stimulating conversations with Eric and Misty. It was a truly great experience and I was honored to be a part of it.”KeeneStateForumMedRenCollage

—Tyler M. Michaud

“Walden, the Humanities, and the Classroom as Public Space.” A lecture by Professor Kristen Case

*Originally presented as part of the Center for Global Humanities Lecture/Seminar Series at the University of New England.

Abstract: Defenses of the humanities against charges of irrelevance and elitism usually come in one of two forms: a practical argument on behalf of the in-demand skill set afforded by a broad humanistic education, or an idealistic one about the intrinsic value of literature and philosophy “for their own sake.” This lecture questioned the dualism upheld by both types of response by examining the ethical and political stakes of the continued existence of physical humanities classrooms in the public university. As recent attacks on humanities programs at public universities and the growing prevalence of online courses have made clear, such classrooms are more and more seen as luxuries that public universities and their students can’t afford.

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Case began the lecture by listing many keywords from Thoreau’s “Economy”:

Removal

Neighbor (etymology: something by or near)

Necessity

Accident (etymology: from a latin word meaning to fall. Case notes that this suggests passivity.) 

Experience/experiment (“ex” meaning to try

She talks about how each of the words can be thought about in relation to education. She uses the classrooms of Roberts Learning Center to prove her point. The classrooms of this building have concrete walls, tile floors, small windows, and mundane seating. Although it might not be the most inspiring space, it meets the needs of necessity: it gives us what we need to remove ourselves from the pressures of society, to think about literature.  

At the beginning of the lecture you presented a list of keywords (removal, neighbor, necessity, accident, and experience/experiment) from Thoreau’s “Economy,” and you asked that the audience think about them in relation to the humanities and the public classroom. Moving forward, do you think that people should continue to look to these words for (a sort-of) guidance?

Well, I do think those happen to be particularly rich and useful words to think about, words with wonderful and complex etymologies and histories, but the more important thing for me is Thoreau’s lesson about paying attention to words generally, particularly words we use often and usually without thinking: to think seriously about what we mean by our words. The words I listed were his important touchstones, but we could all make our own lists. Lately I’ve been thinking about the words practice, poetry, and friendship.

Right now arts and humanities programs across the country are under attack for being impractical; they are hobbies that do not translate into successful careers. Resultantly, in addition to university-wide budget cuts, arts and humanities programs are being placed on the back burner, if not being thrown away entirely. Funding is being reallocated to more “practical” fields of study, i.e., STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.

This is problematic, because public access to the humanities is in danger. You may have heard the argument that the humanities are dying, but Case insists that is not true. Rather, they are becoming a luxury. For example, she cites Governor Patrick McCrory, who says, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it, but I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” The devaluing of these programs is the bigger problem. Beyond the obvious discrediting of the humanities, McCrory is nodding to the idea that only well-off individuals have a choice in their studies; everyone else, well, they need to study something that will enable them to work, something “practical.”

Case says, “Education is indispensable to the growth of freedom of thought, faith, enterprise, and assertion.” We need a Thoreauvian removal, which is what the humanities allow. They allow people to think beyond the rulebook of a flawed system. By restricting whom can study the humanities, we are inhibiting the natural flow of knowledge and the appreciation for it.

Currently there’s a major push for STEM  programs. Often, this push includes additional aid and benefits for students pursuing these fields. What advice do you have for students that are interested in pursuing the arguably less-valued arts and humanities?

First, I just want to acknowledge how hard it is right now for students in that position; that, in this economy, despite what we know about how hirable humanities majors really are, it’s nevertheless a risk to major in something that doesn’t provide a clear and direct pathway to a specific profession. I think we have to acknowledge both that there are legitimate reasons for not wanting to take that risk and to applaud and support those students who do make it. My advice would be, first: be the best damn humanities major you can be. Work toward a Wilson project or an Honors thesis. Do an internship or an independent study. Find ways to connect your out-of-the-classroom interests to your in-classroom work. Make your work mean something to you. If you think you might want to be a writer of any kind, remember that every single thing you write is an opportunity to practice your profession: start thinking of it as your profession now. Second, I would say, approach your professors about what you want to do or think you want to do, or about the fact that you have no idea what you want to do and are getting nervous about that. We can’t force you to have those conversations with us, but we’re here, and we want to help, and we can make a difference.

Using a discussion of Thoreau’s Walden as her point of departure, Case argued for both the practical and ethical (though not always quantifiable) value of the humanities classroom and of the critical questions asked within them. Moreover, the defunding of the University of Maine System is not unique: it is a country-wide problem that Case argues is hurting the more than just the students—it is hurting the United States. The average debt for a graduate from the U. Maine System is $30,000. This, in addition to the unemployment rates, is evidence of the “failure of the promise of public education.”

Ultimately, over the next few years, what would you like to see from the postsecondary education system?

I mean, are we talking about my dream world here? If so, I’d like to see all colleges become tuition free. Short of that I’d like to see the federal and state government decide that college access, and income inequality more generally, is a real problem and begin working toward a fairer allocation of our national resources. Taxpayers shouldn’t be funding for-profit institutions, and massively wealthy colleges like Harvard should pay taxes. I’d like to see all colleges adopt UMF’s standard for percentage of tenure-track faculty. I’d also like to see more funding for programs like Upward Bound that help students prepare for and transition to college. And I’d like to see us do more to help all students see their education is something personally empowering and meaningful, not just a credential.

About Case: 

Let’s talk more about you and your work now. It’s really impressive that you could use Thoreau’s work to illuminate the topic of the humanities and the public classroom. I think many people are wondering how one even begins to construct something coherent out of what appears to be two huge and distinct topics?

That’s an easy one: I was an English major, which taught me to make connections between different topics, different disciplines, different writers, to hold different ideas in my head and the same time. It might be the most practical skill I’ve ever learned.

Moreover, much of your career is focused around Thoreau, how do you stay interested in his works/continue to find material to think about?

That’s a great question. The amazing thing is, and I think this is true of anything, the more you learn the more you realize how much more there is to learn, how deep it goes. Thoreau wrote every day of his adult life, and his writing touches on about every facet of life. He was a poet, a philosopher, a scientist, a musician, a political activist. I could get advanced degrees in a dozen fields and he’d still be ahead of me because for him all those things were organically connected, connected to his lived experience, which of course I’ll never know. But it’s wonderful to keep learning, to develop a sort of intimacy with someone in the past. It feels to me like I have a very interesting and provocative and sometimes exasperating but always brilliant friend, who happens to live in the nineteenth century.

Kristen Case teaches courses in American Literature, environmental writing, and the intersection of 20th- and 21st-century American literature and philosophy at the University of Maine Farmington. She has published articles on Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost and Ezra Pound and is the author of American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice: Crosscurrents from Emerson to Susan Howe (Camden House, 2011). Her poems have appeared in Chelsea, The Brooklyn Review, Pleiades, Saint Ann’s Review, The Iowa Review, Wave Composition, and Eleven Eleven. Her chapbook, Temple, is forthcoming from Miel Books. She is the editor of The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies. Her essay, “The Other Public Humanities” recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sabbatical Update: Dan Gunn

English Professor Dan Gunn has taught at UMF since 1980, offering courses, in the history and theory of the English novel, including Shakespeare and Samuel Richardson. He has written on Jane Austen, George Eliot, Samuel Richardson, James Joyce, and Talking Heads, among other subjects. During his time at UMF, he has served as Faculty Senate Chair, Chair of the Humanities Division, Acting Dean of Arts and Sciences, and Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He has published critical essays on Jane Austen, George Eliot, James Joyce, Samuel Richardson, and other novelists in distinguished academic journals, including Narrative, Nineteenth-Century Literature, James Joyce Quarterly, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction. He has also published occasional essays in the Georgia Review, the Iowa Review, the Ohio Review and other magazines. He won a fellowship to the National Humanities Center in 1988, a UMF Trustee Professorship in 2003, and the Theo Kalikow Award in 2014.

Dan is currently on a year-long sabbatical that began Fall 2014. Recently, he has been in Farmington, where he has been working in the library, participating in the Emerson reading group, and singing in the community chorus. In the spring, he will hold an appointment as Visiting Professor of English at the Université du Maine in Le Mans in March, and he and his wife will be living together in France and Italy for three months.

This last fall he worked on an essay about narration and free indirect discourse in Henry James’s The Ambassadors, and he hopes, this spring, to turn to a second essay, on the figure of the absent mother in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. He has also preparing three lectures he will be giving in France: one on history, representation and self-representation in Richard II and TransAtlantic, which will be a plenary address at the “Historical Auto/Biographies in the Arts” conference in Le Mans; a second on children in Jane Austen, featured in the Université du Maine 3LAM research group’s “EN/JEU” series, on childhood and adolescence; and a third on the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and its aftermath.

Although he is enjoying the time he has to work on the aforementioned projects, he is also enjoying the time he has for pleasure reading, including Trollope’s Barsetshire novels; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah; Thomas Pikety’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century; Bill Roorbach’s The Remedy for Love; Janet Browne’s biography of Charles Darwin; George Saunders’ The Tenth of December; Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle; and other books.

He will return to UMF full-time teaching Fall 2015.

Dr. Karen Hellekson: Doctor Who and Fan Studies Presentation

Dr. Karen Hellekson is a renowned fan studies and Doctor Who scholar. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Kansas, where she also studied science fiction. She’s published several articles, two books, and coedited three books. Most of her work is within the science fiction and fan communities. Doctor Who Poster

Dr. Misty Krueger, a professor of English at UMF, calls Dr. Karen Hellekson “a database of Doctor Who knowledge.”

This riveting presentation, “Affirmational and Transformational Doctor Who Fan Videos,” illustrated a broader view of fandoms, fannish communities, and fan fiction than what many people are familiar. Moreover, as a whole, her career illuminates the modern day applicability and relevance of the English degree.

Fan fiction is broken up into two types of texts: affirmational and transformational.

Affirmational texts

  • Created by men
  • Restate the source material
  • Affirm the creator and/or producer
  • Fan sanctioned by creator

Transformational texts

  • Created by women
  • Twist and manipulate source material
  • Creator and/or producer are not relevant
  • Fans are unsanctioned by creator

Why transform?

It creates community, celebrates the text, critiques the text or culture, provides character studies, and positions text from the preferred fan meaning. Furthermore, transformational texts are a site of critique, often on women, gender, culture, or the text itself. The text is transformed to make a larger point beyond the source material.

Dr. Hellekson’s talk was part of the continuing Lectures in the Arts and Humanities Series at UMF, jointly sponsored by the Honors Program, the Humanities Division, and the department of Sound, Performance, and Visual Inquiry.


A brief and powerful interview with Karen Hellekson:

It’s really interesting that you’ve continued to do scholarship although your career path is not an academic one. I’m wondering if you would comment on what English majors who aren’t interested in teaching might do?

My day job is in publishing, which is a good field for English majors. I copyedit journal articles and books in the scientific, technical, and medical market, which I had to learn all about, as I do not have a technical background. I thought I wanted to be a college professor, so I got a PhD, only to discover that I did not enjoy teaching. However, I had already begun to publish and present in my field, science fiction. (I went to the University of Kansas specifically to study SF literature with Professor James Gunn, who is now retired). My interests then broadened to include fan studies, and I was able to leverage my background in both journal production and scholarship into editing a peer-reviewed academic journal in fan studies, “Transformative Works and Cultures” (http://journal.transformativeworks.org/).

Also, I’m guessing a lot of people are surprised when they find out you’re a professional fan and scholar of Doctor Who, because it sounds like it couldn’t possibly be a real thing, but rather the teenage fantasy of thousands… How would you respond to this? How did you turn your love of Doctor Who and fan fiction into a career?

I’ve loved Doctor Who since 1982! So it’s been a long time! It actually turns out that you can leverage pretty much anything into scholarship, because it’s all out there: all sorts of TV shows and films, all sorts of genres (SF, westerns, fantasy, cop shows…), plus all sorts of engagement with them. When I was at the University of Kansas in the 1990s, science fiction was just mainstreaming as a teachable form of literature; now I see the same thing happening with fan studies and video games.

Fan engagement and scholarly engagement are actually quite similar. In my talk I showed fan-created videos, and I argued that these videos are actually a form of criticism of the show. The videos are fulfilling the same function as an English paper about, say, a Shakespeare play. The critical impulse is identical: you want to make a point about a text. It’s just that the text you’re assessing is Doctor Who instead of a Shakespeare play, and the form that assessment takes is a video made up of clips set to music, instead of a written text. Of course the creative criticism doesn’t have to take the form of a video. It could also be in manipulated images, icon sets, GIFs, avatar blanks, freehand sketches, music, written fiction, or hyperlinked text/images/whatever. It could even be handiworks like knitting projects or homemade sonic screwdrivers, or costumes (cosplay). There are many, many ways to engage. And it’s likely that if you are in fandom, you’ll find a group with like interests.

Fans tend to spend a lot of time learning about their fandom, just like scholars spend a lot of time learning about their fields. It isn’t that much of a stretch to use the critical methodology, close reading skills, and modes of analysis I learned as an English student and apply them to other, non-written texts—texts that I was already paying a lot of attention to. Applying various modes of analysis is pretty easy.

Several other scholars are working on Doctor Who (and Doctor Who fans!) who are far better known than I am, including Matt Hills and Paul Booth. However, as an independent scholar (the term means only that I am not affiliated with or supported by a university), I’m almost unique. There are very few independent scholars out there. It’s kind of an expensive hobby, with travel to various places to give talks, plus memberships in organizations who publish academic journals, which you have to be a member of before they will publish your paper.

I’d love to be able to share the videos you presented on the blog. Is that possible? And, if so, would you link me to where they’re on your blog?

http://khellekson.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/worldcon-talk-2014-08-18/

You can link directly to the YouTube ones, but please don’t link directly to the fan-created ones, unless you obtain permission directly from the creators.

During the presentation, she explained that video creators, often times, consider their videos private; therefore, attaining permission to share them is important. She received permission to show the videos in her presentation.

Alumni Interview: Jennifer Pizzi

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Jennifer and her husband

Tell us about yourself.:

I currently reside in Truckee, California (North Lake Tahoe Community). I moved here in 2008 after graduation. Originally, I grew up in Braintree, Mass just south of Boston before relocating to Farmington in 2002 to attend college. I began as a secondary education major, but wound up with a unique Bachelor of Arts combining studies of English Literature with Philosophy, as well as ascertaining a Philosophy minor. In college, I worked everywhere in town it seems (Granary, Front St. Tavern, the Shipyard at Sugarloaf) but most of my college employment was spent bartending at the Bag and Kettle while juggling being a part time snowboard coach for Carrabassett Valley Academy. I am presently pursing a master’s degree in journalism at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada Reno. After graduation, I dabbled in writing for a small east coast ski magazine “Steez” based out of Beverly, Mass for a few years, but mainly, I have spent the last 12 years working full-time in the restaurant industry, chasing the snow, and enjoying life in the mountains.

What are some of your most memorable moments at UMF?:

Participating In a May semester in Italy was awesome. Snowboarding in the Italian Dolomites during a winter term that went back to Italy was probably the best college experience.

How did your time at UMF help you beyond the classroom?:

So many ways. Moving to rural western Maine from a large suburb of Boston was one of the most humbling and defining experiences of my life. UMF and the Farmington community showed me how to slow down, demonstrate acts of kindness to others, and to enjoy the simpler things in life. The community portrayed a resilience of character and level of generosity I had not ever recognized in my adolescence—I carry that with me everywhere—always. At first I remember feeling frustrated in a small town, the tiny classroom sizes annoyed me, but by the end I truly recognized how it personalized my education and triggered my development as a caring and contributing adult.

What advice do you have for current or prospective students?:

Embrace the intimacy of the classroom, peers, and faculty. In the world outside the University, it is all about connections and relationships. I am not sure what the English department requirements for graduation are but we were never required to do an internship.  If this has still not become part of the curriculum, take the initiative to find one.  Reach out to community members and faculty to guide you.  A degree in English is only as impactful as you choose to make it.  While I cherish my undergraduate education, I struggled to apply it to a profession and, ultimately, found myself philosophizing from behind the bar for 10 years too long. Find an internship. Find two, if you need to.

Jennifer and her college roommate, Becky, on a trip into the Dolomites when staying in Venice during a winter term abroad with UMF.

Jennifer and her college roommate, Becky, on a trip into the Dolomites while staying in Venice during a winter term abroad with UMF.

What type of students should consider majoring in English at UMF?:

Creative thinkers and pipe-dreamers. A strong reader will develop into a strong writer. Writers will always be needed.

What do you see yourself doing in the future (10- 20 years)?:

I tell you that is a loaded question. And I don’t have the answer. I am further from it now, than I have ever been in the past. I am hoping that this education will open new doors for me. When I graduated from UMF, I wanted to get involved in publishing. It was a tough time to graduate and try to get into a transitioning industry. 22 year old Jen wanted to work for an outdoor magazine and travel. 30 year old Jen wants stability, flexibility, healthcare and a 401k. Out of my current pursuit in education, I hope to ascertain the skills that will guide me through use of basic technology and help me be able to land a job where I can creatively write content for an active company, preferably related to the snow-sport industry. I am seeking the balance between maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle, paired with a career that will challenge my intellect and put my education into practice.

Outside the Ordinary: A Review of Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary

Outside the Ordinary: A Review of Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary

By Tyler M. Michaud

The following doesn’t contain any spoilers

Originally published in 2009 by first-time American author Nick Burd, The Vast Fields of Ordinary is classified as a work of LGBT Young Adult Fiction. Since its release the book has had impressive success. It won the Stonewall Book Award in the Children’s and Young Adult Literature category. It was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT Children’s/Young Adult literature. It was added to Booklist’s 2010 Rainbow List. The New York Times listed it as one of the most notable books of 2009. And, this captivating novel earned Burd a place on the “OUT 100,” which pays tribute to people that make significant contributions to the LGBTQ community and culture [1]. TheVastFieldsofOrdinary

The novel explores the summer after Dade Hamilton graduates from high school—his last summer at home. Dade’s life appears to be ordinary from the outside. He works at the local grocery store, Food World. His family lives in an up-and-coming, wealthy suburban neighborhood. He’s socially awkward and the target of insults from the cool crowd, but his “boyfriend,” Pablo, is popular, so ideally he’d be safe.

Except, things aren’t as they appear. In fact, the more we learn about this suburbia, the more we realize that life beneath the surface is quite complicated. Dade is a closeted homosexual. His parents are on the brink of divorce. His job at Food World is anything but the stereotypical low-stress, part-time job. The cherry on top? Pablo refuses to openly acknowledge their relationship, probably because he’s dating one of the popular girls, which explains why the in-crowd targets Dade. 

The Vast Fields of Ordinary is a gay coming-of-age novel. Over the course of the summer, Dade comes to terms with the different layers of himself and the world around him. He falls in love with the dreamy Alex Kincaid, who teaches him to live in the moment and for himself. The “troubled girl” from down the block, Lucy, turns out to be wholly wonderful, and the best friend which Dade never knew he needed. By the end, Dade figures out that life is hard, but it’s also elastic; it’s able to bounce back.

This is my second time reading it. The first time was my sophomore year of high school. At that time, I considered it to be the novel to trump all novels. For years, everything I read was compared to it. To say I loved this book would be an understatement. Now, as a senior in college (~five years later), I decided to reread it, although I feared that, in my mind, I’d built it up too much. Plus, the thought lingered, what if I hated it? Alas, I really, really liked it. But, it’s not the perfect novel younger me labeled it.

My major thoughts are as follows (I’ll spare you a word for word review of the novel.): First, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Dade. Although, in my opinion, he’s not the most dynamic character, he’s true. His voice is unique and convincing. He struggles with love, friendship, self-discovery and acceptance, all of which are universal issues. Most interestingly, I noticed that rereading this book has changed my perspective on pretty much every character. Dade, for example, is incredibly self-involved (Did I not notice this because as a teenager I was the same way? Oops. Sorry, Dad.) It’s not that he’s unkind, but he views everyone’s problems as they relate to his own.

Alex, the love interest, is a manic pixie dream girl (MPDG), if you will. The MPDG is a common trope in pop culture: 

Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005), describes the MPDG as ‘that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures’. MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up; thus, their men never grow up. [2]

However, this is arguably why Alex is enchanting. Actually, when I start to think about him realistically, I find that his charm completely melts away, exposing something quite ugly. Yet another way my perspective has changed—younger me loved Alex.

Pablo is by far the most dynamic and unique character in this novel. I used to hate him, although I’ve always been able to sympathize with him. However, now he’s my favorite character. Throughout the novel Pablo changes from the selfish guy that uses Dade to explore his sexuality, to somebody broken and aching for a fix, and, finally, to a person that’s all too real—however terrible this may be. The way Burd weaves Pablo into the story is interesting, because Pablo isn’t overly present in the action itself; rather, he’s ever-present in Dade’s thoughts.

Early-on in the novel, the secondary plot is introduced. A girl with autism goes missing from her yard. This story arch is threaded throughout the whole book. It’s done in a way that make me believe that it serves a larger purpose than how I currently understand it, that being it adds action to a social-based story. I did and still feel like I’m missing something. Maybe reading it a third time will help? 

Burd’s writing is beautiful, eloquent, and sincere, and yet unforced. It’s capable of tugging at your heartstrings and awakening your mind without the gratuitous voice some authors wield:

“I stopped wanting to float away from my life, because in the end my life was all I had. I’d walk the Fairmont campus and look up to the sky and I wouldn’t see myself drifting off like some lost balloon. Instead I saw the size of the world and found comfort in its hugeness. I’d think back to those times when I felt like everything was closing in on me, those times when I thought I was stuck, and I realized that I was wrong. There is always hope. The world is vast and meant for wandering. There is always somewhere else to go.” [3]

Just like the first time I read it, after finishing the novel I had to separate myself from the book to calm down. I would recommend this book to anybody interested in realistic young adult fiction, people interested in LGBT issues, and people that want a story that is more driven by character than plot. It doesn’t surprise me that it made such an impact in the YA and LGBT communities—it’s exquisite.

The Vast Fields of Ordinary

Nick Burd

309 pages. Published by Dial.

Hardcover: $12.67, paperback: $6.51 (amazon.com)


References

1. “The Vast Fields of Ordinary.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

2. “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

3. “Nick Burd Quotes.” Goodreads: Nick Burd Quotes (Author of The Vast Fields of Ordinary). Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

Alumni Interview: Ian Davis

Tell us about yourself.: IMG_0785

I graduated from UMF in December 2011, having spent a year at Bennington College and then two and a half at Farmington. I’m now working on being a student in the English PhD program at Princeton University, where I study twentieth-century literature and theory. I live in Princeton with a sweet polar bear of a dog named Olivia.

What are some of your most memorable moments at UMF?:

I remember meeting Dan Gunn for the first time. I was one of three new advisees; he asked us why we wanted to study literature, listened carefully, responded thoughtfully, and then took us out to ice cream. I remember midnight pie at the Irving out toward Wilton. I remember going down to the river with friends on spring nights. Also, there were books: Joyce and Eliot with Dan Gunn, Thoreau and Dickinson with Kristen Case, Cervantes with Eric Brown; and all the others, all the others. And once, during a test, I got real excited realizing there is no difference between form and matter.

What makes studying English at UMF unique?:

I haven’t studied English at many other places, and am not sure if I have any authority on that. What made it wonderful for me, though, I could say that ––– the professors are some of the most brilliant, caring, and dedicated people I’ve known. The rest of my life will be in their wake, in their debt.

How did your time at UMF help you beyond the classroom?:

Oh, that’s tough; the classroom leaks too much to say things like that. It gets you better at everything, probably: reading, decisions, courage, sass, writing, dying, breadbaking. About once a month I learn responsibility again and pay bills and hand in paperwork, which I never did before, so. I’m pretty sure Djuna Barnes taught me how to love better. I’m also a little better at punning; not much, but enough to get by, which is good.

What advice do you have for current or prospective students?:

Try to give less advice and more listening. Listen to Sylvan Esso’s self-titled new album. Read Walden with an open heart. Sharing is caring. Be hip, but in a nice way. Try to remember what George Eliot wrote to Charles Bray: “If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.” Also, try not to take too much advice.

I don’t have any concrete plans. The dog seems pretty convinced we have a lot more walks to take, so probably that. I’d like to teach, too, and write things, a few more things. I wouldn’t mind being useful either, but who knows about that.

Alumni Interview: Mike Minchin

Tell us about yourself.: unnamed-300x225

I graduated from UMF in 2006. Since Graduation I’ve worked full time as a Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer, for three years at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire and for the past five years at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vermont. In January 2014, I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with my MFA in writing. My fiction has recently received Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train. Currently, I’m at work on short stories and essays. I live in Bethel, Vermont with my wife and two children.

What are some of your most memorable moments at UMF?:

I enjoyed my time at UMF a great deal, so it’s hard to pick out just a few moments. But I recall taking a Cuban literature class that gave me a new perspective on a culture I knew little about. I have to say, that was a really fun class. The discussions we had were often stimulating and insightful, and the stories and novels we read changed the way I thought about Cuba. I have a lot of great memories of skiing with friends at Saddleback and Sugarloaf, fishing on the Sandy River, hiking in the Bigelows, among other adventures.

What makes studying English at UMF unique?:

What struck me about the English program at UMF was that I always felt like I had ample opportunities to engage with other students, to participate in class, to discuss literature and really be part of the ongoing conversation. I enjoyed the small class sizes and the way we would sometimes sit around the perimeter of the room, facing each other, going back and forth with questions or comments. I like that small-group feel so much more than sitting in a large lecture hall. In another sense, what is remarkable about UMF is that you have a quality university situated in one of the most desirable spots in Maine in terms of outdoor recreation. I felt lucky to be studying just a short drive from the Bigelow Preserve and Saddleback Mountain, among other places.

How did your time at UMF help you beyond the classroom?:

My time at UMF has helped me in many ways. As a practical example, the skills I developed as an English major—analyzing and interpreting writing, doing research, forming my ideas into thoughtful essays—helped me a great deal when I was working on my MFA degree, which involved not only creative writing but substantial amounts of critical essay writing and research. In my daily work at the hospital, I’m communicating all the time with colleagues, usually in writing, via e-mail. I’ve written letters designed to help our department move forward in one area or another, and often these letters are of the persuasive nature, so I need to back up my arguments in the most concise and articulate ways possible.

What advice do you have for current or prospective students?:

For current students: First, I hope you consider it a privilege to be a UMF student. It’s such a great opportunity, and it can lead you almost anywhere. As an undergraduate, you have a lot of helpful people and resources available to you. My advice: take advantage of those resources as much as possible. For example, even if you haven’t considered graduate school, I would encourage you to do some research into graduate studies as early as freshman year. You might stumble upon something that really interests you. There are alternative ways to pay for graduate school in some cases, so don’t let the cost stop you from at least seeing what’s out there. Talk to your professors, ask questions. Graduate school for me was about exploring what I was passionate about, and I couldn’t have done it without my undergraduate degree.

For prospective students: I can only tell you that my experience at UMF was a positive one. I’ve attended several colleges and universities, both undergraduate and graduate, and UMF was one of the best. Farmington is a great place to live and study if you want to avoid the bustle of city life. In my case, I had the chance to graduate from a private college, but I’m glad I chose UMF for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. But beyond all that, I’m in no way convinced that spending four times the money (or more) on tuition at a private college equates to a better education.

What type of students should consider majoring in English at UMF?:

You know, I think the English major covers so much ground, that anyone interested in a well-rounded education should consider English as a major. But certainly anyone who has a particular interest in the written word, or the spoken word, or just a love of language itself, in all its different forms, should consider majoring in English. It’s a luxury and simply enriching to immerse oneself in literature, to learn about people from all over the world. In my mind, education is not just about mastering a certain set of skills. There are certainly tangible skills that come from studying English, but I think the education alone, the time you spend thinking and conversing and writing about works of literature, is worth a great deal. Practically speaking, the English degree is useful simply because there are so many careers that require careful attention to language and the ability to think critically and write competently.

What do you see yourself doing in the future (10 – 20 years)?:

In the next few years, I’m hoping to develop a writing workshop here in Vermont, possibly at my town library. This would likely be a free workshop to participants and voluntary on my part, and I think it will be a lot of fun. In the long run, I could see myself teaching in a more formal setting. But, for now, my primary focus is creating new works of fiction and new essays on the craft of writing.

Alumni Interview: Hayden Golden

Hayden Golden

Tell us about yourself.: 

I graduated in 2008 and I currently work as an Organizer for the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan representing unionized adjuncts and graduate students. I help them in collective bargaining, developing leaders on campus, and building a regional coalition of faith leaders, community organizations, and political allies. Before that, I worked on a legislative campaign in Rhode Island and the Yes on 1 same-sex marriage campaign in Maine.

I graduated in 2008 and I currently work as an Organizer for the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan representing unionized adjuncts and graduate students. I help them in collective bargaining, developing leaders on campus, and building a regional coalition of faith leaders, community organizations, and political allies. Before that, I worked on a legislative campaign in Rhode Island and the Yes on 1 same-sex marriage campaign in Maine.

What are some of your most memorable moments at UMF?:

In my time at UMF, there were two events that stand out as the most profound in my education. In 2010-11, the faculty put together an amazing series on indigenous art and literature featuring William Yellow Robe, Jr. and Georgina Lightning. Interacting with these amazing people was a great lesson in how literature, film, and performance can be instruments of social justice that push for a new kind of discourse around Native communities, their often tragic histories, and their sovereignty. That same year UMF hosted Bill Ayers and Lincoln Auditorium was packed! He’s this radical scholar and people tend to have strong feelings about him because of his involvement with the Weather Underground, but he spoke about how classrooms and the academy create power structures that actually inhibit democracy. I think that the year culminated in a major shift in my writing and thought: I moved away from reflective and distant writing and the stereotype of the scholar secluded in the ivory tower thinking great thoughts toward intensely political and engaged writing.

What makes studying English at UMF unique?:

Having worked with higher ed institutions across Michigan for about a year now, I’ve noticed that they tend to host one or two big speakers a year. I guess that’s cool if you want to see Noam Chomsky or Slavoj Zizek, but at UMF there are scholars coming throughout the year. It means that students get to practice learning outside the classroom more than students at bigger schools. It’s not to say that big name schools don’t have scholarly activities going on, just that perhaps they’re more easily overlooked in an academic environment where too much is happening for students to keep track of it all.

I’d also say that studying English at UMF is innately collaborative. The faculty push students to read outside the field and consult scholars in other disciplines. Sure, we can read about having a room of one’s own, but our ability to truly understand it and incorporate it into today’s discourse comes from reading Annette Kolodny or Jack Halberstam. Once we get past our core classes, we’ve got the fundamentals of writing down and we know how to pick a single line of poetry or even a few words and extract pages of meaning, but then the faculty pull you out of that microcosm and force you to confront all kinds of new knowledge, even if messes with your thesis. You learn at once how to learn from the smallest of details and glean as much knowledge as possible from myriad sources.

How did your time at UMF help you beyond the classroom?:

It’s influenced my current work as an Organizer fighting for a future where faculty and grad students aren’t paid according to their discipline, but according to their labor. Whenever some administrator at the bargaining table asks why we need to raise wages for grad students in the social sciences and humanities, I do take that personally because they’ve placed (an arbitrarily) higher value in STEM fields. More importantly, I’ve got loads of data showing why majoring in English is vital and why our stereotype about beatnik-quoting baristas is actually a myth.

What advice do you have for current or prospective students?:

Study something that makes you uncomfortable and don’t believe that grad school is the only option. And if you are sure that grad school is the answer, think about American Studies.

What type of students should consider majoring in English at UMF?:

I don’t know that I can pigeonhole a “type” of person for the English major, but I’d encourage everyone who’s studying English to double major. I know from experience that you can do it in four years (if that’s what you’re worried about), but more importantly, it’s a chance to give yourself breadth and depth; you’ll encounter all kinds of new materials, but you’ll also find fascinating points of intersection.

What do you see yourself doing in the future (10- 20 years)?:

Well, I’ve been working on my Master’s in Social Work for a couple of years now, so I’d really like to have that finished up. And in 10 or 20 years, I’d still like to be engaged in social justice work, but I’d like 20 hours a week to be considered full time. In the technology-laden world we live in where productivity has increased consistently since the mid-1960s, doesn’t 40 hours seem like an insane standard? I’d spend a lot more time reading if 20 hours was full time and maybe get around to reading Middlemarch or one of 50 other “classics” BuzzFeed keeps telling me I’ve missed.