In a Lonely Place (Uncreative Writing)

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

in-a-lonely-placeAs some­one who teaches cre­ative writ­ing, I recently did my pro­fes­sional duty and explored the “uncre­ative writ­ing” ideas of Ken­neth Gold­smith. This led me to his com­pan­ion anthol­ogy, Against Expres­sion, co-edited with Craig Dworkin. Since much of my writ­ing has been labeled uncre­ative before even hear­ing of this move­ment, imag­ine my relief. Mar­jorie Perlof has also writ­ten pos­i­tively about this move­ment, so I can safely assume that she’s also prais­ing me in the process (in a net­work theory/Kevin Bacon sort of way).

With all of that said, I will now, on the world stage, pre­mier my first “offi­cial” work of uncre­ative writ­ing. This mas­ter­work, which is free to any­one in a rush to anthol­o­gize it, is the full mar­gin­a­lia from my used copy of Dorothy B. Hughes’s clas­sic noir, In a Lonely Place.


In a Lonely Place, or, A Novel in Marginalia

[Twenty-seven silent pages]

damn, she really doesn’t like him lol Con­tinue read­ing


The (Next) Next Poet Laureate

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

The Next Next Poet Laureate

The Next Next Poet Laureate

It is com­mon knowl­edge that The Library of Con­gress hangs on my every word. If there’s a week that passes with­out some­one over at the LoC call­ing me up and ask­ing for direc­tion, then I cer­tainly don’t know about it. Still, it appears that James Billing­ton, the actual librar­ian of Con­gress, has gone ahead and named Charles Wright the next Poet Lau­re­ate of the United States—without check­ing with me.

Now, this post isn’t about Charles Wright’s work–it’s about the posi­tion of Poet Lau­re­ate and how that might con­nect to the fact that the major­ity of U.S. cit­i­zens could give a fat frog’s ass about poetry. Maybe, just maybe, the Poet Lau­re­ate could help alle­vi­ate that defi­ciency in some way (which is why Natasha Tretheway’s being named to the post was so encour­ag­ing). Here’s the deal: you need more than a dec­o­rated poet for the honor; you need a poet who can enthu­si­as­ti­cally attract peo­ple to poetry as both cre­ators and audience.

So what’s up with the process? This sen­tence from the New York Times gives us a behind-the-Congress look:

Explain­ing his choice, James Billing­ton, the librar­ian of Con­gress, said that as he read through the work of a dozen or so final­ists, he kept com­ing back to Mr. Wright’s haunt­ing poems, many of them gath­ered in a Dante-esque cycle of three trilo­gies known infor­mally as “The Appalachian Book of the Dead.” (Empha­sis mine)

I have to ask: why limit con­sid­er­a­tion to the page? If you’re look­ing for some­one to spread the word and pros­e­ly­tize, wouldn’t it make more sense to lis­ten to the work? Instead of read­ing the pub­lished poems in a quite room as a form of delib­er­a­tion, why not go to the poetry as it is per­formed? Could a ‘slam poet’ be named the U.S. Poet Lau­re­ate? Why not?

So, as a way of facil­i­tat­ing this process (and, one time only, I will do this free of charge), I will now name the next next Poet Lau­re­ate: Tay­lor Mali (or some­one just as dynamic).

First, the man works with young peo­ple for a liv­ing. Sec­ond, he is an amaz­ing per­former. In all the years I’ve been teach­ing cre­ative writ­ing, the day that stu­dents first hear Tay­lor Mali is always a water­shed. Jaws drop. The excite­ment he gen­er­ates is tan­gi­ble, and he’s one of the few poets whose work I hear dis­cussed in social cir­cles out­side of poetry. If you don’t know Tay­lor Mali’s voice, the audio­book Con­vic­tion is where I got started, and the follow-up Icarus Air­lines is also very strong. Even if you don’t rec­og­nize the name, you’ve likely encoun­tered viral repost­ings of Mali’s work, such as “What Teach­ers Make,” “The Impo­tence of Proof­read­ing,” “Voice of Amer­ica Voiceover,” and my per­sonal favorite, “Tony Stein­berg: Brave Sev­enth Grade Viking War­rior.”

Lis­ten to any of the above titles at the pro­vided links. I dare you to not be captivated.

So, picker(s) of Poet Lau­re­ates, let’s try to acknowl­edge that poetry exists beyond the page and finds life in the human voice. A lit­tle pop­ulism wouldn’t hurt. In other words, Library of Con­gress, don’t make me come down there.

With that ser­vice per­formed, behold:




Teaching in the Shiny Future

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

National Library of Ireland via the Serindip-o-matic

National Library of Ire­land via the Serindip-o-matic

Last week was won­der­ful: I attended the Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties Sum­mer Insti­tute (DHSI) in Vic­to­ria, British Colum­bia, where I met gag­gles and flocks of geniuses, played Cana­dian kick­ball with Scott Wein­gart, and tried to learn as much as I could about how I might apply net­work the­ory to my teach­ing. I’m inter­ested in dig­i­tal human­i­ties, regard­less of tent size or appel­la­tion, and I also work at an insti­tu­tion that is exclu­sively under­grad­u­ate where the human­i­ties are concerned—so dur­ing DHSI my ear was par­tic­u­larly attuned to how peo­ple talk about teaching.

This year’s con­fer­ence included “Birds of a Feather” talks, where two or more speak­ers pre­sented briefly on a topic and then the forum opened for ques­tions and dia­logue. The first ses­sion, on some per­mu­ta­tion of “The Future of Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties,” was remark­able to me for one rea­son: forty-five min­utes into the ses­sion, none of the speak­ers or audi­ence mem­bers had men­tioned teach­ing or stu­dents; I don’t believe the word “teach­ing” had lit­er­ally been spo­ken. I tweeted from the back row, as is my wont, and the hash­tag stream flowed down the room’s large screen. Inter­est­ingly, some mem­bers in the audi­ence picked up on the tweets ask­ing “What about teach­ing?” and asked the pan­elists about this. In short, the ques­tion was deflected, or pos­si­bly mis­un­der­stood, or maybe not of inter­est. It felt like one of those moments where some­one makes an obscure ref­er­ence in a con­ver­sa­tion and the rest of the par­tic­i­pants pause their way into awk­ward silence. And even when teach­ing was explic­itly mentioned—by pre­sen­ter Erin Tem­ple­ton in the Birds of a Feather ses­sion two days later—she had to exert con­sid­er­able effort to ask the audi­ence, “Where is teach­ing in the future of dig­i­tal human­i­ties?” This was largely derailed by the first ref­er­ence to the MLA report on the future of human­i­ties PhD s (who hap­pen to be, well, stu­dents). Con­tinue read­ing


Pedagogy and Digital Humanities (for a change?)

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Digres­sive Intro!

InstrumentsThe writ­ing pro­duc­tion here at Sad Iron has always been slow, and that’s left me won­der­ing if I should shut this blog down. There are com­pet­ing ver­sions as to why:

Ver­sion 1: What I’ve dis­cov­ered over the last two years is that aca­d­e­mics with a pub­lic voice—blogs, Twit­ter, Facebook—are pro­fes­sion­als who can quickly develop a rep­u­ta­tion for being con­fronta­tional. With that gloss comes an ironic badge: I’m assum­ing that I am merely one among many who find that your sin­gle post on social media attracts more atten­tion in the space of an hour than does the semes­ters’ worth of work you’ve put forth in the estab­lished machin­ery of campus/institutional gov­er­nance. Hon­estly, I have no capac­ity for inter­pret­ing this real­ity in the way it deserves. Fur­ther­more, every­thing I’ve writ­ten on this blog about higher edu­ca­tion is being said more elo­quently and force­fully in other spaces by bril­liant and inspir­ing aca­d­e­mics. Peep the blogroll.

Ver­sion 2: The peo­ple I admire most in my pro­fes­sion are those who put their heads down and do the work while believ­ing in the work. As a cre­ative writer, I have long emu­lated this “head down” spirit, with social media being a very recent devel­op­ment in my much longer pro­fes­sional life. I find I’m much bet­ter at the work, specif­i­cally teach­ing, than I am at being a social/political/educational critic. How do I know? The effects of the for­mer far exceed those of the lat­ter, both empir­i­cally and emotionally.

So what’s the point? If I do keep this thing going I’ll try to shift toward writ­ing largely about ped­a­gogy and my expe­ri­ences work­ing with stu­dents. If I were to do that right now, that would allow me to shift into, of course, dig­i­tal human­i­ties, the chum for your school’s inner shark.

Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties is Tak­ing Over My Eng­lish Department!

You're taking over my department!

You’re tak­ing over my department!

About two years ago now, I met Ryan Cordell for the first time in a cof­fee house in DePere, Wis­con­sin (thank you so much, gen­er­ous soul). I had become inter­ested in what peo­ple were call­ing “dig­i­tal human­i­ties,” and Ryan was our local mad sci­en­tist. Since that meet­ing, I’ve worked with col­leagues to begin infus­ing our cur­ricu­lum with dig­i­tal human­i­ties work and ped­a­gogy, and this past spring semes­ter saw our cam­pus’ first offer­ing of Intro­duc­tion to Dig­i­tal and Pub­lic Human­i­ties. It’s no secret that there are haters out there when it comes to “dig­i­tal human­i­ties,” and the best advice I can give to folks who find them­selves involved in the result­ing argu­ments (as I have) is not to care—all that mat­ters is the qual­ity and mean­ing of the work, no mat­ter what appel­la­tion that work is assigned. At the DH Com­mons event held at the 2013 MLA in Boston, Jen­tery Say­ers said some­thing that stuck with me. I’m para­phras­ing, but the spirit of Jentery’s com­ment was, In the end, nobody is really going to care if your project is a “Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties” project; they’re only going to care about the project.  All I have to say to that is: Word. [Dis­claimer: this doesn’t mean that you should not pre­tend that there is an offi­cial DH Head­quar­ters beneath a moun­tain some­where that sends out mono­lithic march­ing orders to all of “us,” the surveillance-loving admir­ers of shiny things.]

So, as a sleeper-agent, here are some things I’ve/we’ve done over the past year in our Human­i­ties depart­ment that involve dig­i­tal approaches: Con­tinue read­ing


Yes, Let’s Talk ROI and the Myth of ‘Accountability’

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Image: Hilary Perkins

Image: Hilary Perkins

As all nine read­ers of this blog can attest, I tend to focus on lan­guage and our increas­ing inabil­ity to use it in any ser­vice­able man­ner when dis­cussing higher edu­ca­tion. Nearly all buzz­words emerge from ulte­rior dog whis­tles, with “account­able” and “account­abil­ity” being major offend­ers in this regard. With the release of Payscale’s ROI col­lege rank­ings, “account­abil­ity” is in the air again, with Jor­dan Weiss­mann offer­ing up this mar­vel of mis­un­der­stand­ing in the sub­header to his March 31st piece at Slate (I won’t link): “Aca­d­e­mics might not like it, but schools should be held account­able.” Right. Because as we all know, aca­d­e­mics con­trol cost at their insti­tu­tions, arbi­trar­ily set­ting tuition, stu­dent fees, tech­nol­ogy fees, build­ing projects, admin­is­tra­tor pay, and res­i­dence fees while hus­tling from one class to the next. Yes, if any­one should be scolded for the cost of col­lege, it’s…academics. (Geeze, I guess I’ve missed all of those meetings!)

But I won’t waste time there, because Cedar Riener has already fully rep­re­sented on the topic. In short, Cedar does the heavy lift­ing required when one zooms in on selec­tive, blan­ket assertions—he brings the full social sci­en­tist good­ness to remind some that fac­tors like income, race, gen­der, and selec­tive admis­sion also con­tribute to a student’s future income, as do other minor influ­ences like, well, national eco­nomic pol­icy.  Read the whole thing because it’s much more infor­ma­tive and use­ful than what I will write here. But when dis­cussing col­lege ROI and hold­ing schools (aca­d­e­mics!) account­able, it is also use­ful to zoom out, and here’s a small pic­ture of what I see when doing so. Con­tinue read­ing


The Vanishing Academic

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Storytelling, 1912, via the Serendip-o-matic.

Sto­ry­telling, 1912, via the Serendip-o-matic.

The three or four read­ers who visit this blog know how frus­trated I am with how we talk about edu­ca­tion in Amer­ica, specif­i­cally higher edu­ca­tion. This is not a unique feeling—get in line, right? My boil­er­plate take is that voices who con­sis­tently miss the big pic­ture over­whelm those who under­stand that our most sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems begin and end in state leg­is­la­tures and on Capi­tol Hill.

Still, maybe I just don’t under­stand the fetishiz­ing of whether or not some­one “loves” what they do. Maybe I don’t under­stand the relent­less codes of con­duct issued to aca­d­e­mics who are essen­tially pow­er­less in the acad­emy in the area that mat­ters most: bud­gets. Maybe I don’t under­stand the pur­pose of adopt­ing the anti-labor strate­gies of right-wing/neoliberal coali­tions that pit pow­er­less pop­u­la­tions against each other for the sake of redis­trib­ut­ing the mere crumbs from the crust of a pie. Maybe it’s eas­ier to refer to the peo­ple who are “com­plicit” instead of address­ing the larger polit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and ide­o­log­i­cal forces at work, even when these forces largely work with­out even the pre­tense of dis­guise.

Mean­while, there’s a lot of van­ish­ing going on in the higher edu­ca­tion land­scape. Con­tinue read­ing


MLA makes me think about jobs, which makes me think about cover letters and…

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

I've been sent to you by the finest people!

I’ve been sent to you by the finest people!

…advice, of course. With the MLA con­fer­ence in full swing, there are flocks of bril­liant peo­ple gath­ered in Chicago. Many of those peo­ple are search­ing for jobs…in Eng­lish! As some­one who recently spent a cou­ple hun­dred hours read­ing appli­ca­tion mate­ri­als, I thought I might don the dusty hat of advice colum­nist, if only to offer a thought or two about the cover let­ter, which is, after all, what a search com­mit­tee reads first. I know there are rivers of advice out there, and much of it is pretty darn good.  I sug­gest check­ing out Josh Eyler, who is already in the house with a nice piece on cover let­ters, as well as another on putting together a teach­ing phi­los­o­phy.

What did I see that made me want to write this post? A good por­tion of the let­ters I’ve read recently open with the same for­mula, which I will now refer to as the “dissertation/mentor” tem­plate. It reads some­thing like:

I am cur­rently fin­ish­ing my PhD at [insert rep­utable insti­tu­tion here] and will expect to grad­u­ate [soon!]. My dis­ser­ta­tion research is on [insert mad skills here] under the guid­ance of Scholar 1, Scholar 2, and Scholar 3.


In 2012, I com­pleted my PhD at [insert rep­utable insti­tu­tion here]. My dis­ser­ta­tion on [insert mad skills here] was super­vised by Scholar 1, Scholar 2, and Scholar 3. Con­tinue read­ing


Waving the White Flag on Tenured vs. Adjunct

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Here’s is an instruc­tional video that preps all three of my read­ers for this post:

It’s not even past noon on the first day of 2014 and the worst blog post/commentary on higher ed labor has already been writ­ten. Close the vot­ing peo­ple, because that baby is over! If you thought Shark­nado was too much, then prep your­self for a view­ing of Fonzie-nado, because that’s where we are now. This com­ing year, as it will be for so many oth­ers, will be incred­i­bly busy so I might as well get this post out of the way, be done with it, and just move on to work where I hope­fully have some­thing to contribute.

The usual disclosure(s): I am cur­rently a tenured pro­fes­sor, hav­ing just received tenure in my new posi­tion. This was actu­ally my sec­ond go-around with the tenure-track process, as I left a tenured posi­tion to pur­sue my cur­rent job. By stat­ing this, much of what I write in this post from this point for­ward will be dis­missed or stamped with a “well of course he feels that way!” I under­stand that and am sym­pa­thetic to the rea­sons for that response. Still, I’ll give this a try: Con­tinue read­ing


A Quick Word on the Crappy Job Market

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

via Serindip-o-matic

Image: South­ern Utah Uni­ver­sity via Serindip-o-matic

I spe­cial­ize in the obvi­ous. It’s a gift.

With this gift comes the com­pul­sion to share what is obvi­ous, if just to explic­itly annun­ci­ate some­thing for the sake of reminder, of see­ing it acknowl­edged pub­licly, you know, like when you turn to friends and say, paved road­ways are fan­tas­tic; we can go places!

Today’s swatch of the obvi­ous: the cur­rent job mar­ket in higher edu­ca­tion, specif­i­cally the human­i­ties, results in our wast­ing a ton of tal­ent, with “a ton” serv­ing as grandiose understatement.

I am cur­rently serv­ing on a search com­mit­tee, and that’s as spe­cific as I can get about that. Before tak­ing on this respon­si­bil­ity, I had been read­ing a lot about the job market—the steep num­ber of appli­ca­tions, the deep pools filled with already tenurable dossiers–and thought much of what was being said and writ­ten about the appli­cant end of the process was over­stated. It’s not. Not one bit. (The hir­ing end of things is another story for another day.)

Con­tinue read­ing


Staying “Relevant” in the Humanities

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak


Courtesy DPLA via Serendip-o-matic

Cour­tesy DPLA via Serendip-o-matic

I just had the plea­sure of sit­ting through the tenure hear­ings of three ded­i­cated, bril­liant col­leagues. The event was strange for me because, even though I am now tenured at my cur­rent insti­tu­tion, I’ve actu­ally been there for less time than those who were under con­sid­er­a­tion. Given that, I went in with my reli­able strat­egy of “lis­ten, learn, and respect.”

Sen­si­ble peo­ple in higher ed would agree that lis­ten­ing to col­leagues dis­cuss their teach­ing ideas, projects, and research proves to be a hum­bling, awe-inspiring expe­ri­ence. In our national “dis­cus­sion” of higher ed, which serves to belit­tle and dehu­man­ize these pro­fes­sion­als, it is easy to become dis­tanced from the real­ity that at any given moment you are side-by-side with the true experts and lead­ers in any num­ber of fields. For exam­ple, sit­ting on my left dur­ing this tenure meet­ing was one of the world’s top-five clas­si­cal schol­ars, while on my right sat a nationally-recognized Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture scholar; I could add to this roll call if I wanted to. In short, as when describ­ing any good uni­ver­sity, we’re talk­ing about an inspir­ing col­lec­tion of world-class tal­ent, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to teach­ing and schol­ar­ship. Yet, what dawned on me in this meet­ing is how most of what we do in human­i­ties depart­ments has been labeled “irrel­e­vant” or “imprac­ti­cal.” Con­tinue read­ing