English Faculty Forum 

The Faculty Forum showcases the work of the faculty of the VCU Department of English. This series, coordinated by Professor Catherine Ingrassia, carries on the collegial tradition of First Fridays, the department’s previous lecture series, which was organized by Professor Bryant Mangum. The subtitle of that gathering was “A Forum for Ideas on Research, Teaching, and Writing.” The Faculty Forum embraces that spirit and similarly seeks to offer a regular venue in which to share original work and build community through the exchange of ideas. These events are open to anyone interested in attending. 

Fall 2021 Events

How to Read Like A Creature: Language, Labor, and Hard Play in Early English Visionary Writing

Dr. Adin Lears
October 12, 2021 | 2:00 p.m. | Hibbs Hall, Room 308 

This talk extends and interrogates recent literary criticism that frames close reading as a technique of aesthetic experience with radical political potential by offering an extended consideration of how early English visionary writers understood themselves as “creatures” or “created things” as much as creators. In the writing of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, both women's self-designation as creatures is part of a broader emphasis on creative labor in a way that reflects on each text’s orientation to language. In both texts, the term creature troubles a temporality of cause and effect and with it the relationship between creator and created thing, embracing an experience of embodied vulnerability as a creative act. In doing so, both texts respond to and revise the theology of the Fall, which held that human error led to existence in time and in the body, a condition that placed the human in greater proximity to beasts and ultimately necessitated human craft—including language-craft—as a means of addressing postlapsarian deficiency. Embracing such embodied deficiency rather than seeking to re-attain perfection, Julian and Kempe articulate a mode of creaturely reading in which language is a key locus of laborious recreation, requiring a kind of hard play in the aesthetic experience of a text. Like contemporary posthumanist thinking, in particular Donna Haraway’s cyborg feminism, such creaturely reading rejects an elegiac logic of longing for a more “natural” prelapsarian past and offers ways of conceiving of human experience that resist mastery and dominion. At the same time, it integrates the discursive with the material by attending to the materiality of language. In its broadest sense, such creaturely reading amplifies the importance of literary approaches to language and accentuates its potential for making kin across cognitive, bodily, and social bounds.

How It Is: Writing Towards Wonder in Creative Nonfiction

Jessica Hendry Nelson
November 16, 2021 | 2:00 p.m. | Hibbs Hall, Room 308

This talk explores the concept of wonder in creative nonfiction writing and pedagogy. It argues that in the best art, wonder is often the creative imperative, subject matter (or a lens on subject matter), and compositional directive. Wonder here includes the embrace of contradictory truths (joy and terror; pain and beauty; empathy and apathy) and requires sustained attention, embrace of the carnal, and investment in the long exposure. As a pedagogical tool in the creative writing classroom, an emphasis on ‘writing towards wonder’ insists on the profundity of ordinary experience and why it is as worthy a subject for art as suffering, which is of course also ordinary. To write towards wonder is to acknowledge that joy is as rich an emotion as sadness, and wonder needs both, needs all. The writer Garth Greenwell once said in an interview, “It’s an aesthetic failing but also a moral one […] to see happiness, even very ordinary happiness, as somehow less profound, variegated, interesting, less accommodating of insight, than other kinds of experience.” Many writing students have known trauma and hopelessness worse than even this harrowing time of plague and polemics, but unless they can also find and evoke joy through a practice of attention, their ability to cultivate wonder in their work is limited. This is what makes writing toward wonder a political act, too, as nonfiction writing inherently always is—because when we find joy in moments of crisis we can subvert shame, insist on our own humanity, and anticipate a different future.


Spring 2022 Events

Herrenvolk Beats: Country Rap, the Alt-Right, and [Not So] Creeping Fascism

Dr. Paul Robertson
February 22, 2022 | 2:00 p.m. | Hibbs 308

The genre of country rap (or its alternate designation “hick hop”) has from its inception in the late 1990s emphasized U.S. nationalism and standard tropes of American exceptionalism that appeal to its overwhelmingly white, rural-representing audience base. However, for much of the genre’s existence, both lyrical content and the visual representations of performers primarily concern a commodified recreation-as-identity, statements of a nebulous Southern regional identification, and extoling an individual personality in these contexts. In short, country rap could be (and was) easily dismissed as yet another vapid appropriation of hip hop culture by a white American media demographic. This talk examines the recent turn, corresponding to the rise of Donald Trump and the hyper-reactionary national impulses he inspires and facilitates, of country rap to unambiguously articulated right wing nationalism and extreme social conservatism, up to and including organized paramilitary violence. This talk will discuss both the overtly ideological content of lyrics, along with the stylized signification of the music videos that promote the tracks. Why, in 2020, might a heavily-armed young, white right-wing protestor enthusiastically describe himself as a “hip hop-head,” as a means to deflect accusations of racism? How are Black hip hop artists used as justification props, both referentially and physically, in country rap productions? It will chart how a cultural narrative shifts from relatively uncomplicated images of off-road vehicles, illegal liquor production, and quotidian rural “lifestyles” to detailed fantasies of detaining and executing leftist protestors. The talk will also compare the appropriation, by a right wing ideological extreme, of potentially liberatory (sub)cultures like hip hop, to punk rock and American folk music—two other music-related subcultures with fascist splinters persisting to the contemporary moment. 

Detours Through the Past: Traversing Paradigms in Octavia Butler’s Kindred

Dr. Michael Ra-shon Hall
April 7, 2022 | 2:00 p.m.

Riffing off of Stuart Hall’s observation in the “The Dialogics of Identity” that “Identity is never finished. It moves into the future by way of a constructive detour of the past,” the late Cheryl Wall notes that a hallmark of contemporary literary production are “detours through the past.” Such detours refer to the many contemporary literary works which reach back to reimagine, for instance, “the interior lives of enslaved individuals” (e.g., Butler’s 1979 Kindred, Toni Morrison’s 1987 Beloved, Edward P. Jones’s 2003 The Known World). In this talk on travel and literary imagination of African American writers, I consider travel as literary device in Butler’s most celebrated novel Kindred. A work of speculative fiction, Kindred presents the story of Dana, an African American woman married to a European American man, who is pulled back in time from 1970s California to a plantation in antebellum Maryland to protect distant relative and eventual plantation owner Rufus Weylin, thereby ensuring her eventual birth.
Grounded by historical research on enslavement, Kindred uses the trope of time travel in a way that troubles easy distinctions between the figure of the enslaved and the traveler and reveals the paradox of freedom and confinement as an almost inescapable dialectic that continues to persist even given a speculative trope that seemingly holds out the possibility of altering history. Reading Kindred against contemporaneous works employing the speculative trope of time travel, I argue Butler’s representation of time travel (particularly as she dissociates time travel from technology) forces her readers to confront experiences of enslaved Africans in the antebellum South and continuities of those experiences as they persist into the novel’s present (1976). Butler’s concern with gendered and racialized complexities of mobility connects her to other women writers like Zora Neale Hurston (who preceded Butler) and Jewelle Gomez.

History of the Forums

English Faculty Forum carries forward the department’s longstanding practice of scholarly intradepartmental exchange that extends all the way back to VCU’s earliest years. In 1969, a year after VCU was created with the merger of RPI and MCV, Ann Woodlief started a germinal departmental newsletter – called, appropriately, The English Exchange. Thus began the department’s convention of public exchanges about research, writing, and teaching.

In 1973, Richard Priebe brought the charge forward when he began an informal series under the banner of Brown Bag Lunches. The series was as long-lasting as it was active, eventually growing in scope to encompass a larger body (as the College of Humanities and Sciences Symposium) while retaining English participation until the end. Indeed, when the CHS Symposium had run its course, a themed annual version continued informally for some time.

In the late 1980s, a group of colleagues in the department added to the departmental tradition with Composition Theory symposium. Later, from 1990 to 1994, Professors Marcel Cornis-Pope and Claudius “Bill” Griffin organized a faculty discussion group entitled Theory across the Curriculum. In 1994, Professor Terry Oggel initiated (and convened for more than a decade), the Faculty Symposium, with lunchtime presentations, open-to-the-public, of faculty research and writing; and, last but not least, Professor Bryant Mangum’s similarly successful First Friday forum continued to encourage the work of dozens of English faculty while ably fostering the exchange of ideas across subfields, ranks, and communities.