I don't think anyone loves small talk, but it's something that I've especially grown to hate as an English major over the last three years. And, no, this isn't because I've been spoiled by the high level of discourse in my Fordham classes (although I have)....
We know the damage of othering. What about the ravages of Same-ing?
~ In Catapult, Professor Stacey D'Erasmo writes on The Handmaid's Tale, now showing on Hulu.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, was first published in 1985, when I was twenty-four years old. I read and loved it then; I reread it at least once in the next three decades and loved it; I recently reread it again, and still loved it. The book was made into a film starring Natasha Richardson in 1990, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, and directed by Volker Schlöndorff. On April 26, Hulu will release a miniseries based on the book, starring Elisabeth Moss.
The premise of Atwood’s speculative novel is that the United States has been taken over by a fundamentalist Christian theocracy and is now known as The Republic of Gilead. Women, people of color, and non-Christians have lost all their rights; many have been exiled or killed. There have been various environmental disasters, uncontrollable diseases, and a war is ongoing. Infertility is rampant. In this system, if you are a surviving woman, you can be a Wife (a woman married to one of the men in power); a Martha (an older servant-woman); an Econowife (a woman married to a lower-class man); an Aunt (an enforcer and trainer of the Handmaids); and, what the heroine is, a Handmaid (a fertile woman whose job it is to bear children for the Commanders and their Wives). You can also be a Jezebel, i.e., a prostitute; or an Unwoman, and be sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste until your skin falls off. This is, moreover, a world of strict gender binaries. Queer people of any kind are known as Gender Traitors and hanged....
As any graduate student knows, the job hunt can be overwhelming and exhausting. Professor Vernita Burrell is one of many Fordham English Ph.D graduates who have emerged victorious from that experience. Burrell is now a tenure-track Assistant Professor at East Los Angeles College. In this interview, we discuss her theater background, her intellectual interests, and the road that led to her new teaching position.
1. What is your educational background?
My educational background spans a lot of years! I started as an undergrad at UCLA in the mid-1980s, but during that time I was not a serious student. Although I was born and raised in Los Angeles, my absolute dream was to move to New York and become a musical theater actress. I was not able to finish UCLA, but I did move to NYC in the late 80s and went through musical theater training. For a good ten years, I was pretty successful as an actress, doing summer stock, tours, and musicals in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. But the idea of not finishing college weighed pretty heavily, so I enrolled at Hunter College in NYC and finished my degree. From there, I eventually moved back to Los Angeles temporarily to get my master's at Loyola Marymount, then returned to NYC in 2009 to get my PhD at Fordham.
2. Your field of study is 18th-century British literature? How did you decide this was what you wanted to study?
I originally entered Fordham with the idea of being a Victorianist! But one of my first classes at Fordham was John Bugg's "The Radical 1790's," and that class quickly changed my mind. I wasn't at all familiar with the literature and political history of the 18th century, but as we read works by William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Edmund Burke, and the like, I began to realize that the rich history of the 18th century contributed to much of the political ideology that the West holds today.
3. Tell us about your dissertation: what was its topic, its argument, and its contribution? How did you become interested in the topic, and how did your thinking evolve over the course of working on it?
My dissertation, titled "The Ambiguities of Abolition: Pro- and Anti-Slavery Writings, 1757-1824," focuses on the nuances and complexities about slavery and abolition that go beyond the conventional binary pro- and anti-slavery arguments within 18th-century slavery discourse. Again, thanks to John Bugg, we studied some works that showed ambivalence, as well as ideological wavering, regarding the abolition movement in the late 1700s. This ambivalence fascinated me, mostly because I had believed that, to put it in simple terms, 18th-century political pundits were either for slavery or against it. I wanted to look closer at the beliefs between such an abolitionist binary.
Not only did I focus my research within Great Britain, I also looked about texts and political ideology from the British Caribbean. In Julie Kim's class "The Caribbean Enlightenment," I was introduced to texts that spoke about the black and mulatto West Indian slave experience. I became interested in West Indian slave narratives, and learned that the slave experiences of black and mulatto women also held a small, but a relevant presence within 18th-century scholarship. It was a challenge to infuse the many voices of abolition—from the British metropole to the British colonies—into a coherent research project, but it was one of the most academically rewarding endeavors I have ever undertaken.
4. Which professors advised you, and what kind of mentorship did they provide?
My advisors were John Bugg, Frank Boyle, and Julie Kim. I couldn't have asked for a better mentoring team. They were wonderfully encouraging and extremely tough when they needed to be. I could go to them with writing or research issues, or just sit and hash out ideas if I was experiencing writer's block. They all are such experts in the 18th century, and I felt that I was in good hands.
5. How do you view the relationship between your research and your teaching?
This may seem a little strange, but I find that my research and teaching don't exactly connect. I primarily teach English composition and reading comprehension at East Los Angeles College, and I have deliberately focused on texts that are more current and more socially and culturally relatable to the college's primarily Latino and Asian population. However, I still keep up with the 18th-century field through scholarly journals and literature.
6. How did your training at Fordham prepare you for the job market in general, and for East LA College, specifically?
My pedagogy training at Fordham was absolutely essential in preparing me for the job market. Moshe Gold and Anne Fernald were especially knowledgeable and inspiring, always letting us teaching fellows know that the student is the most important element in the classroom. This idea may sound a little obvious, but it was extremely helpful to remember, especially when interviewing at community colleges. I had quickly learned that community college search committees are looking for people who are committed to teaching the basic fundamentals of English reading, grammar, and composition that seem to be overlooked in secondary education, particularly in low-income and underserved areas. East Los Angeles College has a motivated student body, and its English department faculty are dedicated to providing the best and most thorough education that these students deserve. Fordham's pedagogical training prepared me for that level of intense and thorough reading and composition teaching.
7. What was the job market process like for you?
The job market process was stressful but relatively fast! I started my job search in January of 2016 and got a full-time, tenure track job by June. Needless to say, John Bugg, Moshe Gold, Frank Boyle, and Julie Kim were with me every step of the way, regardless of the fact that I was doing my job search in Los Angeles! Skyping with my mentors and the many emails about interview tips and protocols really made the job search experience and positive one. I can honestly say that all the teaching training that I received at Fordham served me well in the interview process, helping me land such a wonderful job at East Los Angeles College.
8. What advice would you give to any graduate students currently going on the market?
The best advice I would give graduate students currently on the job market is be in constant communication with your faculty mentors. I'd like grad students to know that no question or concern is too small or insignificant. Constant communication also helps when you are feeling absolutely discouraged. Also, have your application materials in tip-top order—the English Department’s Director of Placement and Professional Development is invaluable in this respect. Most importantly, know yourself and be yourself. When I started Fordham, I knew that I wanted to be a professor, but my main goal was to focus on teaching, not research. My advisors knew this and encouraged me to promote my teaching methods to job search committees. In essence, graduate students need to know what kind of scholar and teacher they want to be and pursue that passion.
9. How has your first semester at East LA College been going? What is your favorite thing about teaching? What were some unexpected challenges?
I'm in the middle of the second semester of my first year at East Los Angeles College. It's the hardest but most gratifying job I've had. My students are wonderful and so eager to learn, and my colleagues in the English department are so incredibly helpful and welcoming. Los Angeles is in the midst of a state-wide improvement project of all its community colleges, using monies from government bond measures and other funds voted on to build new, state-of-the-art buildings and classrooms and to further improve the quality of community college education by hiring more full-time teachers and offering more classes. One major challenge for me is the class sizes and the variety of education levels in the classroom. I had to learn to handle four classes a semester with a cap of 45 students each. I also had to learn to monitor those students who struggle with English composition, making sure that these students don't fall through the cracks. I'm getting better at handling the challenges, and in the end, nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing all of my students succeed.
This spring Kwamesha Joseph (FCRH '18) represented Fordham at the historic Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Competition at Mt. Holyoke. We're pleased to feature an interview with Kwamesha and her poem "Lemonade."
Fordham was so pleased to feature you as our representative at the Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Competition at Mt. Holyoke. What was the experience like for you?
It was amazing! When I first received the email that I was nominated to represent Fordham, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was probably one of the most emotional moments I’ve had in a long while, because the nomination came at a time when I was beginning to doubt my talents. Being chosen to represent Fordham at the Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Competition was a unique opportunity for me to hone my voice as a poet, and to present it in a space that was completely unfamiliar. Upon arriving at Mt. Holyoke college, I saw a magnificent photo exhibit of poets who had competed in the same competition many years ago, and who have gone on to become some of the most distinguished writers in the world. Beyond that, I was given such valuable feedback on my work from Ronaldo V. Wilson, Ari Banias, and Marilyn Chin, and I met some extremely talented contestants with whom I still communicate today. What struck me the most, though, was that I felt a connection with the audience that was unlike anything I’ve ever felt before, and it was at that moment that I realized that I found my voice. I believed in my poems, and my message touched other people. I’ll never forget my experience. I appreciated every single moment of it.
What books have been an inspiration to you? Why?
Robin Coste Lewis’ book Voyage of the Sable Venus is a collection that I’ve been unable to put down recently. I’ve read it cover to cover maybe nine times since I was introduced to it during the fall semester, and each time I read it, I walk away with a different experience. I think what inspires me the most about Voyage is that it is such an open and eloquent rejection of the kinds of images that have been projected onto black women. Voyage is extremely unapologetic, and as a young black woman, who is on my own journey to celebrating black beauty that is too often hidden behind those projected images, I simply cannot put that book down. I’ve also been following a poet, who is around my age, for quite some time now. Her name is Kai Davis. She published a chapbook called The Falling Action that I’ve fallen in love with. Kai Davis is so centered in her identity as a queer black woman, but she gives readers snippets of vulnerability when she asks God questions like, “If I was created in your image, then why do I look so ugly this morning.” The Falling Action is a chapbook that I would definitely recommend adding to your summer reading list.
What advice do you have for students who want to take poetry writing seriously?
One of the most important things I’ve learned about poetry writing is that while you will share your work with others, your poem is yours first, and it will always belong to you. As cliché as it may sound, it is tremendously important to be true to yourself. Do not stifle your creativity by assuming that your poetry needs to be like everyone else’s in order to be good. Engaging with your audience is important, but in the initial stages of your poem, the audience does not matter. The only things that matter are you, your experiences, your passion, and your poem. Second, do not be afraid to say what needs to be said. There is something special about being uncomfortable, both on the part of the poet, and of the audience. When you are uncomfortable, you are forced to think about why that is, and what needs to change to avoid experiencing that feeling again. I truly believe that anything that encourages that kind of self-reflection is authentically beautiful poetry. Lastly, do not stop writing!
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is often characterized
as the visual album that got all black women into
But when I hear the title alone it conjures up
Vivid visuals from my childhood,
And I cry.
And like alcohol on a sordid scrape
Or tight jeans on sunburned flesh,
My silent tears sting this skin I slink in.
She still smells like the sour lemons I used to try to bleach her.
It’s as if the citric acid has sunk into the small pores of this body,
And settled into my bloodstream in search of the genes that confess my
To war with its resilience.
But this skin taunts,
Don’t Hurt Yourself.
And watches the acid dry until she can make Sandcastles
From its unsuccessful remains.
So I agree.
Despite everyone’s focus on
Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s spilled tea,
Lemonade is meant to be celebrated.
I no longer use those lemons, but I love Lemonade,
It’s a refreshing sip of songs I cannot silence.
I sip and I am reminded that though this skin is
Weary, she won’t wear off.
She is confident and unapologetic,
She holds me closer than the clothes on my back,
But she does not suffocate me.
So as long as I am breathing I will sing at the top of my lungs,
I Ain’t Sorry!
Alexa McMenamin is a graduating senior at FCLC and regular contributor to Teen Vogue where she has covered topics ranging from free college plans, free speech for university faculty and hate crimes:
Big congratulations on writing for Teen Vogue. Can you take us through how this came about?
I’ve wanted to write for Teen Vogue since I was in 7th grade. I only started pursuing it in earnest once the political shift in their digital content became clear, with the influence of Editor-in-Chief Elaine Welteroth and Digital Editor Phillip Picardi. I became a woman obsessed: it just seemed like the place I needed to be, as a Political Science-English double major who writes as a form of social justice. It seemed like Teen Vogue had similar objectives. I even arranged a meeting with Elaine in which I gave her my resume (and she put me on her Instagram Story, which I think truly qualifies it as a success). Eventually my best friend saw Picardi tweet looking for Politics writers and she immediately sent the tweet to me (I owe her big time). I immediately emailed him some clips and a link to my website, which I worked on during the Creative Writing Concentration Capstone course. The next day, I was published.
What advice do you have for students who want to pursue journalism?
I’ve given up in working in journalism about a million times, but I think now especially, with the role that social media plays in ensuring that diverse and otherwise-smothered narratives are accessible, really putting yourself out there as someone who wants to have difficult conversations does a lot. So does pushing yourself to be reading as much news as possible - no matter how exhausting that is. So much of what I learned about how to write for today’s news came from learning from classic media about how to write, such as through my position as an editor on the Observer, but also being uncompromising about language and rhetoric that resists perpetuating oppression. So, that might all be confusing - just don’t be afraid to compromise your politics for your writing. News is always political, and it especially is now.
What are you most looking forward to as you think of life post-Fordham?
Sleep! And the ability to speak my opinions a bit more freely without worrying about the positions I hold on campus.
On April 25, some 400 members of the Fordham community filled Keating 1st Auditorium to hear poet Robin Coste Lewis, the University’s 2017 Reid Writer, give a talk and a reading. Lewis’s poetry collection Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf, 2015) won the 2015 National Book Award—the first poetry debut to do so since 1974.
Lewis’s talk took the form of a lyric essay and covered the research methodology and process that she undertook to write the poetry collection’s titular piece. “Voyage of the Sable Venus” is a narrative poem made up entirely of titles of artworks from across centuries of Western art that feature or refer to the black female figure.
She said the idea for the project first came to her in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit on American colonial furniture. It was there that she saw a chair whose legs consisted of carved figures of four miniature black women and whose seat was being supported by their eight arms. Soon after, she noticed that the figures of black females existed everywhere as artistic ornaments. She saw that “our whole artistic history [is] crawling with the decorative bodies of black women.”
It was not until she happened across the painting after which her poem is named that the idea for the project fully emerged, she said. She recalled how she fell in love with the both the title and the painting itself—the image of a black woman drawn by dolphins across the sea and attended to by gods, in the tradition of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
She then wondered “if we went back, if we went all over the world and looked at every object, every statue, every painting that included a black female figure in any way, and wrote every title down, what would art’s epic sing then?”
Lewis talked about her research project and its methodology, which included visiting museums, churches, and courthouses in search of the black female form. Delivering her talk in a lyric style which gave insight into the poet’s intimate relationship to her project, she described her work as “taking 38,000 years of art history and condensing it down to 79 pages.”
Following her talk, Lewis read “Plantation,” another poem from her collection, after learning that several English classes had analyzed it in their study of her work, and that it had created some debate among Fordham’s English faculty.
Lewis took a question from a Fordham student in the audience: “Why do you think this book is important? Why should I buy it?”
Calling the question “one of the best questions I’ve been asked in a long time,” she answered that she hopes the book condenses important scholarship on art, race, and beauty into a form that is accessible to readers.
This article first appeared in Inside Fordham.
CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art and Action is thrilled to announce that Issue No. 18, "History of Now" is now live. Dedicated to the question What is the Story You Most Want to Tell?, this issue sought to give exposure to as many voices as possible and to show that there is no one voice, no one story that is more important than another. The issue features the responses of 109 different people. The responses are completely unedited— and in some cases, untranslated— to maintain the integrity and authenticity of these stories. Titles were pulled from submissions by the editors for untitled stories.
Within our current political context, it is even more pivotal to seek out unheard voices. There is so much to be learned from the everyday minutiae of someone's life, from their experiences, from the stories they choose to tell. The bombast of each news day is overwhelming; it makes it easy to forget the strength we hold.