Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Coordinating a series of online reading groups

Since 2009, I have coordinated semester-long online reading groups for students involved in the Haley Scholar Program. The reading groups have typically included approximately 125 students each semester, though in some instances more than 200 students participated. Working with the reading groups has been an incredible learning activity for the students, and me.

We've covered a variety of books, including Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Beautfil Struggle, Kathryn Schulz's Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, and Clive Thompson's Smarter Than You Think, and Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns.

The participating students are not reading the books for a class assignment or grade, so I suspect that some are not reading as diligently as they would in a for-credit course. Nonetheless, I get a variety of indications that large numbers of the students are actively involved in the process. For one, they provide online comments. Second, when I meet them at our Public Thinking Events, they are always excited to engage in conversations covered in the books.

More than the level of participation, I've lately wondered about the kinds of participants the program involves. So far, the participants have primarily been students who are recipients of a partial scholarship on campus. That means the students are usually high achievers, who did well enough in high school to qualify for the award. Moving forward, I wonder what approaches we could do to include students who were not initially so successful in school. Wouldn't they benefit from encountering books outside of class as well?  

Haley Reading Groups

Public Thinking Event: How universities respond to racial incidents

On Wednesday, September 20, for our Public Thinking Event, I organized an exhibit focusing on how universities respond to racial incidents on campus.

Every semester and sometimes on multiple occasions in a single semester, students become the target of racist slurs on college campuses across the country. In many cases, university officials and student groups compose responses to those incidents of racism. The responses appear in different contexts – as email messages to the entire campus, letters to the editor, letters to parents and alumni, and so forth. Some of the messages are short, and some are long. The letters are authored by administrators, faculty and staff, and student groups.

The responses sometimes generate additional responses. A group might praise or criticize administrators for their response time. Sometimes the responses are critiqued for being overly vague or for how they describe the initial racist act. Campus response letters to racist incidents are becoming more pervasive in part because of the presence of racist acts and the urging of communities for university officials to speak out against such acts.

The activity on Wednesday, was designed to encourage students to take note of the different ways officials and students respond through letters, and the students were also prompted to assess a variety of the responses.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Digital Humanities Club: Week 2

On September 20, for our session of the East St. Louis Digital Humanities Club, our team leaders discussed and modeled approaches to interviewing for the high school students. In the coming weeks, the students will conduct and record their own interviews. So we want to make sure they are well prepared.

For the interviews, our leaders covered topics related to technology. One of our main goals for our after-school program involves increasing interest and knowledge among African American students in technology projects and careers.

Our team leader Gaige Crowell grew up in East St. Louis and felt that the students were more advanced than he was when he was their age. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major until I was a senior,” he said, “but some of the kids that are sophomores already have an idea of what they want to do in college.”

Our leader Amelia Williams had a different thought. “I felt like they did not know about many of the careers they can pursue which are related to technology,” she said, “and the different avenues that are available allowing one to become more involved with technology (technology institutes, or educational camps).”

Amelia and Gaige worked with different groups of high school students, so it’s possible that their discussions with them moved in alternative directions. Nonetheless, we want to do more to expand their knowledge about technological and digital possibilities.

Tiara Perkins pointed out that what she enjoyed most working with the students on Wednesday was “just learning what they would like to do with technology considering we are trying to teach them more about technology as a whole. It made me feel like they are interested in what we are trying to do.”

Jayla Howard observed that the students responded to some of her questions "in a way that I did not always expect.” Her observation suggests the need for us to think creatively and openly about questions as well as potential responses.

Week #2 reflection from graduate student, Rae'Jean Spears:
This week’s meeting with the students from the East St. Louis Charter school went well. The students were given an opportunity to discuss technology in ways that they don’t normally do. I noticed that while we are in very technically advanced society, there is not much knowledge or engagement with technology outside of cell phones. I’m interested to see how students’ perception of technology and how they can incorporate it more effectively in their own personal lives will change over the semester.
The East St. Louis Digital Humanities Club

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates and his American Critics, 2012-2017: a primer

Next week, One World Publishing, an imprint of Random House, will publish Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. The book collects several of Coates's previously published articles for The Atlantic. I suspect that the book will do well, in part because of the strength of the writing, including the short, powerful reflections preceding each article and also because of Coates's overall prominence at this point.

I've followed Coates's work for more than a decade now, long before he was widely popular. I've watched aspects of his writing and thinking evolve, and, I've taken note of the dramatic change in his reception. Over the last 3 years, more than at any previous point in his career, there has been tremendous growth in the critical discourse -- affirmations and critiques - of his works. That is to say, during the first decade of reading Coates, there was relatively little response to his work.

When Coates began blogging for The Atlantic in 2008, interest in his writing and ideas began to steadily increase. The most extensive collective responses came from the more than 100 hundred people actively discussing his work in the comments section. There was even more general feedback and references to Coates in 2012, when he began producing a prolific body of blog entries concerning Trayvon Martin and Stand Your Ground Laws.

Still, the first major concentrated response to his journalism came in August 2012, when Coates published his essay "Fear of a Black President." I charted about a dozen responses, which, at the time, seemed like a lot. Little did I know how much his reception would grow. In 2014, more than a hundred journalists and commentators responded to Coates's "The Case for Reparations" and even more responded to his book Between the World and Me. And just as many responded to Coates's Black Panther #1 debut.

Many years ago, back when I was a graduate student, I solidified my interest in tracking responses to black writers after coming across past writings by Larry Neal and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. In 1966, Neal published an article about Amiri Baraka, which included a photo caption: "LeRoi Jones and his critics." I also learned that my former Tougaloo College professor Ward had written a dissertation entitled "Richard Wright and His American Critics, 1936-1960."

Ward later introduced me to the the renowned Wright bibliographer, Kenneth Kinnamonm whose books A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary, 1933-1982 (1988) and Richard Wright: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Commentary, 1983-2003 (2005) collectively contain over 21,000 annotated items. The influence of those kinds of works were in my mind as a blogger and largely prompted me to begin producing these "coverage of" series where I would chart online responses to books, authors, and special topics.

Tracking the coverage of Coates's work has been particularly fascinating because of the quantity, intensity, and diversity of responses. While Coates is greatly admired by many, there is a strong negative response to his works from two key groups. Published works by conservative writers (mostly white men along with a few black men) and certain kinds of black progressives or leftists (mostly black men along with a few black women) convey some contempt for Coates's positions. It's not just that they respond to him, but  in many instances, they express disdain toward the many favorable responses to Coates's work, especially in relation to the large numbers of white liberals who apparently hold Coates's work in high esteem.

There was a somewhat persistent line of critique from some black women commentators. They offered misgivings about Coates's work, charging that he does not adequately represent black women, or again focusing on the responses to Coates's work, wondered why black women did not achieve his level of acclaim. In a review of Between the World and Me, Britini Danielle wrote that, "As I read Coates’ book, I couldn’t help wondering why black female writers aren’t lavished with the same level of pomp and circumstance given to black male writers who write about race—or hailed as the second coming of Baldwin."

Of course, the most well-known endorsement linking Coates to Baldwin came from a black woman who happens to be our most critically acclaimed writer of all time. "I've been wondering," wrote Toni Morrison in her book blurb for Coates's Between the World and Me, "who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." Prominent African American writers and thinkers, including Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Herb Boyd, and Michelle Alexander have all chimed in to offer assessments of Coates's writing as well.

For a bibliographer interested in tracing the responses as well as the responses to the responses of black writers, then Coates's career, especially between 2012 - 2017, provides much to consider.

A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates's "The First White President"


There's been some spirited responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates's article "The First White President" published online on September 7.

• September 7: Stop What You’re Doing and Read Ta-Nehisi Coates on Trump and White Supremacy - Jason Bailey - Flavorwire
• September 7: Coates blasts Bernie Sanders For 'Alarming' Rhetoric on Race - Daniel J. Solomon - Fast Forward
• September 7: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Glowing Amulet of Identity Politics - Mark Hemingway - Weekly Standard
• September 7: Ta-Nehisi Coates's "The First White President" is Required Reading - Sean Nelson - The Stranger
• September 7: Coates: Trump Presidency Is A ‘Negation’ Of Having A Black President - Amber Randall - The Daily Caller
• September 8: Ta-Nehisi Coates On Donald Trump - Jeffret Pierre - Boise State Public Radio
• September 8: Ta-Nehisi Coates Calls Out ‘The First White President’ - Richard Prince - The Root
• September 9: Twenty-Five must-read books this fall - Deborah Dundas - The Toronto Star
• September 11: Idylls of the Liberal: The American Dreams of Mark Lilla and Ta-Nehisi Coates - Asad Haider - Viewpoint Magazine
• September 12: No, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Trump Isn’t ‘America’s First White President’ - David French - National Review
• September 14: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Alternatives to Despair - Ross Douthat - The New York Times
• September 14: ‘It’s Impossible to Imagine Trump Without the Force of Whiteness' - Ta-Nehisi Coates - The Atlantic
• September 15: George Packer Responds to Ta-Nehisi Coates - George Packer - The Atlantic
• September 16: Whitesplaining Ta-Nehisi Coates - Ralf Michaels - HuffPost
• September 12: The rise of Trump isn't all about racism - Damon Linker - The Week
• September 12: What Ta-Nehisi Coates gets wrong about leftists - Ryan Cooper - The Week
• September 12: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Scar - Rod Dreher - The American Conservative
• September 16: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ one-sentence argument for why Donald Trump really is a white supremacist - Hanna Kozlowska - Quartz
• September 17: Ta-Nehisi Coates read all the receipts proving Donald Trump just might be a White supremacist - Blavity Team - Blavity
• September 18: ‘The first white president’ is a ‘bad dude’ - Jonathan Capehart - Washington Post
• September 19: Ta-Nehisi Coates And ‘The First White President’: An Alternate View - Max B. Sawicky - HuffPost
• September 19: Donald Trump 'Might Be a White Supremacist' - Shantelle E. Jamison - Ebony
• September 19: Ta-Nehisi Coates right and wrong about the first White President Trump - Isaac Newton Farris Jr. - Politics Mean Politics
• September 20: Why Claudia Jones Will Always Be More Relevant than Ta-Nehisi Coates - Charisse Burden-Stelly - Black Agenda Report

Pre-publication coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power
A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Black Student Union Demonstration

Seems like we've been here before, but...here we are again.

Today, members of Black Student Union organized a demonstration in an effort to raise awareness about the inadequate response by university officials to a black student who was the target of a racist slur. This march, like one in 2016 and one in 2015, is part of a continuing effort on behalf of African American students at SIUE to express their concerns.

An early look at Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power

For years to come, scholars will look back on the 8 years of Barack Obama's historic presidency. There's so much to reflect on and consider. I suspect history professors will cover extended units, if not courses, on Obama. I, on the other hand, study and teach courses focusing on black writers and African American literary histories. While Obama's presidency will no doubt come up in my courses, the 8-year run that I plan to devote attention to in my classes involves the work and remarkable reception of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

His book We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy will be released next month. The book includes eight main chapters of Coates's previously published articles in The Atlantic. Those essays are:
2008: "This is How We Lost to the White Man" (about Bill Cosby)
2009: "American Girl" (about Michelle Obama)
2011: "Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?"
2011: "The Legacy of Malcolm X"
2012: "Fear of a Black President"
2014: "The Case for Reparations"
2015: "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration"
2017: "My President was Black"
What really stands out about the book, at least for those who'd already read those pieces, are the short, opening reflective articles that precede each of the chapters. Coates looks back and comments on his experiences, thinking, and motivations at the time of composition and publication. The book closes with an epilogue, which was published as "The First White President."

The book, therefore, is a collection of essays and at the same time a mini-memoir of sorts. In the introduction, Coates reflects on a moment when he was out of work and at an unemployment office in 2007. Later in the book, he reflects on having lunch and cordial disagreements with the president at the White House in 2015. What a difference those 8 years were for him.

There's quite a bit along the road from unemployment office to private meetings at the White House. Coates presents extended commentary about the support and encouragement he's received from his wife, Kenyatta. I was especially moved in one passage where he writes, "All I can say is seeing Kenyatta remake herself from liberal arts savant to med student, and doing so in service of her own mission, has been one of the great pleasures of my life."

He writes about his experiences blogging about a variety of topics and studying the Civil War. He writes about the big questions that led him to various stories and about his personal perspectives shaped his work. For me, what was most fascinating was his extended, recurring points about his processes and efforts becoming the black writer he is today.

Pre-publication coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power
A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

7 Questions Related to Cultural Geo-Tagging

By Kenton Rambsy

Despite the long history and dense population of African Americans living in or near the nation’s capital, the predominately black quadrants of Washington D.C., have a relatively small presence in the scholarship on African American literature. Edward P. Jones’s two collections of short stories provide thorough and expansive depictions of neighbor and cultural landmarks in DC.

In my grad course I’m teaching this semester, Lost in the City, we analyze why Jones’s meticulous city narratives are collectively groundbreaking in the geographic histories of African American short stories.

For years now, I have been trying to utilize Cultural Geo-Tagging as a method to enhance some of my examinations of literature. This process refers to the uses of digital tools to identify, organize, and analyze geographic features of multiple texts. With this approach, my students and I study Edward P. Jones’s short fiction alongside other canonical texts and pinpoint the extent to which Jones is attuned to the landscape of Washington, DC.

Readers interested in cultural geo-tagging might raise the following questions:

1. Is the story set in a real or fictional location?
2. How often and what types of landmarks are mentioned in a given text?
3. How are social spaces such as front porches, blues clubs, and corner stores integrated into a story?
4. How is language used as a geographic marker?
5. What words in the text relate to the actual movements and positioning of characters within the story?
6. How does the geographic descriptions relate to other texts set in similar regions?

Lost in the City: A graduate-level literature course on Edward P. Jones