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Pecha Kucha Compendium Assignment and Sample Pecha Kucha on Dada

My upper-level “American Modernisms” course is in the midst of an assignment that tries to use pecha-kucha presentations productively in a literature classroom, an idea I initially thought about last spring. Each student has selected a modernism-related term and will develop a pecha-kucha about that term and its relation to the course content.

Once all the students have presented, they’ll record them and add them to a compendium of pecha-kuchas about modernism-related terms. There are only seven students in my class this Fall, so it’s a small group, but I’m looking forward to their p-ks on impressionism, decadence, cubism, surrealism, primitivism, the Armory Show, and ragtime.

To show them how the assignment would work, I prepared this pecha kucha on Dada:

Two Works by Ara Shirinyan

I’m in the midst of finishing up an article on Ara Shirinyan’s Your Country is Great. It’s my favorite recent work of conceptual writing. It’s an absolute delight to read, and for me, it brings together a number of the strains of literary criticism I’ve been most interested in lately—transnational poetics, uncreative writing, digital culture, and theories of laughter. Shirinyan’s method is simple: he goes through an alphabetic list of countries, Googles instances of the phrase “[country] is great,” and makes poems from the results. I paid homage to the book in an earlier post, but here’s a sample of Shirinyan’s “FRANCE IS GREAT”:

Air France is Great!

France is Great
and the rest of the World is Rubbish

Why France is great.

Why France is great.

France is Great
and the rest of the World Stinks

France is Great
and the rest of the World Sucks (105)

It’s a work that’s been really energizing to write about, and I’m excited about the article.

I recently came across another work of Shirinyan’s that uses found text at Ubu. The book is called Speech Genres 1-2, but I’m particularly interested in the first section, “All the Jarrys.” It’s a book indebted to Alfred Jarry, but its debts are literally on the surface level. The “Jarrys” referenced in the title do not refer to the content of specific works, but to the material books in which those works live, presumably as reported on a used-book shopping site. For example:

in French. Book is in
very good condition. Standard used
condition. This softcover is in

good condition no rips or
markings or stains. mass market
paperback – in french – has remainer

mark on bottom edge but
looks near new otherwise —This

is a description of the
exact book we are selling. (7)

Much like Your Country is Great proves readable, even delightful, despite its repetition, something about Shirinyan’s lineation here makes “All the Jarrys” much more than a straightforward report on the material condition of the book objects it describes.

Digital Writing Month

I’ve just signed up for Digital Writing Month, which charges participants with producing 50,000 words of digital writing during the month of November. The goal is ambitious, but my hope is that it will help me sort some of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head lately.

I finished and defended my dissertation last August, so I hope that participating will help me assess where my scholarship has been and map some new directions going forward. Namely, I hope to get down in writing some of the ideas for transforming my dissertation, Ridiculous Modernism: Nonsense and the New in Literature Since 1900, into a book, tentatively titled Languages of the Ridiculous: Poetics and Perceptions of Nonsense, Lear to Flarf.

This week, I’ll begin by mapping out in general how my dissertation developed, what it became, and where I see it going as it turns into a book. To lay out goals for myself this week, I plan to write on:

  1. How a project on the borderlines of poetry and prose in modernism turned into a project on nonsense and modernism;
  2. How my interest in nonsense got specified to an interest in the ridiculous connotations of nonsense and the perception that nonsense is ridiculous;
  3. How my understanding of a “ridiculous modernism” has turned back to an interest in changing visions of nonsense in the twentieth century;
  4. What interests me about the ridiculous right now;
  5. What interests me about nonsense right now;
  6. What I see as the relationship between nonsense, the ridiculous, and the contemporary movements of Flarf and Conceptualism;
  7. and How my understanding of the ridiculous in contemporary poetry—and in digital culture—informs my reading of Ara Shirinyan’s Your Country is Great.

In later weeks, I’ll sketch notes toward specific sections of the book and propose some new interventions in the digital humanities. I look forward to hearing from anyone who’s willing to read along with my work in progress. And if Digital Writing Month is something you’re interested in, you should play along.

Remembering Greg Colomb

This Friday, the UVA English Department will memorialize Greg Colomb, our friend, mentor, and colleague who passed away in early October. Ryan Cordell has already expressed well how grateful many of us are to have had Greg as a model for teaching, but I also thought I might also share my own thoughts on Greg now that I’ve had a month for the loss to register:

The day I heard that Greg had died, my deep personal mourning over the loss of a respected mentor and friend mixed with selfish practical concerns. Greg sat on my dissertation committee, after all, and he was both my writing coach and the person I talked to most candidly about matters of departmental politics and my fears about the academic job market. Where would I be without him? While I still feel a bit guilty that my mourning was mixed with my panicked thoughts on the logistics of my life as a student, it may be fitting, for Greg was probably the most practical teacher and scholar I have known—he managed to extract genuine joy from the abstract thinking of academia even as he thought of it as a kind of playful game. I remember him telling us in dissertation seminar that at heart, scholars of literature are finally just “people who enjoy having incredibly intricate conversations about books that we love.” He’d never say that on the job market, of course—he’d be at the ready with answers to the entire chain of “so what?” questions that an imagined interlocutor might ask—but I continue to value the way that Greg so thoroughly mixed his deep pleasure in academia with his acknowledgment that there is more to life than books.

In the days leading up to this memorial service, I’ve been revising a chapter of my dissertation, and I’ve realized that many of my practical concerns were unfounded: Greg’s lessons inform each sentence I write. The man in person is gone, but the principles he taught me live on. One of Greg’s greatest insights as a force in our department, I think, was that by showing us how to be excellent teachers, he’d also help us be excellent scholars. But the teaching was also a clear end in its own right, and I’ll never forget the respectful attention Greg gave all his students, from grad students at the end of their careers to pre-matriculated first-years in the transition program.

Even more than these practical matters, of course, I’ll miss Greg as a personality and as a presence. A few times each week, he’d loom at the doorway to the graduate lounge, an inquisitive look on his face, striking up provocative conversations even with the few graduate students he didn’t yet know. I remember his stories, from the description of roasted lamb-on-a-spit he told to his ENWR 380 students, to whom he memorably also quipped that “children listen to adults because if adults sit on them, they will die,” to his descriptions of the way the entire Serbian community of Chicago celebrated with him after his turn as an expert witness at a trial and his descriptions of his experiences on trips to Japan and China. Many graduate students began their careers as teachers skeptical of LRS, but I saw Greg win them over one by one. I’ll miss sorely, as all of Greg’s students will, his capacious good will, his free-flowing gift of gab, his deep, infectious laughter, and his omnipresent smile.