In this program introduced in 2010-2011 for its 100-level core literature and writing courses, the department selects a context for the academic year that has strong contemporary resonance for our lives and the potential to promote interdisciplinary learning and conversation around campus from a variety of cultural, historical, and political perspectives. Sample contexts might include Water, Beauty, Work, Exploration, War and Peace, The City, Happiness, Family, Atonement, or Sanctuary.
The context will be viewed through various thematic lenses that have been articulated in the mission statements of the department and the University. These will necessarily include “empathy” and an “appreciation for the variety of human experience.” The emphasis on diversity and variety of experience are still retained from our former Common Text program, but in a more comprehensive way by allowing each faculty member teaching a 100-level core course to select a text of their choice that explores the context theme for that academic year in a primary way. This will allow the department to compress the discourse surrounding the chosen context, if you will, to both ensure the persistence of commonality despite the use of different texts, and to address issues of inclusion and social justice on a more extended historical basis. Every ENGL 121 Critical Thinking: Literature and Writing course will offer one or more texts that focus on the theme for that academic year, whether the course is taught in the fall or spring semester. A common context book is optional for ENGL 201-204 Texts in Conversation courses, though instructors are encouraged to adopt a book that may fit into that year's common context theme if their particular course topic allows for it.
Work is a central fact of human experience. Certainly, this university (which includes the phrase “to work skillfully” in its mission statement) and the student population whom we teach are preoccupied with work. Work is said to ennoble our lives, particularly if understood as vocation, as Dorothy Sayers argues in her essay, "Why Work?"; at other times work is also said to degrade, alienate, and render our lives absurd, as in the television series “The Office.”
Indeed, ideas concerning work are so pervasive as to be almost invisible; it is difficult to name a work of fiction that could not be understood as in some way being “about” work. Classic texts abound: Hard Times, Moby-Dick, The Jungle, Life in the Iron Mills, As I Lay Dying, to name just a few. Contemporary popular fiction is full of novels about work: The Virtuous Woman, Life of Pi, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Kite Runner, Typical American, etc. Plays are also numerous: Fences, Raisin in the Sun, and Glengarry Glen Ross come to mind; not to mention Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman. Poets have also taken up the theme: B H. Fairchild’s Local Knowledge and Phillip Levine’s What Work Is are two that readily come to mind. Last but not least, there are any number of contemporary memoirs about work: one of the big books of 2009 was Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work and we might remember the lively discussions begun by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed when that was selected as a common text a few years ago. From a Catholic perspective, it is also worth exploring Pope Leo XIII's encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum Novarum (1891).
Using the meaning of work as a common context would presents multiple opportunities to cross disciplines, functioning quite well with perspectives from such disciplines as history, economics, sociology, philosophy and theology, to name just a few, and would invite students to reflect on a key life issue involving many layers of significance.
In an American culture preoccupied with the ideal of the "self-made man," hard work has been an essential requirement of manhood. However, not all groups of Americans have agreed as to what counts as "work" in the first place. By comparing Jim Crow era vagrancy laws with ideas expressed by black musicians, Dr. Robert Hawkins of Bradley University demonstrates how different definitions of work have produced distinct versions of masculinity. These competing masculinities, in turn, were crucial factors in struggles over racial equality and economic justice. This event is co-sponsored by the American Culture and Difference program.
Dr. Amy Kritzer directs a student reading of Duluth playwright Jeannine Coulombe's play based on real-life events that took place in 1989 in International Falls, MN. Faced with the Boise Cascade paper mill's attempts to undermine the power of their local union, workers must decide between accepting the company's terms or taking action that might ultimately destroy their town. This heated conflict boils over into a violent confrontation and one local family is irrevocably drawn into the fray. The Mill is a powerful drama about work, workers, immigration, race, and resistance. Jeannine Coulombe will be on hand to speak to students following the reading.
From award-winning filmmaker, photographer, and activist U. Roberto Romano and executive producer Eva Longoria, this acclaimed documentary provides a startling, heartbreaking, and inspiring look into the lives of Zulema, Perla, and Victor--three children who "struggle to dream while working 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week to feed America." Co-sponsored by UST Libraries.
Annie Baxter, of Minnesota Public Radio, and more recently, National Public Radio, will speak about her reporting on work, unemployment, and the economy in Minnesota. She'll also talk about the work of being a journalist and what it takes to tell the stories of the community you live in. Co-sponsored by the Department of Communication and Journalism.