Common Context Program
E. M. Forster once urged his readers: “Only connect!” The English Department’s Common Context program, a feature of its introductory core literature and writing course (ENGL 121), helps students follow Forster’s injunction. Each academic year the department selects a context that has strong contemporary resonance for our lives, and that has also provided a powerful focus for some of the greatest imaginative literature: Water, Beauty, Work, Exploration, Home, Atonement, or Sanctuary, to name a few examples that have been either proposed or adopted in recent years.
Rather than adopt a single text to facilitate discussion of the Common Context, the Department celebrates the diversity of human literary expression by encouraging individual instructors to select a text that will address the given year’s theme in a primary way. Instructors also design writing assignments that will engage students in the ethical, political, and artistic implications of the theme chosen for that particular year. The Common Context is not just a focus, but a nexus as well, providing opportunities for learning and conversation across academic disciplines and linking to key parts of the University mission, including diversity, sustainability, and a focus on the common good.
2018-2019 Common Context Theme: Recovery
Thinking about the concept of “recovery” might remind us of the popular TV show Intervention on A&E. Ostensibly a reality show about the struggles of addicts, it spends most of its time peering voyeuristically at supposedly broken people whose lives appear unfixable, especially when viewed from the comfy vantage of your typical American middle-class great room puffy couch. The general show structure goes like this: thirty-five minutes of train wreckage behavior, twenty minutes of a dramatic family intervention, and five minutes of recovery. In this show, “recovery” is depicted as an instantaneous transformation that takes place over the span of a single commercial break. It appears magical, like David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear. Intervention makes the dogged demons of human existence melt away into thin air in virtual seconds. But like Copperfield’s mesmerizing trick, it is not clear exactly how it happened. We simply stand by stunned waiting for when, not if, the disappeared will again reappear. This is recovery done Hollywood reality TV style.
Conversely, Kaveh Akbar’s poetry collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, resists the magic trick notion of recovery, seeing it instead as long journey with challenges and backsliding, never fully culminating in the arrival at a discrete destination. Instead recovery is a journey without an end, the act of climbing a mountain that rises higher and higher above us even as we trudge ever upward, sliding back down, and trudging up again. And unlike the admittedly intoxicating TV show, Akbar exposes the way that recovery is not only an affair of the individual mind, but of communities, cultures, and society as well. In inviting us to think about relationships, difference, and otherness, he engages the collective nature of recovery, which, by partial definition, is the “action or process of regaining something stolen or lost”: sobriety, sanity, a life, justice, dignity, land, identity, power, etc. If considered this way, recovery is something we all may desire – a return to sanity, a feeling of security, the freedom to be who we are.
Recovery, then, is both personal and political, individual and collective. It can also be both conservative and progressive. In the Bible God tells David he will “recover it all,” when asked if the king should pursue the Amelikites who had pillaged his people. The lesson of the story is faithfulness and patience. But when thinking about recovery within the framework of social justice and equity, we must also recognize the way that seeking justice as part of the process of recovery is essential and cannot wait. Social movements are indeed about recovery. Even though we often think of movements against Apartheid in South Africa, the fight for civil rights in the United States, and the feminist and gay rights movements as well, as movements to gain something people didn’t have, they were really efforts to recover that which we, as human beings all fundamentally have deed to – the right to be free and be treated fairly, and to share equally in the dignity of human existence.
Martin Luther King, Jr. used the metaphor of the bad check to get at this truth in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, decrying the fact that America’s promise of equality to black people had come back stamped “insufficient funds.” He used this image to suggest that a promise had been broken. The notion of recovery, however, allows us to go beyond that concept of the hand of power reaching down toward the head of the oppressed (as suggested in the famous abolitionist logo). If human dignity and freedom always belonged to black people, who were brought in chains from Africa and enslaved and oppressed for 400 years in the Americas, then their fight has really been to recover that which was stolen from them. That is the difference between charity and justice. And moreover, we must all be cognizant of our own implication in ongoing injustices and their effects. We must remember, for example, whose stolen land we occupy, whose labor was exploited to make the clothes we wear and the luxuries we enjoy. Those who suffer from injustice have the right and are entitled, like David, to actively seek their own individual and collective recovery – and they shouldn’t have to wait until someone finally hands them a check that’s worth something.
So, while we might prefer recovery to be like a magic trick, it often is not. The road to recovery is long and hard, but not because recovery itself should be a function of attrition. It is long and hard because the forces that seize our sanity, our sobriety, our freedom, and our justice are vast, powerful, and deeply rooted. Yet we must ever keep climbing that mountain to regain what has always rightfully been ours.
Our Guest Author
Kaveh Akbar's poems have appeared recently in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Times, The Nation, and elsewhere. His first book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, was published in late 2017 by Alice James Press in the United States and by Penguin in the UK. He is also the author of the chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic.
The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches in the MFA program at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College.
Thursday, October 4, 2018
Kaveh Akbar Craft Talk and Q&A
Noon, O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library, O'Shaughnessy Room (Room 108)
Students will have an opportunity to learn about the craft of writing from author Kaveh Akbar and ask him questions about his poetry.
Thursday, October 4, 2018
Kaveh Akbar Reading and Lecture
7:00pm, OEC Auditorium
Kaveh Akbar will read selections from his poetry book Calling a Wolf a Wolf and discuss the concept of recovery in his writing. Copies of Calling a Wolf a Wolf will be available for purchase and a signing will immediately follow the event which is free and open to the public.