learning to read

I have always sort of lived for reading and writing and I also read and write for a living. I spent years studying both of these things before I got a job as a professor teaching these things at a university. I am still learning to read and write in new and different ways all the time.

A thing about this global pandemic is that it’s pushed me to rethink how I read and write, and how I share these practices with students, in countless ways. I’ve been uncomfortable with some of it, but I’ve also had a lot of fun experimenting with new strategies and methods, some of which I’ve held onto as we’ve moved back to the physical classroom, back to a F2F (if masked) environment.

One of the things teaching remotely got me doing much more than I ever had in the past–more in the last year and a half ++ than in my whole teaching career before this–is invite guests into my classes. The technology was there before all of this to bring someone in who couldn’t be there in person. But it took these insane circumstances for me to really lean into doing this more frequently. Of course, other writers and readers are there in my classes all the time. The course materials and assignments in every class I teach pull in other voices and perspectives constantly. But this is different. Talented, creative, smart guests can bring so much to a classroom exchange and dynamic, virtually or in person: other perspectives on the material, differences in style/approach, energy from outside that can totally transform a conversation’s feels and flows.

My latest class “visit” took the form of a recorded chat with Angus Reid, a PhD Candidate in English at UC-Berkeley, for HIST 390: “THE BOMB”-A CULTURAL HISTORY. It’s an undergrad course I’m teaching for the first time. Each week, we look at different cultural representations, forms, and objects: photography, painting, sculpture, film, literary sources, etc. This week, we’re working with poems and short fiction. I’m an avid reader of poetry, but I wanted my class to get some help reading poetry from someone who thinks about the genre a lot more than we do, someone who also teaches poetry. For scheduling and other reasons, we recorded our dialogue rather than having Angus join the class virtually in real time. There’s more to say about the different ways I have brought guests in and how things have gone/felt.

My conversation with Angus had me sort of vibrating with joy for hours after. We talked about:

the way a poem can look
and sound
the Beats
the Bay Area

And we spoke very specifically about the 1958 Gregory Corso poem “Bomb”.

Gregory Corso, “Bomb” in the collection Happy Birthday to Death (New Directions Books, 1960)

Speaking with Angus, I wasn’t just posing questions for/on behalf of my class. I was learning to read this poem I’d read a hundred times before in a new way, learning to think about and approach poetry differently, learning to read afresh. One of the best things about reading and writing as (a) living is how this kind of thing is happening constantly, especially when it happens like this, in conversation. I’m so grateful to all the colleagues and friends like Angus who’ve been helping me get through this intense period of my teaching life, who’ve given so generously of their time and ideas, who’ve kept–and always keep–the room from getting too lonesome.

Here’s our conversation:

Reading Corso’s “Bomb” with Angus Reid

hold it now, hit it

A little over a year ago, I read a great essay by Dr. Robert (Bob) Cashin Ryan, a lit scholar, teacher, and co-editor (with Sarah Osment) of hyped on melancholy. The piece gave me the idea for a week on sound and music and/as history in a course I teach at SFU. So this week in HIST 400: Methodology, we’re all about listening.

My students and I will be discussing all of the materials below, as well as a terrific article by Michael Sizer, “Murmur, Clamor, and Tumult: The Soundscape of Revolt in the Middle Ages that I don’t have permission to share here. And you can read/listen along if you want.

  • Listen to an audio interview with Julie Beth Napolin about sound studies & Olivier Messiaen’s 1941 composition, “Quartet for the End of Time.” I spoke with Julie this past summer for radio 417, a series of broadcasts I made for my seminar on France & the Second World War.
  • Watch a video interview with Jennifer Stoever about her work on the “sonic color line” here.
  • Read an excerpt from Hanif Abdurraqib‘s Go Ahead in the Rain via Vulture

  • Read another excerpt from Hanif Abdurraqib‘s Go Ahead in the Rain via the Los Angeles Review of Books

  • Read an excerpt from Michael Diamond and Adam Horowitz‘s Beastie Boys Book via Vulture

  • Read Bob Ryan‘s “The Breaks of History” via Public Books

  • Listen to the audio interview with Bob Ryan that we recorded for radio 400. In it, we talk about sampling, citation, high school, college, grad school, A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, history, listening & writing.

Also, I did up a playlist of all the songs that came up in my conversation with Bob, and you can listen to that kooky music salad here.


It’s been a while…feels like I’ve been all about teaching the past few months, but the teaching and planning for teaching have meant that I haven’t had all that much time to keep a log about it, I guess.

I did write a thing about the teaching that I shared elsewhere, but forgot to post here:

Everything since then is a bit of a blur. Much from the time before it came out too, really. And now I’m in week 3 of a new term. Still rolling remote -or remote again. Still blurry.

And I’m back on my bullshit with the “radio” business. In my fall course, HIST 400: Methodology, I’m using weekly recordings to reflect on material we’ve covered, to share thoughts on things coming up, to connect with my small and wonderful group of SFU History Honours students in between our weekly synchronous meetings online. Each one of these episodes begins and ends with a bit of music. They are typically fairly short (under 15 minutes). I did, however, just finish editing a longer recording of an interview with Bob Ryan about a short essay he published last year called “The Breaks of History”. In our hour-long conversation, Bob and I talked about music, history, and writing. It was super fun! I’ve also made a playlist of songs that came up as we were chatting. It is super weird!

The use of sound recordings works for me. I hope it’s working for this new group of students. I like the idea of popping into their ears for a little bit here and there, not having to look at my own face, or fuss over a video that will only add to all of our eye strain. And listening is different. It works a different part of my brain and inspires other regions of my imagination. It’s also the same, in the sense that I think of writing and reading as listening, literally (as when I read something aloud, especially something I’m writing), but also in a range of other senses of the word. Historians talk about “voices of the past.” We talk about tone and rhythm in the work that we do, about silence too.

Sense and feeling are strange and challenging right now. There’s too much looking, definitely, especially when it comes to screens. Touch is out, with very few exceptions. The others are there, helping or hindering, sometimes muted, sometimes overwhelming – the smoke from forest fires for days and days, the burning of my eyes, the comforts of wine or ice cream, or wine and ice cream, the reassurances of bleach and hand sanitizer. And right outside my window this morning, there are the steady sounds of traffic and rain….

traffic & rain

radio 417

The Summer term has begun and my Intercession course (HIST 417) on France during the Second World War along with it. The weeks of preparation were intense, with Spring teaching and grading still going on, a kid at home full time, all the anxiety/bonkers of life in pandemic.

In all the frenzy, some ideas came to me, and one of them was radio 417. Each week of the 6-week intensive course, my students will listen to one or two pre-recorded broadcasts around 15-20 minutes long. And I’ve enlisted the brilliant help of colleagues and friends from all over, geographically and in terms of the disciplines they hang out in. Each episode features a conversation giving listeners some things to think about before hearing a French song/piece from the years 1939-1945. When the broadcasts are done, I will have spoken with scholars of radio, music/sound, literature, wine, the Holocaust, race, empire, the wartime and postwar era.

I had an amazing chat this past week with Sarah Osment, a scholar of American literature and poetry who is also the co-editor (with Bob Ryan) of hyped on melancholy, “a quarterly magazine that features smart words about sad sounds and the reasons we cleave to them”. Sarah and I talked about sadness, Édith Piaf, and the song “L’Accordéoniste,” written by Michel Emer in 1940.

Listen to our conversation now:

And don’t forget to watch Piaf’s performance of the song in 1954!

pass me the remote

Several weeks later, I completely overhauled HIST 417 for remote teaching and had my first live session online with my students this afternoon! I vastly underestimated the work that this would involve. Yes, my readings were mostly in electronic form already and/or accessible electronically. I imagined a number of assignments would be easily transferable to a remote format and for some things, this was true. But the sheer amount of information and planning that needed to be done ahead of time…I had no idea. The weeks since my last post here have been almost entirely consumed by this organization, planning, and rethinking of class content.

A few things that took more time than I imagined they would:

  • Only one of the films I had planned to show again in the class was available to my students for free. So I had to choose new films and adjust the other materials in the course to better complement these new selections.
  • Outlining the syllabus, policies, specific resources, and issues related to Covid-19 and learning in this new environment took an enormous amount of time.
  • Formatting the materials, schedule, course outline, etc. to work better for an all-remote course was much more of a project than I anticipated. It’s not enough to just write everything down. Things need to be laid out in a way that is readable, divided up in chunks and presented in ways that students will actually engage with and be able to absorb without being confronted and exhausted by walls of text.
  • While some of the content apart from the films was reusable, I needed to think of ways to bring my personality and approach as an instructor to this course and to the experience of taking a course with me at a distance. I hope I have accomplished this through two new assignments: 1) RADIO 417, a series of broadcasts each featuring a French song from the WWII era. Each broadcast has me speaking with a guest about the history of the era, the song itself, related issues and themes. Then students have the chance to hear the song in its entirety. I’ve recorded 4/11 broadcasts so far and I’m very excited about them and 2) A Poster Exhibition project that will make use of images from the digital collection at SFU Library.
  • Figuring out how to work participation and communication among my students and between them and me was a real challenge. How to get them talking to one another? How to nurture a sense of community, even fun in a course that is happening remotely, that is intensive in terms of the time we have and the writing component, and that deals with so much difficult material? I’ve found some ways that I hope will work but a lot remains to be seen.

Today was a good day. My students showed up and I felt like we had a good connection even under these conditions. I have a lot of hope for the term ahead today.