The Bildungsroman Project: an Undergraduate Digital Humanities Initiative

When the UNC-CH literature program granted me a Literature in the Genres class this semester, they gave me the challenging freedom of unlimited possibilities. What would I pick? I hemmed and I hawed, and then the answer struck me as if it were the only one with an arm. I would teach on the bildungsroman.

“Bildungsroman” means “novel of formation” in German, and what could be more relevant to undergraduates than the stories of how young people find their rightful places in the world?  Besides, our whole culture is obsessed with coming-of-age narratives, as even the briefest dip into movie listings will demonstrate. (Anyone hear of The Perks of Being a Wallflower this year? Or last year'sTwilight: Breaking Dawn? Maybe An Education from the year before?) Our class could start with Dickens's Great Expectations and read all the way up to Blankets, a spellbinding 2003 graphic novel by Craig Thompson. A bildungsroman course! It was on.

One week before the semester began, however, I was baffled. Where were the online resources to which I could point my students?  I was shocked that no sophisticated and aesthetically-pleasing website existed to both showcase existing bildungsromane and foster new ones. That frustration became a challenge, and that challenge became a plan. If the website I wanted didn’t exist, we would make one.

We did, and it's here, and I'm incredibly proud. So please, click on the logo below and scram.

Seriously, go!

Okay. My goodness. Why are you still around? Maybe you're a pedagogical thinker or a creative type who is interested in the process of collaboration. Maybe you care about the birthing, not just the baby. If so, here are some details for you.

Early in the term, I asked the class to generate submission guidelines for creative personal narratives, close readings of individual texts, and encyclopedic overviews of both the bildungsroman’s representative works and its cultural context. The students then signed up for topics and formulated selection committees to identify the most publishable writing. Selected authors then had to work with copyeditors to polish their articles. Once the pieces were revised, a team of content uploaders published them to the web. We also had an outreach committee who worked on promotion, planned our launch party, and helped me with the Instagram contests we ran in order to connect with depictions of coming of age in visual art.

At times our classroom felt like a pressroom, and I saw students working extra hard because they knew that everything they wrote had the potential to reach an audience limited only by the size of our ability to attract it. I worked considerably harder too.  I took the student submissions very seriously, but some how grading them became fun. Actually fun! That last bit was a new and welcome experience for one who loves to teach but hates to evaluate. Perhaps I can't speak for others, but I'm beginning to wonder if project courses aren't one of the very best ways to learn.

With The Bildungsroman Project we’ve striven to create a self-sustaining digital humanities initiative that will continue welcoming submissions from writers both in my future classes and from English speakers everywhere. My vision values excellence in both content and design, and my hope is that the website can become an undergraduate journal that features both scholarly and creative writing. Please check out our hard work, and consider encouraging any college students you know to submit their own!

Sing the Laughter of God

The communion table pictured here was collaboratively created in December 2012 by the community at Emmaus Way Church: Durham, NC. 

You're afraid. I know that's a bold statement, but I fear I'm right. The discovery that most people are deeply -- perhaps even fundamentally -- motivated by fear has been the single biggest epiphany of my adult life. I see it everywhere now. Behind my even-tempered, rational approach to conflict: abject fright at the possibility of being considered illogical, unworthy, gender-stereotypical, dramatic. At the core of the more free-spirited folk I know: a terror of commitment, of mediocrity, of conformity, of failing to conform to the surprisingly narrow definition of "free spirit." I could go on. Pick your poison; it picked you a long time ago.

I'm being ominous for ironic effect, of course -- a sort of homeopathic hair-of-the-dog. Gallows humor can be sword as well as shield. Besides, conflict management skills and free spirits are wonderful. Sometimes I wonder if we'd really do anything outside of amusing ourselves if fear's motivational properties evaporated along with fear itself. But maybe that's just it. Maybe fear isn't itself so much the problem; rather, the problem resides in how we so often fail to filter fear. Unprocessed fear might make us fight or flight, but it inevitably makes our inner selves curl up like a pillbug poked by a child, at once protecting who we are now and crippling our progress toward where we should be tomorrow. Acknowledged fear, on the other hand, is the raw material for freedom.

The idea that artists channel their negative emotions into the process of creation would be totally cliche if it didn't also feel utterly profound. I know; it happened to me this year, and I'm still trying to sort out why my response to anger, pain, and fear has been an almost overwhelming rediscovery of creativity. Bono once wrote that "the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty." I find that compelling not only for the refinement of perspective it invites, but also for the implicit hint that part of finding freedom is determining which of our binaries are false. What is the opposite of fear?  One would not be wrong to say courage, but what of love, joy, faith, artistry, community? Apart from these there is no courage. 

My church, Emmaus Way in Durham, NC, delights in celebrating creativity within community. During Advent, a season of waiting in sober reflection before the angel says "be not afraid," we collaboratively painted a new communion table. The original design featured concentric circles embracing a point of light. The circles were purple because that color of both mourning and royalty represents the season. It was a lovely concept, yet early in the process something interesting happened that sent us on a new direction. Someone painted a little circle off on its own. I was so impressed with how generously the table's original designer, Katrina Williams, relinquished control and encouraged others to join in casting the vision. Soon the scene was laced with rings in interlocking orbit. Many of us see planets in a great solar system, and for me it calls to mind the old hymn that revels in "the music of the spheres." Together we painted the paradox of a universe that is characterized by darkness and yet bears all the light in existence. One could see that without ever knowing the table's origin story, but those of us who were lucky enough to wield brushes know that sealed in its very genesis is the truth that love and trust freed us all to make something new.

Last Sunday was the first time I got to see the finished table, and Pastor Tim Conder read a prayer that expressed much of how I feel about it. It was originally written in the eighteenth century by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (how's that for a title?), but Tim altered it from first person "I" to second person "we." 

Let us be weary of the dark voices crying doom;
let us be weary of the fearful voices crying only for their nation;
let us weary of the disinherited voices crying in hopelessness;
let our voices sing the laughter of God;
let our voices sing good news to the poor;
let our voices sing restitution of the oppressed;
let our voices sing healing of the violated;
let our voices sing the return of the banned;
let our voices be the laughter of God. Amen.

Praising the Mutilated World

Photographs of oil slicks grace both my SLR gallery and my iPhoneography collection. "Grace" may seem like a strange word for pollution, but it is precisely what I mean. With a flick and a click in an image editor, spilled oil is shockingly beautiful.

I feared for awhile that if, by finding beauty in even these small degradations, I was ratifying them. Art often glorifies destruction, but I'm not sure it ever should. An exception might be in catharsis. I don't think it is actually destruction that is glorified in destructive catharsis, however. At any rate, spilled oil reminds me of the paradox that keeps me happily rooted to my Christian tradition: the notion that grace takes something broken and makes it stronger and more beautiful than it was before. This is the concept of felix culpa I've written about elsewhere. But it goes even deeper. Look at these two versions

Unsharp mask applied:

Original lens blur:

I could fix the softness of the pavement, but in doing so, I lost the glow, the light, the gentle gradations of color. This edit actually looks marred by pixelation, though it isn't. Even if there had been no lens blur to remove, I'm not sure sharpness would have enriched the image. In this case, "perfect" isn't perfect. Of course you may prefer the sharp edit, or you may have good advice for me on how to restore the positive attributes of light and color while keeping the unsharp mask, or you just might think I'm crazy for photographing and (over)saturating spilled oil at all. That's not really the point. Regardless of the relative merits of either image, my concept of perfection itself needed to change. Most photographers would consider overprocessing to be the mark of a rookie editor, but perhaps there is another, deeper case against it. Overprocessing is an assertion of control. It leaves no room for happy accidents or movements of a spirit outside of the artist. There's no humility in it.

When it comes to control, I'm guilty as charged. Yet here's another happy accident, whether you call it subconscious association, synchronicity, or the still, small voice of a Creator guiding the creativity of the created. I just realized that in cropping the oil slick into four bars, I'd echoed two great traditions of religious art: stained glass and mosaic. All this is grace: things broken and spilled, set together like gems in a new, unexpected, and more glorious whole.

"Try to Praise the Mutilated World"
by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 


I'm prone to falling in love with places I've never been, and I'm rarely disappointed upon arrival. I sure hope that is true about Chattanooga, because at 40 minutes from my new home, it will be my source for arts, dining, and maybe even church in less than six months. If this nationally award-winning film bears any accuracy whatsoever, I'm about to be seduced.

P.S. I wonder how long this tilt-shift trend will wield so much influence. It is fascinating that such an old technology could suddenly spring to the fore, thanks mostly to iPhone app developers.

+ Video produced by the Johnson Group, in partnership with Atomic Films and Jack Parker Photography. Song by Allen DiCenzo and Roger Vaughn.


The rumors are true. iPhone photography is the most addictive legal pursuit in the world. I've been doing it for one delightful week, having begun in the wake of the Great Instagram Fiasco of 2012, and I've already become a total hypocrite by twiddling my phone in social settings. Apologies to both those I've reprimanded for it in the past and those I've offended by it in the present. Perhaps one day soon we'll edit via hologram so that our conversation partners can see what we're doing and not be bothered -- sort of like knitting while talking. In the mean time, I have to tear myself away.

If you'd like to see what I was doing when I was supposed to be sleeping on a redeye, cooking a balanced meal, or making eye contact in a  l o n g  discussion about agripolitics, visit my new gallery or my Instagram page. I'm still learning the ropes -- that's why there is a rectangular picture in there that will doubtless lose the trust of the purists -- but my creative ambitions are reaching intoxicated heights. Now if I can just turn down that danged competitive streak . . .

"A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap."

After three difficult years searching for a full-time professorship, I was surprised and delighted by an abundance of options early in the 2012-2013 market season. I have accepted a tenure track post in English at Lee University in Cleveland, TN.  The energy, leadership, and warmth in Lee's Literature and Language program parallels nothing I have ever seen, and I am so excited to begin teaching and learning there in August.

Administrative Approval.jpg

The Honourable Mr. Bunbury of Derbyshire extends his approval, though I imagine he will attempt to rescind it within the first ten minutes of our seven hour trip to Tennessee.

British Accents, The Secret Garden, and a Muhnkeh!

I'm nothing if not an Anglophile, and we tend to find our own. Thus, it surprises me that I don't encounter more links to Sounds Familiar, the British Library's interactive map of dialects. Its recordings reach back several generations, representing the vastly varying speech patterns of that venerable island kingdom. Sounds Familiar also includes fascinating and accessible written explanations of the linguistic phenomenons as one hears them, and the recordings reveal an oral history that is engaging in its own right. My favorite discovery? That "Queen's English" is really a misnomer. What we think of as the most proper British accent is called Received Pronunciation, and it is not region-specific at all, though it can tell us a lot about the social class of the speaker.

So what does the Queen speak? Linguists claim that Queen Elizabeth II has a dialect entirely to herself. This is so richly symbolic of the entire state of the British monarchy that I nearly fell off my chair.

Click this screenshot to visit Sounds Familiar.

Click this screenshot to visit Sounds Familiar.

When I teach The Secret Garden I like to introduce my students to recordings of Yorkshire speech so that they understand why Mary Lennox had a hard time understanding Martha, Dickon, Ben Weatherstaff, and the rest. Sometimes I show them Sounds Familiar, but usually we don't get any further than this YouTube clip of little Millen Eve I've before the classroom erupts in delight.

Millen Eve's uncle made the video, and I told him in the YouTube comments that we used it in class. He direct messaged me and said that his niece's accent is sadly almost gone now, some five years later. I'm glad he preserved it, and my class and I were thrilled that he reached out to us. Someone tell the British Library to put this on Sounds Familiar!

"I and Nimrod Teaf Thought It the Last of the Earth": the Leonid Meteor Shower

Never mind the Mayans and December 21; you could wake to the heavens exploding as early as this Saturday morning. The Leonids are coming! Originating in debris from Comet Tempel-Tuttle and located near the constellation Leo in the eastern November sky, this meteor shower usually is a bit of a kitten at 10-15 meteors per hour. Honestly that will probably be the case this year. When the cat's fancy changes, however, fireballs roar across the atmosphere like kingdom come.

This most famous image of the 1833 Leonids is by Adolf Vollmy, who in 1889 based it on a painting that was in turn based on a first-hand account. It was once thought to be exaggerated, but both science and history seem to corroborate the engraving. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This most famous image of the 1833 Leonids is by Adolf Vollmy, who in 1889 based it on a painting that was in turn based on a first-hand account. It was once thought to be exaggerated, but both science and history seem to corroborate the engraving. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

You may think I'm having my rhetorical way with you. I'm not, though that's tempting. Comets and meteor showers are only semi-predictable. We know when they'll arrive, but their journeys bear enough variables to keep us somewhat in the dark about what they're packing. Meteor showers repeat at the same time every year because the comet debris of which they consist sits on mappable points of our orbit. The paths of their individual particles spread out somewhat due to the geyser effect of the comet's brush with the sun, however, and the tug of other planets can additionally warp these paths.

Comets also have their own elliptical orbits, and Tempel-Tuttle orbits closest to the sun -- or, if you want to be technical and use a lovely word, it reaches perihelion -- about every 33 years. Tempel-Tuttle's perihelion almost exactly intersects earth's own orbit, which means that in a perihelion year the sun is radiating formerly-icy comet dust at almost the same time that this dust hits earth's atmosphere. The result? Massive multi-colored fireballs that you can sometimes hear crackle and boom.

Did you get that? You can hear them! I'm not fabricating, and it gets even better. Sometimes at perihelion, when we pass through the thickest and most volatile part of the meteor stream, the snoozing cat of 10-15 meteors an hour wakes up and attacks. This is called a meteor storm. For an unforgettable hour in 1966, there were thousands of meteors per minute. Per minute! People describe instinctively reaching for an anchor because they felt as if they were rushing into space. I'm faint with envy over such a sight. It wasn't long ago, however, that people were faint with fear.

Meteor astronomy is a relatively new branch of an old science, and in the early part of the nineteenth century people didn't even know that meteor showers were annually predictable. Imagine, then, what it was like to wake up to a cosmic storm. It happened in 1833, and at least one woman died of fright. There are many wonderful accounts of what the sky looked like that night, but this one by John Tabor of Yellville, Arkansas, is my favorite:

Just before midnight, my brother woke up and was nearly paralyzed with fear at beholding the air filled with falling stars. When he was able to speak, he woke us all up and told us to hurry and get on our clothes for the world was coming to an end. I was almost stupefied with wonder and astonishment and hurriedly rose from my couch of bear skins and looked out that the door and saw the whole heavens as far as I could observe, brilliantly illuminated with hundreds and thousands of stars shooting swiftly down toward the earth. Apparently they would disappear or go out before reaching the ground. It was a grand and fearful sight. Like my brother, I and Nimrod Teaf thought it the last of the earth, and we all concluded that it was too late to pray and submitted ourselves to wait for the approach of our destruction . . . The grand display continued and our terror did not grow less. The night seemed a month long, and the end of the world had not come yet. At last, to our surprise, we noticed that day was breaking in the east and it looked as natural as it ever did. As we discerned the approach of day and as it grew lighter, we found that mother earth was still here and the end was not in sight. The flying meteors were gradually obscured by the light of day and we were left unharmed and as far as we knew, the earth remained intact.

All this drama came from particles weighing thousandths of a gram and measuring just a few millimeters across. I may abuse hyperbole sometimes, but when scientists say "particles," they mean particles. We owe the spectacle to the speed of each particle's collision with the atmosphere: upwards of 100,000 miles per hour.

No one can be sure of what you'll see in the hours between midnight and dawn on this Saturday morning, but unfortunately the Leonid perihelion isn't due again 'till 2032. if the Leonids are kittens on Saturday, try the Geminids in the early hours of December 13 and 14. There will be no lunar interference for either shower this year. Unlike the all-or-nothing Leonids, the Geminids consistently offer 50 meteors per hour. They're reliable, just like my beloved August Perseids. Still, wouldn't you love the chance to see that sleeping cat in Leo pounce one of these Novembers?  

Whichever shower you watch, take along a thermos of hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps, a warm blanket, a warm someone, and the jazz standard "Stars Fell on Alabama." It was written about the Leonid Storm of 1833, and it includes the line "we kissed in a field of white." You know what to do. Just don't close your eyes.

Definitions verified and cross-referenced via NASA,, Sky and Telescope, and Wikipedia. John Tabor account from Kwas, Mary L. "The Spectacular 1833 Leonid Meteor Storm: The View from Arkansas. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly. 58:3, Autumn 1999. 314-324.