Professors Drager & Craig Take Us Somewhere New

We are so pleased to welcome our new faculty Dr. Jacob Craig and Dr. Lindsey Drager. With their arrival, students will have new ways of thinking about what it means to be a writer in the most expansive way possible.

Drager, who joins our Creative Writing faculty from the University of Denver where she recently completed her Ph.D., combines experimental fiction with a deep commitment to social justice and local history. Her work, as she puts it in the interview below, motivates us to “bear witness to that which they’d otherwise ignore”–formally, socially, emotionally, interpersonally, historically.

Craig, who joins our Writing Studies faculty from Florida State where he recently completed his Ph.D., focuses on digital rhetorics, with a particular emphasis on process and the material contexts of writing. Given the sheer variety of those processes and contexts, especially in the digital age, such work suggest a deeper significance: “What motivates me as a teacher of writing,” Craig notes, “is that writing effectively across those spaces is a prerequisite of citizenship and participation in the 21st century, so my job is to provide opportunities to students that prepare them to be active and reflective citizen-writers.”

Lindsey Drager, Creative Writing

drager1My goal as a teacher is to encourage students to establish and maintain a relationship with writing and reading, one that is life long, that lasts far beyond the limits of our time together. To do that, I am always trying to raise the larger questions about what we’re up to as writers. Writing is a gothic, ghostly thing: writers haunt the work they send out into the world, an absent presence, and readers, monster-like, enter the psyches of the characters and environments writers have created to see the world in new skin, through a different lens. It’s really a rather mysterious venture, the writing-reading dyad, and I am always seeking to use our time together in the classroom to uncover and disclose the enigma of this art form, together, collaboratively. In this way, the hope is that we are teasing out the forms and formulas that fiction and essay take in order to harness and replicate them in our own work. By giving ourselves a vocabulary for moves that seem allusive, we can begin to put them into practice.

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What drew you to the kind of work you do?

For a long time I’ve been interested in the relationship between artistic production and social justice. While I had always been one who wrote, I knew that I wanted to pursue it seriously when—because of a series of personal experiences where people close to me struggled with alcoholism and mental illness, as well as coming out as transgender—I came to understand that art, and fiction in particular, does work in the world.

For a long time I fought to find the right form for taking up social justice issues in fiction because when I started to explore these questions on the page, often times it felt too didactic. Ultimately, it was when I was able to abandon the tenets of realism that things started to feel like they were working; by capitalizing on estrangement, defamiliarization, and surrealism, I found I was able to trick audiences into thinking the world I was critiquing was not theirs.

drager2For example, a new project, The Lost Daughter Collective, concerns a Wrist Scholar and his ice-sculpting child prodigy daughter. The context is absurd (the Wrist Scholar establishes the Institute for Wrist Studies where he has spent his lifetime gaining funding from shadow puppet guilds to study the place where the hand ends and the arm begins), but loitering beneath the surface of the bizarre, I am trying to use these figures to explore the very real power dynamics between scholars and artists, parents and children, men and women, that shape the world you and I navigate. It was after I started reading Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne (and watching The Twilight Zone—I still have an aesthetic crush on Rod Serling) that I was able to see satire as not only an entertaining genre I was happy to consume as a reader, but a tool to help solve an artistic problem as a writer: how to get people to bear witness to that which they’d otherwise ignore.

What are you working on now?  

I have two projects on the horizon: the first is a satirical novel about the relationship between homelessness and artistic freedom. It follows a “text artist” (who might be a writer) who is accidentally let into a visual arts colony (that might be a veiled homeless shelter). This project grew out of my experiences working at a day shelter for those struggling with homelessness in Denver, Colorado. There I met men who were using art as a way to tell their stories, stories they felt no one was hearing. The project takes up the question of how to ethically promote “outsider art”—work produced independent of artistic communities, academic institutions, and other formal systems of production, often by those marginalized through their status as cognitively disabled, mentally ill, incarcerated, enslaved, or otherwise systemically oppressed.

drager3I am also working on a book-length essay about the body on public display, and am doing a lot of research on the freak shows that traveled the U.S. from about 1860 to 1940 before they were outlawed, along with the rise of the “ugly laws”—also known as “unsightly beggar ordinances”—that, in the late 19th centuries right up through the 1970s, forced the homeless population, who were often physically and mentally disabled, to be law-breakers by their very presence on the street. I’m threading this historical research with a more personal exploration of my experiences with a transgender family member.

While the projects seem radically different, they both have at their core the same question: How do we respond to the invited stare? How do we ethically look, especially at those who are not like us, especially when looking is our primary means of satiating curiosity? I’m not taking on these projects to answer these questions, but to expose them as questions worth posing, and possibly to pose more.

What motivates your work as a teacher, and what kinds of classes are you most looking forward to teaching?

I think of myself as a teaching artist (teaching first!) because my work in the classroom informs my work on the page. My students push me everyday to re-think what it is that writing can do, and I am constantly revising my answer to that question, “Why write?” I need the conversation, the interlocution that happens in the classroom to keep writing, and I hope that students leave my classes with a sense that writing matters and that stories do work in the world.

My goal as a teacher is to encourage students to establish and maintain a relationship with writing and reading, one that is life long, that lasts far beyond the limits of our time together. To do that, I am always trying to raise the larger questions about what we’re up to as writers. Writing is a gothic, ghostly thing: writers haunt the work they send out into the world, an absent presence, and readers, monster-like, enter the psyches of the characters and environments writers have created to see the world in new skin, through a different lens. It’s really a rather mysterious venture, the writing-reading dyad, and I am always seeking to use our time together in the classroom to uncover and disclose the enigma of this art form, together, collaboratively. In this way, the hope is that we are teasing out the forms and formulas that fiction and essay take in order to harness and replicate them in our own work. By giving ourselves a vocabulary for moves that seem allusive, we can begin to put them into practice.

I think re-framing how we approach texts—both published prose and in their raw, embryonic state in workshop—as rhetorical objects that are meant to manipulate our emotions, and then venturing to determine how we as readers are being manipulated helps us better understand and control the awesome power we are granted as authors. At the end of the day, writing is about decision-making. My hope is to give students as many options as possible for choosing.

Beyond your own research and teaching, what interests or activities–momentous or mundane–sustain you?

I am a collector. I collect vintage cameras and also books—not galleys or advanced reader copies, but books in final form—that have printing errors or mistakes. For example, one has the title of a different novel along the running header. Another is missing page 148 (in its place is a reproduction of page 24). In another, the guts of the book are printed upside down when compared to the cover. One of my favorite tasks is searching for these flawed books. I am also fascinated with the history of fonts, an obsession that developed when I was doing book layout for the literary press Dalkey Archive. Even after living in Denver for four years, I am still trying to learn about beer. (It takes time! You have to train your tongue.) And I love live hockey, which was a staple in my childhood, having been raised in Michigan.

Since moving to Charleston, I can’t help but find myself spending a ton of my free time reading about this strange and beautiful and complicated city. Right now I am devouring anything I can on the writer Dawn Langley Simmons. Dawn was born in London in 1922 as intersex, and because it was understood then that being a man was better than being a woman, despite the fact that biologically and psychologically she felt much more female than male, she was raised Gordon Langley Hall. As Gordon, she spent time with Vita Sackville-West (one of Virginia Woolf’s lovers and the inspiration for Orlando), was adopted by the film actress Margaret Rutherford, and ultimately made her way to the U.S. where she researched and wrote children’s books and biographies about famous figures and first ladies like Lady Bird Johnson, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Rosalynn Carter. She then moved to Charleston, became a member of the Charleston elite, realized she identified as a woman, and fell in love with John-Paul Simmons, an African American who courted her fiercely. Theirs was the first interracial marriage in the state of South Carolina, and Dawn gave birth to what would be their only child a few years later, only to be shunned, threatened, and ultimately made victims of hate crimes by their neighbors until they fled the city for upstate New York.

It’s these kinds of stories that I find myself accidentally falling upon since I’ve started researching Charleston history, and I’m finding myself in awe of this city and its narratives. For every story we hear, it seems there are several stories we don’t, and I’m determined to keep digging, searching, and listening.

Jacob Craig, Writing Studies

craig3It’s a reality that more than ever before people are writing outside of formal institutions like school. People are addressing their own audiences and meeting their own purposes through a variety of platforms and devices: texting, tweeting, and posting on cell phones; making flyers and invitations on laptops; writing lists and notes in print; annotating and curating on tablets and e-readers. What motivates me as a teacher of writing is that writing effectively across those spaces is a prerequisite of citizenship and participation in the 21st century, so my job is to provide opportunities to students that prepare them to be active and reflective citizen-writers.

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What drew you to the kind of work you do?

I didn’t come to writing studies or find my interest in computers and writing directly. What really happened was a convergence of experience and interest, so I’ll relay three stories.

When I was an undergraduate student, I had the opportunity to enroll in an honors program in the English Department—a good opportunity because I got to work with a mentor and got a little scholarship money. For that project, I was looking at one of Ben Jonson’s plays, The Devil is an Ass, and my claim was that he borrowed the genre conventions of the medieval morality play. After I completed that project (around 50 pages of analysis), I realized how little I knew about writing despite having written around seven essays each semester in my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years at college.

As part of that honors program, I was required to present my research to the department at a one-day symposium. After my presentation a professor in rhetoric expressed interest in my project, and doing the typical professorial thing, he referred me to a set of books in rhetoric about genre. I followed up with him later because I was at a loss about what to do next. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. After talking to that professor in rhetoric about genre and genre theory in writing studies, I felt like there was something worth doing in writing studies, but that required me attending more school. Having just completed the BA, I was hesitant to enroll into an MA program, so I took two graduate classes as a non-degree seeking student: one composition theory and one in rhetorical theory. While I was taking those classes, I became aware of important gaps in my thinking and my practice. In other words, I didn’t know what was actually happening when I sat down to write.

In that graduate program, I became familiar with one area in writing studies that looks at the effects and implications of technologies on writing and meaning-making. I was attracted to questions in that research area, because I’ve always had computers in my life. I have lots of fond memories writing on the computer as a child: making greeting cards in a CD-ROM-based program produced by Hallmark and debating whether Cash Money or No Limit Records had a stronger line up in chat rooms. What I found is that writing scholars took those texts seriously in terms of how they were produced and what effect they had on me as a writer.

What are you working on now?

Several things, but I’ll mention two here. First, I am working on developing one of my dissertation findings into an article. Existing research on writing processes shows that because of an always-present and often-distracting connection to people and texts, writers are intentional about the connections they foster and sever. While one writer may choose to write at a coffee house to create distance from the distractions of home and the library, another may choose to write on their front porch to avoid the stigma of coffee shop writing. My research shows that writers also create connections to their pasts by recreating the physical and social features of childhood bedrooms, dining room tables, and home-office desks.

craig1Second, one area of my research—somewhat ironically—deals with reading and how the visual design of the page is complicated when the visual design of webpages and ebooks change depending on the device used to display those pages. I recently published a short article online to that effect:

What motivates your work as a teacher, and what kinds of classes are you most looking forward to teaching? 

It’s a reality that more than ever before people are writing outside of formal institutions like school. People are addressing their own audiences and meeting their own purposes through a variety of platforms and devices: texting, tweeting, and posting on cell phones; making flyers and invitations on laptops; writing lists and notes in print; annotating and curating on tablets and e-readers. What motivates me as a teacher of writing is that writing effectively across those spaces is a prerequisite of citizenship and participation in the 21st century, so my job is to provide opportunities to students that prepare them to be active and reflective citizen-writers. Although I consistently enjoy teaching writing classes like Academic Writing and Interdisciplinary Composition, I am looking forward to working with more majors, so I am excited about teaching “Theories of Teaching Writing” in Spring 2017 and Technical Communication in future semesters.

Beyond your own research and teaching, what interests or activities–momentous or mundane–sustain you?

Because my interests are in digital rhetoric and writing, I often think with the metaphor of a network, and in my network there are multiple nodes that grow, shrink, and emerge. In that spirit, I made a digital text that you are welcome to explore. You can also check out his recent blogging here.

 

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