Widener English

The English Department at Widener University



English and Creative Writing Majors Celebrated at Humanities Awards Night

The end of the semester at Widener University brings one of the highlights of our academic year:  the Humanities Awards Ceremony.  Of particular note for us are the special honors bestowed upon English and Creative Writing majors.  This year’s Valedictorian and senior English major Emma Irving was singled out for particular recognition:  named Distinguished Graduating Senior, she offered remarks on the value of the humanities and the transformative power of studying expressions of the human condition.

This year, two students were awarded the Certificate in Textual Scholarship:  seniors Victoria Giansante and Emma Irving.  Victoria and Emma have each completed four semesters in our signature program for undergraduate research.

The recipient of this year’s Allison Roelofs Award is sophomore English and Creative Writing double major Jasmine Kouyate.  The Roelofs Award recognizes a student who demonstrates early-career excellence in our program.

This year’s Susan Hastie Memorial Award went to Taylor Blum, an English and Creative Writing senior.  The Hastie Award is given to a senior who demonstrates quiet excellence and a commitment to the community of the English and Creative Writing Department.

We are so proud of all of these students!



End of Year Achievement: Humanities Awards and Student Project Day

Last week we were delighted to acknowledge the hard work and accomplishments of English and Creative Writing students and faculty at the annual Humanities Awards Ceremony and Student Project Day.

On April 27, English and Creative Writing students were recognized at the fourth annual Humanities Awards Ceremony.  This was a particularly special event for a number of reasons.  The very first Distinguished Alumnus Award was given, to Pat Manley (English, ’99).  The inaugural Susan Hastie Memorial Award was given to Evan Kramer, a double major in English and Creative Writing; this award recognizes a senior who has evinced a dedication to the study of literature and writing, a quiet seriousness, and a maturity that enhances the pursuits of the program.  The winner of the Allison Roelofs Award was Carlie Sisco, double major in English and Creative Writing; this award recognizes a freshman or sophomore who demonstrates great potential and early excellence in the major.

We were also pleased to present the first-ever Certificates in Textual Scholarship to Kimberlee Roberts and Taylor Brown.  Kim and Taylor have been working, under the direction of Dr. Daniel Robinson, on the production of scholarly editions of Romantic-period texts, have traveled to England to study original manuscripts, and have presented their work in multiple venues.  Kim will be attending graduate school for library and archival science at the University of Denver, and Taylor will be pursuing a masters degree in digital humanities at the Loyola University of Chicago.

As the winner of the first Distinguished Alumnus Award, Pat Manley spoke about the need for the humanities not only in the workforce but as a way to enrich our understanding of what it means to be human.  He was followed by Kelsey Styles, who gave remarks as a distinguished undergraduate Humanities major.  Kelsey offered a passionate and inspiring speech about the necessity of the humanities for empathy, particularly in our current moment.

Then, on April 28, the scholarship of English and Creative Writing students was featured at Student Project Day.  Taylor Brown, Emma Irving, and Christine Lombardo presented a panel on David Lynch, family dynamics, and the uncanny.  Students from Annalisa Castaldo’s course on Renaissance Literature spoke on gender and race and connections we might make to our own time.

Photos of the Humanities Awards Ceremony courtesy of Paul Goldberg

Reading for Unity at Widener

On Saturday, April 1, Widener students gathered with undergraduate writers from other colleges in the Philadelphia region to read works inspired by the call for social justice and the power of writing.

Dr. Ken Pobo performed some of his original poetry as the keynote.  The full program was:

Iyanna Rosado, Widener University, “What Does an Illegal Immigrant Look Like?” by Christy Namee Eriksen

Maya Arthur, University of Pennsylvania, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Andrew Nguyen, Haverford College, “where you are planted” by Evie Shockley and “Ka ‘Ba” by Amiri Baraka

Kelsey Styles, Widener University, “Mimesis” and “Scarecrow” by Fady Joudah and “Things that Have Been Lost” and “Wildpeace” by Yehuda Amichai

Jennifer Rohrbach, Widener University, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Michaela Kotziers, University of Pennsylvania, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” by Audre Lord

Jasmine Kouyate, Widener University, “Dancing with Strom” by Nikky Finney

Natalie Kawam, Bryn Mawr College, the Nobel Lecture of Toni Morrison

Photos courtesy of Professor Michael Cocchiarale

Thoughts on Flannery and Trump(ism)

Editor’s Note:  This is a guest post by Mark Graybill, Professor of English

So, Donald Trump is now officially president. Rarely do I address politics directly in class, but here, I’ll just say it: I think “Trumpism”—“a brew of nationalist, populist, anti-establishment, anti-‘expert,’ anti-globalist, protectionist, ‘us versus them,’ and most of all, anti-immigrant sentiment”—is dangerous in historic proportions. And I’m especially worried that it’s going to be devastating for the status of art, history, language, and literature in American culture. Indeed, the budget he plans to propose reportedly eliminates both the NEA and the NEH.

How did we get here? The Humanities, especially literature, can help answer that question (which might explain in part why Trump wants to starve them). I suspect that classics such as 1984, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale are going to enjoy new lives in the coming days. But the less obviously political fiction of Flannery O’Connor, published in the 1950s and ‘60s, also sheds considerable light on our current situation. (I’m not alone in thinking so: David Griffith published a compelling piece on “The Displaced Person” and the Syrian refugee debate over a year ago.) Specifically, O’Connor’s stories expose the seductiveness and destructiveness of nostalgia and authoritarianism—two pillars of Trumpism.

trump“Make America Great Again.” Sounds, well, great, doesn’t it? But, here’s the thing: nostalgia is fundamentally illusory and amnesiac. It distorts things, leaves things out, leads us away from reality. O’Connor is frequently lauded for her skepticism toward progress, especially the notion that technology and science (natural, social, and otherwise) can solve all of humanity’s problems. But she is equally suspicious of the tendency to place faith in a misremembered, ill defined past. When her characters do so, things go wrong.

When shifty Tom Shiftlet, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” spies a car he wants in a flannerywidow’s barn, he uses nostalgia to appeal to her unspoken but clear conviction that the present has wronged her: “Nothing is like it used to be, lady . . . The world is almost rotten.” “That’s right,“ she responds—and before she knows it, he has taken the car and humiliated both her and her disabled daughter in the process. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” nostalgia is lethal. The Grandmother (unnamed to underscore her universality) dooms her family and herself by insisting they take a detour from their vacation and visit a plantation she went to as a child. Her memory is false, though: the plantation, if it ever truly existed, sits in another state. Her mistake delivers them all to their eventual murderer, the Misfit, a criminal she’s been fretting about since the story’s opening line.

A subtle but important aspect of the Grandmother’s nostalgia is racism. In her mind, the plantation isn’t a symbol of slavery, but of the romantic Old South. She lectures her grandchildren about how people treated each other respectfully in the past, and then gleefully calls an African American boy standing on the roadside a “cute little pickaninny!” The Grandmother’s acceptance of racial stereotypes (as seen in this example from the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University) puts her in company with the new president and some of his supporters: one survey suggests that “those who hold . . . dehumanizing views of black people are disproportionately likely to support Donald Trump.” (Here’s another with similar findings.)

But political scientists have identified something larger than racism at work in the American electorate right now: authoritarianism. “Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world,” writes Amanda Taub. “Challenges to that order—diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order—are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.”

O’Connor captures this mentality vividly in “The Displaced Person.” After World War II, a global conflagration sparked by authoritarianism, Mrs. McIntyre initially welcomes a family of Polish refugees to her farm because they outwork her current employees. But when Mr. Guizac approaches one of her black farmhands about marrying his white cousin, confined for three years in a refugee camp back in Europe, Mrs. McIntyre explodes: “You would bring this poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of monster are you?” The outsider has challenged the social order, and she cannot abide it. Incapable of dealing with the situation, she passively lets another employee, the white, racist, big-talking Mr. Shortley, handle it violently, but with the kind of plausible deniability the authoritarian strongman treasures. Disaster ensues: the Pole dies, the farm closes, and its owner lies bedridden, decimated physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Will the two-headed monster of nostalgia and authoritarianism also incapacitate the American body politic? The fact that I can entertain such a question without immediately dismissing it as melodrama is downright depressing. But then I recall Toni Morrison’s words, cited by pop star Katy Perry post-election: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” If it is time for “artists [to] go to work,” to “do language,” it is time for readers to do the same. As every English major knows, wisdom about the present is often found in the art of the past.


It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

The second-to-last week of the spring semester is one of the most joyful and rewarding times of the academic year.  This is when we celebrate the academic excellence of our English and Creative Writing students, when we recognize the commitment, passion, and accomplishments of those students and their faculty.

On Wednesday, we gathered in the Drost Room of Wolfgram Library to hear senior Creative Writing majors (and a minor) read from their portfolios:  the culmination of a semester-long senior seminar, and of four years’ worth of writing and revising.  Megan Lewis read from a series of episodic flash fiction pieces, and Sierra Offutt read from the first chapter of her YA novel in progress.  Minor Monica Colwell (who is a Political Science major) read a creative nonfiction piece about a moving encounter with an Alzheimer’s patient.  The students were advised by Professor Ken Pobo, who opened the event with a generous introduction and facilitated a post-reading Q & A about the students’ aesthetics.

l-r: Professor Ken Pobo, Monica Colwell, Megan Lewis, Sierra Offutt
l-r: Professor Ken Pobo, Monica Colwell, Megan Lewis, Sierra Offutt

Then, on Thursday evening, Humanities faculty gathered with students and their families for the annual Humanities Awards Ceremony.  This wonderful event, organized by the Committee on Recruitment and Retention and the Office of the Associate Dean, recognizes students with majors in the Humanities Division who have achieved a cumulative average of 3.5 or higher.  Nicole Crossey, a double History/Political Science major, gave the Distinguished Graduating Senior remarks, sharing reflections on how the study of History can help us understand our own turbulent times.  The Featured Alumni Speaker, Daniel DiPrinzio (’00), offered humorous and generous comments on the possibilities Humanities students can look forward to after graduation.  DiPrinzio, who is Director of Communications at Arcadia University and the author of several books, is well-positioned to share thoughts on success.

We were also pleased to present the two special awards given at the Humanities Awards Ceremony:  the winner of this year’s Allison Roelofs Award, given to an excellent early-career English major, was Emma Irving, and the winner of this year’s inaugural Justinian Society Award, given to a Humanities senior who plans to attend law school, was Christopher Ross, a History major.

Dan DiPrinzio and senior English major Christian Scittina, who introduced our speaker
Dan DiPrinzio and senior English major Christian Scittina, who introduced our speaker
Emma Irving, recipient of this year’s Allison Roelofs Award, and Professor Michael Cocchiarale, Co-Director of Creative Writing and Chair of the Humanities Recruitment and Retention Committee

Finally, today we celebrate Student Project Day, the annual showcase of undergraduate research.  Students working with Professor Daniel Robinson in Textual Scholarship shared their study of the history, theory, and practice of textual editing, their work preparing a text of William Wordsworth’s two-part Prelude, and their time at the Wordsworth Trust over spring break.  The students closed their presentation by reflecting on how much their work in English and Creative Writing means to them — we couldn’t agree more!


Professor Robinson introduces the Textual Scholarship students
Professor Robinson introduces the Textual Scholarship students
l-r: Ashley DiRienzo, Kimberlee Roberts, Emma Irving, Victoria Giansante, Jeannie McGuire, Taylor Brown
l-r: Ashley DiRienzo, Kimberlee Roberts, Emma Irving, Victoria Giansante, Jeannie McGuire, Taylor Brown


Disease and Disability in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction: A Talk by Professor Graybill

Our own Professor Graybill delivered the English Department Fall Faculty Lecture on October 23.  The lecture, “Disease and Disability in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction,” offered critical and biographical insight into

Professor Graybill talks with Senior Seminar students Autumn Heisler and Maria Klecko
Professor Graybill talks with Senior Seminar students Autumn Heisler and Maria Klecko

illness and artistic vision in some of the author’s best-known stories.  Read all about it in What’s Up @ Widener (story appears on page 5).

Career Advice from Widener English Alums

“Be flexible.  Be versatile.”

“Just say yes.”

“Get involved.”

“Know that there are lots of different paths:  ask yourself, where do I see myself?”

These pieces of advice, and so much more, were on offer from two Widener English alums:  Ashley Babcock, Director of the Writing Center at Montgomery College, and Emma Ricciardi, a final-year grad student in Library Science at Rutgers and a former intern at the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Ashley and Emma took time from their busy schedules to visit campus last week and share stories about and strategies for building a career with an English major.

What skills from that English major did these successful alums highlight?  They include:

  • editing
  • critical thinking and analytical skills
  • independent thinking
  • managing information
  • being able to read people and situations
  • writing
  • being able to defend ideas
  • listening well to others

Ashley began by tracing her path from English and Creative Writing major to full-time faculty member at the Art Institute in Washington, DC, to a doctorate in Higher Education Leadership, to a position combining faculty work and administration.  A major theme that emerged from her story was the importance of saying yes to opportunities that allow for the demonstration of flexibility, initiative, and drive.  She also highlighted the need to balance setting clear goals with being willing to change course and follow the unexpected.  Her current work in qualitative education research allows her to draw on her background as an English major especially in the use of narrative inquiry, and she is envisioning developing a new phase of her career publishing that research and teaching courses in higher ed leadership.

Emma described knowing from early on what she wanted to do:  develop a career as an archivist by gathering up as much different experience in the field as possible.  Key ideas from Emma’s story included being versatile, and seeking out experiences and opportunities that let you develop that versatility.  She suggests using every chance you can to train yourself to do and make new things, to show that you are both trainable and that you don’t need to be trained.  Emma made the excellent point that employers don’t want you to be able to do just one thing, and being able to learn new things quickly is the best quality a new member of the career force can have.

Both women highlighted the necessity of knowing all kinds of technology and tools:  social media, blogging, Excel (ESPECIALLY Excel!).  Both women stressed the importance of extracurricular involvement, even in interests outside the major:  these activities provide the chance to develop “soft skills” and expose you to a wide range of other enriching experiences that make you interesting and can lead to unforeseen opportunities.  They also give you a chance to be a leader.

And both women said majoring in English was invaluable for finding a job:  it is basically the universal sign to any employer that you can write, read, and think.  All in all, it was wonderful to see the success these alums have found after graduation, and we were grateful to them for sharing their wisdom.

“We are lucky in a way that other majors are not”

We are pleased to publish the full text of remarks given by Jillian Benedict, senior English and Creative Writing major and the featured speaker at the first annual Humanities Awards.


“It is a convenient truth,” says Damon Horowitz, Google’s Official Director of Engineering and In-House Philosopher. “You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion; and it just so happens, as a by-product, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry.” To me, these are the joys and rewards that come from being a student in the Humanities.

But it’s not easy being a humanities student. For most people, like my best friend, my choice to major in one of the humanities was like choosing diet over regular soda. The idea that I would rather spend my college years and parent’s money voluntarily studying the written word is mind-boggling to my friend. While I have met people who believe that the humanities are important, I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that there were and still are a lot of people who found my choice less than impressive. This friend harassed me up until my junior year, concerned I wasn’t living up to my full potential studying English and creative writing. He thought I had hopped on the fast track to being a high school English teacher. Even though I have appreciated the concern from friends and family, worried about my financial future, I do not regret committing four years of my life to words. Naturally, I am concerned about earning money, but the thought of majoring in something like engineering or business or nursing just for the sake of financial stability never crossed my mind. Besides, from what I understand, money comes and goes and is always moving. I realized a few years ago that I couldn’t stand looking at myself in the mirror if I had spent four years and forty-thousand dollars doing something I hated.

Continue reading ““We are lucky in a way that other majors are not””

First Annual Humanities Awards

On Thursday, April 24, the first annual Humanities Awards were held, honoring students in the humanities majors (English, Creative Writing, Modern Languages, Fine Arts) with the highest GPAs.  Jillian Benedict, senior English/Creative Writing major, was the featured speaker.  Her comments focused on the necessity of the study of English and writing, and of the humanities more broadly — “as necessary as breathing,” in her words.

The evening also saw the presentation of the inaugural Allison Roelofs Award.  Allison Roelofs is an alumna of the Widener English department who exemplifies collegiality, excellence in academics, and post-graduate success.  This award in her name recognizes an English major who demonstrates early-career excellence.

The award was given to Kimberlee Roberts, a freshman.  The department was delighted that Allison, who made the award possible, was able to attend the ceremony.

Allison Roelofs, Jillian Benedict, Kimberlee Roberts
Allison Roelofs, Jillian Benedict, Kimberlee Roberts

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