The LMU English Department hasn’t let the shift to virtual classes get in the way of bringing students together for fruitful book discussions. In fact, the department has turned its attention to video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, to recently host two prominent authors.
Yuval Taylor, a writer and editor of nonfiction books about literature, performance, and music, recently visited the English book club to discuss his latest work “Zora and Langston: A Study of Friendship and Betrayal.” The English book club, called the Illiterati (a humorous combining of illuminati and literati) was established in 2014 by Paul Harris, professor of English, and is open to all English faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students. Other departments in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts are invited to participate depending on the subject matter.
“Zora and Langston” delves into the friendship and falling out of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Selecting books is a collaborative process for the Illiterati and the group agreed on “Zora and Langston” for a number of reasons.
“We have varying levels of knowledge of Hurston, Hughes, and the Harlem Renaissance, and we were eager to discuss these important, but sometimes under appreciated, authors and the movement with which they are associated,” said Molly Youngkin, professor of English. “We also thought reading this book would allow us to engage issues such as the challenges around literary collaboration and what it means to write literary biographies.”
The Illiterati has always been a contemplative and close community, and the club’s Zoom meetings have been a great way for faculty, students, and staff to stay connected during these days of self-isolation. Members first met virtually at the beginning of April to discuss the middle portion of the book and again at the end of the month to discuss the book as a whole with Taylor.
During his visit, Taylor shared the unique process that went into writing “Zora and Langston”: meticulous archival research into never-before accessed materials; reading over 100 books on the subject matter the book encompasses; interviewing fascinating people including Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet Alice Walker; and culling the content into a tightly-written, engaging narrative.
Evelyn McDonnell, professor and director of journalism, facilitated the virtual discussion. McDonnell knows Taylor and was able to broach difficult but crucial questions with him. One question she asked was how he navigates being a white male writing about African American authors and history, to which he responded that he relies on the depth and care of his scholarship to gain credibility and acceptance with African American scholars and readers.
When asked how he has managed in his career to write about literature, history, and music with such authority, Taylor replied, “Read, read, read” – a mantra that’s music to English professors’ ears.
“From my perspective, the online sessions have been great,” said Youngkin. “Although the technology takes a little bit of getting used to, I felt like I still got the same experience from discussing the book virtually. Always, the conversation at our book club is invigorating, and helps me think about literature in new ways.”
Hanif Abdurraqib, the author of “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest,” recently Zoomed into McDonnell’s “Pazz & Jop: Music Journalism” class to discuss poetry and cultural commentary.
“Go Ahead in the Rain,” which was recently chosen as the next Common Book for the university, is published by the University of Texas Press, which also publishes the “Music Matters” series McDonnell edits. Initially, McDonnell intended to bring him to campus, but scheduling was a challenge. Ultimately, Zoom enabled a visit that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
“Hanif was great,” said McDonnell. “Smart, thoughtful, passionate, and concerned about the students.”
One of the main topics he discussed is the importance of maintaining a fan perspective when you write. “Fandom is what propels me to see beyond the surface of music,” said Abdurraqib.
Students will be able to incorporate Abdurraqib’s advice into their final projects writing about an album or musical artist they love.
“I think the final writing assignment is a healthy pursuit in these stressful times: To get to dig deep into something that speaks to you emotionally,” said McDonnell. “I had called it the desert island disc assignment, but now we refer to it as the shelter in place music of choice.”
Abdurraqib also talked about criticism as a “living, breathing mechanism,” and candidly talked about the publishing process, encouraging students to “find a place where you believe your work will be cared for.”
The music journalism course comprises undergraduate and graduate English students, as well as journalism, marketing, and political science majors. The transition to an online format has been fairly easy as the class already had a WordPress blog and used Brightspace, but McDonnell has made a few adjustments. Whole-class meetings have been shortened, but students are now blogging more and doing small-group peer reviewing and discussions.
McDonnell has been teaching “Pazz & Jop” in BCLA since 2013, which digs into popular music writing and criticism and draws on her expertise as a longtime and well-respected pop culture and music journalist. McDonnell even borrowed the title for the course from the annual critics’ poll once held by the Village Voice, where she was a senior editor.