"I think there are two primary jobs that a jacket has to do: It has to represent a text and it has to sell it. In a way, a book jacket … is sort of like a title that an author comes up with. It’s one thing that has to speak to a big aggregate thing, which is the book itself. And it has to be compelling in some way such that you’re interested enough to pick it up — and perhaps buy it. … It’s like a billboard or an advertisement or a movie trailer or a teaser. …
I think of a book jacket as being sort of like a visual reminder of the book, but … it’s also a souvenir of the reading experience. Reading takes place in this nebulous kind of realm, and in a way, the jacket is part of the thing that you bring back from that experience. It’s the thing that you hold on to.”
- Peter Mendelsund, book jacket designer
“IT WILL KILL YOU, AND IT NEVER KNEW YOUR NAME.”
An Interview with Karen Russell About Her Syllabus
This is part of a series of conversations with writers who teach, where we discuss how they develop an idea for a course, generate a syllabus, and conduct a class. See the full syllabus here.
Karen Russell is the author of the novel Swamplandia!, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. She is also the author of two short story collections, Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and a novella, Sleep Donation. Russell is the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, and she has taught at Columbia University, Bard College, and Bryn Mawr College.
I. THE SPOTS ON THE LITERARY TRAM TOUR
SP: Where did you teach this class?
KR: At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I should tell you I’m a little bit self-conscious, because I’d never taught this class before and was afraid I had the reek of fraudulence upon me.
SP: I think most teachers feel that way.
KR: Yeah… We’ve been duped, right? [Laughs] But actually, I had a class with Bill Savage at Northwestern, on female writers of the Beat Generation like Djuna Barnes—folks that I’d never read, and he hadn’t read them either. He was upfront about it: he would teach books he wanted to read, and we’d all be co-equals. I thought of him when I was teaching at Iowa, because I’d read and loved the books on my syllabus, but I’d never taught them before.
SP: How did you choose the theme of landscape stories for your syllabus?
KR: It’s interesting—some writers start with character, but I almost always start with place. If I don’t have a three-dimensional sense of the story’s setting—if I can’t see it in my mind’s eye—I can’t even attempt to make the story come to life. If you ask me about books I love, like Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks or Anna Karenina, it’s the setting, and the sense memory of moving through the landscape of the book, that stays with me far longer than names of characters or details of plot. So I was thinking, what makes a world immersive? What makes a place a character? I realized you could teach any book under that rubric—even something by Beckett, that’s asserting it’s nowhere, definitely has its own atmosphere—so I tried to limit myself to stories set in places you can visit on the map. But I also taught Pedro Páramo, which takes place in the Mexican underworld, and they don’t have Delta flights there. [Laughs]
"I went to a four-year university." "That job requires a one-year certificate." "It’s a two-semester course." "She’s a fifth-year senior." What do these expressions have in common? They use time as the yardstick for higher education.
Essentially, this means measuring not how much you’ve learned, but how long you’ve spent trying to learn it.
The conventions of the credit hour, the semester and the academic year were formalized in the early 1900s. Time forms the template for designing college programs, accrediting them and — crucially — funding them using federal student aid.
But in 2013, for the first time, the Department of Education took steps to loosen the rules.
The new idea: Allow institutions to get student-aid funding by creating programs that directly measure learning, not time. Students can move at their own pace. The school certifies — measures — what they know and are able to do.
Illustration credit: LA Johnson/NPR
The speaker in Rachel Mennies’ first full-length poetry collection, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards (Texas Tech University Press), takes her faith seriously, using keen rendering of family history, descriptively paired with rituals of Judaism, in a compelling 76-page read.