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The Cullman Center Institute for Teachers - Spring 2014


2014 Spring Seminars


What Happens Next?: A Creative Writing Workshop

Uwem Akpan

Friday, February 21, 2014

One of the greatest challenges for most people who are learning to write fiction is creating the narrative tension that keeps us turning the page. Unless you make your reader want to know what happens next, your story is dead, no matter how important.  In this workshop we will explore stories by Chinua Achebe (“The Voter” and “The Madman”), Isaac Singer (“Gimpel the Fool”), and Robert Butler (“Love”) before participants have an opportunity to create prose of their own that makes the reader ask, "And then? And then?"

Uwem Akpan’s short story collection, Say You’re One of Them, has been translated into ten languages and was selected by Oprah's Book Club in 2009, and several of his stories have been published by The New Yorker. His awards include the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (Africa Region), the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the PEN/Beyond Margins Award. A Catholic priest, Akpan divides his time between his native Nigeria and the United States.



Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Russia's “Gilded Age"

Peter Holquist

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The nineteenth century was a time of change and progress in politics, society, and the arts. Among its great developments was the flowering of Russian art, music, and literature. Chekhov’s great 1904 play The Cherry Orchard can be seen as a critique and parody of the Russian literary tradition with its celebration of the nobility’s attachment to the land. The seminar will discuss this text as a literary work and also use it as a window onto Russian history and culture.  

Peter Holquist, the author of Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia's Continuum of Crisis, is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published widely on Russia's experience in the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and questions of continuity and change from the imperial period into the Stalin era.



The Atlantic Slave Trade

Christopher Brown

Thursday, March 13, 2014

This seminar will provide an introduction to the international dimensions of the Atlantic slave trade (1450-1867) by exploring its organization in Western Europe, its conduct across a varied political and economic landscape in Africa, and its dispersal of African captives across the Americas. The discussion will place special emphasis on the experience of capture, enslavement, resistance, and exile among the victims of the trade. It also will consider how and why the Atlantic slave trade came to an end during the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

Christopher Brown is a Professor of History and the Director of the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University. His publications include Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age, co-edited with Philip Morgan, and Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, which received the James Rawley Prize in Atlantic History, the Morris D. Korkosch Prize in British History, and the Frederick Douglass Prize. At the Cullman Center, he is writing a book on European and African relations along the Senegal and Gambia Rivers in the era of the Atlantic slave trade.



The Art of Close Observation: A Workshop in Descriptive Writing

Graciela Mochkofsky

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

This workshop will begin with an analysis of examples of descriptive non-fiction by such writers as Emmanuel Carrère, Rodolfo Walsh, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Joan Didion, and Joseph Mitchell. Each teacher will then go to a designated place in the Library to gather information through observation. Afterwards, each will write a short piece, based on those observations, which will be read and discussed by the group.

Graciela Mochkofsky is the author of six books, including Tío Boris, Un héroe olvidado de la Guerra Civil Española, a narrative essay on her great uncle who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and Pecado Original: Clarín, los Kirchner y la lucha por el poder, an investigation of the Kirchner government’s war against the media group Clarín. Her book La Revelación tells the story of a Peruvian Catholic community that converted to Ultra Orthodox Judaism and emigrated as a group to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.



Sci Fi, Then and Now: A Creative Writing Workshop

Paul LaFarge

Tuesday March 25, 2014

Since the publication of Hugo Gernsback's novel Ralph 124C 41+ in 1911 (and probably long before then), science fiction has given creative writers a means to imagine alternate worlds, and to comment on the "real" world as they see it. Science fiction is remarkable in that it is both deeply escapist and pointedly (and sometimes presciently) critical. In this writing workshop, we'll look at texts that illustrate the craft of science fiction as it has evolved from the Golden Age of the pulps to the “slipstream” and literary Sci Fi of today. Participants will engage in some science fiction writing of their own.

Paul La Farge is the author of three novels and a collection of fictitious dreams. His short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Cabinet, Conjunctions, The Believer, and Bookforum. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of the Bard Fiction Prize. A web-based version of his most recent novel, Luminous Airplanes, can be found at



War Reporting: One Journalist’s Story

Elizabeth Rubin

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

War journalism has the same requirements as all narrative story-telling. It demands intellect and emotion, but the intellect can often get lost in the "fog of war." How do you sift through a war to extract not just a compelling narrative but also the truth? Today, war reporters are “embedded” with the people they are writing about. An "embed" is a bizarrely intimate arrangement, as the word itself implies. As a reporter, how do you stay true both to an audience and to your subjects, who have exposed nearly every inch of themselves to you--sleeping, brushing their teeth, and even watching their friends die? How do you explain that you have also "embedded" with the Taliban--their mortal foe?  In this seminar, teachers will learn about Elizabeth Rubin’s war reporting in Afghanistan and her process of writing about it for The New York Times.

An independent journalist, Elizabeth Rubin has reported extensively about international conflicts for publications including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Bidoun, Vogue, Time, and National Geographic. At the Cullman Center she is working on a book about three men who tried to change the world: one with guns, one with laws, and one with social media, storytelling, and faith.



Vaporising the Other Version: A Creative Writing Workshop

Téa Obreht

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

In a recent article for The New York Times, the novelist David Mitchell said that “a novel contains as many versions of itself as it has readers.” Reading is an intimate, individual endeavor, and its reward depends heavily on what the reader brings to the table—but what is the writer’s relationship and responsibility to this individual experience? If certain aspects of narrative depend very heavily on a single, universal interpretation, how can the writer control the basic reading experience, ensuring that almost every reader is (for lack of a better phrase) on the same page? In this workshop, we will focus on layering the world of the narrative by means of detail, voice, and nuance – the smoke-and-mirrors and sleights-of-hand that are the writer’s equalizing arsenal.

Téa Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vogue, Esquire, and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. The New Yorker named her one of its “20 Under 40” best American fiction writers in 2010, and the National Book Foundation honored her on its list of “5 Under 35.”



Critical Reading: Henry James’s Washington Square

Colm Tóibín   

Thursday, April 24, 2014

This class will examine Washington Square, Henry James’s short masterpiece in which Catherine Sloper is being raised alone by her aloof and arrogant father. Slowly, as the novel unfolds, Catherine's personality emerges from shadow into light. She is the least self-conscious of protagonists, but her submerged emotions run deep. To her father she seems dull, while to the reader her tenacity, her silence, her ability to love, become almost heroic. In this seminar, we will do a close reading of some passages, will consider James’s use of New York City and the interior of Catherine’s home, and will, most importantly, look at the way the character of Catherine is presented.

Colm Tóibín is a novelist, essayist, short story writer, and playwright. His many works include The Master, a novel based on the life of Henry James, and All a Novelist Needs, a collection of essays about James. The Master won the IMPAC Dublin Prize, the Prix du Meilleur Livre, and the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. More recently, Tóibín adapted his novel The Testament of Mary into a play that was performed on Broadway in 2013. 



The History of Reading

Anthony Grafton

Tuesday May 6, 2014

For much of human history, most educated people thought that books contained the keys to the kingdom of knowledge, the secrets of life, the universe, and everything else. The history of reading, of interest to English and global history teachers, helps us understand what it was like to find your facts and ideas, provocations and revelations not on a screen or in a broadcast, but between the covers of books—and how, slowly but surely, that vision of the truth, and the kind of reading it supported, has disappeared. In this seminar, we’ll look at the kinds of evidence that enable us to bring past ways of reading back to life, and discuss the contrasts between those practices and our own.

Anthony Grafton is Henry Putnam University Professor of History and the Humanities at Princeton University. His books include Defenders of the Text, The Footnote: A Curious History, and Worlds Made by Words. He writes for The American Scholar, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The London Review of Books, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Times Literary Supplement, among other publications.