Entry begun Thursday, November 10, 10:05 pm
In “Loomings,” the opening chapter of Moby-Dick, the narrator famously situates his own “whaling voyage by one Ishmael” between a “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States” and “Bloody Battle in Affghanistan.” In late April, when our 9-woman Moby-Dick exhibition opened at the Marta Hewett Gallery in Cincinnati one day after our 2-man Moby-Dick exhibition opened at the Contemporary Arts Center in the same city, Hillary Clinton was still battling Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Presidential nomination and Donald Trump was still fending off Ted Cruz and John Kasich among the multitude of Republicans who had challenged him for the nomination of that party. On election day 2016, Tuesday, November 8, after casting my ballot for President in Bellevue, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, I drove over to pick up the last two Moby-Dick drawings by Matt Kish from the exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center that had closed in August. His original drawings for pages 75 and 144 of Moby-Dick in Pictures, the book he had published in 2011, were being returned to us now because they each had been framed when I took them to Kristin Riepenhoff, the registrar, in early April. Each drawing had to be taken out of its frame for the exhibition in the gallery, and now they were ready for me to retrieve in their original frames. I was delighted to hear from Kristin that an estimated 26,623 persons had seen our exhibition of Moby-Dick works by Matt Kish and Robert Del Tredici between the opening day on April 22 and the closing day on August 14. When I picked up the two Kishes from her on election day this Tuesday, they were wrapped, for protection, like mummies.
I was happy to get these works on Tuesday, Election Day, when no classes were scheduled at NKU, so I could bring one of them back to the Honors House today, Thursday, just before my English 151 class met at 12:15. The Honors House has owned the drawing for page 75 since since 2013, when Matt Kish gave a lecture at NKU, visited my class in Moby-Dick and the Arts, and donated to our Archives many of the drawings recently exhibited at the CAC in 2016. Belle Zembrodt, interim director of the Honors Program, was happy to unwrap this drawing as soon as I brought it in this morning and to reinstall it in the reception area of the Honors House just outside her office. There it hangs to the immediate right of Robert Del Tredici’s Boggy, Soggy, a gestural screenprint inspired by Ishmael’s encounter with the painting in the Spouter-Inn in chapter 3. Looming above both works is Shear, the painted metallic relief that Political Science major Danielle Kleymeyer created as her final project in my Spring 2013 class soon after Kish’s visit.
I was particularly eager to meet with the Honors Freshmen in my ENG 151 class today because on Election Day each had posted a blog entry about the election that was inspired, in part, by a note we had received from the editorial staff of The New Yorker back in September. For more than twenty years, my ENG 151class has taken a bulk subscription to The New Yorker as part of the required reading for the course (during the current Fall Semester the bulk rate for each student is $15 for a 15-week subscription). Early in the semester I generally let each student post a blog entry on a feature of his or her choice within a week of receiving each new issue. The September 5 issue, however, contained a fascinating profile by Janet Malcolm of the young pianist Yuja Wang. Since our ENG 151 class was to be hearing Hilary Hahn play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on the weekend of September 23 and 24, I required that each student’s blog entry for the September 5 issue respond to Malcolm’s profile of Wang. These blog posts were so appreciative of what Malcolm had written about Wang that I printed them out and sent them to David Remnick and his New Yorker staff. We were thrilled, as you can imagine, when we received from Becky Cooper, quite soon, the thank you note that begins this paragraph.
Our Election Day project for the class was inspired by the October 31 issue of The New Yorker. This issue included a Portfolio entitled “The Vote” in which fourteen voters from throughout the country “describe why they are voting in a presidential election for the first time and which candidate they will choose.” Most of those first-time voters were students between the ages of 18 and 24. Each voter’s statement was accompanied by a photo by Katy Grannan of that voter. As soon as I saw this portfolio I thought it would be great for my students to create a voter portfolio of our own. We did not have much time (especially since we had no class on Election Day itself), so we had to improvise our plan during our class meetings on Tuesday, November 1, and Thursday, November 3. We agreed that each student would post a blog entry before the polls closed on Election Day indicating who they planned to vote for and why, with each student’s statement mirroring those in The New Yorker in approximate length and demographic information (name, age, status, geographic locations, and candidate of choice). When a student who was not planning to vote asked what to indicate for “candidate of choice,” we decided that N/A for “not applicable” would be appropriate. We agreed that each student, in addition to posting the blog entry on Election Day, would bring to class today a printout in which his or her blog entry is accompanied by a photograph of his or her self. These I would then combine into a portfolio of our own that I could send to David Remnick and his editorial staff in New York.
We decided last week that it would be a good idea to send a photograph of the entire class to New York along with the individual photos and statements. We agreed to take that photo after I collected the individual portfolio submissions at the beginning of the class period today. We chose not to dress up in any way for this group photo but simply to dress the way we usually dress for class. After I collected the individual submissions, we posed for our group photo in the reception area of the Honors House in which Belle Zembrodt had reinstalled Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick drawing while I was collecting the submissions. Several students had brought copies of the October 31 issue to which our Portfolio was responding, as you can see in the accompanying photo here.
The New Yorker Portfolio is quite balanced in its selection of first-time voters. Its headnote indicates these “fourteen Americans” are “from red states, blue states, and battleground states.” Geographically, the states range from California, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado in the west to Florida, Georgia, and New Hampshire in the East, with Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas in between. The candidate choices are well balanced too—with 7 of the first-time voters selecting Clinton, 5 selecting Trump, and one each for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. The Portfolio from my ENG 151 class includes twelve of our fourteen students (two students had missed class during the week in which we received the October 31 issue). Whereas the students in The New Yorker sample range in age from 18 to 24, those in our group range from 18 to 20. Whereas the fourteen voters in The New Yorker group are from thirteen widely distributed states, all twelve in our group live near the Ohio river, ten being from northern Kentucky, two from southern Ohio. The most interesting distribution, of course, is in their choices among the Presidential candidates. Whereas the fourteen New Yorker voters appear to have been pre-selected their voters to achieve a range of political preferences, our twelve ENG 151 voters were simply a group of random students who had happened to enroll in my Honors Freshman Composition class.
Instead of commenting on the statements, ages, status, demographics and choices of these twelve students, I have chosen to reproduce here the text and photo that each student sent to The New Yorker. You will see that 4 chose Trump, 4 chose Clinton, 2 chose Johnson, and two chose not to vote:
I am grateful to The New Yorker for providing the inspiration for this stimulating, interesting in-class exercise. I am grateful to these students for embracing this impromptu assignment with the talent, focus, and imagination they have brought to everything we have done throughout this semester. Sorting through the submissions they brought this morning to send to The New Yorker this afternoon makes me even more eager to see the final projects they will be presenting during the last two weeks of the course. Two things strike me about the Voter Portfolio these students have created during one of the most contentious election days I have seen since I cast my own first vote for a Presidential candidate in 1962. The first is that this random group of first-semester Honors Freshmen at Northern Kentucky University split their votes almost exactly as did the nation. The second is that these twelve students—in spite of the stark differences in the way many of them see the nation and imagine its future—have remained receptive, engaged, and collaborative while we have all grown individually and in concert ever since we first came together in mid-August. I hope our political leaders and body politic can aspire to, and achieve, something of the same—not only throughout the freshmen year and colleges careers of these students, but throughout their adult lifetimes.
In the ebb and flow of American democracy, volatile, combustible energies are never far from the surface even in times that seem more serene than the raw rancor we see today. One model for the strength and courage I hope each of these students will find in negotiating their adult lives is Frederick Douglass, whose 1845 Narrative, published when he was only twenty-seven, is a model of self-actualizing expression in the most trying of times. We began discussing his Narrative today and we will finish discussing it next Tuesday. This will allow time for a peer evaluation next Thursday of the paper on Douglass students will be submitting on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. One thing I have asked students to address in the essay is whether they see the Narrative of Frederick Douglass more as a historical document or as a book that speaks to our lives today.
During the Fall 1995 Semester, Abby Schlachter was a freshman in the same ENG 151 Honors Class I am teaching today. That was three years before most of my current freshmen were born. During the Spring 1996 semester, when Bill Clinton was running for his second term as president, Abby took my course in Moby-Dick and the Arts in which her final project was an inscribed cast of her own body she called Queequeg in her Coffin. During the Spring 1997 semester, she and her classmates returned for Further Studies in Melville and the Arts during which she created Queequeg in her Coffin II for our exhibition at the Rockford College Art Gallery in Illinois at the end of the semester. Here you see her standing alongside that body cast at the International Melville Conference at Hofstra University in New York in October 2001, one month after the event that soon became known as 9/11. That attack was early in the presidency of George W. Bush, whose response to it led to the new battles Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East that have continued to present new challenges throughout the presidency of Barack Obama as my current freshmen have come of age as citizens and voters.
This April, as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were each battling their competitors in their respective Presidential primaries, Abby Schlachter Langdon, now the mother of two, exhibited her newest artistic response to Queequeg, the stitched photographic self-portrait on fabric she calls The Warrior. Exhibited as part of the 9-woman Moby-Dick show at the Marta Hewett Gallery we called Adrift in the Wonder World, this work shows Abby addressing the world with the same personal courage and grasping imagination she showed in inscribing that first body cast exactly twenty years ago. I wish a similarly rich path of self-actualization for my current freshmen as each steers her or his course through four years of college—years in which our nation will be preparing for yet another “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”