Category Archives: Faculty/Staff

Writing instructor Karen Rile C’80 on her new literary magazine, Cleaver

karen-rileKaren Rile C’80 always dreamed of starting her own literary magazine. The idea just kept pushing its way into her head until finally, in early 2013, she launched Cleaver Magazine with her daughter, Lauren Rile Smith. The mother-daughter team released their new publication’s first full issue in March and a follow-up in June. The third issue of Cleaver is due out Sept. 3. We spoke with Rile, a Penn writing instructor and Gazette contributor, about her experience starting and running a literary magazine.

What is it that appeals to you about literary magazines, and why did you decide to start your own?

Where is most fiction and poetry being published these days? You get a little bit in places like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, but most of it is really happening in literary magazines. I’ve been interested in literary magazines for many, many years, and I’ve always wanted to have a magazine, but the problems of distributing a print edition were overwhelming. It’s very difficult. But now with the Internet the way it is and the tools that are available, my idea was to start a magazine that was online-only.

How did you land on the name Cleaver?

It was something my daughter came up with years ago and we decided on a whim that we’d use it. ‘Cleave’ is a Janus word: It means both to chop apart but also to stick tight. It’s just a nice little pun. And it’s kind of a joke — what is ‘cutting edge’ anymore? Everything has been done.

What type of work do you publish?

We’re really just interested in good writing and the work we’ve been choosing is pretty eclectic. Some of it seems very experimental, some of it seems very traditional. There’s a lot of variety in what we’re presenting, but our particular taste is work that’s very specific and well-crafted.

How did you spread the word about Cleaver?

I’ve been involved as a writer for many years, so between Lauren and me we have a lot of connections. I also listed it on Duotrope, which is a website where writers can keep track of their submissions. They list hundreds of literary magazines. Immediately submissions started pouring in.

Who are your contributors? I know I spotted at least a few alumni on the list.

We’ve had people from all over the world. When I added it up recently, maybe 12 or 15 percent of the writers are connected to Penn, either as alumni or faculty or current students or staff. That’s partly because I know so many writers at Penn, but also because we feel a real connection to that community.

We publish people who are very established writers and also quite a lot of people who have never published before. We’ve had over a thousand submissions, and I think our acceptance rate is around seven percent.

What’s on the horizon for Cleaver?

We started adding book reviews a couple months ago. Every week I’m putting up maybe two or three of those. I’m also interested in bringing in dramatic writing by publishing monologues as text and including high-quality videos of an actor performing the monologues. That should be a lot of fun and bring in a whole other community.

The most recent issue of Cleaver is available here, including these contributions by Penn alumni:

Emily Steinberg C’87 FA’87 GFA’91
The Modernist Cabin (art)

Nathaniel Popkin C’91 GCP’95
“The Dig” from Lion and Leopard, The Head & The Hand Press, October 2013 (novel excerpt)

Jamie-Lee Josselyn C’05
Dispatch from the Cat Show” (essay)

John Carroll C’05
Journalism” (flash fiction)

Anna Strong C’13
from Aposthropes (poetry)

Anya Lichtenstein C’13
Beating Ploughshares into iPods” (essay)

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How do Penn professors spend their summers?

You may have wondered what Penn’s illustrious English professors are up to when school isn’t in session. The short answer is plenty. The longer answer, at least in the case of Kenneth Goldsmith, is showing up on popular TV shows and websites to discuss all kinds of interesting stuff.

Last Tuesday, we spotted Goldsmith—who we previously wrote about here and in the magazinecalling himself a “dumb writer” on The Awl. That evening, he turned up again, this time sparring with Stephen on The Colbert Report while promoting his new book and giving us a sudden craving for watermelon:

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You can watch Goldsmith’s full interview with Colbert on the show’s website (make sure you watch until the end, as things really heat up around the 4:30 mark), but here’s a taste of the conversation:

Colbert: You are the poet laureate of the Museum of Modern Art. You’ve got 10 books of poetry. You teach writing at the University of Pennsylvania and you’ve got a new book called Seven American Deaths and Disasters. Did you write this?

Goldsmith: Absolutely not. I never write any of my books.

Goldsmith: You see, artists are dumb.

Colbert: Artists are dumb?

Goldsmith: Artists are dumb. We do things that you shouldn’t do. What I’m doing is too easy for an investigative reporter to do, and by doing something that is that simple, we’re uncovering something that nobody else has actually ever thought of.

Come fall, Goldsmith will be teaching a course focused on the Institute of Contemporary Art’s 50th anniversary called Writing Through Art and Literature.

The merrily attired Goldsmith wasn’t the only Penn writing professor we found in the spotlight this summer. Beth Kephart C’82, Lorene Cary C’78 G’78 and Diane McKinney-Whetstone CW’75 are honored in a new exhibit at the Philadelphia International Airport and were all on hand for the July 2 unveiling. Under the lengthy title Philadelphia’s Literary Legacy: Selected Authors, Playwrights and Poets — from Writers of the Declaration of Independence to Present Day, the exhibit also celebrates Benjamin Franklin, W.E.B. DuBois, Lisa Scottoline C’77 L’81 and L.A. Banks W’80.

Kephart passed along these photos from the opening ceremony:




For those who are curious, here’s the full 50-name list of those honored in the exhibit, on view in Terminal A-East:

Louisa May Alcott, Lloyd Alexander, L.A. Banks, Berenstains, Ben Bova, Sandra Boynton, Charles Brockden Brown, Rosellen Brown, Pearl S. Buck, Bebe Moore Campbell, Lorene Cary, Noam Chomsky, R. Crumb, Gardner Dozois, W.E.B. Dubois, Ben Franklin, Charles Fuller, David Goodis, Carolyn Haywood, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Solomon Jones, Ken Kalfus, Beth Kephart, George Lippard, Alain Locke, Diane McKinney-Whetstone, Margaret Mead, James Michener, Katherine Milhous, Karen E. Quinones Miller, Thomas Paine, Richard Powell, Tom Purdom, Joe Queenan, Anna Quindlen, Deborah Kogan Ray, Agnes Repplier, Sonia Sanchez, Judy Schachner, Lisa Scottoline, Sara Shephard,  Jerry Spinelli, I. F. Stone, Michael Swanwick, Jennifer Weiner, David Wiesner, Owen Wister,  Teri Woods.

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‘High art’ from Penn fine arts professor and astrophysicists


Photo by B.Doherty/PennDesign

An unlikely trio of Penn faculty and researchers recently joined forces to create the highest-altitude art installation on record. The work covers a polarization-sensitive receiver upgrade (ACTPol) for the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, which sits 17,030 feet above sea level in northern Chile.

ACTPol itself is a collaboration between researchers from Penn and more than 25 other institutions on five continents. One of those researchers — Benjamin L. Schmitt, a Penn Ph.D. student in physics and astronomy and a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow — said the group wanted their telescope to have “significant cultural impact,” so he turned to PennDesign’s Fine Arts department for help.

There he found Jackie Tileston, an associate professor of painting who, according to the artist’s statement on her website, aims to create “a stronger, weirder, and more complex pictorial version of the world” in her abstract works.

Tileston and her sculptor husband Kirk McCarthy worked with Schmitt and Mark Devlin, the University’s Reese W. Flower Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, to come up with ideas for an abstract, mixed-media mural. Courtesy of PennDesign, here are the results of their collaboration, including the 48 x 120” painting Radical Measure (Not Entirely Random) that Tileston created to cover the camera’s body. Check it out for yourself next time you’re atop the Cerro Toco stratovolcano in Chile’s Atacama Desert.


Photo by B.Doherty/PennDesign


Detail shot of Jackie Tileston’s 48 x 120″ painting “Radical Measure (Not Entirely Random). Photo by Evan Robinson Photography.


Jackie Tileston and Mark Devlin. Photo by B.Doherty/Penn Design.

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Tukufu Zuberi: Penn professor, TV show host, documentary filmmaker and curator

tz_headshotIt’s been a whirlwind year of arts-related activities for Tukufu Zuberi, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Penn and the University’s Lasry Family Professor of Race and Relations.

First an exhibit he curated for the Independence Seaport Museum opened May 4. Then on June 2, Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster — an exhibit of wartime propaganda posters that Zuberi both collected and curated — opened at the Penn Museum.

On top of all that — and while hosting the tenth season of PBS’s History Detectives TV show — Zuberi somehow also found time to write, direct and produce the feature-length documentary film African Independence. It won Best Director and Best Documentary at the San Diego Black Film Festival in January.

While we can’t claim to know how Zuberi finds time to sleep, we can give you this overview of his recent arts-and-culture projects:

Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River
On view at the Independence Seaport Museum on Penn’s Landing through 2015.

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Spanning 300 years of African-American history along the Delaware, Tides of Freedom explores the concept of freedom through the museum’s collection and four major moments in Philadelphia’s history: enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era. Zuberi himself recorded introductions to each section of the exhibit, which is the first in the Seaport Museum’s new “Freedom” series.

The museum’s recovered “waste book” — a 250-year-old ledger that documents commercial transactions on the wharf — is one of the artifacts on display. Zuberi discovered more than 60 entries of bought and sold African slaves in the book, which is said to be the only document of its kind in Philadelphia.

You can see scans from the “waste book” online here.

Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster
On view at the Penn Museum through March 2, 2014.


From the collection of Tukufu Zuberi

Zuberi combed through his personal collection of propaganda posters to curate Black Bodies in Propaganda at the Penn Museum. The exhibit presents 33 wartime posters, the majority of which target African and African-American civilians. According to the Penn Museum, “these carefully designed works of art were aimed at mobilizing people of color in war efforts, even as they faced oppression and injustice in their homelands. The exhibition explores changing messages on race and politics through propaganda—from the American Civil War, to World War I, World War II, and through to the African independence movements.”

As Zuberi explained: “These posters tell a story about the dynamics of race. Black bodies are racialized in these posters as they capture defining moments in history. Race is always about second-class citizenship, it is always about a relationship between two groups and how one group is defined as superior and the other group is defined as inferior. These posters represent definitive moments in this historical process.”

Zuberi has done several radio interviews about the exhibit that you can listen to online, including:


Power99 FM


African Independence
Screening at select events and locations, including Penn’s State of the Field of Africana Studies Conference on Oct. 17, 2013.

Here’s the official synopsis for the 2013 feature-length documentary that Zuberi wrote, directed and produced:

The film highlights the birth, realization, and problems confronted by the movement to win independence in Africa. The story is told by channeling the voices of freedom fighters and leaders who achieved independence, liberty and justice for African people.  This film offers a unique presentation designed to enlighten and provide audiences with insights from Africans into the continent’s past, present, and future. Through the lens of four watershed events—World War Two, the end of colonialism, the Cold War, and the era of African Republics—AFRICAN INDEPENDENCE shows a unique side of Africa’s recent history.  

This is the trailer:

And here’s an interview Zuberi did about his academic career and making the film:

History Detectives
historydetectivesZuberi has been a host for all 10 season of PBS’s History Detectives, the most recent of which aired last June through October. (We’re told that Season 11 is being filmed right now.) He’s one of five “detectives” on the show who each travel the country delving into historical mysteries, local folklore and family legends.

In this video, Zuberi explains why he enjoys working as a history detective.

You can also watch full episodes from the show’s tenth season here.

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Two of Penn’s arts-and-culture-focused MOOCs start this month

Did you catch Trey Popp’s story about massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the March/April 2013 Gazette? It’s called “MOOC U.” and you can read it in full here.

While the story included a handy info box with Penn’s Coursera offerings, we wanted to let you know about two arts-and-culture-oriented MOOCs that both start later this month: Greek and Roman Mythology and Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society.

First, here’s the skinny on Greek and Roman Mythology — taught by Peter Struck, associate professor of classical studies and director of Benjamin Franklin Scholars — from the Coursera site:

Myths are traditional stories that have endured over a long time. Some of them have to do with events of great importance, such as the founding of a nation. Others tell the stories of great heroes and heroines and their exploits and courage in the face of adversity. Still others are simple tales about otherwise unremarkable people who get into trouble or do some great deed. What are we to make of all these tales, and why do people seem to like to hear them? This course will focus on the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, as a way of exploring the nature of myth and the function it plays for individuals, societies, and nations. We will also pay some attention to the way the Greeks and Romans themselves understood their own myths. Are myths subtle codes that contain some universal truth? Are they a window on the deep recesses of a particular culture? Are they a set of blinders that all of us wear, though we do not realize it? Or are they just entertaining stories that people like to tell over and over? This course will investigate these questions through a variety of topics, including the creation of the universe, the relationship between gods and mortals, human nature, religion, the family, sex, love, madness, and death.

Assigned readings will include Homer’s Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As Struck told Trey Popp: “My bread-and-butter course has always been this mythology class” — and it sounds like a fun one to us. It starts in two weeks, on April 22, and you can sign up here.

Karl Ulrich, vice dean of innovation at Wharton and CIBC Professor of Entrepreneurship and e-Commerce, is teaching Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society starting April 29. Coursera lists it in the Information, Tech, and Design class category and says it will combine “fundamental concepts with hands-on design challenges to become a better designer.”

It’s meant for anyone who’s interested in designing something — regardless of what category that “something” may fall under — as noted in this extended description (emphasis ours):

This is a course aimed at making you a better designer. The course marries theory and practice, as both are valuable in improving design performance. Lectures and readings will lay out the fundamental concepts that underpin design as a human activity. Weekly design challenges test your ability to apply those ideas to solve real problems. The course is deliberately broad — spanning all domains of design, including architecture, graphics, services, apparel, engineered goods, and products. The emphasis of the course is the basic design process: define, explore, select, and refine. You, the student, bring to the course your particular interests and expertise related to, for instance, engineering, furniture, fashion, architecture, or products. In prior sessions of the course about half of the participants were novices and about half had prior professional design expertise. Both groups seem to benefit substantially from the course. All project work is evaluated by your peers — and indeed, you will also be a peer reviewer. This format allows you to see an interesting collection of projects while getting useful feedback on your own project.

Ulrich himself helped design this scooter, the TerraPass system and Gushers fruit snacks. He talks about those creations and his plans for the class in this introductory video:

Of course, if you do enroll in one of these Penn MOOCs, we’d love to hear about your experience!

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Oscar predictions in the Penn Current

The Penn Current recently ran an article on Meta Mazaj’s Oscar picks, which I can’t resist sharing. Mazaj, who lectures in the Cinema Studies Program and is currently teaching an introduction to film studies course, a class on film festivals and a graduate course on world cinema, singled out these winners:

Best Picture: The Artist or Hugo

Best Director: Martin Scorsese for Hugo

Best Actor: George Clooney in The Descendants or Jean Dujardin in The Artist

Best Actress: Viola Davis in The Help or Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

Best Supporting Actor: Jonah Hill in Moneyball

Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain in The Help

Will you watch the Oscars this weekend? Who are you rooting for?

I haven’t heard about any Penn alumni who will be up for awards this year, but you may remember last year, when I wrote about Todd Lieberman C’95 and Tom Heller C’95, both of whom had produced 2011 Oscar-nominated films. (You can also reader a longer interview with Heller here.)

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A conversation with Penn music professor Guthrie Ramsey Jr.

Since 1998, Guthrie Ramsey Jr. has been teaching Penn students about music. His classes have covered jazz history, studies in African-American music and jazz improvisation, as well as general introductions to musical life in America.

Ramsey has also continued to create music outside the classroom, playing piano and keyboards with his ensemble, Dr. Guy’s MusiQology. The latest result of that collaboration, Ramsey’s new album, The Colored Waiting Room, will hit stores later this month. We caught up with the popular professor last week to discuss the music he makes (“jazz infused with the sounds of R&B, funk, soul, Latin, and hip hop”), the music he teaches, and the music he’s listening to right now.

Tell me about the title of your new album.
I’m not just making music for people to enjoy—I also want to draw people into higher levels of consciousness and make them think about things in different ways. To me, the “colored waiting room” refers to a space of containment. It was meant to keep people separate and to keep people down, but I think what happens inside those very unpleasant experiences is that people actually make their own joy, make their own pleasures, make their own world and what they desire. As a result, [these rooms] weren’t just spaces of containment, they were also spaces of freedom and freedom dreams. So what I conceived of for this CD is that this colored waiting room is actually a nightclub—that the songs and spoken word on this CD take place in a nightclub called The Colored Waiting Room. It gives people a way to think about both sides of this coin.

What are some of your favorite tracks from the album?
The most sentimental track for me is “Little London’s Lullaby.” It’s a little blues lullaby that I wrote for my granddaughter when she was born two years ago, and my daughter—her aunt—sang the song on the album. It’s really sentimental to me because I trained my kids in music and now I’m trying to make the impression on my granddaughter that, ‘Hey, this is what we do.’

There’s another song called “Lake Como (Remix)” that I think might be my favorite on the CD in terms of how it turned out. I wrote it when I was staying on Lake Como in Italy a few years back. I recorded it as a solo piano piece, and a bass player who’s also on the CD said, ‘Wow, I can’t stop listening to that song.’ Those are the kind of comments you pay attention to, so I remixed the song and scored it for a full band.

I heard there was a lot of student involvement on The Colored Waiting Room.
Students who are interested in the real-world practices of the music industry have few formal or extra-curricular outlets at Penn. Consequently, some of the students who take my history and literature classes see this other part of my life and want to participate because they get to see the real workings of someone trying to put together [music] projects. They take independent studies with me or volunteer to help out with different aspects of the projects. It’s analogous to undergraduate research, but we’re working on projects. For this album, one of the students actually did research on mixing and mastering and sent around listening sessions. [Other students] wrote liner notes, and some helped write and produce the film I put out for this CD.

When did you first start making music?
I was exposed to a piano teacher around age five or six [but] I didn’t get really serious about it until I was about 11. Then it took over. It was just something that gave me many, many hours of peace.

Did you start out playing classical music?
I had lots of classical lessons in high school and college, but a lot of it has been in jazz and popular music. I started directing church choirs in 7th grade and then playing in jazz bands in high school. I was a real focused and directed little kid. It was kind of strange, man. After I graduated high school, I went on the road with a rock and roll band touring.

As a musician yourself, what are some of your goals as a professor of music?
One of the things I like to demonstrate to students is how much about the world you can learn through the study of musical practice. I also try to show them that people have lots of really personal feelings about music, and that there is a social constitution to what feels personal. I try to show them that all these attachments and identifications they’re making with musical practices are part of a larger cultural framework.

What are your thoughts on the current music scene?
There’s a lot to dig about it and there’s a lot that’s not so good about it. It’s very tough to make generalizations about any musical genre or form, but one of the reactions I’ve been having from [my new] CD—people always bring this up—is that it’s kind of a throwback to a stronger musical past, that there’s something different about what they’re hearing in this project than what they’re sensing currently in the music marketplace.

What do you think it is that’s lacking from current music?
So much music that people are finding disrespectful to themselves and others always gets the greatest attention, always has the highest sales. Across the board, there’s a lot of music circulating now that people find deeply offensive. I think that there should be alternatives. I don’t believe in censoring people, but I believe that if you present strong alternatives for people, we may see a shift in the aesthetic.

What are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to the new Nicholas Payton album, which is very controversial. I’ve been trying to understand where this CD fits into the larger scheme of things, and in my hip-hop class we recently talked about that piece’s pleasures and problems.

I’ve also been listening to  a CD by Bill Ortiz—he’s a Latin Jazz artist—and to Christian McBride’s new CD [The Good Feeling].

I’ve been especially interested in CDs that have been independently released because I’m about to do that myself.

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