KU’s Common Book Author Eula Biss sparks discussion of race, identity and culture

By Kayla Overbey

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Critically acclaimed author Eula Biss spoke to more than 700 readers about her controversial book, “Notes from No Man’s Land,” on Oct. 4 at the University of Kansas. The discussion included topics of community and neighbors as well as excerpts from the book, which is composed of essays focusing on race and identity in America.

The book won the National Books Critic Circle Award and is in use as the inaugural book for the KU Common Book Program. Incoming freshmen were given “Notes from No Man’s Land” as part of a “campus wide initiative to engage first-year students” and build community, according to the KU Common Book website.

Race and Identity

“Notes from No Man’s Land” tackles racial identity and prejudice in America through a blend of personal experience and research. Biss reflects on her experiences working as a “black news” reporter, resisting tourism in Mexico, living in New York City and recognizing the diversity inherent in different locations and cultures. The introduction, which initially explains the history of telephone poles and then develops into a discussion about lynching, sets a radical tone.

“I do see it as my responsibility to exist within this skin, this body, this identity, in the most ethical way possible,” Biss explained. “This book is my struggle with that thinking. And I don’t think it’s easy thinking.”

One of the main goals for the book is to facilitate discussion. However, race and equality are not always easy to chat about. Sarah Crawford-Parker, assistant vice provost and director of First Year Experience, said that a university atmosphere is perfect for such dense subject matter.

“We need to understand [racial] complexities,” Crawford-Parker explained. “We need to understand where people are coming from. If we can’t have those conversations here, where will our students have [them] once they go out into the world of work?”

“Notes from No Man’s Land” has inspired course material in sociology, journalism and psychology classes, among others. Despite its adaptability, the reception has not been universally positive.

White Guilt

For some students, the readings have resulted in cases of “white guilt,” a collective emotion felt by some white people for the racist treatment of people of color, both historically and presently. Scholarly authors like Shelby Steele and Judith Katz helped to develop this idea. Howard Graham, associate director for academic programs in the First Year Experience program, said one of his students felt “accused” while reading the book.

“The question almost verbatim was—and I give the student so much credit for being honest—they said, ‘I just feel like she’s accusing me of something,’” Graham said. “It’s interesting that some students are feeling ‘attacked,’ I think. Vulnerable is a better word.”

Many white readers have experienced an automatic, defensive reaction against the idea of racism during book discussions. While Biss said her intention was never to attack anyone, she does believe that these moments of discomfort inspire deeper thinking.

“Actually, I would be very, very disappointed if the book did not make some people uncomfortable, defensive, angry…” Biss said. “I think all of those negative emotions are necessary and inevitable when encountering some of these ideas for the first time.”

Biss is no stranger to the thoughts her essays present. She admitted to feeling troubled by the content, even to the point that she no longer wanted to write the book. However, she worked through the dilemma, just as students should in uneasy classrooms situations.

“It means that they’re being challenged in ways that are deeply uncomfortable. And I actually think that’s fundamental to education,” Biss said.

Difference of Opinions

The common book has caused students to form a range of reactions. KU junior Nicole Rissky from Tecumseh, Kan., said she enjoyed “Notes from No Man’s Land” because she, and many students entering college, could relate to the idea of self-evaluation. However, Rissky “felt naïve” after reading about “obvious” societal inequalities.

“I really do think it’s a good addition to the curriculum,” Rissky said. “I think that it challenges students and gives them a chance to get a taste of the kind of thinking they’ll be doing in this new chapter of their lives.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Lexie Coutts, a KU junior from Atchinson, Kan., who said during a sociology class that the implicit message of white guilt offended her. Coutts has lived throughout the Midwest and as a result, the content did not surprise her.

“To me, [Biss] seems very whimsical in her life and ideals,” Coutts said. “I’ve lived lots of different places so I don’t really feel like I was learning anything from Eula Biss.”

Rhavean King, an African-American KU freshman from Memphis, Tenn., read the book during a summer course and Skyped Biss during the class. She said she appreciated Biss’ head-on approach to racism in America and found it unusual to see a white woman writing about race in such a contemporary way.

“When I read about things like this, I always get it from an African-American standpoint, because a lot of times those are the only people comfortable enough to talk about it,” King said. “But having a Caucasian woman write about her experiences—being discriminated against, being in African-American neighborhoods, things like that—that really struck me.”

Crawford-Parker and Graham both emphasized that the goal of the common book is to inspire thought within readers, despite differing opinions.

“We’re all bringing our own lens and we all see slightly different things,” Crawford-Parker said. “That’s what generates the conversation, the discourse, the exploring of some of these ideas further. Again, we didn’t want everyone to think the same exact thing about some of these issues.”

After hearing the struggle students are experiencing, Biss expressed one wish she had for this book: She hoped that all readers would walk away with more questions than answers.

“I would love for the reader to engage with the most challenging and most difficult questions that the book presents, and I think that among those are questions of identity,” she said gently. “I mean that in the most expansive, metaphysical sense possible. I mean that in a ‘what is the cost of being human?’ kind of way.”

Contact  at kayla@politicalfiber.com.

Photo contributed by KU Common Book Committee.

(I wrote this story as a student reporter for Political Fiber on Oct. 4, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. Read the original publication on their website.)

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2012 Western Cast Iron Art Conference embraces a unique community

By Kayla Overbey

Monday, October 8, 2012

College students arrive in droves, eagerly scanning their surroundings. People hurry past, creating sporadic movement as preparation takes place. At the registration table, devilishly formed miniature skulls with horns and deep-set eye sockets are on sale, along with shirts, patches and welding hats.

The next room hosts a variety of eccentric young faces that watch as people rush past, preparing rooms for planned workshops and demonstrations. Beyond, a sculpture yard is full of twisted bits of rusted metal. To many, these contorted shapes may mean nothing, but to participants of the Third Biennial Western Cast Iron Art Conference (WCIAC), the pieces of metal comprise meaningful art formed by skillful hands.

Fort Hays State University hosted the WCIAC for the first time this year from May 23-26. This conference, held biennially, attracts national attention and includes visitors from almost every state, as well as international visitors.

The immense amount of work to hold iron cast conferences requires effort from students and professionals alike. For recent Fort Hays State alum Jillian Thompson, the conference was a personal experience.

“Basically I’ve been helping to set up the conference for a year now,” Thompson said with a smile. “It’s been a really great conference. I’d say it’s the best I’ve been to.”Photo by Kayla Overbey

Thompson attended her first iron pour conference at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyo. At the annual conference, she was exposed to the fast-paced, hands-on experience of iron pouring and casting, and she became addicted.

Prior to the conference, Thompsonenrolled in sculpture and blacksmithing classes, which prompted her to change her major from interior design to sculpture. The conference in Wyoming and each one she participated in after that confirmed her decision to make iron art a permanent part of her life.

“I was just hooked. After [watching] my first iron pour, I wanted be a part of that,” Thompson said.

For many, the friendly atmosphere at conferences spurs the addiction of pouring iron. While the Fort Hays State WCIAC was filled with workshops, molding, performances and lectures, there was one constant: community. Each iron art conference held seems to attract and hold the attention of a unique, inviting group of people.

Lee Powers ’70, Department chair of Art and Design, described the conference as educational for students and a community experience for the established iron casters and citizens involved. The art of casting iron is an exceptional, team-driven act that draws in a variety of participants and creates meaningful relationships.

“You know, sculptors carve stone; they carve wood. They work in a variety of materials. Well, the folks who pour iron are even a unique part of the pouring community,” said Powers. “There’s something about the process of creating iron in the kind of furnaces they use that bonds these folks together as iron-pouring specialists.”

The conference encourages anyone interested in sculpture and iron casting to become involved, regardless of experience. Walter Ware III from the University of Colorado, Denver, agreed that the close-knit community is what draws newcomers into iron conferences. As he forged a lump of iron that would eventually become a knife, Ware smiled and chatted with newfound friends and acquaintances.

“There are a lot of folks here from different places. Everybody sees you, and they act like they know you,” Ware said. “I think the coolest thing about it is the camaraderie.”

Ware, who has worked in blacksmithing and is familiar with the iron pouring process, believes that working in different areas and with different people make the conferences extremely worthwhile. The experience students can gain from conferences is memorable simply because it is unlike any craft that they may have specialized in before.

For Alfred University, Alfred, N.Y., student Cory Nacniven, the experience at the Fort Hays State WCIAC exposed him to new art. Nacniven concentrated mostly in digital media during his time in school and decided to try iron casting after encouragement from his professor and because he needed one more credit to graduate.

Photo by Andrew Marsh“I had a feeling that metal was going to be a lot of fun,” Nacniven said. “I figured it was time to try something different. And this is really different. It’s a lot of fun and I’m starting to wish I did it more.”

Nacniven is only one of a few completely inexperienced students who participated in the iron pour. While most of the attendees are professionals and experts, Powers explained that the purpose of the conference is to broaden the iron casting community and provide students with a variety of educational experiences. The art of shaping molds and pouring molten iron, like many other hands-on art forms, is learned through mistakes.

“Sometimes there are some things that just don’t turn out, like anything we do. Not everything’s guaranteed. You gain through experience that quality of making [the molds] so they’ll pour correctly and break out well and the piece won’t have voids in it,” Powers explained.

After spending hours in workshops creating molds, Nacniven gained appreciation for the effort professional iron casters and sculptors put into their work. He said his time at the conference showed him a different kind of work ethic and learning technique than he could experience with digital media.

“It’s definitely a more hands-on experience. And even when it messes up, you feel like you learned something. Whereas in the digital world, if you mess up, you don’t really learn anything, you just undo it,” Nacniven said.

Even for those invested in sculpture and iron casting, the experiences acquired at Fort Hays State provide incentive to participate in more iron art conferences. For Peter Leones, also a student from Alfred University, working with iron broadened his academic and career goals from exclusively photographic to include sculpture.

After he applied and was accepted to art school for photography, Leones found himself interested in sculpture. This eventually led him to participate in “Meltdown,” an iron melting festival at his university sponsored by the National Casting Center Foundry.

“I realized I could do both photo and the whole hands-on sculpture stuff. And it could be a part of what I do,” Leones said.

After his initial conference, Leones found himself surrounded by artistic comrades and friends whom he could relate to. This is what drove him to cast iron art conferences again and again.
Photo by Andrew Marsh
“I like the community that surrounds it. I like how excited people are, how enthusiastic they are,” Leones explained. “And the majority of them are pyromaniacs, and I am too. So I guess it’s just a combination of that. And a drive to make sculpture, to make artwork.”

Leones, like many who have participated in the art of cast iron, has no doubt that he will continue to integrate iron conferences into his life in the future. Fort Hays State alum Jillian Thompson feels the same. She will begin graduate school in fall of 2012 at Southern Illinois University for sculpture, all because of her first sculpture class at Fort Hays State.

“So it’s definitely going to be a part of my life,” Thompson said. “For the rest of my life.”

(I wrote this article for FHSU’s TigerTalk Magazine in summer of 2012. It was published online and in print during July. I’m posting it here to archive my work. You can find the original online publication here.)

FHSU Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Sam Khoury 1978

By Kayla Overbey

Monday, October 8, 2012

Dr. Sam & Dunia Khoury with President Edward Hammond at an alumni gathering hosted by the Khourys in San Diego spring 2012.For alum Dr. Sam Khoury, Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., the journey through higher education advanced him into a successful career as a business owner and consultant of a nationally successful company. Khoury associates his success and determination strongly with his experiences at Fort Hays State University.

Khoury attained his Bachelor’s of Science degree from the America University of Beirut in the Middle Eastern country, Lebanon. He then attended FHSU and graduated in 1978 after obtaining his Master’s degree in Organic Chemistry. He went on to earn a MBA in Finance from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., and a Ph.D. in Polymer Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Wisconsin. Khoury’s decision to attend FHSU was solidified after an easy admissions process.

Khoury fondly remembers the faculty and staff in the chemistry department at FHSU. He credits his success to the instructors who encouraged and provided a foundation for him. He especially recalls long hours spent perfecting organic chemistry principles with his professor by his side.

“I have not seen such support from professors before or after my education experience. It is those fond memories with the professors at FHSU that made it possible for me to be successful,” Khoury said.

Thanks to his positive experience and extensive education, Khoury went on to perform research for The Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Mich. He was a member of a development team that focused on creating and implementing a unique technology valuation method. Additionally, his time within The Dow Chemical Company resulted in a total of eight patents issued from research.

“I was selected during my work at The Dow Chemical Company to develop the methods and the processes to value intellectual properties and leverage them through licensing,” Khoury said.

His research and work exposed the need for an efficient system to leverage intellectual property. In response to the increased global market demand for such a system, Khoury established Inavisis, Inc. in 2000. He is now the president of the company, which has experienced national growth within the United States and experimented briefly in the international field in the past twelve years. Khoury’s work includes communicating effectively with companies on their patents, trade secrets and trademarks.

He has participated in many charitable organizations within his local community in California, including Fresh Start Surgical Gifts, which provides health and surgical services from professional doctors and dentists to those in need at no cost. Khoury has also contributed effort to a fundraising campaign for his local community theater. He is dedicated to stimulating himself as a learner by becoming knowledgeable in new areas, such as sport, recreation and software tools like Photoshop.

Despite his many years as a student in multiple universities earning degrees and as a growing business owner and successful entrepreneur, Khoury remembers his years spent learning at FHSU. His sense of pride when reviewing his time at the university and the relationships he developed with instructors is apparent.

“They have one common goal: make the college experience for everyone exciting, challenging and affordable. In these hard economic times, that is exactly the type of organization and leaders we need,” Khoury said.

Khoury is a member of the FHSU Alumni Association and values the connection it gives him to the university. He appreciates “being in touch with fellow FHSU Tigers that share the same memories and aspiration for our kids, university and the country.”

To students who are eager to indulge in their education in Fort Hays State University as the academic year progresses, but nervous about the transition into college life, Khoury offered a few words of advice.

“You might not know it yet, but you chose the right university,” he said. “The whole community will support you in your studies—the teachers, the administration of the university, the people in the grocery store, the barber down the street.

Khoury and his wife, Dunia, met while attending Fort Hays State University. They have four daughters, Emily, Kristle, Laura, and Monica.

(I wrote this alumni feature for the FHSU Alumni Association. They published it on their website in October of 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. Read the original publication here.)