Teaching José Orduña: Ekphrasis and the North American Essay


Rarely does a visiting writer sit down for the Friday morning craft talk and introduce a concept that I go on to use every day – every day – after. But this is exactly what happened when José Orduña, essayist, professor of English at the University of Nevada, Screenshot 2018-04-09 08.26.52and author of The Weight of Shadows visited us at the University of Missouri last September.

The concept Orduña shared was this: one must have an occasion to write.

He showed us a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico wall and pointed out that while certain prominent political voices are calling to “build the wall,” the wall already exists. Indicating the wall in the photograph, Orduña said: “this is my occasion to write.” As I understand it, the wall provides the impetus for Orduña’s research, and likely also guides his aesthetics.

“The occasion to write” is a useful concept for writers and students of writing. It is also useful for readers. The concept thus helps me link two different course goals in my Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay: one major goal is to expose students to contemporary trends in nonfiction. Another major goal is to coax students into writing beyond themselves. I recently created an ekphrastic writing assignment to combine these, relying on art, history, and conversation to multiply students’ own occasions to write.

Ekphrasis: Ancient to Contemporary

  1. What’s ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis, from the Greek, combines ek and phrásis (literally “out” and “speak”) into a verb for “proclaiming” or “calling an inanimate object by name.” At its simplest, any work of art that is “about” or enmeshed in another work of art (usually of another medium) can be understood as participating in the ekphrastic tradition.

I insist—in this post, as in life—that we be as expansive as possible in our thinking about what constitutes art. Example: ekphrastic writing may dialogue with a rock opera, a painting, a violin concerto, a capoeira performance, a piece of jewelry, a digital mashup… The real key is that ekphrastic writing is crucially more than description. It is also distinct from art history or criticism. Ekphrasis engages another artwork to enter into creative communion with it; ekphrastic writing is writing that thinks alongside art.

  1. Why teach ekphrasis in Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay?

Ekphrastic approaches are flourishing in the contemporary essay. Off the top of my head, here is an incomplete list of 21st century books of ekphrastic nonfiction:

Visual artworks are central to the project:

  • Terry Tempest Williams, Leap (2000)
  • Michael White, Travels in Vermeer (2015)
  • Jericho Parms, Lost Wax (2016)
  • Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001)

Dialogues with visual artworks less centrally, but significantly and recurrently:

  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
  • Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2009)
  • José Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016)

Dialogues with nonvisual artworks (namely music):

  • Joni Tevis, The World is on Fire (2015)
  • Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (2016)
  • Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat (2012)
  • Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful (1991—okay, not the 21st century, but a favorite)

On to the practical application portion of this post.

The Lesson Sequence, Part One: Reading Orduña

In celebration of Orduña’s contribution to my thinking vocabulary, I assigned “A Civilized Man,” the fifth essay in his 2016 book, The Weight of Shadows.

“A Civilized Man” takes place in a waiting room in the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa. Orduña observes a young couple whose attorney might be coaching them for the inhumanity of a Stokes interview, the interview that scrutinizes a couple’s request for immigration relief based on their marriage (thus coldly judging the legitimacy, moral standing, and substance of legal partnership itself). Because they “look like posed figures in a Renaissance painting,” Orduña studies the scene as he would a canvas. Ultimately, Orduña draws from the Venetian painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi,” linking contemporary power dynamics to historic consciousness of 1500s Europe. We learn not only about U.S. immigration policy, but also about strange resonances with the Medici Bank, its financing of the Catholic Church, the resulting erosion of absolute monarchy, the rise of trade- and transaction-based power—discovering uneasy echoes with the Department of Homeland Security at every step.

In class, our analysis focused on disentangling one core question: what is the role of the artwork in this essay’s whole assemblage of meanings and effects?

To piece together an answer to this question, I had students track exactly what percent of the text describes “Adoration of the Magi,” what percent of the text teaches context about “Adoration of the Magi,” and what percent of the text explicitly connects “Adoration of the Magi” to the waiting room or to the “present-dayness” of the essay.

Students created a retrospective structure of the essay, and discovered that the bulk of the essay is not about artwork at all. Yet of course the closer they looked, the more tacit connections they discovered. Is it an essay that “just touches” on a Renaissance painting here and there, or is that painting actually woven in between the lines on every page? The latter, of course.

The Lesson Sequence, Part Two: Research and Writing

Second, we took a field trip to the Museum of Art and Archaeology, where students did a good deal of freewriting. They had a few days to expand this initial work and complete a five-hundred word ekphrastic essay responding to any artwork they encountered at the museum. Examples: I read two essays dialoguing with Rembrandt paintings, an essay about an ancient Indian carving of Ganesha, another one taking a work of American Impressionism as muse, and several essays rooted in sculptures and photographs from the museum’s curated exhibit of works by emerging young artists with disabilities.

In the next stage of research exploration, students turned to print and online sources to gather historic research. They found sources on their artists, on the medium (one student learned about the development of acrylic paints, for example; another researched the history of photography), and on the countries/social contexts in which their artworks were created (the student writing about Ganesha, for example, made a valiant effort to scrape the surface of Hindu literary/mythological tradition). Most students came away from this research less satisfied with their initial take on their chosen artwork (which is to say, more curious). Regardless, in a 500-word mini essay, students had to marshal new information and creatively convey the most intriguing things they learned.

Finally, part three of this research exercise required students to have a conversation. They identified a theme/topic in their ekphrastic writing assignment. And they had to think of a person with whom they’d be able to have a lively, 5-10-minute conversation about this theme/topic. Another 500-word mini-essay came out of this exercise.

Ultimately, students assembled their work into longform essays that—via ekphrasis, historic research, and the human voice—explored a range of convictions, questions, memories, and experiences. Students discovered that from the headwaters of their initial required research (mimicking Orduña’s methods of connecting art to life by freewriting in front of an artwork), their thinking had traveled unexpected distances.

Takehome Points

Takehome points from this exercise and discussions emphasized craft strategies and “how-tos” (how to write about art, how to connect art to something else you’re writing about, etc.).

But the literary studies component of this sequence is probably more significant. Students came away with new recognition of a notable trend in the contemporary essay: nonfiction writing about art is flourishing right now. Popular conceptions of nonfiction rarely see past the memoiristic “story of my life” intent on understanding one thing, the “I”—but with ekphrasis, my students experienced an occasion to write that exceeded their individuality. Ultimately, my hope is that they leave the semester seeing the essayist as part of a wider thinking community, someone in conversation with the world in which they’re embedded—and responsible to and for it.

“Le Badaud” (meaning “the idler” or “the onlooker”). The sculpture is in Sarlat, France, birthplace of Montaigne’s dear friend, Étienne de la Boétie. I am persuaded this idling, onlooking badaud has centuries of essays on the mind as he gazes upon the passing people. The sculpture is by Gérard Auliac.

It’s Mailer Time: Switching Gears in Course Planning

Currently I’m teaching a general curriculum writing course loosely focused on the idea of the early American city. The course features Hamilton, Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond, and the anthology, The Citizen Poets of Boston. This semester I’ve found teaching a struggle. All these texts are teachable. I think they work. Still, it is hard. Again, it isn’t the texts themselves, or the editions I used, or the students.

At the Core

Teaching in a core curriculum is difficult because there is much stacked against the courses. Students often see these courses as a roadblock to their “real” classes, a hoop that has to be jumped through, or something disconnected from the “college experience.” I do not fault students for thinking this way. It is a rational response to the messaging of colleges and universities, home departments, advisors, and other factors that contribute to marginalizing these classes. I’ve addressed this marginalization in class. I’ve owned it. I’ve designed classes that react and respond to this reality. Still, it is hard.

My courses have focused on early American literature because it is what I know. It is what I have taught. I don’t like to assign what I haven’t taught before. Teaching early American texts is hard, especially in a writing class were one is tasked to do so much already. Caitlin Kelly, in a recent PALS post, discussed how courses focused on early American literature necessitate a multi-pronged approach of teaching to meet the course goals/purpose, teaching content, and teaching what amounts to a history class in order for the course to make sense to students. I found this semester that these factors combine are a tough row to hoe. For me, the tipping point was the constant use of class time to define words and to walk through passages of the text because students found the reading difficult. I purposefully selected texts that were student friendly and provided extensive annotations. I looked for teachable moments. We discussed the difficulties of reading anything and how to push through. We also covered approaches to reading and annotation, along with the importance of using a dictionary. Again, we stressed reading is hard, it takes work, but it does get easier. I don’t think it worked.

Reading is Hard; Teaching is Hard
Inspiring students to buy into the readings is difficult. In a recent post, Shelli Homer addressed the problem of not reading. I’ve taken many of the same approaches advocated by Shelli. Still, navigating the carrot and stick approach is difficult.  The carrot makes the class seem easy, which can translate as the class is not important. The stick often translates as the class is too hard, and, of course, these general curriculum classes should not be hard. Or so they say. Additionally, I found that giving reading quizzes has become an exercise in point gathering; they don’t contribute to learning. I’ve found that students are freaking out about the quizzes. That isn’t learning. I don’t like giving them or grading them. Plus, they take up a great deal of time in class. I’ve relied on great advice; I’ve borrowed from The Pocket Instructor. Still, I’m beaten down by the extensive work required to make these classes work.

A Solution?
I’m tired. I’m beat. I don’t want to fight this struggle anymore. I’m ready to try some new things. I’m ready to teach some contemporary literature.

Umm… I don’t really read contemporary literature.

Most folks I know don’t teach a lot of early American literature in core classes. A lot of modern stuff is outside of my wheelhouse. Granted, folks teaching more modern stuff aren’t always teaching in their area, but they are teaching things they read. They’re teaching things they like. The thing is… I don’t read those things. I’ve rarely read contemporary literature. I’ve rarely read fiction. Perhaps you wonder why I went down this career path. Eh, same.


bed time reading
Sometimes I pretend I’m Henry Rollins and I go to sleep surrounded by my books.

I rarely find reading literature fun anymore. I used to read a lot non-fiction for fun. I find reading to be a chore. How do I relax and unwind? I play videogames. I’ve played so much Skyrim that it is embarrassing. When I do read I mostly read cookbooks. I like the short entries, I like the narrative element to some of them, and I like looking at the pictures. As of late, when I’m not reading cookbooks, I’m reading books on ancient Egypt. I’ve been reading a great book on animal mummies. I’ve also been dabbling in a wonderful edition of the Book of the Dead. Sadly (or fortunately), I can’t teach those things.

Expertise is a Hell of Drug
When I taught my Founders class last fall the most important thing I noticed was the feeling of wow, I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m talking about. Isn’t it amazing to teaching something in your research area? Isn’t it neat to teach a class with course goals and outcomes you designed? It was easy for me to generate lecture notes and answer student questions. I drew on all my course work, my comps, and my own research. I was teaching what I knew. I liked that feeling. I want that in my revamped classes, too. But I want a break from early American literature. I’m here to teach writing, but trying to get early American lit to work is taking away from the important writing instruction that I need to do.

Early American Women Writers… to Norman Mailer?
If you looked at my PhD comps list, my dissertation, my current research, and my recent classes, then you wouldn’t think I’d be a person to kick around building a course around Norman Mailer.


I, a person that wrote a dissertation on Harriet Beecher Stowe, have actually taught the works or Mailer more times than I’ve taught works by Stowe. For me, teaching Mailer isn’t a quirk, an oddity, or whimsy. I know Mailer. I’ve read Mailer. My move towards Mailer reflects the precarious nature of the work many of us do in the classroom. Nearly all of the courses I’ve taught have been in the service of general education or core curricula. I’m tired. I’m burning out teaching in my area of research and expertise. Not that I teach my research, but I like teaching in my area because I do know it. Expertise is a hell of a drug when it comes to course prep and planning. Sure, I could teach Charlotte Temple, I know it works, but I’m tired of teaching Charlotte Temple. Blasphemy.

I’ve read Mailer. I’ve thought a lot about Mailer. And, most importantly, I’ve taught Mailer before. I want that feeling of expertise without the extra struggle of making early America work. I want something that is accessible for students. If a variety of systems conspire to make the work we do difficult, then I also want an author that will help students turn a critical eye towards that system, especially our contemporary systems. I want someone that frees me up to get back to the writing instruction.

You’re Wondering Why Mailer? Maybe…
I took a senior seminar on Mailer during my last year at Wilkes University. The course was taught by Mailer’s archivist and biographer, J. Michael Lennon. We read a lot of Mailer during the course. We also read a lot of literary criticism.  The highlight of the course was working on an edition of Mailer’s letters connected to his novel, An American Dream. Back in the day colleges didn’t use buzzwords like undergraduate research, but that is what it was. I loved it. In many ways the course set the standards for what I expected literary study and research to be like. Plus, I had the opportunity to take a course with someone that to this day remains a great mentor and source of encouragement. I’ve continued to read and think about Mailer. I often find myself wondering what Mailer would think about our current political moment. Maybe I’m primed for this move because Mailer’s been on my mind.

The Core of The Course
Granted, were talking about courses for the next few semesters, but this is what I’m envisioning at this point. The course will center itself around the 1960s. The departure point is inspired by Mailer’s An American Dream. The idea of the American Dream will be a key point of consideration throughout the course. We’ll fudge the course requirement for a unit on drama by including the first season of Mad Men. Granted, that isn’t starting with Mailer, but the inspiration is An American Dream. We’ll open with the beginning episodes of Mad Men. A few selected episodes will be sprinkled throughout the semester. Our first major reading will be An American Dream. In the beginning of the course we’ll consider topics like the idea of the American Dream, masculinity, gender, and related topics.

After setting our initial groundwork, we’ll move into An American Dream. Mailer’s novel will dovetail nicely with our opening unit on Mad Men. I imagine students will appreciate having seen a version of the time period and then reading about it. After talking with students this semester, I’m getting the sense that immediacy is something they value. There is something comfortable there for them. It isn’t just about vague ideas of relatability; there is something more that we often dismiss. I find the idea of pairing An American Dream with Mad Men appealing because it ties together neatly. There will be a synergy there, but more importantly it will set up well for our first few writing assignments.

an american dream

Mailer’s An American Dream first appeared serially in Esquire. It will be worthwhile for students to consider the cultural context of the novel appearing in a magazine that was an important part of American culture during the period. Mad Men and An American Dream go together in terms of themes, but considering An American Dream in the context of Esquire will allow us also to consider the surrounding text, specifically the advertisements. Mad Men, after all, is a show about the heyday of advertising firms. I own several issues of Esquire with the chapters from Mailer’s serialized version of An American Dream. My plan is to provide students with images of the advertisements found within these issues. These advertisements will provide the central component of our first writing assignment: the traditional advertisement analysis, but with a Mad Men and Mailer twist.

At this point, I’m considering including other Mailer writings in the course. We’ll take a look at few of the essays from The Presidential Papers, which will tie in with the Mad Men episodes touching on the election of 1960. I’m considering closing the course with Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?. Since this is a writing class we’ll also read The Spooky Art, Mailer’s book on writing.

Yes, that is a lot of Mailer, but this is a starting framework for courses that are coming in the future. I need to flesh it out. I need to add additional voices to the conversation, especially voices that challenge the dominant threads of the conversation that the course sets up. That will come with time and thinking more about the course. Still, I’m excited about this new direction.

More importantly—I’m relieved to draw on my own expertise.