Fall 2013 Department Newsletter

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Greetings, alumni/ae and friends of Northeastern’s English Department!  As always, there is much to report from a busy Fall Semester.  English department faculty and graduate students have been in the news this semester, garnering attention for projects from a book on the Harlem Renaissance to a digital archive of Boston Marathon bombing narratives.

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, by Carla Kaplan, Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature, has been warmly received in reviews in in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air”, and elsewhere.  A group biography of six white women who crossed color lines to join the flourishing world of African-American art and literature in New York’s Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, Miss Anne in Harlem has been named one of the year’s “Top 10 Literary Biographies, Essays & Criticism” by Publisher’s Weekly, received a starred review from Booklist, and appeared on the Bestseller List of the Los Angeles Times.  Learn about an opportunity for alumni to hear Professor Kaplan read from Miss Anne in Harlem on page 11.

Human beings understand our experience by transforming it into narrative: that storytelling urge is at the core of English Studies.  With Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive, Professors Elizabeth Dillon and Ryan Cordell, along with English doctoral students Jim McGrath, Kristi Girdharry, Elizabeth Hopwood, and Alicia Peaker, undergraduate English major Joanne Afornalli, and colleagues and students from other several other departments and institutions, have developed a forum for anyone affected by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing to share his or her story.   Articles featuring the archive have appeared recently in Boston Magazine and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some narratives, of course, are easier to understand than others. Linguistics Professor Janet Randall is working with the Massachusetts Bar Association on the Plain English Jury Instruction Project, surveying potential jurors’ understanding of current Massachusetts jury instructions with the aim of identifying barriers to understanding and improving communication.  According to Professor Randall, “Three quarters [of actual Washington, DC jurors in a 1993 study by Peter Tiersma] could not define terms like ‘burden of proof,’ ‘impeach,’ ‘admissible evidence’ and ‘inference,’” raising the specter of miscarriage of justice through incomprehension.  As Professor Randall says, “The results of our psycholinguistic research—and the new jury instructions that emerge—will make courtroom verdicts more reliable and improve the administration of justice in Massachusetts and beyond.” Learn more about Professor Randall’s work on page 11.

Many of our alumni/ae, too, are storytellers.  In this newsletter, you will hear how Donna Decker, PhD ’05, came to write a novel about a notorious mass killing (page 2), and why Dennis Daly, MA ’75, has chosen to translate Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax (page 4).

Remember—we are always eager to hear your stories!  “Like” us on Facebook, and Stay Connected via

With best wishes to all for the holidays and beyond,


Laura M. Green

Professor and Chair