A Brilliant Trio

USD Literature Professor Dennis Clausen


Stories bring humanity together. And in very different ways, three University of San Diego professors have added to the rich tapestry of the written word with the recent publication of three very different works.

Stories are at the heart of Greg Prieto’s new book, Immigrants Under Threat: Risk and Resistance in Deportation Nation (NYU Press, 2018), which explores ways that Mexican immigrants “seek not to transcend, but to burrow into American institutions of law and family so that they might attain a measure of economic stability and social mobility.”

Assistant Professor of Sociology Greg Prieto.

Assistant Professor of Sociology Greg Prieto.

An assistant professor of sociology, Prieto hopes his book garners an audience outside of academia; he thinks that the anecdotal nature of stories gathered through his ethnographic research will be of broad interest to all readers.

“What’s important for me is to think of immigrants not just as pawns in a larger policy or political game, but as active subjects who are — in their everyday lives — finding ways to mitigate the reach of the state into their personal lives.”

Focusing on two Mexican immigrant communities on California’s Central Coast, Prieto says the book “puts some flesh on the bones of this social problem. Readers can learn about the kinds of concerns people have and the life/world anxieties and hopes for the future they hold for themselves and their children. It’s an accessible narrative that’s really the heart of this book.”

Prieto sees hope even in the thorny thicket of the current political climate. “The potential of collective politics and the beauty of everyday life inspires us to keep going,” he says. “Immigrants keep going. If they can, we can too.”

Dennis Clausen, who’s been teaching at USD for nearly five decades, is passionate about storytelling. He recently published a novel, The Diary of Rachel Sims (Sunbury Press, 2018), which he describes as “a fictional account of a young woman who learns in her early 20s that the people she thought were her parents are not her biological parents, triggering an obsessive psychological need to find ‘where she fits in.’”

The prolific Clausen teaches courses on American literature and screenwriting; the bulk of his writing takes place during academic breaks. It’s an arrangement that works well for him.

English Professor Dennis Clausen.

English Professor Dennis Clausen.

“I love the combination of writing in seclusion in the summers, and then going into the classroom during the academic year and being among young people and building a passion for storytelling in them,” he says.

Clausen, who grew up in tiny Morris, Minnesota, has long been interested in small-town life in America. “Our county was the most unpopulated in the state,” he recalls. “It was very, very remote. For the first two decades of my life, no one I knew watched TV. For us, reading, storytelling, was a way of life.”

Captain of the basketball team in both high school and college, Clausen thought at one point that he might pursue a career as a university coach. But his abiding love of literature instead led him to academia, where he could pass along his love for the written word to new generations.

All these years later, he’s still invigorated by the power of stories. “In my screenwriting class, I urge students to write screenplays as a way to come up with an outline for a novel. I want them to have the challenge of telling a story from beginning to middle to end.”

The result? “They get enthusiastic about storytelling.”

Professor of Labor and Employment Law Orly Lobel.

Professor of Labor and Employment Law Orly Lobel.

Another work that provides an engaging way of telling a complicated story is School of Law Professor Orly Lobel’s book, You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side (W.W. Norton and Company, 2017), which will be released in paperback this spring and is also available on Audible and Kindle.

Lobel’s website (www.orlylobel.com) sums up the book — which recounts the lengthy court battle between Barbie distributor Mattel and Bratz collection distributor MGA Entertainment — in a provocative nutshell: “Are your ideas your own or does your employer own them? This is the question that set off the greatest toy war of our time.”

The book has won multiple awards and has received rave reviews from major media, including The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal and NPR. Lobel says that innovation wars in the toy industry invite readers to think about the power of icons and how parenting and consumer markets interact with images of womanhood, race and sexuality.

“The story becomes not just about who owns Bratz, but who owns a lot of different ideas and knowledge in the market,” Lobel explained at a 2018 talk at Harvard Law School. “There are antitrust issues, there are a lot of questions about corporate ethics, but all the while, this is really about our culture, the culture we create.”

Seeking answers to deep questions is apparently woven into the fabric of the Lobel family. “As I reveal in the book, I became an early critic of the toy industry,” she says. It seems her psychology professor mom filmed Orly as a child for her research about gender development in kids.

“In one set of videos, I played with girl or ‘pink self’ toys, like Barbie, and in the other, with more stereotypically boy toys, like a basketball.” Her mom then asked subjects around the world to answer questions about the little girl in the videos.

“The results were overwhelmingly consistent. When I was seen playing with a ball or toy truck, I was thought of as smarter, more likely to succeed and more of a leader than when I played with ‘girly’ toys.”

Clearly, for each of these authors, the answers to very different questions turn out to largely be the same: We begin by telling each other stories. — Julene Snyder

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