Spotlight: Professor finds joy in defunct gadgets


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Robin Hemley and three of his University of Iowa graduate students paged through a 1950s catalogue with pictures of old fans, ovens, and floor ventilators.

The group agreed it was unfortunate no one has written about the specific items in the ancient book.
But Hemley may have created the perfect outlet.

He founded Defunct Magazine, in February 2010 — a publication full of articles about antiquated objects, cultures, languages, styles, words, books, and ideas.

The magazine started as a class assignment when Hemley asked students to review formerly published literary items and authors as well as their thoughts on particular cultural moments in history.

One night last year at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St., Hemley and 15 nonfiction graduate students decided it would be fun to start a magazine about extinct objects.

“I like to see what people do with the concepts and the variation between the pieces,” Hemley said.
Hemley, a graduate of the Iowa Writers” Workshop, is the director of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program. He serves as the editor of the magazine, which has 15 staff members, all UI nonfiction graduate students.

“It seemed like a natural extension of the class,” he said.

Since the magazine’s inception, many have contributed ideas.

“I want someone to write about defunct behaviors, like chivalry or the ‘wolf whistle’,” said Rachel Yoder, the magazine’s senior editor.

Amy Butcher, the managing editor, said she’d like to include pieces about old celebrity crushes.

“Like an ode to Jonathan Taylor Thomas,” she said with a chuckle.

Hemley said he would like to see something about defunct political parties such as the Whigs.

“The defunct thing needs to have cultural relevance or be funny, not just personal nostalgia,” Hemley said.

The magazine has included pieces about the Jheri curl, chalk boards, rotary phones, and even the encyclopedia.

And some of the most common submissions are pieces about the death of face-to-face communication because of Facebook and Twitter, Yoder said.

Though anyone is welcome to submit to the magazine, Hemley said, most submissions are from professional writers and graduate students.

Jenny Lewis, the magazine’s art director, described the magazine as a writing outlet and a way of gaining real life experience.

Beyond the benefits for documenting expired objects, Hemley said the magazine contributes to the UI being a writing university.

“It’s a really growing site,” Hemley said. “We can have different conceptual categories. We’re not trying to be an encyclopedia, but more artsy.”

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