This is the first post in what I’m hoping will become a semi-regular series of dissertation spotlights. I’ve got two purposes in mind with this series. First, obviously, I want to highlight some of the Spanish & Portuguese Department’s most talented and smartest grad students, and give their projects some well-deserved attention. But I also want to supplement the conversation that’s been going on here (see James and Diana’s posts, for example) and in society at large about the value and purpose of the humanities. It seems to me that these discussions often lack a critical piece of information: What it is, exactly, that we do as humanities scholars. It’s a concern that our first
guinea pig subject, Christina McCoy, mentions below when she says that someone recently assumed she’s writing fiction for her PhD. I’m hoping that by being, in Christina’s words, more open about our work, we can make the conversation a little more complete.
Christina McCoy is a PhD candidate in Hispanic Literature. A former captain (and perennial all-star) of the department softball team, Christina is now completing her dissertation in Washington, DC, where she has been living since marrying in the summer of 2012. We caught up via email about her recent trips to Madrid and Istanbul, about the struggles of completing a PhD remotely, and the non-academic pleasures of dissertation work.
Pterodáctilo: First, can you give us your «elevator talk» about your dissertation? That is, how would you summarize (and «sell») your project to a fellow academic in about 30 seconds?
CM: My project explores the transaction of race, gender and religion in the writings of two early modern Iberian authors, Antonio de Sosa and Miguel de Cervantes, who spent nearly five years together captive in Algiers. I’m interested in questions of contact and exchange and the way that they wrote through their captivity and negotiated the identities of their selves (and their characters) when confronted with the Muslim «Other.» I’m conceiving of the Mediterranean (and corsair activity) as a network of exchange – of ideas, of material goods, of people.
Pterodáctilo: Now, how do you describe your project to your non-academic friends and family members?
CM: I usually simply say something along the lines of, «I’m researching the way that two Spanish authors, who were captive together in Algiers, wrote about Islam in the seventeenth century.» I find that the thing that trips up most non-academics is the jargon — Orientalism, the «Other,» networks. Of course, then they like to ask me the dreaded questions, like «How far along are you?» and «When do you think you’ll be done?» It’s also usually a conversation killer, as most people don’t know how to respond or engage with my work. So, to be honest, and this pains me to say so, but I really just prefer to not talk about it much with my friends and family. I am realizing that they are an important support network, however, even if they don’t exactly «get» what it is I’m doing. That has been a recent epiphany, so I’m trying to become more open about my project.
Pterodáctilo: Is there a theorist that is particularly important to your project? If so, who and why
CM: I started out thinking that I was going to sort of update Said’s Orientalism for early modern Spain, because I find his ignorance of not only the time period but also the geographic region to be problematic. What does it mean when the East, the Orient, is also to the South? And what if contact with Orientals happens at home? How are our theoretical paradigms challenged when the self becomes the Other? The more I sussed this theory out, however, I realized that the binaries of Self/Other and East/West that Said relies so heavily upon are, over and over again, undone and undermined in the writings I’m studying. So now I’m moving more towards Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Kwame Anthonty Appiah’s Cosmpolitanism to help me reconfigure my theoretical approach away from disruption and opposition and more towards unity and continuity.
Pterodáctilo: What has been the academic high point of your dissertation work? (For example, finding an unread document in an author’s archive, getting to work with a leading academic in the field, stuff like that.)
CM: It’s been hard writing my dissertation remotely, as feelings of isolation that most any ABD student experiences are necessarily compounded due to my being across the country. But I think that the things that have helped center me and keep me in touch with my project have been recently traveling to Madrid to see an original 1612 edition of one of the books I’m working on, and to find other accounts of captives and Spaniards in Constantinople. Afterward I traveled to Istanbul and visited the Topkapi Palace, where one of Cervantes’ plays that I’m studying takes place. I’m heading back to the Biblioteca Nacional in the spring and I can’t wait to dig in again. I have also gotten to know some influential Cervantes scholars who have approached me after a talk I gave to let me know how much they enjoyed it. I’m still in touch with them and they’ve been incredibly supportive of my research, sending me useful articles and offering to read my drafts. It’s nice when your dissertation adviser thinks your work is good, but even better when someone separate from your project thinks so as well.
Pterodáctilo: Has your dissertation work yielded any non-academic pleasures? (I mean things like getting to travel to cities you might not otherwise have visited, making friends with people you’ve worked with, etc.)
CM: This is a great question, because I feel like so often it’s much easier to focus on what sorts of non-academic pleasures have been deprived from you when writing a dissertation! Certainly traveling to Turkey and Spain recently was a treat. I got to bring my husband along and that allowed him to see and experience what it really is about Spain that I find so compelling. I think being able to share with him on a more profound, experiential level, and to play tour guide, was something I’ll value for the rest of my life.
Pterodáctilo: There’s been a lot of discussion here at this blog and elsewhere about the «use» and the «value» of humanities research. If someone outside of the academy were to ask you to justify the amount of time and effort you’re spending on your dissertation, what would you say?
CM: Something that continues to befuddle people is whether or not what I’m doing is «research.» What is my data? Another person recently asked me if I was expected to produce an original work of fiction for my PhD. And I must say, I, too, am beginning to feel quite fed up with having to constantly reaffirm our «usefulness» as a field. What can we do better so that the rest of the academy, and the world, understands what we do and why we do it? It’s offensive and degrading to get asked why we exist.
I do believe, however, that we must be open to collaboration within the university and we must remain innovative and provocative. But hearing, for example, President Obama speak so much about the importance of education, and then explicitly only make reference to STEM degrees is depressing. I have always adhered to the original Latin meaning of the «university,» as a community of knowledge, a place where one can be exposed to different ways of thinking, of conceiving of the world around them. My husband is an Economist and his dissertation was a testament to math and logic, to black-and-white thinking. Research in literature, like mine, fundamentally explores the gray zones. It’s maintaing exposure to both of these ways of thinking that allows the university to remain faithful to its mission, in not valuing one way over another. And I think that’s what literature teaches us, too.
Pterodáctilo: Thanks, Christina!