English without Borders:
A Research Initiative and Area of Investment
Department of English, Texas A&M, 2008-2011
Fully aware of the common (and often justified) aversion to "branding" and sloganeering among academic critics, but nevertheless feeling the need to move toward a clearer direction in strategic planning, the Texas A&M Department of English has landed upon "English without Borders" as an ordinary-language version of several trends current in the profession and in our departmental profile. In literary terms, English without Borders means the transnational study of literature, language, and cultural practices in English with special attention to contact zones and contested discourses where national and geographic boundaries are in flux. Within British literature and cultural studies, it includes postcolonial studies and "literatures in English." In American literature, it touches on trans-Atlantic studies; North American, "New World," or hemispheric literatures; and immigrant and ethnic writing. English without Borders also aims to expand the scope of English Studies as a discipline, to include new media, digital technologies, popular culture, non-western, vernacular, and indigenous traditions in writing and performance. Building upon established strengths in British and American literature and recent hires in ethnic, diasporic, postcolonial, immigrant, transnational, non-western literature and rhetoric, digital humanities, and film, we are looking to promote scholarship that features or blends a range of interests in English-language literature and culture.
Many members of our faculty members have taught courses, designed curricula, and undertaken research on the boundaries of literatures and cultures previously defined by period and national identity. Among the most obvious examples are:
- Juan Alonzo with his new book Derision and Desire: The Ambivalence of Mexican American Identity in Literature and Film,
- Dennis Berthold with his recently published American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy,
- Nandini Bhattacharya in such works as Slavery, Colonialism and Connoisseurship: Gender and Eighteenth-Century Literary Transnationalism,
- Angie Cruz with novels like Soledad that blend the social realism of American urban literature with the magic realism of Latin American literature (and then develop from novel into screen play).
In the last several years, English without Borders has become an area of investment in the department. Our commitment is reflected in our recent hires:
- In 2008, we hired Qwo-Li Driskill in indigenous rhetoric and performance, Amy Earhart in digital humanities, and (as a joint hire with Africana Studies) Mikko Tuhkanen, who studies such topics as Rousseau's influence on nineteenth-century discourses of racial sciences and sexology, and these discourses' elaboration in early-twentieth-century transnational literatures.
- In 2009, we hired Emily Johansen and Vanita Reddy, both of whom work on contemporary postcolonial theory and Anglophone literature. Dr. Johansen studies the cosmopolitan political possibilities imagined by transnational narrative fiction, particularly that written in England and its former colonies. Dr. Reddy's primary research on contemporary writers, filmmakers and visual artists such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Mira Nair, Chitra Divakaruni, Gurinder Chadha, Shailja Patel, and Mira Nair contributes to the nascent field of South Asian American studies. This field brings together histories and theories of postcolonial South Asia, diaspora theory, and histories of race in North America.
- In 2010, we hired Lucia Hodgson, a specialist in children’s literature and culture whose current book project, “Novel Creatures: Atlantic Slavery and the Transatlantic Bildungsroman,” argues that Atlantic slavery plays a central role in the development of the novel in English; and Jenelle Troxell, a film scholar who teaches Transnational Cinema, Documentary Film, and Literature and Film. She is currently working on a book manuscript, “What Does She See When She Shuts Her Eyes:’ Transnationalism, Feminism, and the Cinematic Avant-garde,” a study of the film journal Close Up between 1927 and 1933, and teaching.
Other examples of departmental accomplishments that advance our initiative in English without Borders include the following:
- Kimberly Brown directs the Africana Studies Program in the College of Liberal Arts, which is by definition interdisciplinary and transnational in its concern with the African Diaspora. Her work in African American literature includes the recently published book Writing the Black Revolutionary Diva: Women’s Subjectivity and the Decolonizing Text.
- Michael Collins covers a wide spectrum of world literature, ranging from Dante's poetry to recent rappers on the Hip-Hop scene. He studies jazz writing and performance art, as well as contributing to the field known as “medical humanities” (with essays on such topics as informed consent in Ishmael Reed’s writing). He has also published work exploring the links between literature, economics and game theory.
- Marian Eide’s latest project “The Violent Aesthetic” studies literary representations of political violence in English-language texts throughout the twentieth century. In a series of case studies (covering war, terror, genocide, torture, and slots insurgency), she suggests that citizens of the world, far from enduring compassion fatigue, are subject rather to the lure of violence: compelled to bear witness to brutality. In viewing violent acts, we experience a kind of vertigo effect. Afraid of height but also liable to jump into the void, witnesses to violence imagine themselves as both victims and perpetrators.
- Robert Griffin, in his first book on literary periods and his new book on authorship and anonymity, develops alternate narratives of literary history by calling into question or dissolving the borders that construct and maintain the distinction between "eighteenth century" and "romantic," or anonymous and signed authorship. With periodization, this border-crossing involves showing that the origin and development of the terms carry with them an agenda that has come to seem “natural.” With authorship, it invites us to think of signed texts, which we consider the norm, to be not only historically one option among others, but also to be more widespread today than we have noticed.
- James Harner directs the World Shakespeare Bibliography Online. Each year the project tracks every new analysis, interpretation, translation, edition, film version, and recording of Shakespeare's works. This high-profile project reveals that The Bard is no longer, or not only, the most famous poet to have inhabited the small island of England. Nor is his writing confined to stage, page, even the silver screen. Shakespeare circulates in the electronic arteries of the World Wide Web, a global phenomenon that defies confinement.
- Terry Hoagwood’s scholarship and teaching in film studies are borderless in multiple ways: both involve multiple national cinemas, and both encompass multiple media with an interdisciplinary vista on their fluid relations—or at least a quest for such a vista.
- Katherine Kelly's studies of modern drama, which span the Atlantic, are working to redefine theatricality as a cultural phenomenon. Her latest project examines connections between the theatre and the historical drama of women's suffrage in the U.S. and U.K.
- Jimmie Killingsworth’s scholarship and personal essays in nature writing, eco-criticism, and environmental rhetoric look at how nationhood, personhood, and other boundary-building activities are affected by bioregionalism and other ecological concepts.
- Shona Jackson engages the fields of Cultural Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Black Diaspora Studies, Caribbean Studies, Native American & Indigenous Studies, and South Asian Diaspora studies. She writes about (and teaches) Shakespeare's The Tempest alongside Aimé Césaire's play A Tempest. The dark, seemingly sub-human character of Caliban, an object of contempt (and fear) in Shakespeare's drama, becomes for Césaire the son of nature who speaks for people once enslaved by the white heroes of the old literature. Students in her classes see "classic literature" with new eyes.
- Clint Machann specializes in the study of Victorian British literature, but also draws upon his personal history as a Texan with a Czech ancestry. He serves on the Board of the Czech Educational Foundation of Texas, which sponsors a graduate student in English at A&M every year from the Czech Republic, has written about immigrants to Texas, and edits Kosmas, an English-language journal on Czech culture.
- David McWhirter, in addition to his ongoing work on Henry James, who was singularly focused on issues of transnationality and cosmopolitanism, is also at work on several projects involving the interplay of local and global cultures in the U.S. South.
- Britt Mize’s current book analyzes both linguistic and cultural translation into Old English from Latin and continental Old Saxon, as well as critically examining the expansionist discourse of King Alfred's court. He is planning an article on shifts in the Old English rhetoric of ethnic identity in the wake of the 9th-century Viking settlements in eastern Britain; and his ongoing work on Judas Iscariot shows how Middle English writings draw on features of his legend first established in pan-European traditions.
- Anne Morey is a key figure in film studies at Texas A&M, whose work within the English department is border-crossing in a number of ways. She is currently at work on a book about the intersection of film and religion in the United States; she teaches Japanese, Italian, and international film; and she directs doctoral dissertations on such topics as film and techniques of writing and reading from the American Renaissance to the 1930s, the presentation of class in novels and films from the 1930s to the 1960s, and the presentation of gender and darkness in films and novels since World War II.
- Claudia Nelson works at the intersection of literary and historical study and, as a scholar with a particular interest in fiction for children, is concerned with works of popular culture as well as with the "high culture" canon. Trained as a specialist in Victorian Britain, she has also published books and articles on childhood studies topics within the U.S. and Australia, crossing periods from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twenty-first.
- Mary Ann O’Farrell’s current research project looks at Jane Austen and her works, which are esteemed in nearly all accounts of the novel, alongside the popular devotion to Austen evident in adaptations of her works, in the proliferation of Austen-related books and objects, in Austen websites and fan videos, and in her use as a reference in popular discourse. This work not only crosses the artificial boundaries separating high and low culture but also works transatlantically. The crossing of high and low cultures is also an aspect of Professor O’Farrell’s recent essay on Henry James and Alfred Hitchcock, a planned project on the novel of manners, and her teaching, particularly in a course called “Gangster Manners.”
- Larry Oliver is working on the famous writings of African American author W.E.B. Du Bois in light of his studies in economics.
- Marco Portales teaches American Latino and Southwestern Literature. With his finger on the pulse of the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, he is the author of such books as Latino Sun, Rising: Our Spanish-Speaking U.S. World.
- Larry Reynolds writes and lectures about such topics as how the Mexican American War shaped literary history in the nineteenth century. Among his many influential books is European Revolutions and the American Renaissance, which argues that reverberations from the Old World had a profound effect on American identity during the very time when America seemed most distinctive and original—the era of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson.
- Susan Stabile, in her new book project “Salvage,” considers how discarded objects experience a second life through “redemptive aesthetics of waste.” This collection of familiar essays (on organ transplants, roadkill, internet trolling, birds’ nests, recycled migrant housing, and Indian-giving) resituates the aesthetic practices of “collecting” within contemporary conversations of “sustainability” while at the same time contributing to interdisciplinary debates in literature and material culture, medical humanities, anthropology, sociology, and ethics.
- Jan Swearingen, as a specialist in rhetoric, has taken the measure of Plato and Aristotle's ancient Mediterranean world, but has also ventured into New World rhetoric, with studies of the revolutionary and religious experiences of colonial Americans. In addition, Professor Swearingen and her students have pioneered the study and teaching of Asian communication forms, especially in China.
- Chuck Taylor's research on using workshops in English language creative writing teaching was published in a Japanese journal in both English and Japanese. His work on Beat literature includes William Burroughs, writing in English from Tangiers, and Ginsberg and Corso writing in English from the Beat hotel in Paris. He has published creative nonfiction set near the Rio Grande.
Most of us have elements in our teaching or scholarship that could either fit under the heading of English without Borders or could benefit from the kind of renewal the concept calls for. We are well positioned to pursue this work at Texas A&M for reasons other than our special research and teaching agendas. Above all, it gives us a chance to bring diversity closer to the center of our mission, to embrace more completely some of the specializations represented by recent hires, and to pursue our manifest interest in interdisciplinarity within the department with a vigor comparable to that which we have contributed to College-level programs in such fields as Women's and Gender Studies, Africana Studies, American Studies, International Studies, and Film.
Even our location works in our favor. The state of Texas, just as it encompasses the edges of multiple ecological zones and the borderland of the U.S. and Mexico, bears the imprint of the Native American culture, as well as the European (not only the Anglo- and Latin-American but also the Czech, Polish, German, Italian, and Jewish), the African, and the Asian.
English without Borders provides a way to bring individuals and groups formerly seen as disparate into new conversations. Although the trend toward transnationalism is most clearly active in contemporary literature (hence our recent hires in that area) and creative writing (with its pervasive multilingualism and code-switching), it need not be exclusively confined thereto. As the examples above suggest, it is potentially a far-reaching and overarching concept.