- Margaret Ronda, English
- Tobais Menely, English
- Clarissa Rojas, Chicana/o Studies
- Susy Zepeda, Chicana/o Studies
- Helen Koo, Design
- Stefan Uhlig, Comparative Literature
- Colin Webster, Classics
The 2014-15 New Faculty Interview Series was coordinated and produced by Stephanie Maroney, doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies, and Katja Jylkka, doctoral student in English.
Margaret Ronda joins UC Davis from Rutgers University, where she was an assistant professor of English, and earlier in her academic career, Ronda was an ACLS postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University in Bloomington. Ronda has a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley, and she engages in both literary criticism and poetic production.
Ronda’s research specializes in theories of ecology and theories of genre, particularly thinking about how genre mediates between larger scales of economic and ecological history and specific literary texts. Her dissertation focuses on the American georgic – a poetic genre interested in the relationship between agricultural labor and poetic labor – beginning with Walt Whitman and ending with Muriel Rukeyser (mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century). Ronda explains that attention to genre helps us think about changes in social, economic and ecological history. For instance, Ronda in her own work describes how the decline of agrarian capitalism and the rise of industrial capitalism put pressure on the genre of the georgic.
Ronda is currently writing a book about ecological crisis in twentieth-century American poetry. The book presents a dialectical argument on the way poetry as a cultural form in the twentieth-century understands and meditates on its own obsolescence. Or, how does poetry reflect on the fact that it is not the most dominant cultural form, and how does it stage anxieties around its changing status? Ronda observes that representations of poetry’s own obsolescence are often framed in terms of larger natural, ecological forms of obsolescence – decay, waste, matter in decline, remainders of various forms.
The “obsolescent ethos” then has a lot to tell us about how poetry represents these emergent ecological crises; reflective of poetry and reflecting on poetry’s changing status, and how remainders and byproducts of our productive relations are telling us a significant story about our collective lives.
The value of the humanities
“It is an increasingly urgent undertaking to teach students how to appreciate writing, literature, and the act of close reading,” Ronda explains, as these were generally taken-for-granted aspects of studying literature a generation ago.
The value of the humanities is not just that we become “better people” by learning to read critically and analyze the world around us; Ronda resists the idea that the humanities teach us only to be “more virtuous citizens.” Rather, she explains, “part of what we learn when we really engage texts is the kind of subversive and resistant traditions that are central to thinking critically and differently about the present.”
There is a political urgency for these first-order questions about how and why we should practice humanistic research. Ronda observes that students have a hunger for this kind of politicized education that might guide them in assessing and engaging with the world.
Teaching and research at Davis
Ronda says she is thrilled to be part of a department that is so welcoming of her dual identity as both published scholar (PMLA, Post45, and in edited volumes) and poet (Personification, 2009). The poet/scholar identity allows Ronda to think through and about poems at a variety of scales. This particular position generates questions in different ways as she tries to write a poem, or to think about the larger structures and relations that inform her writing.
Ronda is currently composing her experiences as part of an MLA panel talk on the poet/scholar for the poetry website Jacket2 in order to develop “larger institutional and extra institutional conversations about what this identity means.” Beginning in the spring quarter 2015, Ronda will be teaching courses in twentieth-century American poetry in the Department of English, including a graduate course on poetry and ecology, and a long-standing English undergraduate course on love and desire in contemporary American poetry. Ronda plans to integrate her expertise on ecological thought into both courses to think about how poetry is communicated through different materialist frameworks.
Ronda points to the bookshelves, which once belonged to Professor Emeritus Gary Snyder and are now stacked in her newly-painted office, and explains that one of the reasons she was excited to come to UC Davis is because there are already conversations underway about ecology and environmental crisis. She says that the English department represents a long-standing commitment to interdisciplinary conversations about the environmental humanities, and that it is a “huge draw” to join colleagues already pursuing those questions.
The UC Davis Department of English welcomes a new scholar working in eighteenth-century and Romantic British literature, with interests in animal studies, environmental humanities, and poetics. Assistant Professor of English Tobias Menely comes to Davis from a faculty position at Miami University in Ohio.
At the time of this interview, Menely thumbed through the typeset proofs of his book, The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice, to be published in spring 2015 by the University of Chicago Press. Broadly, The Animal Voice offers a prehistory of animal welfare legislation in Britain. The book argues that the eighteenth-century discourse of “sensibility” developed a model of signification centered not on the linguistic sign but rather on the passionate emotional expression that humans share with other animals. For writers of sensibility—including philosophers such as Hume and Rousseau—paralinguistic forms of communications establish the paradigm of communication as such.
Menely describes how, for these writers, the animal voice produces an imperative that acts on a human addressee—in some sense, calling the human (as subject, as sovereign) into being in its responsiveness to the animal. A highly popular body of eighteenth-century poetry was concerned with how to convey this “creaturely voice” into the public sphere—and thus with the problem of advocacy, of speaking for or representing another. The Animal Claimfocuses on three different modes of communication: the affect sign, the linguistic sign, and the new forms of self-reflexively “public” communication that emerge in print culture. Menely tracks the animal cry as it is remediated in poetry and as it enters the public sphere, parliamentary debate, and, finally, statute law.
Teaching and research at Davis
While at Davis, Menely will continue to think about human/non-human relationships in the eighteenth century, moving from animal voice to climate change. His new book project, “The Climatological Unconscious: Poetry and Political Economy in the Early Anthropocene,” examines three intersecting categories – air/atmosphere, energy, and climate – all phenomena that can only be incompletely perceived. How then, do we know climate? How do we know climate change?
Menely turns to the eighteenth century, where there was a robust discourse of climate—its natural fluctuations, its relation to economic output and human identity—during England’s epochal transition to a coal-based energy system. Menely is particularly interested in the ways in which eighteenth-century ways of representing geologic time, atmospheric materiality, and the relation of energy to labor might reveal to us something about the challenges we face, today, in apprehending anthropogenic climate change.
“The Climatological Unconscious” will undoubtedly add to the innovative work in the environmental humanities – a field that thrives in the UC Davis Department of English. For students interested in working with Menely, he will teach a winter quarter English graduate seminar on locodescriptive poetry, an immensely popular genre concerned with the intersection between naturally given conditions and human activity. He asks, “Can we think about literature as mediating a history that is not just about social relations and identity, but also encompasses the metabolic relation between humans and the natural world?”
The value of the humanities
Because of his attention to human and non-human relationships, Menely admits that the “humanities” has been a vexing category in the way it places “the human” at its center. He describes the humanities as being concerned with the human as a “problem,” a question, rather than as an identity that is self-evident, knowable, or empirically definable.
With respect to climate change, Menely says that scientists have “understood this cataclysmic problem for over thirty years, and have failed to represent the gravity of the situation to the public.” In this way, the humanities are crucial for thinking about the conditions of representation, the conditions of symbolic meaning making, the rhetorical elements involved in conveying the stakes of climate change. Menely continues, “Scientists can talk about certain conditions of knowing the truth – but knowing the truth is a different thing than actually being able to communicate that truth. That’s the kind of thing we study.”
The Department of Chicana/o Studies welcomes a new assistant professor, Clarissa Rojas. Rojas has a PhD in Medical Sociology from UC San Francisco and degrees in Ethnic Studies from San Francisco State University and in Women’s Studies and Chicano Studies from UC Santa Cruz. The faculty position at UC Davis is a return to campus for Rojas, who taught briefly as a lecturer in Chicana/o Studies, and Rojas “is delighted to join a truly dynamic department that has led the field with historic innovative scholarly approaches to Chicana feminisms, Chican@ health and Chican@ art.
Rojas locates the early shaping of her intellectual and activist consciousness in her experiences growing up on the Mexico-U.S. border as well as in her migration to the United States.
When Rojas arrived in the U.S. public school system at age 12, she came face to face with racial inequities and observed a racial structure that determined which students gained access to honors and advanced placement classes and which students were subjected to remedial courses and administrative surveillance. Rojas notes that these experiences produced an intellectual curiosity about how social structures organize socialities and life possibilities differentially.
These experiences formed the foundation for Rojas’ scholarship and activism. Rojas’s research is driven by “the political urgency to address, respond to and transform the co-constitutive phenomena that conjure the possibility of violence for particular bodies.” Her long history in the anti-violence movement informs a scholarly interrogation into the ways the state, macro-structural processes, and social-political institutions shape and produce violence at the most intimate levels for women of color, migrants, and communities of color.
Rojas co-founded INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and co-edited the ground-breaking The Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology, which asks critical questions that emerge when we center the lives of women of color in our understanding and attempts to end violence.
Rojas has documented multiple forms of violence including violence at the U.S. Mexico border, violence in educational institutions, and medical violence. Rojas has also documented innovative approaches to respond to violence. In the 1990s, Rojas worked with undocumented survivors of violence who faced deportation because they sought help with police or health care providers. Rojas critically interrogates the kinds of responses to violence that have produced further harm for migrant, women of color, queer and trans communities. Her recent research offers innovative paths toward alternative efforts to address, intervene in, and transform violence.
Her path-breaking article, “In Our Hands: Community Accountability as Pedagogical Strategy,” shifts the paradigm for how we can think about, learn, and teach the subject of violence in the classroom. The praxis-oriented approach invites participants in the learning experience to practice, create, and document alternative strategies to respond to violence.
She is currently working on a book project that examines, in part, how the transformation of violence is a necessary precondition for the possibility of health among Chicana/o Latina/o communities by investigating how structured and intimate forms of violence “land” on our physical bodies and shape our bienestar, our well-being.
“Violence,” says Rojas, “is a deeply structured phenomenon in our social lives that cuts across imagined individuated scales of social organization and analysis such as that which we might consider as interpersonal, institutional, national, and global.” Rojas’s work intends to address “this complicated terrain in order to imagine and document how it is that the transformation of violence occurs, and may be made possible.”
Teaching and research at Davis
Rojas says she is “a teacher at heart,” and after 15 years of teaching at San Francisco State and Cal State Long Beach as an adjunct and as a tenured professor, she is excited to work with the students at UC Davis. “It is, after all, why we are here, to teach, to serve the students” she says. She plans to teach several courses in the Chicana/o Studies Department, with a focus on the health curriculum, where she will offer her expertise in the transnational study of health and health institutions, de-colonial health projects, and community responses to violence and healing.
An author, educator, activist, and cultural critic, Rojas is also a talented, internationally-published poet whose work will appear this Spring in a collection of Chicana/Latina lesbian poetry. In addition to her compelling academic work and thoughtful teaching practice, Clarissa Rojas is a treasured addition to the Department of Chicana/o Studies and the UC Davis community by sheer example of her creative, collaborative, and politically-engaged life.
The Chicana/o Studies Department welcomes a familiar face to their faculty as interdisciplinary and transnational feminist scholar Susy Zepeda joins the department as an assistant professor.
Zepeda came to UC Davis last year as the Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor for Social Justice. Along with co-directors Ines Hernandez-Avila, Yvette Flores, and Amina Mama, Zepeda organizes and coordinates the three-year Mellon Social Justice, Culture and (In)Security Initiative.
Zepeda is a decolonial feminist studies scholar with a Ph.D. in Sociology with Designated Emphasis in Feminist Studies and Latin American & Latino Studies from UC Santa Cruz. An innovative and creative thinker, she is currently at work on a book manuscript, “Tracing Queer Latina Diasporas: Remembering Xicana Indígena Ancestries,” which explores the cultural production and representation around queer Chicana Indígena women who incorporate ancestry into their storytelling-work in film, sculpture, and painting.
Zepeda explores visual storytelling, thinking with Gloria Anzaldúa’s foundational textBorderlands/La Frontera as a set of methodological tools for tracing Chicana/o indigenous ancestry. Part of her dissertation research looked at Anzaldúa’s sacred objects (archives) held at UC Santa Cruz. Focusing on her experiences with these sacred objects and how Anzaldúa used her meditation with these sacred objects in order to build her writing, Zepeda explores the theory and praxis of writing as ceremony.
Zepeda explains that she studies cultural production because it is a space where she can find alternative narratives. She adds, “Part of the function of cultural production is that it offers representation with many interpretations, giving us a ‘way in’ to a story, and allows us to explore on our own.” Forms of cultural production and art are “ways of remembering” the past, and teaches about history in ways that are different from linear reading. “It leaves you with threads,” she says.
Research and teaching at Davis
“It is exciting and amazing to be here at Davis,” Zepeda says. Her unique first year spent teaching as a Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor with Women and Gender Studies, Native American Studies and now with Chicana/o Studies, created an important interdisciplinary space for Zepeda in Hart Hall. She expresses her gratitude to the Davis Humanities Institute and the Mellon Social Justice Initiative for bringing her to campus and into the “rare and valuable experience” of working collaboratively with faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates across various disciplines on social justice issues.
“I feel that I have always been an interdisciplinary person, and now I feel that I actually fit here in Davis,” Zepeda explains. “I don’t feel that I have to quiet any piece of my thinking down, but that it’s given me a space to think critically about how I want to make contributions to these fields in a good way, and do the work of bridging in a balanced way.”
As a faculty member in Chicana/o Studies, Zepeda is already teaching a graduate course in the Native American Studies Department on Indigenous Sexualities. This productive course has provided a space for her and her students to think critically about Native American studies and queer studies, in an honest, interrogative way. She intends to pursue the intersections between queerness, feminisms, and Chicana/o Studies, both for her own research and because there is a desire for this intersectional work on campus. She explains that was approached by an undergraduate student, along with her colleague Sergio De La Mora, to organize a queer/LGBTQI Latina/o film festival. In the spring quarter, Zepeda and De La Mora will co-teach a queer latinidad course and plan to bring the authors of the assigned books to dialogue with students in the course.
The value of the humanities
Trained as a sociologist, Zepeda has always worked with an eye towards bridging the social sciences and humanities. She explains that art and culture are ways to tap into histories and narratives that can drop out of our research when we are focused only on social science methodologies.
“You can have more of a profound connection with others in the space of the humanities – because we are doing the work of connecting back to society, to think about what is happening now in our world rather than a detached reality,” Zepeda continues.
This is evident in Zepeda’s work on campus, through the Social Justice Initiative, which deals with concrete issues faced by marginalized communities, and in her personal work to create decolonized spaces for writing and thinking where we can approach our writing in a creative way, rather than as something that “paralyzes us.”
Helen Koo is an interdisciplinary scholar and designer with expertise in fashion design, wearable technology, smart clothing, and sustainable garments.
Working at the intersection of fashion design and fabric-based product development, she has done many transdisciplinary works by collaborating with various disciplines such as engineering, fiber sciences, kinesiology, medicine, and psychology. Koo has designed and developed wearable technology products focused on improving people’s lives, like garments for people with disabilities, underrepresented groups, and workers in extreme environments.
Koo is researching interchangeable and detachable E-textile kits for wearable technology designers and developers by collaborating with the Department of Biomedical Engineering. For diagnosing diabetes, Koo developed a nanostructured, fabric-based gas sensor that can be attached anywhere near the face to detect levels of acetone in the user’s exhale by collaborating with Material Engineering at Auburn University. The sensor tracks acetone levels and can monitor symptoms. As this technology develops, Koo imagines that it can be extended to other medical problems, like cancer. She is currently exploring the kind of design and interface that people want in this new technology.
The “TellMe” therapeutic sweater designed for children with autism spectrum disorder, and was recently exhibited at Microsoft in Seattle, Washington. The sweater helps children who have trouble sharing their feelings to practice communication with their guardians. The wearer is able to press different figures/buttons on the sweater to make sounds that correspond to positive and negative emotions. There is also a microphone so children can engage in communicative play through their clothing. The garment can be a great tool for improving the day-to-day communicative abilities of children with ASD.
Koo’s work on sustainable design principles includes research related to “transformable design,” which is one clothing item that can be transformed into different designs and functions. A transformable designed garment has versatile functions and can be worn for different occasions and in unpredictable weather. The design is focused on consumer’s behavior in the clothing lifecycle to encourage people to naturally engage in sustainable fashion acts. She has also explored various sustainable designs such as upcycling, zero-waste patternmaking, and natural dyeing processes.
In the area of functional garments, Koo partners with industrial brands and companies to make products that meet a variety of social needs. She designed a pair of protective gardening gloves for elderly people to protect their hands and prevent bruising while working with garden tools. She designed a light-weight, compactible, and portable uniform for emergency officers so that they can be quickly identified and clear up confusion in the wake of emergencies. Koo also worked with industrial designers to make a waterproof-pocket for board shorts which allows the wearer to keep their electronic devices dry.
Creative scholarship in fashion design
In addition to working with industrial brands, Koo does creative scholarship and presented her designs at international juried and invited exhibitions and fashion shows. She notes that the areas of wearable tech, functional garments and sustainability are productive areas for collaboration with different disciplines. Koo says “it creates synergies by collaborating with other disciplines so that we can creatively find problems and search for solutions in different views.”
Koo explains that fashion is a fundamental part of the human experience, which develops from the cultural aspects of our lives. “Clothing tells the story of human history,” she says, and garments are micro-environments that close to our body which can help solve problems of our lives in so many ways. “I want garments to be more than wearable products,” Koo says, “I try to develop things that account for people’s history, needs and wants, background, and their personal stories.” Thinking about mega and micro-trends, and an individual’s personal background in design work is a challenging task that Koo feels is best approach through collaboration with others.
Aside from her internationally-recognized solo exhibitions and her successful industry collaborations, Koo states that she hopes her design work will improve people’s lives. “My ultimate goal for every design project is to help others and to help improve quality of life and well-being,” she says.
Stefan Uhlig knows about the power of extraordinary teachers to change a student’s life. His own path – from Germany to the United Kingdom and, now, to Davis – has been influenced by these important figures, people who made the course content almost insignificant with their contagious enthusiasm for their subject. Uhlig hopes to offer that same experience to his students as he starts his position as assistant professor in the Comparative Literature department this fall.
Research and teaching at Davis
Coming from the Oxbridge system, in which teacher-student interactions largely fall into two extremes – the large lecture hall or the very small, sometimes one-on-one tutorial – Uhlig looks forward to a happy medium here at UC Davis. “I’m really excited to teach in a context where the format is more flexible and more inclusive,” he explained. Compared to some other large, research-oriented universities, Uhlig described his pleasure in discovering that “this campus does actually have a serious commitment and an interest in undergraduate teaching.”
Having been at Cambridge for most of his academic career, first as a doctoral candidate and then as a professor, he looks forward to teaching new classes to new groups of students. “Writing Nature: 1750 to the Present,” for example, an upper-division undergraduate class that he will teach during the winter quarter, will provide him with a mix of familiar and unfamiliar material. “I can start somewhere that I know about and then go to places that I don’t,” he says of the course’s focus on not only Wordsworth, but also the American writers who admired him, such as Thoreau and Emerson.
Uhlig’s research interests have led him to consider poets such as Wordsworth as well as a number of other eighteenth-century writers, both English and European, for how they reflect on the process of writing itself. Uhlig says that, for all Wordsworth’s emphasis on practicality, “he produces more theoretical writings about poetry than just about anybody else in the Anglophone tradition” and displays “a commitment to an interest in theory, despite itself.” This set of concerns in the eighteenth century is also related to his current research project – a book on the “intellectual prehistory of literary studies.”
He clarifies his description of the project: “I say prehistory because the institutionalization of literary studies happens mainly in the nineteenth century.” He goes on to explain that “people who are interested in the history of the discipline…tend to be interested in nineteenth-century phenomena. My hunch is that, by the time you get to institutionalize something, you need to have a pretty good sense of what you’re doing. In that sense, the intellectual action needs to have taken place quite a bit earlier.”
Literary studies and the humanities
Uhlig is also interested in “what alternatives might have been available,” that is, why “we got to call the things we call literature, literature,” and not the study of, say, poetry or rhetoric. Literature is the “dark horse” of that particular competition, as fields such as rhetoric had been around for much longer, with many more centuries of cultural respect.
“The question that the book tries to ask is: What sort of knowledge does the study of literature promise? The hope is that, by trying to reconstruct that, you might get some sort of sense of why literature ‘wins,’ as it were.”
Uhlig feels that the kind of work he does – turning to intellectual history to learn more about the past life of his own discipline – is potentially valuable for getting “tools” to articulate just what it is that English and Comparative Literature scholars do and, more generally, how the humanities can effectively communicate with each other. Before the institutionalization of literary studies, after all, some elements of what English departments do existed, but they existed already entwined with politics, music, art, and other disciplines. Such a form of cooperation would be, as Uhlig says, “Interdisciplinary without losing an interest in what might be distinctive about what your discipline knows how to do.”
The Classics Program at UC Davis welcomes a new assistant professor specializing in ancient science, medicine, and philosophy. Colin Webster joins UC Davis after completing his doctorate in Classics from Colombia University.
Webster spoke with the Davis Humanities Institute after teaching his 400-seat course “Greek & Latin Elements in English Vocabulary” – a popular undergraduate class that explores the Latin and Greek roots of words in the English language, with “some Greek and Roman history thrown in,” Webster explains.
Webster is a fitting teacher for bringing innovative takes on traditional studies of ancient culture. His own interdisciplinary background allowed him to combine studies in philosophy, literature, and history of science with classics and the ancient world.
During his doctoral training, Webster explored how technologies shaped abstract thought in antiquity. By placing ancient science, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy into their material environments, Webster examined how even basic technologies can inform our assumptions about the natural world.
Webster asks how glass quality shaped the way people understood the function of the human eye: “living in a world with glass of a particular type and quality automatically informs the way you think about the eye – but glass is not the only optical material. Mirrors and wax tablets have had just as big an impact on assumptions about the physical mechanism of sight–and when mirrors around you are made of bronze and give off slight colour, you will assume different things about the eye and its operation.” Similarly, the daily technologies we encounter, like pipes, paper and pigments shape the way we presume that nature must obviously work—particularly as we use these technologies in analogies to understand natural phenomenon.
“What I do is track the changing technological environments to see whether abstract assumptions shift accordingly,” Webster explains. “So, as pipes get better, what happens to theories of the vascular system? As glass gets better, what happens to theories of eyesight?”
For his doctoral project, Webster also worked with diagrams in the geometrical tradition stemming from Euclid, Ptolemy, and others. He argues that basic material features of these abstract mathematical technologies can find their way into physical theories about rays. He asks “How does drawing a picture of something change our ideas about the objects under investigation?”
Webster’s current research expands on this last set of issues, insofar as he considers the role of diagrams and data visualization in the ancient world, particularly anatomical diagrams and visualization technologies like star charts.
Teaching and research at Davis
At Davis, Webster discusses his interest in a project looking at how anatomical diagrams are used in antiquity, and possibly “interacting with faculty in the veterinary school or biological sciences to see if I can get students studying ancient medicine to see how the messy work of dissecting animals gets translated into diagrammatic practices.” Only three months into his faculty position, Webster is still determining what is possible and desirable to get students excited about understanding how we visualize knowledge and how we conceptualize scientific theories through media other than text.
On the difficulty of teaching with ancient star charts, for example, Webster explains that “there is a whole world view contained within star charts that has so much to do with how astronomy worked in antiquity, how they were used to make predictions. … It is a major part of understanding ancient cultural literacy, and yet, looking at star charts can be excruciatingly boring.”
“I’m trying to think about how to bring these odd, non-canonical bodies of knowledge [ancient diagrams and data visualizations] to life for undergraduates,” Webster says. “It will likely involve something more interactive than simple textual research. This can also be quite beneficial for the field as a whole; there is still so much to do in ancient science and medicine.”
On collaborative work in the humanities
Webster relays an anecdote about applying for his faculty position at UC Davis, and how he had to conceptualize the best way to communicate with a broader community of people that are not necessarily familiar with the “contours of fragmentary evidence” that defined his doctoral work.
In doing so, Webster recognized the strengths of focusing on the ways that the technologies shape the way we think about the world more broadly. This compelling and widely-applicable research interest of how form affects content is a stunning example of the valuable contribution of humanities thinking and training in addressing the banal and profound features of our daily lives – in both antiquity and the present. Webster foresees teaching courses on ancient science and medicine, and possibly developing more courses that deal directly with integrating the biological sciences. “Students in the sciences [and] students in the humanities, [will] all find something that is worthwhile,” Webster says.