In this “Spotlight on New Faculty,” the UC Davis Humanities Institute interviewed two new faculty members in the Department of English. Both Margaret Ronda and Tobias Menely strengthen the department’s work in the environmental humanities, with special interests in poetics and ecology.
Margaret Ronda, Assistant Professor, Department of 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.
Tobias Menely, Assistant Professor, Department of English
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 Claim focuses 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.”
—Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies