We are thrilled to conclude our faculty interview series with Dr. James Reeves, who is an assistant professor of English at Texas State University, in San Marcos, TX. He received his Ph.D. in 2016 from UCLA, where he studied eighteenth-century and Romantic British literature. His research interests include the early novel, poetry, satire, Enlightenment philosophy, postcolonialism, and secularization. His work has appeared in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, the Keat-Shelley Journal, and SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. He recently completed his first book, Godless Fictions in the Eighteenth Century: A Literary History of Atheism, which is currently forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
Photo by Deb Grove, Office of Communications, Franklin & Marshall College
GSC: How did you become interested in eighteenth-century studies?
JR: I took one of Jennifer Snead’s classes on Alexander Pope when I was an undergrad. I loved the class, she was an exceptional teacher and mentor, and I was impressed by Pope’s command of poetic form. That said, when I entered my master’s course, I planned on being a Miltonist. That changed when I discovered that 5–6 other people in the course also planned on being Miltonists and my imposter syndrome told me I couldn’t keep up and that I needed to pursue something else. So, I went with the eighteenth century. I know that’s not the most inspiring answer, but it’s true.
I should say, though, that I’m incredibly glad I made the switch to the proper eighteenth century because it’s an absolute joy to work on, particularly for someone like me who’s interested in things like religion, satire, and secularization. And, it gave me the opportunity to work with two of the best mentors I could’ve asked for in graduate school: Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum. A large part of my interest in the century is the direct result of being taught by so many generous, supportive mentors.
GSC: What critical transformations have reshaped the field of eighteenth-century studies over the course of your career?
JR: The field is notably eclectic, and my career is still relatively young, but a few exciting developments stand out: the growth of disability studies (by scholars like Helen Deutsch, Lennard Davis, Chris Gabbard, Jill Campbell, Jason Farr, Travis Chi Wing Lau, and Susannah B. Mintz); the proliferation of ecocriticism and interest in the non-human (Tobias Menely, Anahid Nersessian, and Erin Drew, to name just a few scholars whose work I’m familiar with); and the increase in studies of secularization, or what has been called postsecularism. Although, if a recent BSECS roundtable I chaired on the topic is any indication, that second term is by no means unanimously accepted by those (David Alvarez, Misty Anderson, Lori Branch, David Diamond, Corrinne Harrol, Alex Eric Hernandez, myself, and others) who are currently invested in rethinking the relationship between religion and the secular in the eighteenth century.
GSC: What advice do you have for graduate students who are transitioning to the role of assistant professor?
JR: I’m only in my second year as a tenure-track assistant professor, so I’m obviously still figuring things out myself. But here’s a brief anecdote that might be helpful. During my first semester as a VAP, I had a moment of panic when it seemed like my students just weren’t getting the eighteenth century. I kept leaving class feeling like I’d been incoherent, that I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher after all, and that I really didn’t have any clue what I was doing. Part of the problem was that I’d made the mistake of beginning the semester with Pope’s Essay on Man instead of something more immediately palatable. But another (connected) issue was simply that I was a brand-new professor with relatively little experience managing his own classes. I texted a friend (Alex Eric Hernandez, another selflessly kind mentor among the many in our field), and he said exactly what I needed to hear: It’s normal to feel that way. Give it time. You’ll figure it out. He was right, so now I’m passing on his advice.
GSC: What scholarly writing methods/strategies have served you well over the course of your career?
JR: I’m a haphazard writer. I’ll go weeks without writing anything, but then at other times, I’ll write nonstop for 5–8 hours a day. However, when I really need to follow a specific schedule, I spend two months researching (and I cut myself off at exactly two months) and then one month exclusively writing. I inevitably go back and do more research once I know where the writing’s taken me and what gaps I need to fill, but in general that pattern was really helpful when writing my dissertation, my book, and the various articles and essays I’ve published/sent out. I also constantly remind myself that everyone works differently and that I don’t need to feel guilty about writing however/whenever works best for me.
GSC: Could you describe your approach to mentoring graduate students? What are some important attributes that graduate students should look for when choosing a faculty member?
JR: My approach is to try to emulate the ethical, professional, compassionate mentorship I received as a graduate student. That means responding in a timely manner to student emails, giving substantial, generative feedback on their essays, being equitable and available to all my students, and, perhaps most obviously but also most importantly, recognizing that they’re human beings with full lives outside of academia and that my class and research interests are rightfully not the center of their universes. It’s hard to know what you’re going to get out of a faculty mentor before you’ve actually spent significant time with them, but those are the qualities I’d look for in an ideal mentor, and they’re the qualities that I’d like to embody as a mentor myself.
GSC: What advice do you have on selecting topics? What advice do you have for grad students on writing a dissertation prospectus?
JR: I know it gets said repeatedly, but feel free to choose a topic that really interests you or that means something to you personally. And don’t let people’s disinterest stop you from pursuing your thing. When I first decided to work on religion (or, oddly, religion via atheism), I received pushback from random places. For instance, when I was just beginning my dissertation, I asked a question about atheism at a conference. Someone in the audience made a remark that basically questioned why anyone would be interested in the topic, which got some laughs from the crowd. On a different occasion, when I was actually finishing the dissertation and just beginning to think about the job market, I was told by an academic I’d just met that they’d only ever consider hiring me as a “Bible as Literature” guy (despite the fact that I hadn’t asked for a job or their thoughts). So, basically what I’m saying is that sometimes people, even highly successful academics, have no clue what they’re talking about. Pursue what matters to you because it’ll help sustain your interest and because you’re the person best suited to do that work.
As far as writing a prospectus goes… It’s such an odd document, and I’m guessing that different institutions have different requirements and expectations. So, my best advice would be to ask peers who’ve successfully written prospectuses if you can read theirs. And be in touch with your advisors regularly. You’re essentially trying to demonstrate to them that your project is viable, so include them in the process as much as possible.
GSC: What classes have you most enjoyed teaching? How has your teaching evolved over the course of your career?
JR: In fall 2018, I taught a class on “Satire from Swift to SNL.” We read 18th-century satires by Behn, Pope, Swift, Gay, Montagu, Burney, etc. alongside more recent satires like It’s Always Sunny, The Colbert Report, and The Onion. It was a ton of fun, and I think it successfully made students aware of the 18th century’s ongoing relevance. I liked it so much, in fact, that I’m teaching two different versions of it in fall 2020, one at the undergraduate level and one for our master’s students.
The most significant shift in my teaching over the past few years has been that I’m now much more interested in hearing students’ personal responses to texts than I was when I started grad school. I’m also more and more convinced that I’m wasting their time if I just have them close read for close reading’s sake. That’s probably common sense for most teachers, but when I began teaching I’d primarily ask questions like: What are this text’s contradictions? Where does it undermine itself? What word choices stand out to you? What can this word also mean? What’s the meter here, and why does it change in line 17? That’s all fine, and I still ask those questions from time to time, but now I’m more interested in texts’ ethical and affective impacts. I now find questions like, “What does this novel teach us about living meaningful lives?” or, “How has this poem affected you?” much more compelling.
GSC: What advice on securing competitive research grants do you have for graduate students?
JR: I don’t have a ton of experience with this, to be honest. But, obviously, you can’t receive grants you don’t apply for, so don’t be afraid to submit applications. This question has me thinking now that I should go back through and read earlier interviewee’s responses, because I could probably use some help here, too.
GSC: What advice do you have on attending conferences and giving conference papers?
JR: My only real advice here is just to be yourself. If you don’t like social events, you don’t have to attend a ton of social events. (If you love karaoke, attend the karaoke. If you don’t, don’t worry about it.) If you want to see the conference city, spend time walking around the city. Take in the sights. Make the most of your trip. You’re there to share your ideas, to receive feedback, to hear others’ ideas, and ideally to meet some peers/colleagues. But conferences aren’t exams; you can’t fail them. Make the most of them, and don’t feel guilty for doing things your own way. And, finally, don’t feel pressured to present at tons of conferences every year. In grad school, I only did one a year, at most. Do what works for your schedule, your personality, etc.
(If all of this makes it sound like I’m not an ideal conference-goer, that’s because I am, in fact, not an ideal conference-goer.)
GSC: What are your current research interests? What are you working on at present, and what do you want to work on next?
JR: I’ve just finished my book, which will be out soon, and I recently submitted revisions on an article I’d been working on for a while. So, I’m currently trying to figure out what my next big project is going to be. I have no idea at the moment.
But I do have several article-length projects swirling around in my head, and I hope to have at least one or two of them finished by the end of the year: an essay on the common early modern correlation between gambling and atheism (expressed most famously in Pascal’s Wager); an article charting the prevalent eighteenth-century phrase “believe a God” (as opposed to “believe in God”), used by many authors to capture the ineffability of the divine and to distinguish belief from empirical knowledge; an essay on Frances Sheridan’s odd depiction of Islam in her 1767 Oriental tale The History of Nourjahad; and, finally, an essay on John Newton and William Cowper’s Olney Hymns (1779) that explores how public expressions of personal doubt often paradoxically affirm communal belief. All of these projects are still developing, but I’ll be presenting on this last one this summer, so chances are it’s the once that gets finished first.
Thank you all for reading our interview series, and thank you, Dr. Reeves, for taking the time to interview with us! Everyone, keep an eye out for our next interview series!