‘The Experimental Imagination: Literary Knowledge and Science in the British Enlightenment’: Book Launch and Interview with Dr. Tita Chico

Book cover, tan, black lettering

Dr. Tita Chico is Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland and has been Editor of The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation since 2001.

Recently, the English department at the University Maryland hosted Dr. Chico’s book launch for her second monograph, The Experimental Imagination: Literary Knowledge and Science in the British Enlightenment (Stanford University Press). Her book challenges perceptions of science through literary knowledge, demonstrating that experiments relied upon literature and imagination to facilitate discovery.

Hosted by Dr. Orrin Wang, the book launch was well-attended by both students and faculty members in the D.C. consortium.

group of people, seated and waving

Below are a few excerpts from the lively discussion.

While this may seem like a leap from her first monograph, Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture (Bucknell University Press), Dr. Chico explains that there is a logical continuity between the two books. In Designing Women, one of the key topics she explores is the satiric trope of intruding into the secret female space. The intellectual problem that Dr. Chico saw in the use of the dressing room was an epistemological one: how do you know things? Upon finishing Designing Women, Dr. Chico recounts how she found Susanna Centlivre’s The Basset Table and the way the main character, Valeria, rejects the ordinary use of a dressing room and turns it into a laboratory. Valeria refuses marry because her father would then destroy her microscope. This, Dr. Chico explains, is what led her in the direction of her second book.

Chico 1

Dr. Chico acknowledges that there were specific feminine activities associated with science in the eighteenth century. She states that women were encouraged to practice botany by the late eighteenth century, but what we retrospectively think of professionalization of science hadn’t yet occurred. The space where scientific experimentation occurred was predominantly in the home. Dr. Chico says, “What this means is that if you’re a young woman of certain means and your family has a microscope, you’re in there doing experiments. Someone like Hooke gets really annoyed because he wants science to be considered very legitimate. He says that microscopes by the 1690s have become a plaything for the ladies.”

Three people applauding

The Experimental Imagination encompasses both science and literature; however, Dr. Chico argues that her work isn’t interdisciplinary, but rather multi-disciplinary: “At the end of the day,” she says, “I’m a literary scholar, and I’m invested in literariness. My job is to understand the role of the literary in the production of knowledge. Science today is vulnerable to political skepticism, in part, because early articulations of scientific objectivity refused to acknowledge the important role of the imagination.” (She talks about this further at Public Seminar.)

Dr. Tita Chico also spoke with April Fuller, co-chair of the ASECS Graduate Student Caucus (GSC).

GSC: What critical transformations have reshaped the field of eighteenth-century studies over the course of your career?

TC: The New 18th Century, edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown, was five years old when I began graduate school, but it was still shaking things up in the field, positing that ideological criticism had an important, even definitional, role in understanding the legacies of the eighteenth century. And Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was published shortly thereafter, giving rise to about 1000 seminar papers on performativity. This was also the time when recovery work was in a second phase, moving beyond finding the lost ‘mothers,’ and thinking more widely about print culture and the opportunities it afforded a range of writers who had not made it into our inherited canon.

Cultural studies, too, was making an important difference in the field, in no small part because it reinvigorated the traditional forms of historicism that long been associated with the texts from the period. In this mix, I found my critical voice and began working on the problem of representational history, inspired also by Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet. I discovered the field of eighteenth-century studies through the brilliance of my thesis advisor at Vassar, Donna Heiland, but I stayed because I found that I had important things to say. Mary Poovey (my director), Laura Brown, Felicity Nussbaum, Ellen Pollak—their example and their work variously helped me understand I had a stake in this field.

GSC: What advice do you have for graduate students who are transitioning to the role of assistant professor?

TC: For contingent faculty, it’s important to understand what your department’s expectations are, and also to have a strong sense of what your own expectations are. Is this a long-term possibility for you? Are you planning to seek employment on the tenure track or in another fora, within higher education or elsewhere? My best advice is always to remember your own value—that you are smart and talented. I think that a specific way of remembering that is being very open with yourself about your limits and having a strong plan ‘B.’

For a tenure-track assistant professor, versions of what I advise above, but also an awareness that you’re starting a multi-year process which culminates with the tenure review. There is too much to do (always), so be forthcoming with yourself and your senior colleagues concerning your short- and long-term goals. This is also the moment to have an extremely clear understanding of your new department’s expectations of you professionally and craft a plan to meet them. If you receive conflicting answers and if the conflict is a matter of substance (i.e., what sort of teaching record one needs to amass, the kinds of publications that ‘count’), then your colleagues need to sort out exactly what they are expecting. The other piece of this is to seek mentorship locally and nationally—within your department and across campus, but also among faculty in the field more generally. And as I say above, remember that you are smart and talented.

GSC: What scholarly writing methods/strategies have served you well over the course of your career?

TC: I am a drafter and a reader. What does this mean? It starts with notes in my notebook. I have one with me at all times and notes for everything related to research, teaching, and The Eighteenth Century, go into it. I’ll page through and make notes on my notes, scribbling, carving out what I mean and what I want to tackle.

When I begin writing, I often delve into close readings. When I write up enough of these, I start pulling them together to see the story of ideas I’m telling. At this point, I print out my pages and read my own prose out loud to myself, walking. I have to be walking! There is something very powerful for me and my thinking to hear my own voice as I move through space. I also don’t become overly attached to my own writing. Sometimes, I need to chuck what I’ve written and start fresh (always keep the footnotes) to write up to my current thinking. And other times, I get discouraged. That’s when I go on a run to think things through.

Lifting my head to look ahead, I work towards deadlines, self-imposed and external (conferences, deadlines for articles and grant applications, for example). And if any of this goes awry, I shrug it off and pick up where I left off.

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?

TC: For me, mentoring is advocating, in the fullest sense of that. I see it as my job to recognize what a student’s strengths are and facilitate further development. But I also take seriously the responsibility to help the student compensate for any weaknesses. In practical ways, this means being responsive to a student’s questions and queries and work, bringing the student into the professional conversation. It also means stepping back and letting a student know when something needs improvement. I feel deeply that there is an ethics to mentoring which is expressed, for me, through kindness and rigor.

As for advice about choosing a faculty member, I always recommend that graduate students talk to each other. I have no idea what it is like to work with us! Also, I suggest seeking someone who you feel respects you and will have your best intellectual interests at the forefront over the long term.

GSC: What advice do you have on selecting topics? What advice do you have for grad students on writing a dissertation prospectus?

TC: Our work is too hard not to believe in your own scholarship deeply. Without that commitment, it’s difficult. I always ask my students to research what they really care about: what are the questions that persist for you, over time, in different courses, when you pick up something new? A dissertation prospectus, like comps, is a credentialing exercise. It needs to be a plausible fiction, but it also should not become overwhelming—it is not an end, but the mechanism whereby you can get down to writing.

I suggest working very closely with one’s committee in the early drafting stages, particularly since it is a large intellectual jump to go from writing seminar papers and articles to a dissertation in which the ideas and examples must warrant extended attention. And figuring out if your ideas and examples do that is accomplished through the advising process.

GSC: What classes have you most enjoyed teaching? How has your teaching evolved over the course of your career? 

TC: I enjoy teaching at all levels of the curriculum. It is such a pleasure to teach introductory classes, where we get to think, often for the first time, about what exactly a metaphor is, how it works, and what it does. And I have a great time with the graduate theory colloquia, where I work with students across campus. But I suppose my eighteenth-century courses will always be my favorites—undergrad and grad. My teaching now is more ambitious and more comfortable. When I began teaching, I was young (and looked even younger), and was (still am) keenly aware of the politics of a young female Ph.D. leading the classroom. Between that and being half Latina, I do not ‘fit’ the so-called stereotype of what an English professor is, dead poet society-ing while jumping up on desks or wearing a tweed sports jacket. As a compensatory strategy, I was a bit formal—I needed to be. Teaching is an embodied practice.

GSC: What advice on securing competitive research grants do you have for graduate students?

TC: Start applying once you have your dissertation prospectus, which will give you the language, ideas, and framework to apply for grants. I always suggest applying for short-term residential fellowships at research libraries (ASECS has a lot of these), which are quite possible to get. At the University of Maryland, we have the Folger right here, so I also encourage students to apply to seminars at the Institute. Building up a track record of funding helps when you are ready to apply for dissertation fellowships or post-docs.

GSC: What advice do you have on attending conferences and giving conference papers?

TC: I recommend one national conference a year (and, if it is close and easy, maybe a second one, a regional conference). Conferences take resources—time and money—and they can be helpful and exciting, but also taxing and distracting. Teaching experience and publications matter much more when you are getting your professional footing. When you attend a conference, soak it all up: the talks, the plenaries, the receptions, the book exhibits, the graduate student meetings and get-togethers. I also suggest that you practice your conference paper in front of colleagues and faculty in your department.

GSC: What are your current research interests? What are you working on at present, and what do you want to work on next?

TC: I’m at work on a new book on wonder as a heuristic in the disciplinary emergence of literature and science in the long eighteenth century. I’ve written a chapter on wool, am working on the archive, and will then turn to mathematics.

Further reading

“Science Fake and Real: On Enlightenment Scientists and the Forgotten Role of Imagination,” at Public Seminar

Excerpts of The Experimental Imagination at Stanford UP

Five Questions with Jenny Davidson

Tita’s Playlist for The Experimental Imagination at Largehearted Boy

Tita’s parody of academic productivity

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