Interview with Dr. Jason Farr, Author of ‘Novel Bodies: Disability and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century British Literature’

We’ve started the monthly interview blog series, and we are kicking it off with the brilliant Dr. Jason Farr. He is an assistant professor of English at Marquette University. His book, Novel Bodies: Disability and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century British Literature, has just been published with Bucknell University Press. (Keep reading for the discount code!) His work regularly appears in venues such as Eighteenth-Century FictionJournal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, and The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation. He is working with colleagues at Marquette to establish a health humanities minor and serves on the board of Marquette’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies.

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GSC: How did you become interested in eighteenth-century studies?

JF: As an undergraduate at Utah, I enrolled in an upper-division British Restoration and early eighteenth-century course taught by Corrinne Harol (who is now at the University of Alberta). Going in, I really didn’t know what to expect because I had little experience with the literature from this period, and I was only taking the class because it was a prerequisite to study abroad in London. But Corrinne turned out to be a magnificent teacher. The material that she taught us had such an impact on my intellectual formation. We read Aphra Behn, John Bunyan, Earl of Rochester, Margaret Cavendish, and George Etherege. I became smitten with the unusual worlds that these authors created in their fiction. For the final paper of that class, I wrote an essay that applied queer theory to Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 2. Years later, as a graduate student at UC San Diego, I was able to take independent studies and seminars with George Haggerty and Kathryn Shevelow on early British gothic literature, women writers, the queer eighteenth century, and Restoration theatre. Like Corrinne, George and Kathryn were so knowledgeable and encouraging. Truly, they are all masterful teachers and I was lucky to study under them. So, my arrival to the eighteenth century was due in large part to outstanding mentors.

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

JF: So many critical transformations have happened in the years since I joined ASECS. My first ASECS was Vancouver 2011 and that is the same year that I attended my first disability studies panel. Paul Kelleher, Chris Mounsey, and Madeline Sutherland-Meier were all there (among others). It felt like the start of something truly exciting. In the coming years, we established a Disability Studies caucus, which has allowed for the sustaining of critical conversations. But other caucuses have emerged since 2011, like the Race and Empire Caucus and the Digital Humanities Caucus, which have also been transformational for eighteenth-century studies. The Women’s caucus and Gay and Lesbian caucus have been around for longer but continue to challenge us to think more expansively about women, gender, and sexuality. I have also been struck by the call to read and teach Indigenous literatures and authors of color. At the intersectionality panel at ASECS Denver this past March, Laura Stevens and Jennie Stockle made moving land acknowledgments and talked about how Indigenous voices can be centered in the classroom. On that note, Robbie Richardson’s book (The Savage and Modern Self) and forthcoming special issue for Eighteenth-Century Fiction are groundbreaking and exciting. I think, as a whole, the field has benefitted from the call to include writers of color in our teaching and research. Eugenia Zuroski‘s #BIPOC18 and Manu Samriti Chander‘s @Bigger6Romantix presence on Twitter have helped us rethink race and racism, and to decenter whiteness. Personally, I’m reflecting upon my positionality as a white man in a profession that has traditionally been dominated by white men, even as I seek to queer and crip the field in ways that are informed by intersectional feminism. Collectively, we must address the pressing question, how can we make ASECS a more inclusive place? We need to continue to work on this.

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

JF: I made this transition myself not long ago, in 2014. I realize that this is a platitude, but you really have to take things one day at a time because so much is thrown at you at once. You undergo so much stress when you make the transition to assistant professor: you have been on the job market, you finished and defended your dissertation, maybe you have been adjuncting or hopping around from one VAP position to the next, you have undergone campus visits (which are exhausting at best, traumatic at worst), you have to make peace with leaving a place you’ve spent at least five years in (but probably more), and you have to say goodbye to beloved friends and family. Whew: it’s a lot when you think about it. In my case, I ended a long-term relationship and moved from a place (San Diego) where I had lived for 11 years. Moving from San Diego to Corpus Christi (where my first job was before moving to my current position at Marquette) was in many ways devastating. I knew how lucky I was to secure a tenure-track position, but I had to leave behind so many loved ones to take a position in a remote place that I knew nothing about. As a gay, disabled man, I experienced so much anxiety about the move.

Though I often felt overwhelmed, I took time out for me. I did the things that I needed to stay healthy and happy. I went out for drinks and meals with new colleagues. A group of other assistant professors and I started a writing group together. Honestly, I don’t know how I would have made it through those first couple of years without the support of colleagues like Kathryn Vomero Santos, Kelly Bezio, and Dale Pattison. I also began to look for mentors who could show me the ropes at my new institution. But my department had few senior faculty, and the ones that were there weren’t particularly supportive (fortunately that is not the case at Marquette, where I work now). While in Corpus, I met Sandrine Sanos in History who became my most important mentor. She wasn’t set up as my official mentor, but I met her and we became fast friends. She has written letters for me and has been one of my biggest supporters. What I quickly discovered in Texas was, you can’t expect the institution to create your ideal situation. You really have to “feather your own nest,” as an old friend of mine used to say. I’d add that you can’t know everything all at once. Set short-term and long-term goals that are achievable. Get to know your students, what their lives and struggles are like. Ask a lot of questions of colleagues. Seek out positive, ambitious people who are trying to make a better world and who see the best in you. Limit exposure to exhausting mansplainers and those who make you feel bad about yourself. And lastly, avoid department politics and drama for as long as you can! Try not to get sucked into longstanding feuds.

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

JF: A steady, daily approach to writing has served me well. I set aside at least an hour every morning to write. I don’t look at email or Twitter or lesson plans until I have that hour (or more) done. If it’s a day that I’m not teaching, I try to have an hour-and-a-half writing session followed by a break and another hour-long session. Sometimes I set a goal of writing 500 new words per day. This approach enabled me to write a book while at a job that isn’t a “research” job (it was, in fact, a job in which teaching and service took up a lot of time). I didn’t have the benefit of pre-tenure leave either, which some institutions offer. In other words, I wrote my book and articles in a non-research oriented job by chipping away at them. I find that waiting for the perfect moment– summer vacation, spring break or whatever–is unrealistic for me. I much prefer to spend time on projects every day. This assuages the anxiety that I can feel when thinking about all the work I have to do. I really can’t gain momentum on a project until I’ve got words up on the screen, and I can’t do that until I make a daily commitment to be consistent with my writing. Oh, and I usually take weekends off! It’s important to have time away.

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?

JF: In large part, we learn how to mentor from those who mentor us, and in this, I have been fortunate. One thing that always struck me about my dissertation co-advisors (George Haggerty and Kathryn Shevelow) was how they treated me like a colleague rather than as a student. I try to do the same with the graduate students with whom I work. I respect their expertise. I respect their experiences. I try to build lateral relationships with them rather than hierarchical ones. It is important that graduate students see themselves as active shapers of the field because they absolutely are. They bring new perspectives that rejuvenate our conversations. It is the responsibility of a mentor to help students learn the field, find their voice, and build their confidence.

The most obvious thing in choosing a mentor is selecting someone who has expertise in the field that you want to join. This person can introduce you to the people and ideas that structure the field. But equally important is finding mentors who are invested in students and who have a generosity of spirit and intellect. You can discover who these people are by talking with current or former graduate students who have worked with the mentor in question. And also realize that you can never get everything you need from one mentor. In my case, I worked under two eighteenth centuryists, a Modernist who was a specialist in disability studies and who helped me with disability theory, and a Victorianist who specialized in poetry (and who taught me how to read formally). Finally, I know this isn’t always possible, but try to have at least one committee member that you like as a person, that you get along with well. Realize that your mentors are, in the end, human beings just like you. Resist the urge to put them on a pedestal even as you learn to work professionally with them. And if you find that you’re being subject to abuse, please reach out for help. I hate having to say this, but as good as mentorship can be, it can be equally as bad and traumatizing. The unequal power dynamic between mentor and mentee means that abuse of various kinds is always a possibility.

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

JF: Try to settle on a topic that you feel passionate about. As one of my former dissertation committee members said to me once, you should select a topic that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and get to work. I have found that some students feel like they have to create an entirely unforeseen and original project, but they do so at the expense of participating in ongoing conversations. “Originality” in academic research comes through creative synthesis. By bringing together a range of sources and theoretical frameworks, you can find gaps in knowledge and stumble upon generative research questions that illuminate new ways forward. Also, by reading widely, you can begin to see yourself as part of a larger conversation. As Kristina Straub said in a grad caucus panel that I attended at my first ASECS, you should “find your tribe” in the profession. For me, I didn’t know that I could write a dissertation on disability until I attended my first ASECS and met other people who were just starting to think about that. The only way you can know what is going on in your field is by attending conferences and talks and reading recent journal issues. Academic Twitter can also be hugely helpful here. One last thing, and this is important: you should also choose a topic that you can build classes around. Sometimes graduate students choose topics that are narrow. Try to find ways to tie your project to larger conversations and institutional trends so that you have an actual classroom space in which to share your research and specializations. If your project is tied in clear ways to multiple fields, this will help you when it comes time for you to go on the academic job market (if you indeed go that route).

The format of dissertation prospectuses vary from institution to institution, so you should ensure that you have a very clear idea about what your particular program expects of you. But beyond that, again, be sure to ground your prospectus in the field. Your coursework and qualifying exams will hopefully have allowed you to read widely. After your prospectus is accepted and you begin to work on your dissertation, try to give yourself flexibility as you make new discoveries. My dissertation ended up going in totally different directions from my prospectus, but that’s how it often goes.

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

JF: My favorite classes have been a gothic literature and film class, in which I pair early British gothic novels with recent films (like Frankenstein and Get Out). I also have had a lot of fun teaching Restoration and eighteenth-century comedy, eighteenth-century novels, LGBTQ Literature, and disability studies. I like helping students to think in new ways about the world, and I’ve found that students are especially prone to do this in disability studies classes. Generally speaking, our consciousness is deeply structured by ableism, but this is often invisible to us. I like giving students the tools to critique ableism, to conceive of disability as not just an individual embodied condition, but as the product of social forces. In these classes, students learn about how narrative produces disability, and also about how narratives and theory can help us reimagine disability. Students, in turn, learn about themselves and loved ones. It’s so wonderful to be part of these conversations.

My teaching has evolved in many ways. But two things that stick out: 1) I have included more authors of color in my syllabuses; and 2) as a practitioner of disability studies, and as someone who is disabled, I have become more attuned to accessibility. I like to think about accessibility as something that we have to be open to. We must listen to our students. We must improvise. I tend to be skeptical of the institutionalization of access. I want access to be something that can take shape in the classroom in spontaneous ways. This takes trust and open dialogue.

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

JF: When writing grant proposals, whether for internal grants, library fellowships, or external grants, I try to do a few things. First of all, I seek a proposal from a friend or colleague who was successful in securing funding for said grant. I’ve even received email requests from strangers asking me if I’d be willing to share a successful grant proposal with them (which I am always happy to do). I use the funded proposal as a model for my own proposal. Second, I try to be specific as possible with the project that I plan to undertake. What intervention does my project make? What sources would I examine? What would I achieve during my time as a fellow? Next, because I realize that the committee making decisions about the grant is likely composed of non-specialists, I try to avoid using specialized vocabulary. This can be a challenge, but I find that it’s helpful to think outside of my field even if I’m rejected in the end (as I have been many times!). Also, I try to be realistic about the goals I set forth in my proposal. For a two-month fellowship at a library, for instance, I can’t write an entire book. But I can access the sources necessary for the drafting of a chapter that will be part of a book. Finally, I always ask a trusted colleague to read my proposal and offer feedback.

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

JF: Conferences are so important in this profession. It can be a nerve-racking experience to attend ASECS or MLA. But just know that if, like me, you feel imposter syndrome at intervals, most people at the conference also feel it to one degree or another. Of course, if the feeling of not belonging overwhelms you, you should talk with someone. But in many ways, it’s perfectly ordinary to feel this way. Folks who have never felt imposter syndrome, as Emily Friedman once told me, are probably assholes. Just know that everyone feels some degree of anxiety at conferences and that you’re not alone. When I’m at a conference, I go to the panels that are relevant to my research, but I also try to attend panels that are outside of my wheelhouse. In turn, I’m opened up to new ideas and think in new ways about my own research. Outside of panels, I’d say use the time there to connect with other graduate students. Have fun. Go to meals or coffee with colleagues. If you go to ASECS, go to the karaoke that Eugenia Zuroski organizes. It’s so much fun! Revel in the joy of being around other people who are as committed to the eighteenth century (or whatever field) as you are. As you build these relationships with peers around your career mark, also be cognizant of building relationships with people who are ahead of you in their careers. Try to connect with people from across the career spectrum: senior faculty, junior and adjunct faculty, grad students. Go to “The Doctor Is In” at ASECS and talk with the absolutely lovely mentors who volunteer their time.

In presenting, I like to rehearse my talk ahead of time to get a sense of time restraints. If anything, I try to end a minute or two ahead of the time limit. People always appreciate this. I aim to leave them wanting more, rather than making them exasperated because I’ve gone over my time (which is also hugely disrespectful to fellow panelists). Remember that even though we often call presentations papers they are in fact talks. If you rehearse and can kind of perform your talk (looking up from your paper, making eye contact, even making a joke if and when appropriate) your audience will appreciate that. Also, please remember accessibility! I have created a worksheet for this which you can find here.

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

JF: I just published a book titled Novel Bodies: Disability and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century British Literature with Bucknell University Press. In the book, I argue that a range of Enlightenment novelists represent disability and sexuality in capacious ways to reimagine the political and social landscapes of eighteenth-century Britain. I feature the fiction of Horace Walpole, Eliza Haywood, Sarah Scott, Samuel Richardson, Tobias Smollett, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth. Ultimately, I am interested in examining how the literary history of sexuality is informed by physical disability, chronic disease, and deafness. My book engages disability and queer theory, archival materials, and close readings of the novels themselves. I just received actual copies of the book! It is so surreal and exciting. I have been celebrating this milestone with my husband this weekend. One thing I’ve learned in this profession is that you have to celebrate every accomplishment, big or small. There are so many challenges and rejections that we face, so it’s important to acknowledge the wins.

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At the moment, I am writing an essay on accessibility and wellbeing in the classroom and another essay that explores the emergence of deaf education in Edinburgh in the later eighteenth century. The latter of these may end up being part of a larger project on what I’m thinking of as the nonverbal eighteenth century. I am interested in how central speech is to subject formation in the Enlightenment and what it meant for nonverbal people to live during that time. The legacies of standardized speech from the later eighteenth century (which Jared Richman has written about recently) persist in our current moment. What was life like for prelingually deaf people who were not taught how to vocalize, or for people who we would today consider autistic who were nonverbal? How do gestures, signed language, and other forms of nonverbal expression challenge the primacy of vocal exchange? These are some of the questions that I am interested in exploring. I am also trying to write in public-facing ways. I am considering how to have influence outside of the academy. It feels so politically expedient these days.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts with you, and I hope that you have found this helpful! Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions. I’m always happy to meet new people and build relationships. It’s one of the joys of this profession.

 

Thank you, Jason, for agreeing to this interview! Some additional information and links:
Email: jason.farr@marquette.edu
Twitter: @farr_jason
Book link: Novel Bodies
(Bonus: If you purchase his book on the Rutgers site, in the link above, you can get a 30% discount by including the code 02AAAA17. It comes out to $25 for the paperback version!)

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