Interview with Dr. Emily Friedman, Director of 18thConnect

Welcome back to our monthly interview series! This month we’re featuring Dr. Emily Friedman, associate professor at Auburn University. Emily is the author of Reading Smell in Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Director of For more about the amazing work that she’s doing, check out her personalized website!

20170424, Emily Friedman, College of Liberal Arts, English

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

EF: As a prospective undergraduate student, I attended a class session on DeFoe taught by Peter Briggs.  In that hour I both met the faculty member who would guide my initial introduction to eighteenth-century studies (and teach me how to pronounce “ASECS”) and a friend I would admire for the rest of my life: Greta LaFleur.  Neither of us in that moment would have called ourselves eighteenth-centuryists (and I suspect Greta on most days still wouldn’t!) but … well, here we are.

I am super weird and absolutely atypical of eighteenth-centuryists of my generation, I think.  While I thought at first I would be a Russian major, or specialize in Gerard Manly Hopkins, I realized quickly that I hated the Russian faculty and I have a tin ear when it comes to sprung rhythm.  But I adored the eighteenth-century – and at the time, for reasons that now make me cringe.  I fell hook line and sinker for the notion that the eighteenth-century was a place of reason before the bullshit of the Romantics (and the further bullshit of the Victorianists).  I mean, Undergrad Me was right about the bullshit, but not about the rationality.  I just really really loved didacticism, which probably marks me as a very particular kind of Old Millennial.

I was lucky to have an undergraduate research fellowship sponsored by Mellon that allowed me to start working on my undergrad thesis in my junior year, so I immersed myself in Richardson studies, and read Pamela and all of the “media event” materials.  I inhaled Clarissa that summer (remember this is before broadband Internet, and I did not have a TV), and all of the Spectator.  This was before ECCO transformed what was available online, even behind a paywall, so I was also glued to Jack Lynch’s omnibus site and the C18-L email listserv to figure out what an eighteenth-centuryist was.  The latter is where I read an email from George Justice arguing that the then-popular reality TV show Joe Millionaire was more Richardsonian than Fieldingesque, which is how I found out about the institution where I would earn my doctorate.  This may explain a lot to some people.


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

EF: The eighteenth-century I was “brought up” in as an undergraduate and in my MA was comprised of uniformly White, generally genteel sets of authors (and thinkers).  I am enormously grateful that this is not the case – or at least, the enormous Whiteness of our field is being challenged by smart, passionate, awesome collectives.  I put my own work and teaching now to the litmus test of #BIPOC18 and #Bigger6 – if I am not engaging with their goals, disseminating them, or providing support for them, I try to pivot.

The turn to an analysis of the body and what it can know – be it through disability studies, affect studies, sensory studies, environmental studies, or history of science – has exploded as well.  My first book participates a little in that conversation, which was a detour I didn’t really expect.

The digital turn is, of course, one that I am very closely allied to: ECCO started its rollout when I was a student, and aggregation/peer review sites like the one I now direct came into being while I was an ECR. But I was a digital practitioner more or less sub rosa for much of my career.  Megan Peiser was the one to break down barriers at Missouri for digital work to receive credit and support (work still incomplete), years after I graduated.  My first dean told me no amount of grant money would be worth investing in grant writing assistance, which is why I turned away from the digital work that I believed would be necessary for my dissertation to become a book, and wrote about something completely different.  I am very glad that the climate around digital work is changing, if slowly.


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

EF: No one, absolutely no one, prepares you for that transition.  The biggest adjustment is moving from a culture where everyone around you aligns success with you going somewhere else, to one where your employer sees success as you staying for a long time.  Depending on the job you land, you may or may not do that, or want to, but you will almost surely feel that as one of the many claims upon you.

Moving “without a buddy” (as one of my students once put it) can be challenging. I was lucky to be hired along with a cohort of people in my department and in my college and university, and was able to make a lot of friends across campus.  But I’m also in a deeply conservative area, where a lot of communities outside the university are often formed around church membership.  Even being a member of a church wasn’t enough for me to fit in, because “small group” communities are built in the South along strict lines of age, gender, and marital status. For those of us who don’t fit the mold of cis, straight, or at least partnered (preferably with children), this means a lot of extra labor to find one’s people.

Some of my cohort have left. Some live hours away because of family, partner, or community needs.  Others have managed to pair off and assimilate into the community, or came with a partner or family.  My own strategy is cyclical: investing in my local community and home while I’m teaching, and aggressively maintaining my connections to my family and friends elsewhere.  This means I budget a fair amount on travel, and luckily I’m within driving distance of a major airport.

I often say that in academia, everyone has a “button” – the thing that might propel them to leave.  For some, it’s marked “status” or “money” or “geography” – others “family” or “community.”  And many people don’t know what their button is until it’s pushed.  Part of working in this business, especially in an “undesirable” area of the country, is the reality that some people will stay forever, and some may stay for only a short time.  And you really can’t know who is who just from looking.  So you learn to take a page from Blake and “kiss the joy as it flies” – revel in wonderful colleagues, support them as best you can, and stay connected to them even as life takes you all in different directions.

Which is why I often say to folks that the best thing anyone can do is to maintain a wide and diverse network: on-campus, in your field, and in your community. None of us stand alone, but none of us can entirely rely on one thing to sustain us.  Jobs do not love you.  Books will not hug you.  But also partners can get sick. Friends move away.  Having a network is like having a safety net of ties that can carry you even if one cord snaps or goes slack.


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

EF: I am an ambivert: I require contact with humans, but also solitude, in order to keep myself in balance.  I try to build structures into my life, usually semester by semester, that allow me to do what I need to do for that space of time.

While dissertating, that meant writing during the morning in my department building, in an area no one went to. Then I went downstairs to the grad lounge for lunch and did less mentally-taxing work among my classmates during the afternoon.

Now, I don’t have big chunks of time as often, nor a lounge to hang out in.  So now I go to the gym with a friend in the morning (I’m fond of powerlifting), shower, meet with my writing accountability group, have lunch, prep for class, teach, have office hours and other meetings, run errands, and go home. I try not to work on weekends unless it’s crunch time.  I attend as many of the community cultural events as I can, along with our poetry series and theatre season.  I also play D&D biweekly, among other get-togethers.  I also try to get to Atlanta at least once a month, to touch base with the amazing eighteenth-century community there.

I’m a big fan of writing accountability groups. I’m a member of an online support group and a local “let’s get together and write” group that meets multiple times a week. Making commitments to other people makes it stick for me.  I am also dreaming/scheming to create a true writing retreat with some of my friends – we will see.

Practically speaking, I save everything in Dropbox, have all of my notes in EverNote, and am dabbling in Tropy.  But Scrivener is what changed my whole writing life, and really lowered the anxiety bar for me around getting started with writing projects.  Being able to write in “chunks” that I could reorganize was a revelation – so much so that I teach my students how to write starting with such chunks.


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?

EF: I sometimes say I subscribe to the Phillip Larkin School of Mentoring, inspired by “This Be the Verse” (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do.”)  This is mostly tongue-in-cheek, as I was (and am) enormously lucky in my mentors, from Peter Briggs at Bryn Mawr, to Jane Moody and Kate Davies at York, and George Justice and Devoney Looser.  I did the “wrong” thing and selected the “lowest” ranked doctoral program I was accepted into, because it was the right fit in terms of advising.

I tell my own students that researching potential advisors is the most important research they may ever do.  The first pass is about research methodology and focus: read the most recent work of the scholars you might want to work with! Do you want to learn to write or think like that? (Not necessarily exactly like them, but in a complementary way?) Do they seem to care about the same issues, approaches, methods that you do?  Are they still working on That Thing You Care About or have they moved on to something totally different?

The next pass is about personality/fit, and you may not be able to even begin to do this until you’re accepted and visiting a program.  I try to give information out long before that first meeting, myself. It is, unfortunately, the responsibility of grad students to try to suss out fit, perhaps in a meeting or informal talk with fellow grads.  There are interpersonal things you can tell fairly quickly: how do they respond to an initial email of interest from a prospective student?  When you meet them, how do they talk about your work?  How do they talk about their former students?

Let’s be honest: there are enormously talented, brilliant, noteworthy scholars who are absolute garbage at mentoring.  It’s not a skill anyone teaches you. It’s not something that is valued adequately when done well nor punished at all when done poorly. (Most mentoring awards are won by the small subset of scholars who manage to “reproduce” most voluminously, often in part by virtue of being at stellar research institutions.) It’s time-consuming, and excellent mentors must balance the labor of mentoring their students with maintaining a productive research agenda that gives them the power/clout to help those students. And “poor” mentoring is a spectrum: there’s benign neglect (which is survivable as long as the mentor meets deadlines) but there is also gaslighting, harassment, or exploitation.

Ideally, there are multiple people in your department who could work with you, so that if you take a seminar with Professor Awesome and discover they are Professor Awesome… For Someone Else, you can pivot. Remember, you’re building a team to help you succeed and learn!

Oh, and honestly? There is a point in nearly every graduate students’ life where their advisors represent everything anxiety-producing in the whole world. In most cases, this too shall pass.  This is where having a network really helps.


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

EF: Set aside some time each year of grad studies to think about what you are learning, what you are most excited about, and what questions you want to pursue.  Interrogate those questions and themes in every class you can!  Some of the most useful courses for my career were ones taught by master textual editors, or scholars whose theoretical approaches were applied to very different texts than I focused on. If you’re very lucky, you may even be able to use some seminar papers to try out different ways of writing and analyzing things you might want to work on.  This means thinking capaciously about your interests even as you focus them – which is good when you later have to convince people outside your field to care about what you do.

Once you’re at the prospectus stage, I would advise that less is more: the prospectus is a work of fiction about something you haven’t written!  Best to do a reasonable job efficiently, and then get to the real work of the dissertation, which will almost surely look enormously different once you’ve written the first chapter and had that experience.


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

EF: I was told very early in my career that teaching would sustain me, and I am exceptionally fortunate to find that to be true.  It helps that I have breathing space to enjoy course development and teaching: I teach at an R1 land grant state university in the Deep South, with a very low teaching load.

My “service” course is a large format (125+) student course on British Literature after 1789, taught with 4 MA GTAs.  I lead class for all the students on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the GTAs lead two sections of no more than 12 on Fridays.  Since Brexit I have leaned heavily into the notion of national identity formation in the readings I assign for the course, trying very hard to implode the idea that Britain was ever homogeneous, especially in the period under consideration. It’s a challenging experience, because you’re sometimes at a remove from students, as well as coaching brand-new teachers, but enormously rewarding.

We only admit a handful of doctoral students each year. Our grad program often serves as a “finishing school” for students from excellent regional undergrads to hone in on what they want to do.  This means I’m teaching lots of different kinds of students in a single graduate seminar (which I do every other year), so I try really hard to make sure I’m thinking about eighteenth-century studies in concert with ways of reading and researching that can serve the creative writers, the technical writers, the medievalists, etc.  This takes many forms: most recently this was a class about the history of authorship and copyright, which I think worked very well.


In terms of evolution: my graduate training included a specialization in book history, but I wasn’t hired as a book historian.  But about five years ago my colleague Derek Ross and I got the idea to start a book history course.  I’d been working with our Special Collections librarian Greg Schmidt since I’d started, so the three of us put together a small grant application so we could all go to Rare Book School to prepare for this new class.  We have now taught that class twice, got another internal grant to buy bookmaking materials, and are in the process of making the course a permanent part of our curriculum.  This has become a major part of my scholarly and pedagogical identity, which delights me endlessly.


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

EF: Small money leads to bigger money – start with internal awards, even if they don’t cover the full cost of whatever you’re trying to do.  That shows external funders that your institution believes in you. Look at the CVs of people who have won your dream big fellowships or awards: you’ll see years of small grants before the big one lands, usually.

Also, be prepared that this is a continual process across your career, and you will apply for some things many many times before you get it.  I watched my own mentor, who is now covered in glory (and a Guggenheim) during the years when she was applying for far more things than she was awarded. Now that I’m at the same career stage she was then, I am forever grateful to have seen those years of hard work.

Funding institutions want to know what you’ve already done as much as what you want to do – it’s far more convincing to say you’ll write three chapters in a year if funded if last year you wrote a chapter while doing teaching/coursework/etc. Granting agencies like to be the funder on a project that they know will be finished, so paradoxically you may actually finish the project and start a new one during that the funded time – be prepared for that.

For library-based fellowships (which is most of what I’ve won), the more specifics you can give about what you need to see there, the better. You want to ensure that you have more than enough to fill the time you’re asking for.  I heard this directly from one library that has month-long fellowships: if you don’t have a significant list of items to consult that could last a month or more, even if they know there’s more for you to look at in their holdings, they’ll pass over you.

Also, if you’re applying to one, you might as well apply broadly to every other similar fellowship with the same requirements (in terms of research statement, etc).  I applied to one library and thought it was a lock, but applied to another library at the same time as a kind of “well, I mean, I have the paperwork ready” – guess which one I got?

And honestly, “having the paperwork ready” in a file folder on your desktop (updated CV, statement of current research) is half the labor of many applications.  You can’t win what you don’t apply for.


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

EF: Do it! Start close to home, as inexpensively as you can, and milk the experience for everything it’s worth.  You will gain nothing, and spend a ton of money, if you merely present your paper and bop out immediately after. Better one conference that allows you to find your people, experienced as fully as your schedule and budget allow, than a bunch that you almost forget you went to until you update your CV.

In order to do this, as Stephanie said, you have got to write your paper before you travel (this also allows for you to print off some accessibility copies, which is an ASECS requirement and should be required everywhere). It will never, ever, ever, be perfect, but at least it will be rehearsed and on time, which is more important than perfect. Early on you’re getting practice for speaking in public and honing your ideas, and later you are testing out new ideas for publication, or even showing off your work to folks who might want to collaborate!

Travel costs can often be brought down by going with fellow grads but try not to let your existing squad prevent you from meeting new people.  Check the conference program for people whose work you admire, and don’t be afraid to email and ask if they might be available for coffee during the conference: even academics (like me) who don’t actually drink coffee are usually game for a chat with someone interested in their work. Worst case, they don’t have time.

At a large conference like ASECS, I go to as many panels as I can, which in physical practical terms means that I have to bow out of usually 1 session a day or I will crater.  Your capacity will absolutely vary, so respect your brain and body’s needs.  I tend to highlight the program while I’m at home, or copy/paste things into my electronic calendar.  I note things I absolutely don’t want to miss, the things I will go to if I have energy, and the sessions where I am most likely to need to rest/take longer lunch/nap/meet up with that student who asked me to coffee.

At a smaller conference, I try to attend every session, because they tend to create community and momentum that way. They’re also usually set up more humanely in terms of breaks and length of the day. I am enormously grateful for the smaller conferences I attended as a graduate student — and still attend today.  The biennial meetings of the Aphra Behn Society and the Frances Burney Society became a true community for me and were friendly faces when I went to my first ASECS (2007, Atlanta).


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

EF: My current book project is titled (today, check back in a week, or a month) Unprinted: A Literary History of Alternative Circulation.  This comes out of my larger digital project, Manuscript Fiction in the Age of Print, which I’ve been working on off and on since I graduated over a decade (gulp) ago.

This book is inspired by my work on the unpublished manuscript fiction I’ve been collecting but ties those works of fiction to later developments in noncommercial circulation: fanfiction and zines most particularly.  I am fascinated by the idea that some authors don’t want their work to widely circulate, but instead reach very specific people or groups in very specific ways. Digitization threatens to blow this all sky high, leading to things like the Zine Archivists’ Code of Ethics, which created a set of suggestions for how to acquire, describe, and make available physical zines, whose authors are often still living and who have a variety of different relationships to their past work.

If you’d told me this project would lead me to become the Director of, require me to read deeply in Critical Race Theory and Archival Studies, and measure dozens upon dozens of blank notebooks, I’m not sure I would have taken it on.  But tenure is a glorious thing, allowing for the space to take on a project that is a strange synthesis of so many things I value: archives, the possibilities of the digital, my youth growing up in the first generation of internet fandom, all of them are contributing to what I’m able to write.

It also is an enormously humbling space: I can’t justify my next book from the pragmatism of “needing a book” for tenure, and thanks especially to Eugenia Zuroski and Manu Chander, I absolutely must, as a moral imperative, address what I’ve been calling the unbearable whiteness of the archives and collections I work in. Moreover, my work must pass Bridget Whearty’s Caswell Test, and acknowledge the work that archival studies (and archival professionals) have done already to engage with these issues.

I expect to be working on the Manuscript Fiction project in some way or another for the foreseeable future, in part because I can’t make my transcriptions public according to copyright law until 2040. That means I’ve had to think about the public part of the digital project in phases, bounded not only by my capacity or by funding, but by these other factors as well. It also means that a lot of my forthcoming publications are about the way that I work, or the structures that influence my work, as much as what I’ve analyzed or read.  In many ways this has been some of the easiest writing of my life, because I feel in control of what I know but also what I don’t know, and why I don’t know it.

Emily 3.jpg


We are so pleased to feature Emily this month! Take a look at some of the work that she is doing in book lab at Auburn on Instagram:

You can also see images of her research materials on Instagram:

Along with her Undergrad Researchers:

For more, go over to her Twitter @friede and her Instagram @manuscriptfiction.


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