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Humanities and the Arts

Predoctoral fellows have been nominated by their programs and are selected through a competitive review process based on the creativity and impact of the research they are pursuing. The abstracts for recipients in the humanities and the arts describe the framework, aims, and significance of each fellow’s dissertation and demonstrate the breadth of Rackham doctoral programs.

Awareness of Mouthing in American Sign Language (ASL): Attitudes Toward and Perception of Language Contact
Felicia Bisnath, Linguistics

This dissertation examines if/how metalinguistic awareness, operationalized as language attitude, influences visual awareness or perception, operationalized as memory, of mouthing in American Sign Language (ASL). Mouthings are mouth movements that mimic English words during signing and which form units with manual signs. They are a contact phenomenon linked to the social dominance of English over ASL. The research design combines experimental methods from sociolinguistics and perception, surveys, and eye-tracking to target implicit and explicit attitudes and memory behavior. Descriptively, this approach will add socio-cognitive context to structural descriptions of ASL by documenting the heterogeneity of attitudes and perceptual behavior of American deaf signers. Theoretically, this will push understanding of the causal motivations behind language change at the individual level from spoken languages and acoustic perception to signed languages and visual perception.

The Anthropocene Ordinary and Contemporary American Realism
Leila Braun, English Language and Literature

This dissertation argues that the everyday effects of climate change are bound to settler colonialism, structural racism, and ableism. Examining U.S. literature between 1991 and 2017, I employ insights from Native American studies, African American studies, disability studies, and memory studies to analyze narratives of environmental disaster. Through close readings and archival research, I contend that literary realism—a style that depicts ordinary and habitual life through detailed description and psychological portraits—is uniquely equipped to represent the local effects of climate change. Scholars tend to dismiss literary realism, assuming that its modest scale and focus on daily life cannot encompass disasters of unprecedented origin and severity. On the contrary, I argue that realism illuminates how climate change manifests in everyday experience. Realist representation, with its interest in the habitual, helps us to understand how such everyday effects are embedded within colonialist, racist, and ableist structures.

Mind the Gap: Reading for Queer Female Desires in 19th-Century American Working-Class Literature
Emily Coccia, English and Women’s and Gender Studies

My dissertation offers a robust account of 19th-century American workingwomen’s communities, intimacies, and queer desires through a “too close reading” of labor periodicals, story papers, dime novels, and other genres of working-class literature. I contend that laboring women were not precluded by virtue of their class from cultivating queer desires, as has been posited in existing scholarship, but instead formed and wrote about them in different rhetorical registers. The problem of this sprawling archive is less a lack of historical documentation, but one of legibility. I offer “too close reading” as a fan-inspired method that could help scholars both to recognize forms of queerness less readily identifiable through the lens of scholarly frameworks developed out of wealthy, white archives and to conceptualize how 19th-century readers may themselves have interacted in queer, fannish ways with the sensation fiction that has been dismissed as unworthy of close literary attention.

Race and Fantasies of the Nation: Middle Eastern Muslim Women in U.S. Adult Film Industries
Sena Duran, American Culture

This dissertation approaches the sexual work and representations of Middle Eastern Muslim women in U.S. pornography. I study these depictions to examine how this rich archive reveals unique industries of racialized sexuality, economies of feeling, and processes of racialization in U.S. visual culture. I employ an interdisciplinary methodology in my study of expansive source material including pre-internet pornography, the industry and labor involved in the emergence of veiled Muslim women as one of the most popular online pornographic subgenres in the mid-2010s, and discourses surrounding the development of films that directly engage with the War on Terror. In doing so, I situate pornography as a productive analytical site for examining how historically situated racial, gendered, and national logics inform the inclusion and depiction of Middle Eastern Muslim women in U.S. erotic fantasies. Further, I contribute to scholarship by identifying necessary connections between adult film and Muslim American visual studies.

Maidens, Mothers, and Monsters: Women and the Nonhuman in Pindar’s Epinician Poems
Brittany Hardy, Classical Studies

Classicists regularly explore the representation of women and gender in ancient Greek poetry, but a large-scale study of women and gender in Pindar’s poems remains a desideratum. My dissertation seeks to fill this scholarly lacuna. Using an interdisciplinary approach informed by Queer Theory, the New Materialisms, and critical Feminist methodologies, my project examines Pindar’s representation of women and gender in epinician poems that celebrate male athletic victors. Over four substantive chapters, I argue that Pindar’s female mythological figures decenter and redefine subjectivity and agency and complicate the gender hierarchies embedded in these poems. Pindar’s depictions of his female characters thereby destabilize notions of epinician poetry as a distinctly male genre and invite a reconceptualization of this genre.

Representations of Blackness in Postwar German-Language Children’s and Youth Literature
Onyx Henry, Germanic Languages and Literatures

My dissertation focuses primarily on depictions of Blackness in German-language children’s and youth literature published between 1950 and 1970, the period in which Black Germans born to white German women and Black occupation soldiers formally entered society via schooling and the workforce. While German studies scholarship on Black Germanness and anti-Black racism in Germany is well advanced and informs my dissertation, very little study exists that brings these insights to bear on German-language children’s and youth literature. My research thus fills a lacuna and contributes to both German studies and children’s and youth literature scholarship. The texts I analyze often superficially challenge the status quo, but by and large support the notion that Germanness and Blackness are incongruous. To identify continuities, shifts, and ruptures in characterization and the types of narratives being told, my project concludes with an examination of Blackness in contemporary children’s and youth literature published between 2010 and 2020.

Unearthing a Lost Score: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s The Atonement
Bryan Ijames, Music Performance: Conducting

Academic research on the choral compositions of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) composers has drastically increased over the past five years. In the choral-orchestral subgenres of cantata, passion, or oratorio, however, a minuscule amount of published compositions exist. The Atonement, written by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 to 1912)—one of the most famous 19th-century British composers of African descent—is no exception. Ever since its premiere in 1903, no accurate published vocal score, full score, or orchestral parts has existed. I seek to cap my D.M.A. studies with an unusually creative, ambitious, and impactful research project, Unearthing a Lost Score: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s The Atonement. My goal is not only to resurrect Coleridge-Taylor’s large-scale choral-orchestral masterpiece, but to spread awareness and create positive reception for, what could be, the first passion by a BIPOC composer. The Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship will enable me to complete an especially thorough and distinctive dissertation on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s The Atonement to reintegrate it into canonic choral music.

Objects of Wonder in the Fatimid World
Elizabeth Ledbetter, History of Art

This dissertation argues that objects of wonder (‘ajā’ib) were strategically commissioned and utilized at the Fatimid court to legitimize the Ismaili Shia dynasty (969 to 1171) and the new imam-caliph himself. Objects produced under the auspices of the Fatimid court and its leader use the effect of wonderment to validate this regime change. Methodologically, this project establishes wonder (‘ajab)—defined by medieval Arab writers and thinkers as the simultaneous feeling of pleasure and discomfort—as a viable analytical framework for the study of Fatimid art. It then highlights the wondrous properties of portable objects such as moving and sometimes speaking automata, marvelously carved rock crystal and ivory vessels, glistening lustreware ceramics, and zoomorphic marble jar stands. The representational nature, raw materials, and craft technologies used to enhance these objects all contribute to the wondrous visual effect that they have on participants of Fatimid court culture, underscoring the Fatimid right to rule.

Speculative Recovery and the Limits of Memory in Contemporary Sites of Slavery
Emily Na, American Culture

In the past two decades, artists, writers, and memory workers have filled the gap in the public history of slavery by creating novels, exhibitions, visual art, and monuments that try to capture the collective memory and contemporary afterlives of slavery in the U.S. My dissertation brings the fields of literary criticism and museum studies together in rare conversation with each other. I argue that the critical objective of the recent cultural memory of slavery may be conceptualized as a kind of speculative recovery, which emphasizes both a resistance to linear time/narrative, as well as the recovery impulse in African American studies. My project analyzes the ways that different kinds of cultural sites participate in speculative recovery, including “heritage tourism” at the homes of former presidents; Toni Morrison’s curated scrapbook of African American history, The Black Book; Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad (2016); and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Invention of the Chaco: Writing of Histories for an Insurgent Space. 16th to 19th Centuries
Maria Laura Pensa , Romance Languages and Literatures Spanish

This work investigates the construction and dissemination of different narratives of the Great Chaco region—a lowland space of the Amazonia—and their indigenous inhabitants. It analyzes the mechanisms by which a social and spatial region was geopolitically constituted, both material and symbolically, guided by narratives that have circulated and created certain visual regimes of history in relation to the violence of the colonial past and the continuity of its structures in the republican present. I investigate the connections between the colonial period and the current state of imaginaries surrounding indigenous people, land rights, and their conflicts in Argentina, since collective possession of land based on ethnic identity requires the re-writing of official narratives. This dissertation also analyzes how contemporary indigenous and academic practices have challenged and contested the construction of said narratives and the ways they enact a rupture on colonial and national discourse.

Theorizing Involuntary Migration
Ariana Peruzzi, Philosophy

This dissertation is a collection of essays, each of which theorizes an aspect of involuntary displacement. My dissertation investigates who counts as displaced, whether displacements wrong the displaced, and whether individuals have rights against involuntary displacement. The first essay develops an account of when migration is voluntary. I point out that the decision to migrate is often made by groups, not individuals, and argue that these groups are often best understood as plural agents. I offer a definition of voluntarism in migration apt to cases of singular and plural agency. The second essay reconstructs the legal category of refugee by developing an account of what it means to suffer persecution. I conclude that U.S. courts have applied the category of refugee unjustifiably narrowly. The third essay presents an account of occupancy rights. I argue that occupancy rights include a substantive right against arbitrary interference with one’s comprehensive located practices.

Non-Binary Drag: A Trans* Musicology of Sensation and Interperformativity
Richard Smith, Music Musicology

In my dissertation, I posit that the musical performance of non-binary drag can exceed Butlerian notions of performativity and gender, while remaining firmly rooted in a lineage of queerness going back to the earliest days of the United States. My project is an ethnography on trans* and non-binary drag performers from southeast Michigan and the live-streaming platform Twitch. It is the result of over six years engaging with these communities. My conceptual framework is based on gender euphoria in order to show how non-binary drag artists come to understand and reinvent their gender through music. Working within a realm of sound, I engage with theories of affect, intersubjectivity, and historiography whereby I situate drag as a multisensorial performance imbued with queer histories and aesthetics. In locating euphoria as an element of gender expression, I seek a non-binary paradigm through which to suggest a new model for musicological and gender analysis.

Postmonolingual Treffpunkte: Dialogic Translation and Participatory Worlding in Contemporary Germany
Veronica Williamson, Germanic Languages and Literatures

In 2015, responding to an increased number of asylum requests in Germany, then chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed, “We can do this!” and reanimated debates about what binds German society together and a decade-long discussion about (im)migration to Germany. Surrounding this moment, a heightened awareness of flight and migration permeates the landscape, driving an urgent acknowledgement of refugees’ and migrants’ presence through cross-lingual encounters—a phenomenon this dissertation investigates. In this pursuit, I perform close readings of exemplary initiatives between 2004 and 2020 that bring Arabic and German into dialogue, taking up literary publications, museum practices, and theater workshops to demonstrate that the German cultural landscape is foundationally polyvocal and postmonolingual. This dissertation offers a framework for further study in the budding subfield of Arab-German studies while also contributing to the more established and interdisciplinary fields of translation and migration studies.

Inclusionary Housing and Mixed-Income Neighborhood in Urban China
Weican Zuo, Architecture

As housing prices soar and economic disparities increase across China, many cities have adopted inclusionary housing policies to increase affordable housing supply and foster social inclusion, which requires or encourages developers to provide certain affordable housing units in market-rate housing projects. My dissertation aims to investigate how inclusionary housing works in China: To what extent does inclusionary housing serve as a social development tool that reduces housing inequality and/or fosters social inclusion in Chinese cities? I examine inclusionary housing in Zhengzhou as a case study and employ a mixed-methods research design. Through document review, survey, and in-depth interviews, the study investigates inclusionary housing policy design and implementation, and—most importantly—explores policy outcomes from the residents’ perspectives. My research contributes to theoretical discussions on inclusive residential built environments as well as the global knowledge of inclusionary housing and mixed-income development practices.