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Humanities and the Arts

Pre-doctoral 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.

Paperwork Poetics: Literary Responses to Empire from the Southeast Asian Diaspora
Jasmine An, English and Women’s and Gender Studies

My research explores the aesthetic innovations of contemporary, Southeast Asian American poets who respond to the United States’s empire building in Southeast Asia by incorporating bureaucratic documents into their poetry. “Paperwork poetics” illuminates two interlocking registers: the administrative violence and constraints of bureaucratic paperwork, and the creative labor of poets to transform those constraints into possibility through poetic practice. This project responds to the under-theorization of Southeast Asian American literature in Asian American literary studies and complicates the narrative of U.S., Cold War era interventions in Southeast Asia by foregrounding texts that speak to the histories of countries such as Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia that fundamentally shaped, and were shaped by, the highly-publicized conflict in Vietnam. I argue that paperwork poetics propose ways of understanding constructs such as the “Southeast Asian diaspora” or “U.S. empire” that are more attentive to the nuances of the United States’s informal influence in Southeast Asia.

Bronzeville’s Tribunes: Sociology, Marxism, and Literary Afro-Modernism in the Midwest Metropolis, 1936 to 1950
Juan Rodriguez Barrera, American Culture

My dissertation situates Black Chicago Renaissance writers in relation to (1) Chicago sociology, which pioneered firsthand empirical investigation in the social sciences, and (2) Marxist thought, which was often inseparable from the influence of the Communist Party. Combining literary criticism and archival research, I argue that the rapport between sociology and Marxism is indispensable to a fuller understanding of mid-twentieth-century Afro-modernist literary aesthetics. My investigation examines specific sites of literary activity where both fields of knowledge interfaced with each other during the movement. Such sites include the South Side Writers Group, a collective of leftist Black writers that gathered in the late 1930s; Communist writer William Attaway’s novel Blood on the Forge (1941); the intellectual partnerships (a) between novelist Richard Wright and sociologist Horace R. Cayton, and (b) between novelists Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy; and, finally, Renaissance writers’ recurring use of historical themes in their sociologically inflected, Marxist-oriented works.

Writing Past the End: Gender and Time in Postcommunist German Literature
Lauren Beck, Germanic Languages and Literatures

This dissertation considers how popular contemporary novels by women authors in Germany critique restrictive national historical narratives to open up radically new possibilities for narrating formerly communist Europe. Attending to the intersection of time, migration, and generations, this project examines how literature on women’s experiences of (post)communism produces inclusive conceptions of time and history through analyses of the matrilineal pan-European family histories. Close readings, with attention to authors’ intertexts, oeuvres, and family histories, show that the novels critique dominant histories of (post)communism thematically and through intricate narrative forms. These innovative narrative forms not only necessitate reexamination of dominant histories and base assumptions about experiencing time, but also suggest that specific narrative forms can resist assimilation into ascendant authoritarian and ethnonationalist narratives that portray illiberal authoritarianism in postcommunist Europe as inevitable. This project finds that these novels (re)establish a feminist tradition of humanistic anti-authoritarian imagined futures in Germany and Europe.

The Affects of Critique: Women and Satire in Early Modern England
Hannah Bredar, English Language and Literature

“The Affects of Critique: Women and Satire in Early Modern England” examines how satirical stage plays in early modern England articulated and sought to manage fears about changing gender and sexual norms. I argue that dramatic satire from this period socializes its readers and audiences to accept misogynistic norms by teaching new ways of feeling and thinking about women, their speech, and their labor. Combining close reading and a historicist-feminist framework with theories of rhetoric, affect, and embodiment, I develop an original method—what I call a rhetorical-affective analytic—that enables my examination of satire’s inflated prominence in times of rapid social change, as well as the under-examined role that satire plays in creating and perpetuating gender-based stereotypes and other cultural beliefs. In addition to offering new insights into the workings of early modern gender ideology, “The Affects of Critique” identifies and theorizes rhetorical and affective mechanisms, such as ironic distance, affective detachment, suspicion, and rhetorical violence, that bolster misogyny’s ongoing cultural production.

When Play Turns Lethal: Digital Mediation and Recuperating the (After)Lives of Black Girls
Casidy Campbell, American Culture

My project examines the counterintuitive effects of using digital technology as a justice seeking tool for wrongfully murdered black girls. In their efforts to draw attention to the unjust deaths of four black girls, internet users and activists counterintuitively flattened these girls lives into symbols that assist the political agendas of the wider black community. The dynamic between political organizing and digital technology reveals the structural constraints of technology as a tool. Focusing on kinship, geography, and sexuality, I remediate this dynamic by recovering each black girls’ personhood and life story through looking at moments of play and pleasure in their everyday lives in and beyond technology.

Ironies of Freedom
Srdjan Cvjeticanin, Comparative Literature

Ironies Freedom challenges the dominant conception of freedom in contemporary culture, namely, freedom as irreconcilable with restraints or rules (i.e., “forms”), by demonstrating that freedom and form are symbiotic, not antagonistic. Through interpretations of four Romantic-era authors (Wordsworth, Byron, Hawthorne, Melville), this dissertation argues that formlessness (or negative liberty) is not a sufficient condition for the actualization of freedom, and thus inadequate for the values to which it aspires: truth, creativity, and justice. Indeed, that such a conception induces a “crisis of investiture” that manifests in a series of individual and social pathologies. The formal-aesthetic elements of the literary works, however, offer models for resolving the impasses of freedom and form. Finally, Ironies of Freedom, employs these models to resolve several contemporary conflicts surrounding freedom. Central to the argument is a formalist analysis and the identification of a common “theory of the subject” in the literary works of these authors.

Media “Affects:” How U.S. Media Literacy Education Contours Adolescent Identities
James Elrod, Film, Television, and Media

In addition to scholarship in communication and education studies, the fields of media and cultural studies offer important ways of understanding the role that media play in young people’s lives. Such work runs counter to longstanding social panics surrounding media effects on youth, where adult anxieties about media are projected onto youth and roped into imperatives of U.S. public education. Simultaneously, we inadequately prepare educators to foster holistic media literacies that move beyond media-effects-based instruction about news or social media, thus largely neglecting the work that university film and media scholars have done for decades. Drawing upon methods and theories from media studies, cultural studies, and political economy, this dissertation argues that U.S. schools function as coincidental partners of educational media industries. As such, these schools aid in the standardization, and thus commodification, of media literacy pedagogies that foreclose expansive possibilities for teenagers’ affective identity formation, particularly for already-marginalized students.

Age, Place, and Health: Understanding the Impacts of Techno-Spatial Domestic Environments on Older Adults’ Quality of Life
Kimia Erfani, Architecture

“Ageing-in-place” as a widely adopted global policy has sparked environmental and technological innovations aiming at enhancing the quality of life (QoL) of seniors. While these innovations offer safe living arrangements enabling older adults to remain in their homes for longer, they often fall short in addressing increased social isolation and loneliness among seniors, which in turn can substantially reduce their QoL. Investigating the engagement of seniors with these techno-spatial responses and the capacity of these innovations in enhancing their social connection needs are at the center of my research. I focus on understanding non-institutionalized seniors’ behavioral dynamics while engaging with the technological and physical attributes of their home environments. The mixed-methods research design that I proposed utilizes survey questionnaire and qualitative interviews as data collection tactics. Situated at the intersection of environmental design research and public health, my project informs equitable environmental design interventions and policies that encourage healthy ageing.

Mysticism, Law, and Ethics: ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha‘rani’s (1492–1565) Theory of Ethical Subject Formation
Kamal Gasimov, Middle East Studies

In my dissertation, I use an interdisciplinary approach—combining methods of religious studies, anthropology, and history—to examine how Muslim mystics (Sufis) infuse Islamic law with new meanings and social functions. Modern scholarship has discussed Islamic law from the perspective of the state or normative discourse, paying scarce attention to its mystical and virtue-centered aspects. My dissertation examines how Muslim mystics (Sufis) integrated Islamic jurisprudence and ritual into their practices of subject formation based on submission to the charismatic master. I explore the mystical-legal teachings of the Egyptian Sufi thinker ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha‘rani in relation to those of his Sufi and juridical predecessors and contemporaries. I argue that Islamic law was in the center of vigorous debates between Sufis and their opponents among the jurists of sixteenth-century Cairo. Al-Sha‘rānī and his circle produced a highly original ethical program that offered mystically inspired solutions to such problems as rigid legalism and rivalry among the dominant legal schools. The program contended that the law formulated by self-reformed Sufi jurists is superior to that taught in legal institutions as it better reflects people’s needs and lawgiver’s intent.

Of Sherds and Stones: A Study of the Ceramic and Epigraphic Records of Late Hellenistic-Early Roman Northwest Greece and Southwest Albania
Machal Gradoz, Classical Art and Archaeology

My dissertation examines local reactions to Roman hegemony in northwest Greece and southwest Albania in the late-Hellenistic-early Roman period (ca. 150 BCE to 150 CE) through theoretically informed archaeological study of ceramics and inscriptions, challenging traditional narratives of cultural homogeneity among local groups during transition to Roman rule. I show that these groups made diverse material choices, reflecting varied cultural practices, which indicates complex social identities. Identifying patterns in ceramic production, consumption, and epigraphic naming practices and formulas, I apply network analysis (examining connectivity between people and things) and social identity framework (conceptualizing different aspects of identity) to interpret differences across this region. In demonstrating differences in the data within a theoretical framework of network analysis and identity, I show that, far from decline and homogeneity, this region continued much as it did in the centuries before Roman hegemony with some new cultural practices adopted selectively in local communities.

How to Do Things with Words with Others
Rebecca Harrison, Philosophy

Speech acts are actions we perform with words—promises, apologies, orders, threats, compliments. This dissertation challenges us to move away from an individualistic theory of speech acts, where the focus is on the speaker and the moment of speech, and towards a more fully social theory of speech acts—a theory of how we perform actions with words over time with others. I argue that performing a speech act is a temporally extended process, which goes beyond the moment of utterance, and within which audience response plays a crucial ongoing role. The social theory of speech acts I develop highlights how the speech acts we perform are not wholly under our control—speakers can be made to perform unintended speech acts, in both just and unjust ways. Understanding this helps us identify and counter forms of speech-based injustice and calls us to engage in a power-informed ethics of interpretation.

Prediction and Memory Interference in Dependency Resolution
Tzu-Yun Tung, Linguistics

Successful language comprehension requires the rapid deployment of working memory resources alongside the capacity to predict upcoming linguistic input. While previous research views these as competing factors, this dissertation explores a unified theory of processing complexity and evaluates the interaction between memory and prediction. This evaluation is cross-linguistic, comparing how language-users deploy these factors to form dependencies in Mandarin and English. Specifically, I investigate how memory retrieval of words is affected by interference from neighboring distractor words that share some linguistic features, and how linguistic expectations influence that retrieval process. Human brain signals during naturalistic language comprehension will be acquired by electroencephalography (EEG) experiments, and analyzed in terms of their fit to the quantitative predictions from computational models of these expectation and memory-retrieval processes. The dissertation aims to unveil the biological underpinning of cognitive operations essential for how people understand complex sentences in a way that generalizes across languages.

Raised-Evangelical Writers on Social Media: Rhetoric, Resistance, and Ethical Negotiation
Kathryn Van Zanen, English and Education

I investigate how social media writers raised in white evangelicalism muster the resources of their faith to resist the political orthodoxy of the Christian right. My study centers on writers born 1986 to 1996 who still identify with Christianity, if not evangelicalism; a cohort of Americans who are redefining relationships to their childhood faith tradition and remaking the landscape of religious and political affiliation in the United States. Using media observations and interviews, I examine the ethical decision-making and rhetorical strategies of raised-evangelicals posting on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, focusing especially on posts, comments, and shared content that oppose, critique, and complicate political and social positions identified with Christian Right. Furthermore, I explore how these writers negotiate the responses they receive. In so doing, I illuminate how an understudied cohort of everyday American writers actualize their religious and ethical commitments in online discourse about politics and faith.