UCHRI Research Programs Manager Kelly Anne Brown interviews Whitney DeVos, UCHRI’s newest staff member. As part of an innovative alt-ac pilot program in collaboration with UCSC’s Graduate Division Dean, Whitney is interning at UCHRI during August and September, working on program development and scholarly communications for the institute. With a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. in poetry, Whitney is currently a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz, concentrating on 20th and 21st century American poetry, poetics, and politics.
KAB: Tell us about your studies at Santa Cruz. Why did you decide to pursue graduate studies in literature?
WdV: I have always written creatively, and my scholarly and creative pursuits have tended to progress in tandem with one another. Shortly after graduating from college with a self-designed English major, I began an MFA in poetry in order to continue the experimentations in style and content I had begun as an undergraduate. Eventually, I noticed my most interesting creative projects had one thing in common: each would have been impossible to pursue without significant research. At that time, I was reading theorists such as Donna Haraway as often as I was reading poets like Anne Carson. I was also supplementing my required creative workshops with time-consuming graduate courses in English literature and anthropology, each of which required me to write long seminar papers. As I became aware of how much my poetic praxis was being influenced—and even driven by—extra-disciplinary learning and analytical writing, I was drawn to applying to PhD programs, especially those with strengths in experimental poetics and cultural studies.
The literature department at UCSC provides me with flexibility, openness, and a grounding in interdisciplinary approaches, all of which help allow me to follow my intertwined creative, analytical, and hybridized projects as they evolve. I’m fortunate that UCSC, with its recent adoption of a “creative/critical” concentration in the PhD program, is very open to non-traditional dissertation projects. I have the option to shape my research into a formally-experimental book project, and I’d like it to result in something that is attractive to a wide range of people. Rather than framing the research project in the form of the traditional scholarly monograph addressed primarily to a highly-specialized audience of literary scholars, I’d like the project to speak to scholars and poets and historians and my grandfather alike. Or perhaps I’ll write one of each.
KAB: What kind of research questions guide your current projects?
WdV: I’m currently interested in the social, cultural, political and civic/public potential and/or function(s) of poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries; particularly, in poetry’s relationship to crises, both personal and socio-political/economic, and in spheres local, national, international, global, planetary. How does recording, documenting, and/or interrogating an event in poetry and poetic forms differ from doing so in narrative? How might we approach poetry as an alternative form of history, or a form that complicates the narrative tropes and forms in which history is typically recorded? How might poetry make visible peoples and pasts often elided in dominant narratives of history? In what ways does poetry articulate forms of resistance? Whose forms of resistance? How might the individualized act of reading poetry foster a kind of solidarity or work towards cultivating in the reader a sense of global human community across time, space, and/or language barriers? How can groups of readers form communities, interpretive or otherwise, around specific poetic texts? What public and/or civic functions has poetry served in the past, and what purpose does it serve now? For whom?
KAB: What excites you about these topics? Where do you see this research leading?
WdV: Poetry is the fractured and fragmented language in which we attempt to articulate the most difficult things in life, and poetic language puts pressure on normative diction and syntax. Reading (and re-reading) a well-crafted poetic phrase has the potential to defamiliarize the reader from the glut of commodified language we are exposed to every day. Often, these moments of strangeness bring visceral insight into another human’s experience or suffering. Many people talk about the “uselessness” of poetry, but it is my inclination that poetry serves a particular function during crises, even if it is ‘only’ an articulation of sorrow/hope resisting the dehumanizing realities of contemporary existence. But even “function” isn’t the right word. I’m interested in poetry’s potential to engender types of thinking and being that resist the received, and often outdated, forms we inherit—forms that may be complicit in various forms of subtle or explicit dehumanization.
KAB: What drew you to this opportunity at UCHRI?
WdV: Teaching in a variety of capacities and classrooms has shown me, over and over again, how passionate I am about teaching writing of all kinds: expository prose, literary analysis based on close reading, creative/poetry/fiction, even college admissions essays. I care deeply about helping my students learn to discover and articulate their personal voices, both scholarly and creative. However, having time available to devote to self-reflection is one among the many privileges of being a graduate student, and in recent months and years I’ve noticed that I’ve also been wanting to learn more about my capabilities and potential beyond the classroom; that is, I’ve been curious to know what it’s like to engage other personal strengths, areas of interest, and parts of my brain. I’ve come to realize I’m also incredibly interested in understanding and analyzing intricate issues, as well as engaging in collaborative high-level complex problem solving that results in measurable outcomes. I also have a strong desire to cultivate a sense of community within the environments I navigate regularly, and thus find it very rewarding to work collaboratively with others. Yet I remain deeply invested in and committed to the future of public higher education in my home state of California, and the particular roles the humanities and literary arts have to play in this future. So I’ve been wondering how I might pursue my current intuitive inclinations toward collaborative problem-solving in a way that a.) is consistent with my personal values and b.) might open up new possibilities for impact in different venues related to education.
UCHRI provides the opportunity to do both. I have the chance to try on an administrative hat and see what it feels like to be “behind the scenes” at a non-profit whose mission is to facilitate the kind of research I am interested in doing myself. I even have the opportunity to shape the kind of research UCHRI will support in future grant application periods. One of the most exciting assignments I’ve had so far was to draft from scratch a call for proposals for an entirely new grant—for graduate students! While working on a variety of different projects simultaneously, I am learning more about what day-to-day operations in a multi-campus humanities research institute entail. I also have the privilege of working alongside others in thinking through incredibly difficult issues—structural, fiscal, cultural—that pertain to my field and its future, and the chance to offer my own tentative solutions to these deeply-entrenched challenges.
KAB: What are you most looking forward to learning and/or working on while at UCHRI?
WdV: UCHRI’s initiative Humanities and the Changing Conceptions of Work is particularly interesting for me because it is directly relevant to the challenges I will face on both the academic and/or non-academic job market(s) when I complete my doctoral work. I was quite paralyzed, I think, when I realized very quickly in my first year that I had entered graduate school in a field deep in the throes of unprecedented budget cuts, hiring freezes, a diminished number of tenure-track positions, and very intense crisis rhetoric. In the attempt to not feel paralyzed, I wanted to understand better why things were the way they were, how they had come to be that way, and to think about ways in which we might resist and/or move forward. Humanities and the Changing Conceptions of Work is invested in all three of these areas, but focuses on the “moving forward” bit. To have a small role in the collaborative think tank responsible for reimagining the ways in which the humanities PhD might be utilized beyond the traditional faculty position is both exciting and rewarding. The questions and challenges presented by issues surrounding the Humanities and the Changing Conceptions of Work initiative are ones that fascinate me and directly relate to my future. It’s impossible for me not to be personally invested in this kind of work.
However, it’s also been inspiring to learn more about the research facilitated by UCHRI, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the interworkings of the RIDAGA Humanities Studios first-hand. I think the RIDAGA project will be formative in shaping the collaborative, innovative, and interdisciplinary scholarly and public research of the future. Scholars in the humanities provide us methodologies to work through the ways in which artworks and texts consider and create human experience, as well as the complexities within the questions that serve as the artworks’ impetuses. So often, however, the fruits of this largely-independent research remain inside of the academy. However, UCHRI, and the RIGADA’s Humanities Studios in particular, present a space for multiple methods of engaging in and approaching such questions, encouraging scholars, journalists, and artists to do, produce, and present collaborative humanities research intended for public and scholarly audiences. It is clear to me that the results of such innovative research funded by UCHRI will educe a variety of audiences extending far beyond those of the traditional, multi-authored academic monograph. This kind of work, long over-due, excites me very much.
KAB: What are you passionate about?
WdV: The easy answer to this question is poetry, but I think of this term rather expansively: the root of the English word ‘poetry’ is the Greek poesis (ποίησις), which is etymologically derived from an ancient term meaning “to make.” While a poem might be a reflection or artifact of (a) sensory experience, poetry literally refers to “making,” often of experience itself; memories are, after all, constructed in language. But the act of making something more tangible than a poem is a sensory experience in and of itself, and often results in a product that induces others to have sensory experiences of their own. I am equally, and often more, passionate about the making of things more tangible than phrases or lines: sauerkraut, rows of heirloom bean plants, the levain for pie crust. As you can see, more often than not, when I “make” anything, I am referring to some aspect of food. I’m big on “re-learning” preindustrial methods of food production and preparation that were largely forgotten when urban-dwelling people invariably sacrificed quality and tradition for convenience. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, and was never exposed to do-it-yourself or make-your-own anything. Like many people of my generation, I find it rewarding to learn to lessen my reliance on technology, corporately produced goods, and fossil fuels; this dovetails with an interest in ecological sustainability and reducing my impact on the planet. I have several friends engaged in similar efforts. I like learning from them, and coming together to share meals, trip, tricks, recipes, and secrets.
KAB: What are you reading these days? Have any recommendations for us?
WdV: I’m usually reading several books at once, and I highly recommend all the ones I’ll list here. Right now, a few include Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Ed Skoog’s Rough Day, published segments of Claudia Rankine’s forthcoming book Citizen. The best fiction book I’ve read all year is Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox; it’s a modern retelling of the fairy tale “Bluebeard” written in a series of interconnected vignettes. Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson is teaching me all about elemental breadmaking.