Anna Williams is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in the English Department at the University of Iowa, where she is creating a podcast dissertation under the direction of Professor Jeff Porter. Her dissertation considers the epistemic and practical differences between amateur and professional knowledge production in Victorian England. During the 2016-2017 academic year, she served as a Production Assistant at Iowa Public Radio, where she produced and co-hosted the podcast Lit City. Her website can be found here.
It’s fitting that Frankenstein is the subject of my first dissertation chapter. Not unlike Mary Shelley’s title character traipsing through the “unhallowed damps of the grave” to collect parts for his infamous creature, I’m spending my time as a Next Gen summer intern gathering materials for my own innovative creation – a dissertation in podcast form.
Of course, my collection sites have been less murky and my subjects less… dead.
Making a podcast means talking to people. Drawing on successful models such as This American Life and Invisibilia, I envision each ‘chapter’ being an hour-long audio essay that investigates a central question about a literary work and answers it using textual/contextual evidence and commentary from other scholars – actual recorded conversations with them.
One of the main challenges of the project, so far, has been finding people. Beyond seeking out relevant scholarly work from library stacks and databases – a skill now finely tuned through years of practice – I’m trying to locate the people behind all those mounds of paper and really talk to them, one on one, while recording our conversations. This, it turns out, isn’t so easy. Sure, I can find e-mail addresses for all of those Frankenstein scholars, but reaching out to them to conduct a recorded interview? It’s entirely new territory.
First there’s the e-mail pitch. It needs to be informative but brief, show familiarity with the scholar’s work, and convince her/him not only that my subject matter is interesting and worthwhile but also that my chosen form – while unconventional – is not completely off the wall. And once I do find people willing to talk to me, there’s the matter of mastering the technology that will facilitate and document our conversation… not to mention figuring out what to ask during that conversation in the first place. It’s a different way to engage with scholarship: articles don’t talk back, but their authors do.
Interviews with scholars are just one of the components I’m gathering in my summer quest, though. Like any true progeny, hideous or not, my dissertation will also include elements of myself – that is, an autobiographical narrative interwoven with the literary analysis and historical contextualization. Besides being a dissertation in Victorian literature, my dissertation is also an implicit statement about dissertations, including the story of how I got to the point of writing one.
For this I made a pilgrimage to Natchez, Mississippi, the place where I was born and where history and narrative cling to you like the shirt on your back in June. There, in the parlor of the 1896 home built by my great-great grandfather, I spoke to my second cousin Ginny Benoist about the extensive genealogical research she’s collected on our family.
I combed through the attic artifacts at Propinquity, the 1790 farmhouse where my (Great) Aunt Doris Ann and a small cemetery of ancestors reside beneath a canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss.
And finally, I conducted a tearful interview with Susan Mingee, the teacher/librarian who lived next door to my family until we moved from Natchez to Birmingham in 1990 and who had me ‘publishing’ stories by the age of seven.
If you’re thinking these sound like disparate and mismatched parts, you’d be right. But the magic I’m hoping to pull off is in the suturing – the stitching together of these irregular limbs into something more meaningful and (dare I say it) person-al than the average literature dissertation.
What I hope to let loose upon the world is a dissertation project that demonstrates the value of creativity and subjectivity in scholarship, and that expands the notion of what counts as knowledge production in the realm of professional literary studies.
Or, at the very least, I hope my dissertation doesn’t haunt me to the grave.