Since comparative literature is a wide-ranging field, Tableau had many more questions for the department’s junior faculty than could fit in the Young Faculty Focus. Here they discuss travel, creativity, and, ultimately, what comp lit means to them.

Even though comp lit is a study of texts, it also involves traveling, talking to people, visiting archives. What effect has the pandemic had on that side of the work?

Anna Elena Torres: Unfortunately, it’s not just the pandemic; even before the pandemic, some archives were laying off staff and making it harder to conduct research.

My most exciting archival discoveries have come through a kind of persistent serendipity. A lot of the material I work with, since it’s radical history, tends to be held in people’s attics in other countries. It’s often not held in state archives, for obvious reasons. So the experience of travel, connection, and hospitality is a major part of this kind of research. It can be vulnerable to be a researcher, but connection is also part of its great joy, and I do miss that.

Leah Feldman: I had planned to be in Kazakhstan working with a theater group and meeting contemporary artists. Several years ago, actors and composers from this group were able to visit Chicago for a collaborative performance and workshop. While my first book hinged on archives, this new book project has brought me into contact with living artists. These collaborations have been enriching and often put me out of my comfort zone, occasionally pulling me out of my books and into movement and breath training. These exchanges and collaborations are really important. They have offered me necessary moments of self-critical reflection from the vantage from which I write.

I’ve been really humbled by the generosity, not only of artists and actors with their time and hospitality, but those working in cultural institutions as well. A gallery in Almaty scanned and sent me some of their documents and digital files. The chance to keep working on this material has kept me going during the quarantine. Such experiences have also impacted the way I approach my scholarship. I’m thinking much more about the possibilities of presenting research in more dynamic ways that translate a bit of the liveliness they impart on me.

Olga Solovieva: I’ve actually found it to be positive, because I realized I could do this all electronically, which is faster, cheaper, and more effective. I just hosted a roundtable event about recent protests in Belarus with participants from Minsk, Canada, and California, and we didn’t have to fly anyone and could get the freshest update on what is going on on the ground.

Kris Trujillo: I’ve had to be creative about reorganizing my research priorities. Most important, though, the pandemic itself has influenced my thinking about the AIDS pandemic and its relationship to my work on queer theory. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic, like the AIDS crisis, has brought into relief the unfortunate disparities in health care and the differential values on life, raising questions about whose life is worth saving and whose death is worth mourning.

Hoda El Shakry: I’m currently on research leave and was actually meant to spend a good portion of this academic year traveling and visiting archives across North Africa and France. I’ve had to pivot and adapt—as many of us have done in our professional and personal lives this year.

The pandemic has given many of us an opportunity to reflect on our research methods and carbon footprints, as well as how we share resources with one another. For example, I’m part of a transnational research collective focusing on twentieth-century leftist and anticolonial print culture. We were supposed to gather in South Africa last April, but instead we’re meeting remotely over a series of virtual gatherings in which we can workshop our individual projects, share readings and resources, and discuss research methodologies. I’m hoping that one outcome of this pandemic is that scholars in the humanities will adopt a more mutual aid–oriented and collaborative approach to our research and writing.

That said, it is really important to spend substantive time in the archives and regions in which we work, insofar as it grounds our research and, crucially, gives us an opportunity to be in conversation with local scholars, archivists, librarians, and readers. There are connections and collaborations that emerge from these encounters that can’t fully be replicated remotely, so I very much look forward to being able to travel to the region again soon.

Not every institution has undergraduates studying or majoring in comp lit, but UChicago does. What has your experience been like working with College students, within or beyond the department framework?

Solovieva, director of undergraduate studies: The undergraduate program in comp lit is individually tailored to the interests of each student.

For example, I supervise a student who double-majors in statistics and is interested in digital humanities. He is writing a comparative thesis about the Russian and German digital platforms that detect plagiarized dissertations among Russian and German politicians and public servants. His knowledge of programming and of German and Russian—and his methodological training in comparative and interdisciplinary analysis of texts—allows him to bring together the issues of digital text analysis, interface design, copyright history, and historical notions of authorship into a groundbreaking and politically relevant project.

I treat my students as colleagues and integrate them in research projects. Many students, after taking my classes, remain to work with me on related projects as research assistants and publish their work in undergraduate journals, and even in advanced academic publications. One undergrad student has cowritten with me a chapter for my coedited Japan’s Russia (Cambria Press, 2021) volume under the auspices of the College Summer Research Program.

The BA theses in our program this year dealt with such topics as the Renaissance women’s critique of the patriarchal biases in the biblical story of Genesis, the comparative pedagogy of the Russian writer Lev Tolstoy and the Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, contemporary video adaptations of an Icelandic myth, a Japanese cinematic adaptation of manga, and the aesthetics of revulsion in the poetry of the French poet Baudelaire and the Chinese poet Lu Xun.

Torres: I love teaching the Poetry and the Human seminar in the College Core, which is a two-quarter sequence. The first quarter focuses on formal questions of meter, so the syllabus can include epic poetry, spoken word, and jazz and blues to explore how poetry is about forms of rhythm. It’s just a joy to teach. I love working with first-years—so much is open, because people are passionate but haven’t specialized yet.

Feldman: I just taught a course with Faith Hillis in the history department, Collapse: The End of the Soviet Empire. We read various kinds of texts, and we always asked students, How do you approach reading this type of text? What kind of questions does it ask of you? What sort of things does it demand of you? What sort of things does it take for granted? And I hope that kind of engagement will be useful not only for students who are going to pursue comp lit PhDs but also for all of us as we critically think about the world we’re living in and the information we’re consuming from different sources.

Beyond the basic definition of comparative literature, it means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

Torres: Comparative literature takes up questions of translation, diaspora, and the encounters between and within languages.

Solovieva: It is important to understand that the idea of comparative lit as a field of study came up after the Napoleonic Wars, spearheaded by such scholars as Abel-François Villemain and Jean-Jacques Ampère in a conscious move against nationalism fomented by the war. It coincided with Goethe’s concept of “world literature.” Comparative lit and world lit historically both push against the idea of the national, and against all kinds of nationalisms implicit in national ideologies. Before the formation of the nation-states in the nineteenth century, to which our national lit departments have been beholden until now, there were no national literatures but only literature; all inquiry was by default transnational and comparative.

El Shakry: Comparative literature to me is fundamentally about reading practices. By that I mean that we read with an attentiveness to how texts, broadly understood, can be interpreted across sites of not only sameness, but particularly difference. Since comparative literature is deeply invested in the close reading of texts in their original languages, this requires rigorously grounding our work both historically and philologically.

Trujillo: The other thing I would point out—and this is something I think our department is especially strong at—is comparisons across historical periods. For many folks across English studies or other national literature departments, there is a move to professionalize a particular period, but comp lit really embraces, at least for me, a diachronic mode of doing analysis.

Feldman: I would say that it’s doing something fundamental in the way of disciplinary critique itself. The strength of comp lit is always that it doesn’t have a very solid identity—because it is meant to be critical of canonicity and disciplinarity.

In making these connections between and across national and disciplinary borders, is there an element of creativity or innovation?

Trujillo: We have the freedom to pursue questions in relationship to a particular archive that may not naturally come up if we just focus particularly or specifically on one national literature.

What you might find is that a number of us have, at certain points, pursued questions in relation to one archive that then, by serendipitous circumstances, led us to a totally different archive. Or what seems totally different or aberrant to others—for us, it makes total sense that these two things go together.

What would you say distinguishes UChicago’s comp lit department from others?

Trujillo: One of the strengths in our comp lit department—and this is something that I think has been there throughout its entire existence—is its emphasis on theory. We have a really strong faculty with regard to theoretical training, and UChicago does a great job of providing students with a particular vocabulary in a broad variety of theoretical frameworks—which is often really helpful, because so many of us are working across different archives.

El Shakry: We have a really diverse cross section of expertise across languages, regions, and methodologies. Our recent hires reflect some of the exciting new directions in the field—from less commonly theorized archives (such as those of the Caucasus and North Africa) to interdisciplinary conversations across literature and religion, gender and sexuality studies, visual culture, and performance studies.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixaby