All posts by Michele Speitz

The Itinerant Scholar and a Bit of Sage Advice

Prologue: Advisor to Student

Advisor:

“You should apply to do research at the Huntington next summer, or at the NY Public Library.

Don’t you have family in LA, and New Rochelle? Or was it Manhattan? Both?

The Huntington is an amazing place to get work done—not just research but also writing. Everyone goes to the BL [British Library] but the Huntington also has outstanding holdings for scholars working on Romanticism.”

Student:

“Yes, I do have family near LA, but they live in Orange County. And you’re right about my relations on the east coast, too. My great aunt has a place on the island and her son, Michael, lives in New Rock City with his wife.”

Advisor:

“Ok, great. Draft your fellowship application materials and send them to me this weekend. Let’s start with the Huntington. If you get money, perfect, you’ll go there; if not, let’s shoot for NY since residing in OC would mean a commute. That’d be a waste of your time.”

Actual Log: Goodwill Huntington

The advisor was right. The rare books I consulted during my time as a fellow and reader at the Huntington Library’s Munger Research Center have proved invaluable to my dissertation project. However, from my first day on the Huntington’s sweeping and gorgeously curated grounds, the congenial spirit cultivated by the reader services staff impressed me most. After hearing a handful of stories about graduate students enduring long waits or general disregard at renowned research institutions, the Huntington handedly dispelled this academic urban legend.

Given my enduring interest in both Romanticism and science and the history of science and technology, I punctuated my visits to the Ahmanson Rare Books Reading Room with trips to the Burndy collection. The Burndy Library and Dibner History of Science Program house fascinating historical documents and artifacts that allowed me to supplement my archival research with necessary secondary readings.

When I needed to take a break from the reading room, I walked through my favorite of the Huntington’s botanical gardens. Otherwise, I strolled through the many beautifully curated exhibits on display. True to form, I was captivated by the permanent exhibit “Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World” now showcased in the newly renovated Dibner Hall of the History of Science. Additionally, during the month and a half that I was in residence at the Huntington, I was also lucky enough to explore various rotating exhibitions, many of which catered to my broader interests in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. First, I visited “Born to Endless Night: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by William Blake Selected by John Frame” and “Revisiting the Regency: England, 1811–1820.” Just before my time there ended, I took special pleasure in frequenting the exhibit “Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings from The Huntington’s Collections,” which was curated by my friend and colleague Matthew H Fisk.

All such glorious distractions aside, I’ll leave my reader with one very sage piece of advice. Returning again to borrowed words, I would like to share with you the most valuable and counterintuitive information my advisor imparted to me before I made my first foray into the Munger Research Center.

Epilogue: “Try not to spend everyday at The Huntington performing research”

Advisor:

“It will be tempting to spend your allotted time (in the Ahmanson Rare Books Reading Room, from 8:30 to noon, and more, from 1-5) on nothing but transcription, research, reading. I battle the same impulse myself. But I would never write a page if I left this impulse unchecked.

Break up each day. You have a dissertation to finish. Research is of course an integral component and necessary to the completion of your project, but keep in mind that mining the archive is only part of what you do, and thus should only be part of your daily routine during your 6 weeks on fellowship. This time will give you the opportunity to forge habits that will help you to remain productive and to lead a balanced life after graduate school.

If you still work well in the morning, settle into a schedule where you write in the productive atmosphere of the Huntington during the am, and then, in the afternoons, gather your documents as ye may.”

 

Notes from the Undertow: Transatlantic Studies Reading Group Inaugural Meeting

According to the OED, undertow can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. Sporting Magazine (1817) refers to “A current,… at times counteracted by means of a strong opposing ‘undertow,’ as it is called.” If this first phrase touches upon the register of physical operations, the next lies close to that of myth and (ominous?) portent: “The recoil of the sea, and what is called by sailors the undertow, carried him back again.” The first example identifies a general dynamic of fluid directionality, describes strong flows and pulls, and suggests inconsistent, unstable forces. The second describes a geographic, biotic entity (the sea) grown quasi-monstrous, recoiling, carrying sailors “back again,” but how far? To where?

Formulating a transatlantic studies reading group at the University of Colorado at Boulder shared much with my childhood bouts with the Pacific, especially those times when the water won. Calling oneself a romanticist stakes out a somewhat reasonable or at least recognizable critical terrain. But epistemologically stepping into the oceans and seas to orient one’s work around aqueous and landed flows immediately leads one to the potentially hazardous and/or freeing problematics of how far to go and most importantly, to where—to what critical end?

When the undertow takes down even the strongest of swimmers, it’s just as disorienting and humbling as the above sentences from the OED suggest. Being sucked beneath the surface aptly parallels the problems I faced (and cannot conquer) in establishing a forum for exploring the current state of transatlantic, circumatlantic and hemispheric studies. How far back or forward in time should the readings go? What if the group’s reading selections only come from what qualifies as either British sources or literature attributed to the United States, and so the group navigates itself to the much-maligned realm of trans-national literary studies? To be completely honest, the most muddled and pressing point for me personally, is why, and if, I should be engaging in such methodological pursuits as a student committed first and foremost to the study of romantic literatures.

Our First Meeting:
Now having brought the group together for its inaugural meeting last Wednesday, we’ve proved that at least fifteen graduate students at Boulder are deeply or trepidatiously committed to throwing themselves into the fray. We are ready to see what considerations of the Atlantic and other bodies of water as well as other flows of bodies, organisms, ideas and objects will do to us, and perhaps even for us, given some amount of steadfastness and willingness to thrash about methodologically for the year. We read Melville’s Benito Cereno as our initial primary text and an article by Amanda Claybaugh on Dickens’ American book tours, which analyzes intersections between social reform and transatlantic reprinting/plagiarizing prior to the 1891 transatlantic copyright law that forbade such intellectual borrowing and trading.

For two hours we discussed things colonial, national, material, theoretical, and narratological—and speaking as just one of those who agreed to getting more than her feet wet, it was just as difficult and rewarding as getting lost in pull of the undertow while still being able, finally, to come back up for air, and for more. Next month, we’ll be making one of our great moves back in time, shifting away from the space of the slave ship and the triangular trade to discuss Locke’s Two Treatises on Government and an article by the well-known scholar of transatlantic and Native American scholarship, Kate Flint. We will close out the semester with a turn to the spaces of the Caribbean, reading the anonymously published The Woman of Colour, and will consider Elisa Tamarkin’s critical work on “Black Anglophilia.” Perhaps at its best, it would appear that these more geographically-sensitive modes of analyses might help us to engage “currents,… at times counteracted,” but that might otherwise be easy to ignore, and thus most simply reminds us to perform due diligence. Onward, to the next recoil.