November 2013 English Major of the Month
Connor SpencerHometown: Pleasant Grove, Utah
Year in school: Senior
When and how did you decide to become an English major?|
Believe it or not, I was actually more of a science person growing up. Literature courses always gave me the most trouble, but there was something about the challenge of wrangling my thoughts into writing that appealed to me. Although I was always a voracious reader, as I got older, it seemed urgent to become more “literary,” and to read a wide variety of literary and philosophical works to make up for the gaps that I perceived in my own education. This to me seemed to be the best way to engage with the questions that were important to me, and I think that it still is.
Do you ever wish you weren't an English major? If so, why?
It would have been cool to do a double major in History or one of the Social and Cultural Analysis programs. Still, I believe that the fundamental reading and writing skills I’ve picked up from the major have been invaluable. Plus, I’ve found ways to capitalize on my interests in our own department–I’ve just had to be creative about it, and willing to take some risks.
What is your least favorite book?
Well, I thought Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon was mostly offensive. But I still found parts of it productive.
Are you involved in the English department in more ways than just taking classes? Do you have any interest in administration?
I am! In addition to being a Contemporary Literature Series Fellow, I serve on the Undergraduate Program Committee as the Undergraduate Representative. We discuss issues dealing with anything from the program of study itself to resources for English majors who wish to extend their studies. I would love to hear from English majors about what they enjoy about the department and what changes they would like to see. Feel free to email me anytime with suggestions, or even if you’d like to get coffee and chat!
What has been your favorite English class?
It might be a bit early in the semester to say this, but Juliet Fleming’s “Reading Derrida” class has quickly become a favorite. I love the challenge of reading Derrida’s work, and the feeling of accomplishment when I’ve puzzled out what he’s trying to say. I was initially worried that spending an entire semester on Derrida would get stale, but his thinking has actually helped me out in a lot of my other classes (and life more generally, I suppose). Other than that, I really liked “American Literature 1” with Patricia Crain, and the James Baldwin seminar I took with Nicholas Boggs. I generally enjoy classes that allow ample room for independent research or are more theoretically-inclined.
What are some of your favorite pieces of literature?
William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury changed my life; Absalom, Absalom! deepened it. As for the more esoteric, I really love R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s, which is a fast-paced post-colonial pastiche that centers around a group of queer children in Hawai’i. It’s a short, funny book that’s surprisingly dense.
Tell me about your involvement in the Contemporary Literature Series.
The Contemporary Literature Series is a means to bring aspects of New York City’s literary culture and trends in contemporary writing into conversation with the work we’re doing in the department. Additionally, we’re trying to envision ways to create spaces for students who are interested in engaging with the material on both an academic and casual level. Last year, we brought writers like Mark Z. Danielewski and Tracy K. Smith to the department. Stay tuned for more great writers this year–I think that followers of contemporary literature are going to be very pleased!
So you're working on a thesis. How did you come to decide to study Wojnarowicz and what exactly are you hoping to accomplish?
I first encountered David Wojnarowicz in a book club that was run by Bryan Waterman in my residence hall, although I didn’t get a chance to read it at the time. When I ended up revisiting it, I was blown away by the sheer force of Wojnarowicz’s writing. I see him in the lineage of writers like Hunter S. Thompson, a writer whose frenetic, hair-raising writing continues to pose important critiques of the Current State of Affairs. Additionally, I’ll be pairing Wojnarowicz with Gary Fisher, a queer black writer who went unpublished until Eve Sedgwick collected his personal works into an anthology in the 90s.
My reasons for writing about Wojnarowicz and Fisher are twofold: the first is that HIV/AIDS is a global phenomenon that continues to shape us in the present, and that too often its legacies are effaced or subsumed by the white, middle-class, homonationalist discourse that dominates contemporary gay and lesbian politics. That is to say, much of gay and lesbian politics centers around issues like marriage equality (which is a perfectly valid goal) rather than the systemic inequalities that result in, say, the large populations of homeless LGBTQ young people (who are predominantly people of color, by the way) in cities like New York. Essentially, I want to look at counternarratives to the stories about AIDS that are in currency today.
Second, queer writers are either excluded from the canon completely or have their queerness effaced by the powers that be. For example, while Shakespeare may not exactly fit within the parameters of the identity category that we might call “gay” (which is, of course, a historically-contingent category), his texts exhibit undertones of queer desire that are glossed over in most literature classes, or given absurd explanations to justify why he “wasn’t gay.” So, I suppose some of my work is reparative, given the unpublished nature of Fisher’s corpus and the invisibility of Wojnarowicz in the face of lovely gay writers like Michael Cunningham. At the heart of my project is what pairing these liminal memoirs together can tell us about the legacies of AIDS and the struggles of LGBTQ individuals, past, present and future.
Do you have any issues, problems or gripes with the study of English or academia more generally?
I feel that English as a discipline could be more self-reflexive about the kind of work that it’s doing, or what voices are being excluded from our study. You could say that I’m interested in the politics of literary study. I find Terry Eagleton’s work in this area thought-provoking, and believe that it’s important to consider the historical formation of this discipline so that we don’t fall into the trap of only romanticizing the work of the humanities. I also believe that the study of “canonical” texts can elide the voices of people of color, women, and/or LGBTQ individuals. I often wonder about what alternative canons and borderlands texts might teach us.
As for academia more generally, well. To put it mildly, I worry that universities do not attend properly to the voices of marginalized individuals. I hope to actively work toward a future where underprivileged students are given access to the same opportunities within the university as their more privileged peers.
What are your thoughts on this accolade?
I’m honored! It’s been a pleasure to study in this department for the last three years, and I’m looking forward to what the rest of this year brings.
Do you have any special hopes for 2015?
I already mentioned Faulkner, but I love Nabokov and Toni Morrison as well. David Foster Wallace is also a favorite of mine, and for the less contemporary, I enjoy Dostoevsky. Theoretically, I think Foucault is a genius, and that Eve Sedgwick has produced some of the warmest, most capacious writing in either theory or literature. Finally, to delve into personal experiences with writers, Jonathan Franzen and I had a really sincere conversation about the midwest when I met him at a book-signing. He’s a genuinely nice guy!