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From history, the future

ASU English doctoral grad uses literary texts to understand volcanoes

man reading book on mountain
May 04, 2016

Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.

What do volcanoes, Lord Byron and “A” Mountain have in common?

One guy at ASU.

ASU student Kent Linthicum is earning his doctorate in English literatureThe Department of English is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. this spring. He recently defended his dissertation titled “Scientific and Cultural Interpretations of Volcanoes, 1766-1901,” which used literary and scientific texts about volcanoes to examine both the popular and intellectual understanding of these geological phenomena.

Linthicum traced ideas about volcanoes from the 18th-century assumption of eruptions as localized “chemical fires” to the late-19th-century burgeoning knowledge of global volcanic activity. Along the way, Linthicum has also studied Chile’s volcanic past and present, has conducted historic geological research in and on Hawaii and has thought an awful lot about the concept of geologic time on Tempe's “A” Mountain.

He has an array of interdisciplinary awards and honors for this work under his belt, including the Norm Perrill Scholarship from ASU’s Origins Project and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Graduate Excellence Award.

Hailing from Oakdale, California — a city in the San Joaquin Valley, which lies just outside the famed volcanic “Ring of Fire” in the Pacific — Linthicum sees his interest in historical environmental issues as having ripples beyond the literature he studies.

“I argue that the change in thinking about volcanoes parallels today’s shift in thinking about global climate change. My work provides insight into how we imagine ecological catastrophes like volcanic eruptions or climate change in the past and present and what that means for their impact on people.”

Linthicum answered a few more questions about his time at ASU and the implications of his transdisciplinary literary research.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I discovered volcanoes through literature. I was reading "Darkness" (1816) by Lord Byron in class taught by my mentor, Mark LussierMark Lussier is professor and chair of the Department of English.. The poem is grim: It imagines that the sun has been extinguished and dramatizes the last days of the Earth. At the same time I was reading Mary Shelley's novel, “The Last Man” (1826), which also imagines the end of humanity. In class I asked why the literature from 1816 to 1826 was so grim; what had inspired these writers? Dr. Lussier told us about the "Year Without a Summer" in 1816, a devastating year that was abnormally cold. The cooling was the result of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before: Tambora erupted a large quantity of sulfur into the atmosphere, which reduced temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere causing extreme weather, like snow in New England in July.

I was fascinated by Tambora and the Year Without a Summer. I began researching the history of volcanoes, volcanology and volcanoes in literature. This work ultimately turned into my dissertation.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: In Dr. Devoney LooserDevoney Looser is a professor in the Department of English.'s graduate course on Jane Austen we were reading through a few handwritten letters from Austen's relatives. At first the letters were a mess and very difficult to read, especially because it looked like someone had taken a pen and scribbled vertical lines through all the words. Dr. Looser told us to look a bit more carefully, and one of my peers realized that the vertical lines were additional sentences! Writers, to conserve paper, would fill up the front and the back of the paper, then turn it 90 degrees and keep writing using the same paper twice, effectively. Once you know that the letters become a bit easier to read. This is a small example, but it really showed me how much context matters to understand history. Without patience or curiosity these letters might have been ignored because they were a garbled mess by today's standards. But they were not written to match today's standards. Today is built on countless influences from human and environmental history, and if we are going to understand how we got to "now," we need to understand the context of "then."              

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: There were a variety of reasons that that Department of English and ASU appealed to me, but they are all connected to the idea of ASU as a university that is interested in fostering and promoting innovative interdisciplinary thinking and research. For example, the Department of English has a huge range of fields including composition, creative writing, English education, film and media studies, linguistics and applied linguistics, literature and rhetoric. Although my focus is on literature, I have benefited from learning from those other fields. I routinely apply knowledge from rhetoric and linguistics in my own research, and use knowledge from composition and media studies in my teaching. Likewise, ASU as a university encourages interdisciplinary work with research collaborations like Center for Science and the Imagination, the Origins Project and the Institute for Humanities Research, among many others. I knew that ASU would give me the space I needed to pursue interdisciplinary research, and I was so excited when I learned I had been accepted to the program in 2011.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: That an important feature of a university education is learning how to be the best learner. I know it sounds circular, and many view university education as an opportunity to focus intensely on one field, but being a proficient learner has staggering implications. The course of human history generally, especially in the last two centuries, shows us just how quickly the world can change. Being the best learner means being able to adapt to those changes and help others adapt faster, with flexibility and resilience. Also, being a skilled learner meanings being able to make cross-disciplinary links, which ultimately helps weave human knowledge together in a more comprehensive and extensive network. So do not forget the curiosity and the drive required to be the best learner.    

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Perhaps it is cliched, but I really like "A" Mountain. When I hike the mountain or just look at it I think about all the layers. As I am sure one of our ASU geologists could describe in better detail, the mountain itself is made up of ancient lava flows, ash and the sediment from rivers. Then on the mountain are the plants of the Sonoran desert, which have changed to adapt to the relative heat and aridity of the desert. Then there is the evidences of human life from the petroglyphs, to the "A" itself, to the dirt and asphalt trails, and Sun Devil Stadium. All of these features, layered together, make me think about time and the ways that our current world has grown out of ancient fragments.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am going to keep researching and writing about volcanoes and other environmental catastrophes in human history. I am working on a project that examines newspaper responses to the Year Without a Summer. The effects of that volcanic winter were both widespread and asymmetrical, so I am curious to see how disasters were written about. There is a huge number of newspapers available in digital archives; thankfully the IHR Nexus Lab has been a great resource for approaching so much information. Additionally, there is a mystery eruption in 1808, which also contributed to the Year Without a Summer that I would like to help find. Some scholars believe that a South American volcano erupted and have found a few sources that corroborate that hypothesis. There are more accounts that need to be combed through to further triangulate this mystery eruption. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I am very concerned with questions of sustainability, survival and climate change. I would like to be able to use $40 million to provide funds for social science and humanities research into global climate change. Natural and physical scientists have more or less resolved the question of whether global climate change is human-caused; now the questions are more focused on how people think, respond and act in the face of climate change. Social science and humanities scholars are well equipped to investigate and address exactly those questions of how people think, respond and act. I believe that to overcome this crisis and future crises that the planet will face, we need to understand ourselves better. 

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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