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Visiting Fellows discuss their research, residence at ASU

March 22, 2013

Every year the Institute for Humanities Research Fellows program funds either individual humanities scholars or teams of interdisciplinary scholars to engage in a year of research related to the annual theme, develop strong applications for external funding, and share their research with the academic and local communities. In addition, funding for Visiting Fellows is available for tenured or tenure-track scholars, in the U.S. and abroad, to conduct research, collaborate with ASU faculty, and write while spending the spring semester in residence at the institute.

This year’s fellows are exploring the theme of “The Humanities and the Imagination/Imaginary” and were joined this spring by Visiting Fellows, David Vázquez, associate professor in the Department of English at University of Oregon, and Costica Bradatan, associate professor in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. The collaborative work of the fellows will culminate in the annual Fellows’ Symposium, this year called “Telling Imaginaries: Places, Histories, and the Global” to be held on March 29, with a keynote lecture by Dipesh Chakarabarty the evening of March 28.

Costica Bradatan

Bradatan received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Durham (UK) in 2004. Prior to joining Texas Tech, he was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Cornell University’s John S Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines (2003-2004) and a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Miami University's Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies (2004-2006). His areas of expertise and teaching include history of philosophy, philosophy of religion, philosophy of literature and philosophy of film, with a special emphasis on the performative aspects of philosophizing ("philosophy as a way of life," "self-creation," "dying for an idea"), the literariness of philosophical texts, as well as the role played by the religious, cultural and intellectual contexts in their production.

Bradatan is the author or editor (co-editor) of seven books, mostly recently "Philosophy, Society and The Cunning of History in Eastern Europe" (Routledge, 2012). He has also written for such publications as The New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement, Dissent Magazine, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, CNN Opinion, and The Globe & Mail. His work has been translated into several languages, including Chinese and Farsi. Bradatan serves as the Religion/Comparative Studies Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

His fellow’s project is centered on the completion of a book manuscript titled "Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers." The book considers “dying for an idea” in the history of Western philosophy as a distinct intellectual, cultural, and political phenomenon. He will present on his work in a lecture titled “Living and Dying for Ideas” on April 24.

Q & A with Bradatan:

What are you most looking forward to during your time at ASU?
My primary focus is on my current book project, which has over the last few years held me captive in more than one way. That being said, I very much look forward to participating in the substantial, multilayered humanistic conversation that is taking place at Arizona State University both within the Institute for Humanities Research and beyond it. We have excellent weekly conversations within the IHR, but I have also received invitations (which I was delighted to accept) to present my work outside the Institute, for example in the English Department. I see the opportunity to engage with the ASU faculty and researchers as one of the most important benefits of my fellowship. 

Have you been surprised by anything since your arrival?
Not really surprised, but I have been impressed in many ways. I really like the intellectual atmosphere on this campus and the remarkable collegiality of the ASU faculty I’ve met so far. 

How did you become drawn to/enter your field of scholarship?
For a long time now my field of scholarship has been in a state of continuous expansion, which has turned my academic career into something rather adventurous, intellectually speaking. I started out as a historian of philosophy some fifteen years ago. Since then, however, I’ve made forays into a number of other fields: comparative literature, film studies, religious studies, intellectual history, even area studies (Eastern Europe). In some way or another I always find myself working on topics where philosophy overlaps with one or more of these fields. The book that I am currently writing – on those philosophers who had to die to make a point (Socrates, Giordano Bruno, Jan Patočka, etc.) – is a good example. Even though it is rooted in the history of philosophy, the project has ended up being about a complex cluster of topics such as philosophy as a way of life, martyrology, narratives of martyrdom, phenomenology of the body, self-fashioning, biography writing, mourning, the political uses of a dying body, scapegoating, and others.

Do you think it is important for graduate students to learn transdisciplinary approaches and, if so, how do you incorporate this into your teaching?
As risky and demanding as it certainly is, I think transdisciplinarity is the way research will be done in the future and graduate school is the best place to start practicing it. Since at my home institution I am based in the Honors College, I don’t normally teach graduate classes. However, I often have the opportunity to work with graduate students when teaching at other universities. For example, not long ago I taught a transdisciplinary seminar called “Matters of Life and Death” at the University of Pune, in India. The program was put together by Forum on Contemporary Theory (Baroda), which is a premier Indian center for transdisciplinary research. This was, I have to say, one of the most rewarding teaching experiences in my whole career. As part of the course, we read and discussed texts from such diverse fields as philosophy, political theory, religious and literary studies, as well as works of fiction (Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, for example) and non-fiction (Primo Levi’s If this is a Man), not to mention the art house films we watched and discussed at length over dinner and sometimes late into the night. The students’ response to this type of class was excellent, creative, as well as inspiring. I often felt like they were the teacher and I was the student.

David Vazquez

Vázquez joined the University of Oregon in 2003 and completed his doctorate in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2004. He is the first member of the Department of English at his home institution to specialize in Latina/o literature and regularly teaches courses on contemporary Latina/o literature and culture in English, Comparative Literature, and Ethnic Studies.

His first book, "Triangulations: Narrative Strategies for Exploring Latino Identity" (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), considers how Latino authors in late twentieth-century America employ the “coordinates” of ideas of self to find their way to new, complex identities. Through this metaphor, Vázquez reveals how Latino autobiographical texts, written after the 1960s rise of cultural nationalism, challenge mainstream notions of individual identity and national belonging in the U.S.

Vázquez’s current research seeks to identify parallel and countervailing traditions of environmental thought in contemporary Latina/o literature. In this vein, his fellow’s project aims to develop a book length study tentatively titled "Latina/o Literature and the Cross-Currents of U.S. Environmentalism." He will present on his work March 27 in a talk called “Their Bones Keep Them Moving: Helena Maria Viramontes’s 'Under the Feet of Jesus' and the Cross-Currents of U.S. Environmentalism.”

Q & A with Vazquez:

What are you most looking forward to during your time at ASU?
In addition to the beautiful weather, I've really enjoyed talking and collaborating with the various ASU faculty. I look forward to meeting more of the faculty in English, Transborder Studies, and the School of Sustainability. I’m also very excited about the symposium at the end of the year. The discussions that have already emerged out of the preparations for these events have pushed my thinking in very interesting directions. I'm excited about continuing and pursuing both the ongoing conversations, and the strands that will emerge in my research.

Have you been surprised by anything since your arrival?
By a few things. First, the size and complexity of ASU and the Phoenix-area have been quite a bit to take in. Since I'm living at the Polytechnic campus, but commuting to Tempe a couple of times per week, I've gotten a larger sense of ASU as a comprehensive university. Given the size and scope of the university, I've been really impressed with the efforts towards sustainability, as well as the very friendly and open attitude of faculty, graduate students, and staff. I've also been very impressed with the level of interdisciplinarity that just about everyone associated with the IHR seems to embody. Really, I can't say enough about how wonderful the conversations have been at all of the events associated with the IHR.

How did you become drawn to/enter your field of scholarship?
I'll take this as a two-part answer. As a first-generation college student and a second-generation mainland U.S. resident (both of my parents were born and partially raised on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico), I found myself drawn to my home field of Comparative Latina/o Studies due to my affiliation with my culture and my experiences as a racialized subject in the U.S. Even though my parents' story is a prototypical one for many in the Puerto Rican diaspora (born on the island, with formative time in New York City), mine was a bit different. I was born in New York City, but raised in suburban Long Island and then the Tampa Bay area of Florida. While both of those spaces now house huge Latina/o populations, when I was growing up in the late '70s and early 1980s, there were much smaller pockets of Latina/o groups. I found affiliations with other Latina/os from disparate communities: Cuban Americans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, and others. When I moved to California as an adult to attend graduate school, I was embraced by my Chicana/o classmates and friends. This personal experience led me to believe that the traditional tensions between Latina/o communities could be bridged with the right critical framework. So I began to try to locate these affiliations in the novels and autobiographies that I studied. Comparative Latina/o studies became the right methodological fit for the kind of work that I was doing. I think this framework is coming to fruition with talk of a new national Comparative Latina/o Studies organization and the publication of a number of great new books like Raphael Dalleo and Elena Machado Saez's "The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Postsixties Literature" and Marta Caminero-Santangelo's "On Latinidad," as well as foundational work by scholars like Frances Aparicio, Juana María Rodríguez, and José Muñoz.

In terms of my new work engaging Environmental Studies and Ecocriticism, I found myself having increasingly interesting conversations with my colleagues and graduate students at the University of Oregon. Like many Latina/o and critical race studies scholars, I saw environmentalism and ecocriticism as bourgeois fields that had nothing to do with what we do. But as I read books like Helena María Viramontes's "Under the Feet of Jesus," Ana Castillo's "So Far from God," and Salvador Plascencia's "The People of Paper," I found that there was a long and robust tradition of environmental engagement within Chicana/o and Latina/o literature. Yet virtually no one in ecocriticism was paying attention to this body of work. More importantly, I found that these authors had very strong positions that served as correctives to mainstream ecocriticism and environmental justice scholarship. I thought that someone should make these positions more visible. So my fellow’s project seeks to place the fields of Latina/o studies and environmental studies into productive dialog.

How did you come to/learn about transdisciplinarity and how does it impact your research or your approach to research?
This is an important question. Many traditional departments – including the English department where I got much of my graduate training – claim interdisciplinarity. But what this often means in practical terms is a bit of historical or sociological analysis mixed in with close reading. This is interdisciplinary, but not in the ways that I think the IHR projects have in mind. The real turning point for me was when I studied with George Lipsitz at the University of California, San Diego Ethnic Studies Department. There I was engaged with a group of young scholars doing truly interesting and important interdisciplinary work. Our conversations brought out depth and breadth in all of our work, precisely because we were forced to interrogate our own disciplinary and methodological orientations. Trying to translate what I do as a Latina/o studies literary scholar to someone who works on queer, black history is an invaluable exercise. But more importantly, it brings a different lens to bear on our objects of study that I think teases out deeper strands of analysis that you can't get to within a single methodology. I think the value of this interdisciplinary approach is borne out by the fact that all of us who were involved in this group got tenure-track jobs and went on to publish important work that has impacted our various fields.

The very nature of the project I'm doing right now is interdisciplinary in that it's placing two very different fields (Latina/o studies and environmental studies) into dialog. But the kinds of questions that these fields have held as fundamental provide important points of potential contact. Within Latina/o studies, the focus on social and political justice, questions of race and racialization, and issues around hybridity and mestizaje can be productively placed into dialog with the ecocritical focus on land, preservation, and space/place. Indeed, the tension between the two fields provides the opportunity to explore what is produced through what Gloria Anzaldúa calls "un choque" or a collision of disparate ideas and worldviews. For Anzaldúa--and I would argue for my project as well--this collision is productive of new ways of seeing the world. I think that this is the value of interdisciplinary work--to explore both the points of convergence and the points of tension between two or more fields.

Do you think it is important for graduate students to learn transdisciplinary approaches and, if so, how do you incorporate this into your teaching?
Yes. It's critical. First, of all, given the realities of the job market these days, it's important for grad students to have multiple areas of expertise in order to be marketable. But again, I think the richness of interdisciplinary work comes from the fact that it teases out more complex forms of analysis. Ultimately, a stronger project will make for a better candidate. That's not to say that one can't generate strong work from a single disciplinary perspective; but rather that comparative and interdisciplinary work can often be a catalyst for more detailed analysis.

In my seminars we practice interdisciplinarity at a number of levels. First, my syllabus always draws from different disciplines: history, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology as well as literary theory and criticism. More importantly, I try to help students to think about their own methodological perspectives. There's nothing wrong with being an old-school close reader. But I encourage students to translate those skills to social science and broader humanities perspectives as well. Sometimes, I get students from other disciplines – environmental studies, philosophy, journalism, and political science to name a few. The conversations that emerge out of a mixed seminar can often do wonders to help students to see the value of interdisciplinary work.