Two years into my doctoral program in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I left to spend a year in Paris doing research. Among other things, when I returned home, I was a year behind in doctorate colloquium, a course required by our department to prepare graduate students for the wondrous, painstaking world of dissertation prospectus writing.
I found myself in a classroom with our department chair, who ran the class, and six other students, all in the cohort one year junior to me. Because so many different professors in our department had taken turns teaching the doctorate colloquium, our chair would sometimes come to class with a large file folder, filled with papers of advice, samples, and notes from former professors. It was a neat little archive, and I imagined that it probably revealed a lot about the changing trends in academe and the shifting job market.
One day in class, our current chair at the time, Professor Alan Liu, picked up a Post-It note in the file and smiled. He looked up at the class and said softly, his voice full of warmth: "It’s a note from Richard. Look, his handwriting..." and lifted the Post-It to the class. I felt an immediate lurch inside me, and I blinked, smiled weakly, and looked around the classroom expecting to meet a similar expression on the faces of my classmates. But it was at that moment that Alan and I realized, possibly simultaneously, that no one else in the class had had Richard as a professor. He had died my first year of graduate school, and my original cohort was the last group of new graduate students lucky enough to be in his classroom.
Upon entering graduate school at barely 22 years of age, I was still much like an undergraduate. I was often critically unaware of what I was saying, but managed to chatter on quite a lot (probably to the delight of the older graduate students). I took Richard Helgerson’s class in the winter of 2008, the last class he taught before he died. It was required for students to take a Renaissance literature course, and as a 20th-century person, I was excited about the excursion into Shakespeare and Milton (not so much Spenser). Before I left for graduate school, a friend of mine who was an early modern scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison exclaimed his jealousy when he heard I would be attending UCSB. "I can’t believe you’re going to get to take classes with Richard Helgerson," he gushed. This was lost on me at the time, but I soon became aware of Richard’s celebrity as a scholar and teacher. I was set to take his class and find out firsthand what made this man such a literary legend.
But the first day of class was something unexpected. Richard came to class with a bucket. He said he might need it as he was ill. He was very matter-of-fact, reasonable, even apologetic. He had pancreatic cancer, he explained. Despite his condition, Richard’s mental sharpness and brilliance in the classroom made that course one of my most memorable experiences of graduate school. He was endlessly curious about our ideas, and I could tell that he valued the discussion of the texts above all else. The class had a kind of intensity to it, the most presence I’ve felt in a graduate seminar. Everybody read the work. Everybody participated. Everybody listened.
Most surprisingly, Richard maintained such a wonderful sense of humor throughout the course, especially with the younger, more inexperienced graduate students (ahem). As a modernist, I felt such a freedom to speak in that class. Once, I even told Richard that Spenser’s calendar was sort of like the Beach Boys’ "Pet Sounds," "you don’t want to admit it, but there is a weak link... and that link is November," I said with a smug face, thinking I had said something quite associative and brilliant. He didn’t laugh, but rather looked quite amused and pleased. This seemed to be a bold thing for a young graduate student to say with so much conviction. He was even more tickled after an older graduate student explained to him more slowly what had just transpired, what exactly "Pet Sounds" was, etc.
The next week in class when he handed out discussion question prompts, he wrote "Last week, Megan said X, which has led me to think about Y and its implications for Z." I am completely unashamed to say that I was beaming, so thrilled to be included in a Helgerson prompt. In truth, I had said nothing interesting or meaningful or provocative, but I think he saw in me someone who needed a little encouragement, who had a lot of ideas and not yet the ability to articulate or connect them. I still have that slip of paper.
What was mesmerizing about Richard in those last few months before he died was his grace in the classroom, the absolute thoughtfulness with which he considered every question or comment, the elegance in which he chose to talk about his illness. He was calm. I had never in my young life met someone so calm and soft-spoken in the face of what was to me at the time, something so monstrous and unfair. It was almost unnerving.
Once day in class, a graduate student baked all sorts of treats for Richard and the rest of us. She was an excellent and avid baker, and the aroma of rich chocolate brownies and sugar cookies filled the classroom. When Richard entered, he sat down, and looked at the dessert on the table. He was delighted, said, "Thank you, Annie. That looks so good; I wish I could eat it," and then proceeded to tell us that so many wonderful people in his life had been bringing food to the house that smelled so good and that ... he just couldn’t eat it because ... he just couldn’t eat much anymore.
We felt sick (poor Annie, most of all). Nobody said anything, but I will never forget that day in class. For three hours, the food sat at the center of our graduate table like a looming presence, and in an unspoken solidarity, nobody ate a crumb. There were other small moments like this during that quarter, all equally painful.
Sometimes I wanted to scream in class, Why are you here?! Why are you in classroom teaching silly first-years about Shakespearean sonnets when you should be making the most of your time left?! Go to the beach! Go whale watching! Once in his office, I kind of stumbled into this thought, to which he asked if I was O.K., if I felt uncomfortable in his class. The selflessness of his concern was almost unbearable. I said of course not, but the truth was that I was scared. It hurt to watch him deteriorate week to week.
But Richard was exactly where he should have been. He was with some of the great loves of his life: Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser. And I suppose one does not get tired of their great loves, but rather, in the face of death, devotes oneself to them mercilessly, reads the lines that have kept one spellbound in wonder since a young age.
Richard died a few weeks after our last class. When I went to Richard’s memorial at UCSB, there were many peers and former students who spoke of his generous nature, his kind eyes, his trips to Italy, his devotion as a father, husband, teacher, and scholar. I sat there, knowing that if I felt so terrible after knowing Richard for only a few months, how devastated his own graduate students and colleagues must be, who he had worked with for so much longer. I still think about Richard very often, perhaps too often for how long I knew him. But in my sixth and last year of graduate school, I reflect with affection on that difficult, transformative first year. I think Richard had the gift of being the mentor that each student needed at whatever stage they were at in their academic development, and he met his students there.
For me, at the risk of romanticizing (but what do I care, really), he taught me not only about the power of mentorship, but also adulthood, how to be a real person in a classroom. And whenever I become cynical about academe, the early professionalization, the politicization of the humanities, the defunding of foundational departments characterized as irrelevant, I think of Richard. I think of sitting on the beach in Santa Barbara, reading Shakespeare’s “young man” or “fair youth” sonnets for the first time, marveling over them. I think of Richard as someone who studied literature, first and foremost, because he loved language, and who, I hope, went gently into that good night. I remember thinking something odd in Richard’s class. I thought, I want to die like Richard. This is how a good person learns to die: brave, thoughtful, with gratitude.
Megan Fernandes is adjunct assistant professor of modern culture and media at Brown University.
In May, I gave a reading from my contribution toDefiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat, a book edited by Kara Davis and Wendy Lee. The text pays homage to Carol J. Adams’s foundational ecofeminist animal studies work The Sexual Politics of Meat, first published in 1990 and in print and much-discussed by scholars ever since. I read my entry at a local bookstore packed to the rafters with friends and strangers alike, all of whom hung on my every word. At the end of the reading, people hugged me. They bought the book and asked me to sign it. In my professional life, I have never given such a reading and, as a result, I have never experienced anything that felt quite as rewarding as what I experienced that evening.
On May 18, Adams posted on Facebook that in reader reviews for a literary criticism article, a scholar was told that her paper "relies too heavily on Carol Adams (a non-academic animal rights writer) for its theorization of animals, women, and oppression." Further, the unnamed writer is instructed to incorporate more scholarly animal studies sources, like the work of Derrida, for example.
I want to talk about what’s going on with the dismissal of Adams’s work in terms of what such dismissal says about women’s invention of new ways of knowing in the academy, and I want to do so because as an academic woman, the omission of Adams’s work from scholarly consideration raises very real and problematic gender-based issues with regard to how we within the academy police and are policed in terms of our scholarly production. I’m using Adams as my example, because she’s the one I know best, and I think that her case offers real historical parallels to the disappearance of women’s writing more broadly.
Adams holds a divinity degree from Yale University and has published dozens of books with both academic and popular presses; she publishes in scholarly journals and in mainstream media, and she speaks regularly on college campuses across the country. She is prolific, productive, philosophical and, yes, accessible. She is a public intellectual of the first order, an "independent scholar" of the finest magnitude, and she’s been doing work on animal studies, ecocriticism, women’s studies, and literary analysis (to name a few of her areas of intellectual interest) since the 1970s.
Some scholars in animal studies and ecocriticism have tried to address the way that the recognized "legitimate" scholarly discourse has essentially written certain foundational female theoreticians right out of existence, as male scholars, one after another, appear to tell us, as if for the first time, what these modes of inquiry mean. For example, in the first edition Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom, Greg Garrard failed to include Adams’s concept of the absent referent in his chapter on animals – an oversight he corrected in the book’s second edition in 2011, but only after Adams herself contacted him to ask why he omitted mention of her foundational concept and examined instead "second generation" animal studies literary critics – many of whom have been influenced by Adams’s work.
Greta Gaard takes up the omission of female writers like Adams in a 2010 article in Isle in which she advocates for a more feminist ecocriticism, one that addresses the ecocritical revisionism – by such writers as Garrard and Lawrence Buell – that has rendered a feminist perspective largely absent. She notes that omissions of foundational ecofeminist texts in "ecocritical scholarship are not merely a bibliographic matter of failing to cite feminist scholarship, but signify a more profound conceptual failure to grapple with the issues being raised by that scholarship as feminist, a failure made more egregious when the same ideas are later celebrated when presented via nonfeminist sources."
And in a 2012 essay in Critical Inquiry, Susan Fraiman tracks gender in animal studies, noting that "In 1975, Peter Singer galvanized the modern animal rights movement with Animal Liberation, a work that would be heralded as one of its founding texts. That same year, The Lesbian Reader included an article by Carol Adams entitled “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” inspiration for a book eventually published in 1990. Her scholarship contributed to a growing body of ecofeminist work, emergent in the early 1980s, on women, animals, and the environment."
Unlike Adams, who has written consistently over a period of nearly five decades on the subject of animals, Derrida, on the other hand, had only the slightest interest in animal studies, with a singular sustained commentary “L’Animal que donc je suis (a` suivre),” a lecture given in 1997 and published in 2002 as "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” in Critical Inquiry. Fraiman’s work is concerned with the revisionist history that places Derrida at the fore as the father of legitimate animal studies and erases from that discourse the voices of pioneering women – like Adams. What Derrida did was to remove the gendered component from the analysis, to take animal studies away from its at that point established linkages with women’s studies.
So my defense of Adams is not really new, but what’s troubling is that despite such attention to the importance of Adams’s work, she continues to be dismissed over and over again as "non-academic," and I don’t think that this omission is simply because she doesn’t work in the academy. It’s more about what she’s saying and the way that she says it; it’s more about her unruly feminism and her position that there are linkages with regard to various oppressions – between animals, women, and colonized peoples. It’s about our tendency to cast feminism in a series of "waves" (first, second, and maybe third), and then decide that if feminist thought occurred during a previous wave, it’s now obsolete. And it’s about her impatience with patriarchy and with patriarchal dictates that determine not only what constitutes oppression but also how and when it is or is not appropriate to discuss both oppression and patriarchy.
If this piece feels like it’s about praising Carol Adams, that’s because it is, but it’s also about the stakes more broadly. Earlier this year, Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, the state in which I live and the state in whose university system I work, commented in a radio interview with Bill Bennett about our system’s offering courses that provide "no chances of getting people jobs." He said, "If you want to take gender studies that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it, but I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."
At my own university, as the result of an extensive program prioritization process, women’s studies has been recommended for discontinuation, marginalized, as it has been, out of relevant existence. I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I’d like to see women’s studies incorporated into and given equal footing within the fields that such a moniker indicates: philosophy, anthropology, and English, but I’m also troubled by the fact that women’s voices, as always when they assert themselves in the service of women, fail to be heard, maintained, and championed.
I’m an academic, an English professor who has published a fair number of academic texts, articles in scholarly journals, books with scholarly presses. I’ve played the game as is appropriate, writing about things that I love only to have them read by very few people because I have chosen, again, as is appropriate, to place my writing in venues that would ensure tenure and promotion even as by and large I’ve relegated my words to inconsequence. I have presented papers at academic conferences numerous times over the years, but I have never had an audience as large or as interested as the one that I had in May, and I don’t know that I ever felt truly heard before then.
My work has shifted over the course of my career from a focus on postcolonial literature – particularly South African literature and, even more particularly, the novels of J.M. Coetzee – to postcolonial environmentalism, to animal studies, to cultural studies explorations of veganism in mainstream media. But in all of my scholarly endeavors as well as in my lived experience as an ethical vegan, Carol Adams’s work has proven foundational. Without Adams, I assert, there might not have been a real and sustained focus on animal studies with regard to literature; her work has found its way into pretty much everything I’ve ever written, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to Defiant Daughters, in order to speak about my lived academic and activist experience as someone who writes about and practices an animal advocacy informed by both philosophy and lived experience.
Adams sent me an e-mail after learning for the umpteenth time that she’s not scholarly enough and that Derrida invented the field of animal studies. She said "since the point of [The Sexual Politics of Meat] is its interstitial nature (I guess, not sure that is quite the adjective I want), I know it will always receive criticism. On the other hand, about once a day I get an e-mail or twitter post or Facebook message etc. that says 'your book changed my life.' So I prefer the interstitial!"
In terms of my own scholarship, I want to be influential, to hear that perhaps I’ve changed someone’s life or scholarly focus. But if I publish in the wrong place or if I publish about the wrong subject (or if I publish about the right subject but in the wrong way), then I will be locked out, or forgotten, or called not scholarly or serious enough to warrant consideration. And the more I consider the equation of what is scholarly and what is not, maybe the less such a designation matters and the more I’m inclined to want to publish with a press like Lantern, whose activist nature drives its mission. But regardless of what I do or don’t do, if those of us in the academy continue to perpetuate an elitism that limits or forgets women’s voices, we are doomed to be duped into believing that men’s narratives are the originary myths of our profession, our passion, and our scholarship. And it’s high time we stopped doing that.
Laura Wright is associate professor and department head of English at Western Carolina University.