Image Old Book Bindings at Merton College Library, Thomas Murphy VII Own Work
In my classes, I model with my students the interdisciplinary ethos of my scholarship, in which the rhetoric of scientific knowledge can be put into productive relationships with literary texts to foster a critical social conscience about various issue in both historical and contemporary life. In a first-year writing course that focused on the rhetoric of drugs, I asked students to investigate social, medical, and literary definitions of drugs in order to identify how various disciplines use evidence and evaluate arguments. Building on what they learned about these differences and the historical injustices embedded in them, students used digital modes of composition, from podcasts and videos to websites and databases, to complete a community-engaged learning project. Specifically, students redesigned PSAs to raise consciousness about the social inequities endemic to the war on drugs. In this way, my writing courses equip students with skills that not only allow them to recognize and respond in writing to the demands of different disciplinary situations, but also empower them to develop projects geared toward social change.
My literature classes follow a similar pedagogy, asking students to examine the contingency of social, biological, and environmental categories of life over the long durée of British globalism. We consider how nineteenth-century writers reinterpret eighteenth-century political and aesthetic debates, from Milton to Burke, in their efforts to redefine categories of identity rooted in the emergent sciences of life and medicine. I encourage students to challenge categories from their different perspectives and think through how literary history undergirds distributions of social and political power across gender, sexuality, race, and health.
Students read Shelley’s Frankenstein alongside Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, studying how Shelley, like her mother, contests political norms by translating Wollstonecraft’s concerns into fantasies of medical and scientific revolution. During a conversation about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and George Eliot’s MiddleMarch students noted that starvation and consumption played prominent roles in each story. Together we analyzed how medicalized scenes of disordered consumption become markers of socio-economic, ethnic, and racial differences.
The connections we made inspired me to design a course on drug-use and monstrosity in the novel, from Frankenstein and Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood to Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four. Together we explore narratives of addiction in relation to the ways British Empire policed race, gender, and sexuality, uncovering relationships between taxonomies of non-normative others and emergent categories of disordered consumption, such as morphomania, anorexia, and novel reading. In unraveling the ways British colonialism informs constructions of “health” and “illness” in these texts, students learn how modern social inequities in medical treatment of women, people of color as well as queer and trans individuals have roots in historical injustice.