Author & Interviewer: Nethra Rammohan
NR: When did you cultivate an interest in literature, and what prompted you to pursue it as a profession?
AS: I read obsessively when I was a kid. It wasn’t like I was making my way through Dostoevsky or anything, but I definitely read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory enough times that my parents started to exchange concerned looks. I did well in English in school and all that, but studying literature never felt like a possible profession. My home town was a small and fairly remote place, and the home of the world’s largest lead smelter, and in my mind most career options were lead smelter-related. There were no universities for hundreds of miles in any direction, so “English Professor” never entered my consciousness as a career. When I was 16, I had just started at university, and I wrote a paper that a professor liked. In his comments he said: “When I retire you can have my job.” I’d never thought about studying literature as a “job” before then.
NR: You’ve published/authored numerous works on privacy and surveillance, including The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood. In your opinion, how does literature impact surveillance and vice versa?
AS: The idea of surveillance is thematic to many works of literature, of course, from Utopia to 1984. But we underestimate how much literature itself influenced surveillance. On the most basic level, a range of technological ideas had their start in novels or essays (telescreens, the panopticon, etc.). But beyond that, the whole idea of getting inside someone’s head and anticipating the way they think – that really started in literature, hundreds of years ago.
NR: If you weren’t specializing in academia, what career would you have pursued?
AS: Despite the fact that I can’t sing or play guitar, my original career plan was “rock star.” Like, I was seriously imagining that as a job. Anyway, it didn’t pan out.
NR: You’ve taught a wide array of LMC courses, ranging from STAC seminars to enlightenment literature classes. What’s your favorite course to teach and why?
AS: We’re pretty lucky here as faculty, in that you usually get to pick what you’d like to teach. So I rarely teach anything I don’t love. But I do have a special fondness for the Intro to STAC course, just because you get to teach so many different things and introduce so many different ideas. If you’re teaching a course on medieval elegy and a student doesn’t like medieval elegies, you’re kind of stuck. But with Intro courses you can just merrily skip on to the next thing, knowing that eventually you’ll hit on something that every student will like, or at least hate less.
NR: As a lover of literature and culture, what sort of books (or other media) do you keep in your personal library? Do you have any favorite authors or works, both within and outside of your academic wheelhouse?
AS: I realize that I’m not exactly presenting the coolest self-portrait here, but I have a pretty extensive collection of books about zoos. I’ve always been obsessed with zoos; I’ve visited well over 100, on every continent, and I once spent two weeks visiting zoos in Germany. I could go on, but you get the idea. I also have little collections of signed editions and pop-up books.
NR: Tell us something personal about yourself.
AS: I just confessed to collecting pop-up books, so I’m clearly not going to emerge from this exercise with any street cred; therefore, I may as well admit that I find baking a pretty soothing, calming experience, for whatever reason. I’ve definitely stress-baked my way through most of the whole coronavirus debacle. Remember that time when a certain high-ranking government official said that we should bring “powerful light” inside our bodies to kill the virus? I probably baked 6 dozen cookies that week. I call them “panic cookies.”
This story was written by third year LMC major, Nethra Rammohan for Jillann Hertel’s special topics course, Media for Community Building.
For further inquiries, please contact Senior Academic Professional Jillann Hertel.