Michelle Armstrong-Partida, PhD


Concubinage in the Late Medieval Mediterranean


My second book project is a comparative study of concubinous unions among the peasantry, urban poor, and the merchant class across the late medieval Mediterranean. It examines the sexual practices of the married and unmarried Christian, Jewish, and Muslim societies to expose that an informal union offered men and women distinct social and economic advantages, affected the masculine identity of men, and empowered lower-level women to make decisions to marry or abandon a spouse. Using a Mediterranean framework, my research reveals the significant population of enslaved, single, married women, and widows, who by circumstance or choice, ended up in an informal union to weave the experiences of women at the lowest levels of society into an account of medieval people who remained on the margins of marriage. Based on extensive archival research in more than twenty archives featuring rural areas and port cities, across Iberia, Italy, and southern France, I show that the practice of concubinage intersected with a host of thorny issues—clandestine marriage, adultery, spousal desertion, bastardy, and the sexual use of slaves. I use an incredibly diverse set of sources, such as ecclesiastical and secular court records, episcopal letters and visitations, synodal legislation, city statutes, registers of fines for illicit behaviors, dispensations for illegitimate birth, royal letters of legitimization, contracts of concubinage, wills, and published Islamic sources, to tell a story about a pan Mediterranean phenomenon that cut across religious, political, social, and economic lines. I argue that concubinage was a distinctive feature of Mediterranean society.

Deepika Bahri


The Art of Anger: Emotional Citizenship for a Better World

In this interdisciplinary book-length study of political rhetoric and global literature and film from 1975-2000, I explain how anger and its absence, even when justified, furnish evidence of its routine integration into power relations in the world. Modeled by authority figures, manipulated by anger artists adept at arousing emotionally susceptible communities, and suppressed when it threatens the status quo, anger is integral, I argue, to an active but under-investigated curriculum in the creation of manipulable emotional subjects who are trained to deny their instinctual responses. Through examples of manipulated, displaced anger in political rhetoric and cultural texts composed in a period associated with the consolidation of Reaganomics, decline of Socialism, increasing migrations, disappointment with decolonization, and the dawn of new media and other technologies, I examine how anger is used as a tool for dominating over the most vulnerable segments of society. Reviewing the prevalent rulebook of anger, I argue, is a crucial preliminary to imagining a better role for anger in a polity that views it as a right as well as responsibility for emotionally educated citizens. Although anger can be the engine of revolutionary progress as Peter Sloterdijk contends in Rage and Time, and the instrument of coming to identity for Frantz Fanon in the “petrified, motionless world of colonization” (A Dying Colonialism), my readings demonstrate that it cannot yield the dividends that should accrue to a potentially robust political emotion without thoughtful reeducation, and a recognition of the forces that constrain and shape its exercise.

Paul Buchholz, PhD


Relations of Desolation: Collectivity in Narratives of Environmental Crisis

I propose to spend the Spring 2022 semester completing my current monograph manuscript, Relations of Desolation: Collectivity in Narratives of Environmental Crisis. Relations of Desolation will focus on how German-language literary writers of the 1970s and 1980s approached a set of questions raised by environmentalist movements of the time: How would the threat of ecological disaster, whether local or planetary, transform interpersonal social relations and political groupings? Would the existential threats of pollution, nuclear disaster and so-called “overpopulation” make existing national and ideological groupings obsolete, and create new forms of democratic community? Or would increasing environmental threats entrench existing political boundaries and social hierarchies, and even bring about new forms of fascism? Relations of Desolation will examine how literary writing by both established and countercultural, “alternative” authors, became an important popular medium for reflecting on the vexing question of what sorts of communities (familial, social, political) might emerge or persist in the face of ecological disasters. The literary analyses will contextualize each work within the political and economic crises of the 1970s and early 1980s, and within the national and local histories of the new “green” coalitions, which drew members of both the radical Left as well conservative and religious groups, and even members of the neo-fascist fringe. The book will show how literary writers grasped for coherent models of collective action and identity that could endure on a threatened planet, at a time when “market values replaced communitarian values across the world” (Borstelmann 2012).

Sheila T Cavanagh, PhD


“’Experience Teach Us’: Shakespeare and Specialized Populations in the Modern World”

This book examines the physical, emotional, and societal results emanating from a range of Shakespearean programs for specialized communities, including tribal regions in the US and India, prisons, veterans’ groups, deaf and blind actors and audiences, homeless citizens, and those with diverse physical, intellectual, or emotional abilities and challenges. This study will demonstrate how collaborations between the humanities and science can support significant advances for groups who have often been marginalized. The most robust programs create community, facilitate an expansive embodiment of human sensory experiences, and establish safe spaces for reflection and experimentation, in accordance with the specific needs and challenges of individual groupings. Accordingly, each chapter in this study integrates analysis of individual Shakespearean programs with relevant research from neuroscience, drama and art therapy, applied theater, trauma and sensory studies and acting theories. The book will focus on the integration of embodied sensory experiences with Shakespearean study and performance and will assess the broader societal implications for such endeavors. With sections devoted to each of the human senses, to kinesthetic approaches to learning, and to cultural contextualization, the monograph argues that engagements with Shakespearean narratives, in conjunction with an emphasis on place, history, breath, movement, and artistic endeavors, often facilitates significant development of personal and communal understanding, helps alleviate trauma, and enables participants to broaden their physical and emotional abilities. The book also addresses concerns about Shakespeare raised in light of our current racial environment, suggesting that other texts may be more appropriate in some contexts.

Joshua Mousie, PhD


Built Power and the Infrastructure of Sociopolitical Life

The University Research Committee grant will provide a course release for the fall 2021 semester, which will enable me to complete my first book, Built Power: The Infrastructure of Sociopolitical Life. The manuscript examines the ways our built environments (especially town and city infrastructures) play a role in forming and sustaining sociopolitical life. I examine how current political ills and the promise of a more just future in our polities is directly related to democratic governance of our built environments. Some of the book is already in draft form and chapters will cover the relation between traditional theories of political power as it relates to my theory of built power as well as the role of the concept of the city (e.g., polis) in the history of political thought. If awarded the grant, I will be able to complete all of my chapters and submit my manuscript to university presses by the end of the 2021-2022 academic year.

Don Seeman, PhD


Between Constructivism and Perennialism: A New Solution to an Old Problem

For decades, the academic study of religion (and studies of mystical or contemplative practice in particular) have been paralyzed by opposition between two opposing and mutually exclusive schools of thought. “Perennialists,” identified historically with the phenomenology of religion and more lately with certain trends in psychology and emerging ‘contemplative science,’ have pointed to apparent commonalities in religious experience across cultures to advocate for universal structures of human consciousness or even a universal content of religious experience. “Constructivists,” by contrast, identified today with dominant trends in humanistic disciplines such as religious studies, history and anthropology, have insisted that comparisons are inherently misleading, that there is no “religious experience” outside of particular linguistic contexts, and that scholars must therefore be content to engage in painstaking analysis of fundamentally incommensurable “traditions.” I intend to show first, how studies of Jewish mysticism have been key to these debates in religion more broadly and second, how an “existential anthropology” paradigm can break through this impasse. Existential anthropology grounds its understanding of undeniable cultural and religious difference within the context of a shared human condition or predicament which is neither “perennial” nor entirely “constructed.” I will use my ethnography in Hasidic and other Jewish communities to demonstrate this alternative and consider how it might be useful in the field of religious studies and anthropology of religion more broadly. Along the way I will consider the intertwined history of anthropology and religious studies and of Jewish materials which have sometimes been excluded from theoretical consideration in each.

Miriam Udel, PhD


Umbrella Sky: Children's Literature and Modern Jewish Worldmaking

“Umbrella Sky: Children’s Literature and Modern Jewish Worldmaking” takes the aesthetically rich and historically indispensable corpus of nearly a thousand extant Yiddish children's books as a novel vantage point from which to observe key movements—political and geospatial—of Eastern European Jewry during the tumultuous early decades of the twentieth century. I extend theoretical reframings of childhood into the Yiddish-speaking sphere, foregrounding the role of children’s literature in the intertwined cultural renaissance and quest for social justice that animated secularist, interwar Jewish life. This project integrates a range of concerns, including a changing understanding of gender norms, child psychology, class consciousness and struggle, and the pursuit of racial justice. Focusing on broadly resonant motifs, themes, and nodes, this accessible book probes how writers and cultural leaders negotiated the tensions between traditional and emerging forms of Jewish identity and how Yiddish-speaking Jewry deployed children’s literature to build itself a future world. Brief inter-chapters focusing on American-Jewish children’s literature in English connect this more familiar body of work to a Yiddish tradition that has been effaced due to linguistic assimilation and historical violence.

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, PhD


Framing Shadows: African American Women with White Children in Domestic Portraiture

My book project, “Framing Shadows, Portraits of African American Women with White Children, 1850 – 1920,” examines fifty photographs of African American women holding the children of the white families for whom they served as childcare workers. Portraits of well-dressed enslaved women and sometimes young girls depicted them in Madonna and child poses holding their slave owner’s child in their arms as evidence of the benevolent nature of chattel slavery. The ‘nanny and child’ portraits, like letters and diaries, reveal how slave owners walked a fine line between elevating and subordinating their slaves. This tradition continued after emancipation. African American women worked as nannies for room and board with the same family. The portraits show that girls as young as ten were charged with childcare duties.

The growing body of scholarship on early American photography and slavery has proved to be influential and compelling. Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Bibliography of the Nineteenth- Century’s Most Photographed American.(2015). Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America (2019), are examples of books exploring photographs as historical documents.

This study engages the following questions: What can these nanny and child portraits reveal about the complex relationship between white families and the black women who helped to raise these children? Why were these portraits taken and what was their purpose? What do we know about the photography studios responsible for the portraits and how can this information be used to provide insight into domestic servitude before and after emancipation?

Tiphanie Yanique


Happy Life: Essays on How the Black Body Attains Happiness in the Outside World

My research will be in service of a collection of essays called, Happy Life, which I have been writing since the onset of the Covid-19 and BLM pandemics. Each essay will be a thinking through of how the Black body stays safe in the outside world. I will begin with essays about water, in part because the sea and ocean have often been a source of great trepidation for Black bodies in the New World—the Atlantic Ocean is a ubiquitous metaphor for Black grief for the part it played in the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. In the Caribbean, slave owners often forbade their Black slaves from learning how to swim, telling horrific (and likely untrue) stories of people dying just by swimming in the shallow beach. In the Virgin Islands, learning to swim meant could mean escaping to freedom. Men and woman in bondage did, indeed, swim from St. John, where slavery was still legal, to Tortola, where slavery had been abolished. With that narrative in place, the sea might even eventually, be a space of happiness. Swimming is often a metaphor for happiness. Floating in water is often a metaphor for peace and tranquility—a particular brand of happiness. The essays in Happy Life will use stories of life, mine, my children’s and our progenitors’, to examine spaces where Black bodies have found first safety, and then eventual happiness in the outside world. My premise is that happiness only becomes possible when one is safe.