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Scene Report: UCSC’s Society of Fellows Graduate Fellows

UCSC is sending two graduate student fellows to the Society of Fellows event being held at UCLA April 18-19. The two-day event is a showcase of the humanities at the University of California, with each campus sending its faculty and grad student recipients of year-long support. UCSC is proud to have Matt Suazo and Mark Norris representing the humanities this year at the event, where they will give lightning talks on small panels and enjoy other festivities at the Fowler Museum on the UCLA campus. I asked these two scholars some questions about where they came from, what they are working on now and what they hope to do going forward. I would like to thank them for their very thoughtful answers, which I will highlight below. Matt and Mark are doctoral candidates in the Literature and Linguistics departments, respectively.

JB: Describe your research project and its importance to your field. How would you describe your contribution to your field, and, how would you describe this contribution resonating outside your field?

Mark Norris: My dissertation focuses on an interaction between words and sentences, often called “agreement.” Agreement is perhaps most well-known in the form of person and number agreement between subjects and predicates (e.g., ‘I walk’ but ‘he/she/it walk-s’).  My research project investigates a kind of agreement often called “concord,” where (broadly) a modifier agrees with a noun (e.g., ‘these books’, ‘this book,’ but not *’these book or *this books, where * is a conventional symbol indicating unacceptability/ungrammaticality).  Though concord is well-known within linguistics, it has largely escaped careful investigation.  In the work that does exist, the common hypothesis is that the properties of concord can be analyzed by appealing to the very same operations that have been used to study, e.g., agreement between subjects and predicates.  The idea is that if we can reduce concord to other extant properties of language, then the grammar would lead to a leaner and simpler grammar, which is generally accepted as a good result.  In my dissertation. I argue that concord does not actually exhibit the empirical distribution or formal behavior of argument-predicate agreement and proposes instead a novel theory of concord.  My hope is that the work will be able to serve as a foundation for future careful work investigating this recognizable but ill-understood phenomenon in human language.

Outside of linguistics, my project could have implications for any domain in which precise description of language is at play.  This may be in a pedagogical situation, e.g., by helping to clarify exactly what concord is, or in language documentation, by providing scholars with a backdrop that can inform their description and documentation of the great many “unknown” languages left in the world.  Like linguistic theory in general, my work touches on questions concerning human cognition, considering the question of what exactly the basic building blocks of language must be.

Matt Suazo: My project, from a post-Hurricane Katrina perspective, proposes the wetlands as a category for writing a literary history of New Orleans. I focus on colonial and nineteenth-century texts and translations, mostly narratives, including William Bartram’s Travels (1791), Chateaubriand’s Atala (1801), Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853). When I entered the Ph.D. program, American Studies was (and still is to a degree) in the midst of a transnational or hemispheric turn, which means that the nation as an organizing category had been brought in line with a number of other spatial configurations. This way of thinking frames the literatures of the Americas more broadly: borders between North and South shift, regions such as the Caribbean expand, and so on. As I more or less embraced these “new” maps, it occurred to me that they all tended to stress the same thing about the New Orleans’s place within and in respect to the region; that is, the city was written about in exceptional terms; it never quite accommodated itself to, or was accommodated by, the category in question. Historically, if New Orleans has been attractive (or valuable) because of its status as an economic and cultural outsider, then this same status was too easily used to explain what happened to the city in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. For me, something was missing in these accounts, and I found it, in part, by reading geography, which does not stress in isolation a city’s situation (this is the “place” I mentioned above) but, rather, the relationship between its situation and its site, or the actual ground a city sits upon. I began thinking of New Orleans’s wetlands site as a kind of critical (but still complementary) counter-geography to the various regional imaginaries, including the nation. Though I didn’t begin with an eco-critical approach, bringing the wetlands into a study of New Orleans definitely makes it possible to consider the social and environmental as an ecological whole, in particular the roots of the cultural and economic, the racial divide that was laid bare following the hurricane.

If this part of my project contributes a side of the New Orleans story that has been lacking in American Studies (and as a literary historian, I consider myself more or less a nineteenth-century person), then my research also positions me as an Early Americanist. While the site/situation binary was the starting point of my intervention, as I began to consider the colonial beginnings of the city, it soon became apparent that New Orleans’s site was not just problematic in practical terms. As a unifying category that only emerged definitively in the ecology and conservation movements of the twentieth-century, “the wetlands” per se did not exist during the colonial period, and I have become interested in how the settlement of Louisiana’s (and America’s) wetland landscapes – its swamps – contributed to the ongoing emergence of this unifying category. Here, my social and environmental concerns merge with colonial and eighteenth-century intellectual history.

JB: How did you become interested in your specific research project? Do you remember when it really stuck, when you knew that this was something you wanted to spend years engaging your life with?

Mark: Both of the languages that I work on most closely (Icelandic, Estonian) are sort of hallmark example of concord, and so my interest in concord grew out of my experience learning about these languages.  Once I discovered that concord was largely uncharted territory within the broader framework I maintain, I knew that this was a way I could make a real contribution.  My hypothesis and analysis have changed many times, sometimes drastically, as I have learned more about the properties of concord.  These changes have not just arisen due to matters of personal taste or aesthetics, but due to the falsification of those hypotheses.  This is the general character of research in theoretical linguistics: spotting generalizations, forming hypotheses, and testing the predictions.  So, I initially thought that concord behaved a certain way and formed an analysis around those patterns.  The analysis made predictions that were not borne out upon deeper investigation, which caused me to change not only my analysis, but my deeper understanding of concord as a phenomenon in natural language.  That kind of excitement can be challenging, but ultimately, I know that I am helping to push the field further by making all these mistakes.

Matt: I didn’t come to Santa Cruz looking to write about New Orleans or Louisiana, and I certainly couldn’t have predicted that my project would concern swamps. My prior degrees had been traditional, pretty much straight-up British canon, and I had planned in general to continue this with work on the literature of empire and the Anglophone postcolonial, though I was looking for a place, maybe in the Caribbean, to find an intersection with Spanish (my second research language). First year, as faculty and coursework encouraged me to think more holistically about the Americas, I pretty quickly left the British side of things behind. As soon as second quarter, the germ of the project emerged when I took “Traveling Souths,” a course on transnational literature with Kirsten Silva Gruesz (who became my adviser), alongside “Landscape and Ideology,” with Loisa Nygaard. New Orleans came into the picture in Kirsten’s course, and she (who has written about the city in the post-Katrina context) encouraged me to consider how it might fit into my project. At the same time, Loisa’s course provided me with landscape as a critical category for literature and culture, and the seminar papers I wrote for those courses more or less came together as one of my Qualifying Exam topics. Fairly early in that process, though I had already been thinking about swamps, I had a conversation with a professor about slime (among other things), and he recommended an article about wetlands by Rod Giblett that helped set up my theoretical approach. After additional conversations and more reading, that topic became my prospectus, and here (after much more reading and writing) I am. As for when I knew that I was going to be able to commit, it was probably in 2010 when I presented an overview of the project at an Urban Studies Research Cluster symposium (at UCSC) on post-Katrina New Orleans. The response was enthusiastic, which gave me confidence, but I wasn’t quite convinced that the project would have legs, so to speak, until last year when I received the institutional support of the library and IHR fellowships. To be more precise, I was confident of the project within the culture of our department, which gives us a lot of flexibility, but I wasn’t sure how it would translate to a broader audience.

JB: Describe your academic journey. When did you know you wanted to pursue doctoral study?

Mark: Quite honestly, I did not really “know” until after I had arrived.  After obtaining a B.A. in linguistics at the University of Iowa, I felt pulled in two directions.  On the one hand, I found work in college (and after college) working within the field of Higher Eductation/Student Affairs.  I knew that this was a field I found satisfying, and I felt as though I had a knack for it.  On the other hand, I had never found anything more fascinating than linguistics, and the prospect of pursuing graduate study was appealing, though I did not really know what entailed (outside of “a dissertation”).   The common thread between these paths was an already established passion for working with college students— I just wasn’t sure in which sector I wanted that work to be.  I applied to some top tier linguistics programs (including the one at UCSC) just to see if I even had a chance, and when I was more successful in that than I had expected, I decided to go see for myself if graduate work was for me.  It took some time for me to adapt to the new academic environment and understand exactly what it means to be an academic linguist, but I haven’t looked back since.

JB: What has been your favorite/most memorable/most meaningful moment so far as a graduate student?

Mark: The most meaningful moment so far has been writing a paper with my advisor and an alum of our department.  They have written several papers together, and those papers were actually quite important to my research in the early stages of my career.  We came together to write a paper that was actually in response to a different recently published paper.  That paper analyzed data that I have worked on previously as well as data that my advisor and his coauthor have treated in the past.  Thus, it seemed natural for the three of us to join forces, and the paper was accepted for publication in one of the most prestigious journals in our field.

Matt: If I had to pick one moment (or a series of moments), it might be the world history reading group some History of Consciousness and Literature students organized with Chris Connery at the end of my first year (Spring 2008). It was just going to be a one-off special seminar for that quarter, but we ended up doing it for five quarters, through Fall 2009, with some meetings over the two summers as well. At each of our evening meetings, someone was responsible for leading discussion, and starting with page one we would work our way through the entire book. This usually took several hours, but we always had food (something that could be eaten with a spoon and bowl) and drink (beer or wine). The idea wasn’t to get bogged down in the details but to consider long-term and large-scale movements and patterns, to think big, and Chris was and is the perfect guide.

 

JB: How have you spent your fellowship year?  What has it given you time to do?

Mark: In my fellowship year, I have prepared two journal articles for publication (the one mentioned above plus another that I wrote on my own) as well as make significant progress on my dissertation.  On top of that, I have been conducting regular fieldwork with an Estonian woman living in Silicon Valley.  We meet for about an hour every week to talk about aspects of her language that I have pre-planned.  It usually takes the form of a list of sentences.  She will read the sentence aloud and then tell me whether it sounds acceptable/grammatical/well-formed, and quite often, if it requires a particular context to be properly used, she explains what that situation would be.  My task in between sessions is to interpret the results and consider new hypotheses to test in future sessions.  It is mentally taxing but great fun!  I do not think it would have been possible for me to do this without the support of the IHR.

Matt: The IHR fellowship has given me time – time to read, think, and write with few external pressures and obligations – and thankfully (as of April) there is still some time to come. In more concrete terms, I also received two short-term library fellowships for this year, and it freed me up in the late summer and fall to pursue almost four months of research at the John Carter Brown and Newberry Libraries, in Providence and Chicago.

JB: What do you hope to do with this degree?

Mark: My current plan is to pursue a career as a college professor.  As of this writing, I am still under consideration for a one-year visiting assistant professor position at Carleton College in Northfield, MN.  I plan to apply for positions again in the fall.  Though my love of puzzle-solving makes me want to continue building a research program, teaching interesting topics to interested students is also something I highly value.  Whether or not I will get to have the best of both worlds remains to be seen.

Matt: Time will tell, but given my already substantial investment in teaching and research, I’m committed to the profession. Because the fellowship has allowed me to develop a research-intensive project, I’d love to continue on with a post-doc, but I’ll at the same time be looking for a faculty position. Concerning the job market, after five years as a full-time member of an English department, I came into the Ph.D. program without illusions and I will leave the same way.

JB: Anything else you’d like to share?

Matt: Two things. First, I have had a public school education from grade school through the Ph.D. Of course, I had no choice in the matter at first, and I certainly didn’t set out to do this deliberately when I was eighteen, but having gained a bit of a self and social awareness in the last twenty years, there is no doubt that this has manifested itself in my work. Second, and this is connected to the first, I have had dedicated and supportive teachers at every step along the way. At Santa Cruz, in Literature and the Humanities, one thing that has continued to impress me is the faculty’s commitment to teaching, balanced with the highest-level research and publication.

Mark:  First, something more serious.  As I mentioned, I came into graduate school not knowing for sure what I wanted for myself.  At the beginning of my time here, I often felt overwhelmed and unsure, but our faculty were always incredibly encouraging and supportive.  I try not to form hypotheses about what might have been had things been different (since they can’t be tested), but in a world where the faculty behaved differently, I may have decided to leave before I finished.  Needless to say, I feel very fortunate to have been taught by professors who care as much about their teaching as they do about their research.  Second, on a lighter note: anybody looking for a travel destination that is a bit off the beaten path should consider spending time in Iceland or Estonia!  They are both beautiful countries with friendly people who almost always can speak English.

 

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