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Elizabeth Cullingford, Chair CAL 226, Mailcode B5000, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-4991

An Interview with Dustin Stewart, our 2013 department level dissertation prizewinner

Posted: March 11, 2014
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Dustin Stewart has been named the 2013 English Department dissertation prizewinner. Among this distinguished graduate’s other accolades and accomplishments are the William C. Powers Graduate Fellowship, the publication of four articles as a grad student, and a new assistant professorship at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Dustin answered a few questions for us about his dissertation work and how this has expanded into other new projects, getting articles published as a grad student, and his thoughts on Mortalism.

You were the department level dissertation prizewinner for last year. Congratulations! What did your dissertation work focus on?

My dissertation was titled “Exponential Futures: Whig Poetry and Religious Imagination, 1670-1745,” and it was co-directed by Lance Bertelsen and John Rumrich. The project focused on visions of futurity in poems written by Whig authors in Restoration and eighteenth-century England. I wanted to explore how seemingly traditional representations of the soul in this poetry have a potentially radical edge. Written in blank verse, these texts depict the soul’s future life as a storehouse of difference, and they try to channel that difference—alternative ways of perceiving, creating, and living—into the present. Elizabeth Singer Rowe, for example, is often described as a terribly pious writer, one who can think of nothing but the afterlife. But I portray her poetry instead as tapping into the power of an angelic future state so as to forge new possibilities for women’s writing here and now. In her case the trick worked.

Have you continued to work on this piece or on these same issues? If so, what form has that work taken?

Yes, I am working on a book-length study that extends the argument and analyses of my dissertation. My research for the PhD has also opened up several projects (conference papers, articles, and a proposed edition) that fan out in different ways from my dissertation. 

And here’s a question from one of your dissertation co-directors, Dr. John Rumrich, along the lines of your dissertation work: Do you think the theme of Mortalism is pertinent these days and if so, why? (And could you first define what you’re referring to as Mortalism for our readers?)

Mortalism is a name for the view that the human soul has no life apart from the body. The term fits under the umbrella of philosophical materialism. Like so many powerful ideas, this concept was named by its despisers, by people who hated the thought that the soul (which Christians conventionally defined as immortal) could die. Most mortalist thinking in England was still fundamentally Christian, though, and followed Martin Luther’s example. Mortalists argued that the soul either dies with the body, later to be resurrected along with that body, or sleeps until the Resurrection and Last Judgment, when it reawakens with its reanimated body. To most of us today these claims seem stupendously arcane. But mortalism was fiercely contested throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in England, not least because the idea became associated with the revolutionaries and sectarians in England’s Civil War. Theologians continue to talk about it in the early twenty-first century.

The topic remains broadly pertinent today, I think, at the point where spirituality meets environmentalism. Most Americans say they believe in a soul that persists after they die. If you think (as my Whig poets thought) that the soul’s final destination is elsewhere, then you might be able to make peace with the danger of environmental catastrophe on earth. The realm of matter, you might suspect, is just a temporary home for us anyway. But if on the other hand you think that your soul needs matter—that your soul isn’t the sort of thing that can exist without it—then you might well be more sensitive to the fragility of the material world. For people inclined to think about the future in terms like these, mortalism keeps the life of the soul bound up with the life of the body and the planet.

What is the process of publishing an article like as a grad student? Any advice for current grad students on how to go about getting published?

I had the good fortune to publish four articles as a PhD student. Because I came to UT with a MA in English from another institution (Baylor University in Waco), I was already familiar with the general expectations faculty have for the seminar papers written by their graduate students. After internalizing these expectations, PhD students have to begin thinking beyond them—approaching seminar papers less as short-term academic exercises and more as potential contributions to the discipline. This process involves becoming familiar with the normal moves made in a journal article, the audiences targeted by particular journals in one’s field, and the questions or problems being debated in that field. A strong seminar paper that’s poised to become a published article tends to combine a bright spark of insight (here’s an innovative idea or connection I’ve identified) with a clear sense of communal payoff (here’s why this insight should be relevant to others working in a scholarly area). Sometimes a possible bridge between your work and a larger field of inquiry reaches out and finds you. But to be open to such possibilities, you have to be attuned to the notices about conferences and special issues of journals that circulate in our profession.

If you have begun to approach seminar papers as articles in the making, and if you receive encouragement from your instructor about turning one such essay into an article, you should quickly arrange a follow-up meeting with that faculty mentor. Timing matters. You don’t want to lose the freshness of your argument, nor do you want to lose your mentor’s familiarity with it. You should also ask some friends and colleagues to read and respond to your essay. (Remember the bit about a communal payoff.) Once you’ve achieved some critical distance from your original structure and wording, and once you’ve gathered a good deal of advice about what to do with the piece and where to send it for possible publication, you should tackle your revisions quickly yet seriously. Let other writers you trust get their hands dirty with the prose. The result should be the best version of the argument you can muster at the moment. But you should still brace yourself for rejection. A better version might in fact follow from the experience of rejection, especially if you receive a perceptive and generous report from an outside reader. I should add that plenty of dissertation chapters become journal articles, too, though that transformation can require more substantial reframing.

Can you tell us a little bit about what your career path has looked like from your time at UT until now?

I defended my dissertation in April 2013 and formally graduated from UT in May. This academic year (2013-14), I’ve been a visiting instructor at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. I was able to pursue this opportunity through mutual friends in the Atlanta area. A few weeks ago, I accepted an offer to become an assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS). This tenure-track position in eighteenth-century literature starts in August 2014.

Any new academic areas or projects that you’re feeling excited about right now? 

I’m excited to be involved in a two-part symposium on Milton and the Long Restoration. I was invited to share a paper last spring with other participants in the project, including two fellow Texas PhDs, Gregory Chaplin and David Harper. At the second meeting next month, the contributors will be reading and responding to one another’s essays as we prepare them for inclusion in a multi-authored book collection. The project aims to reconsider the boundaries of British literary history that typically keep Milton’s mature works isolated from other writings of their time. Because I’m invested in seeing how the cultural energies of the Restoration (often defined as the period 1660-1688) carry over into the early eighteenth century, I was eager to participate. 

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