Department of English

Alumnus David Harper becomes a Rare Book School-Mellon Fellow

Tue, May 6, 2014

Congratulations to Lieutenant Colonel David Harper, a graduate of the UT English Literature Ph.D. program who is now an assistant professor at the United States Military Academy. Professor Harper has been named one of the Rare Book School-Mellon Fellows for 2014-2016.

From the Press Release:

In September 2012, Rare Book School received an $896,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund a new three-year fellowship program at RBS, the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography. An additional grant of $783,000 was awarded in October 2013 to fund a second cohort of twenty RBS-Mellon Fellows. The aim of the fellowship program is to reinvigorate bibliographical studies within the humanities by introducing doctoral candidates, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty to specialized skills, methods, and professional networks for conducting advanced research with material texts.

Check out the full RBS press release here, and continue reading for an interview with Professor Harper.

What sort of activities will your Rare Book School Fellowship Program involve?

The fellowship offers me the wonderful opportunity to take three Rare Book School courses over the next three years, as well as participate in field schools and collaborative research with other fellows. In addition, I'll be able to host a bibliographic/book-history orientated symposium at my institution to enrich our humanities programs here. What I'm quite excited about is that these activities are supported by a fellowship of like-minded researchers from various disciplines who are brought together by the fellowship and Rare Book School. I expect that being part of that community will be one of the main benefits of the program.

What attracted you to this program? What is your particular interest in bibliographic studies, and how do they relate to your own academic work?

I became aware of Rare Book School while at UT, when I knew students (to include Barrett Ward, now one of my colleagues here at USMA) who attended summer sessions. I kept an eye on the website for opportunities to attend, but I really became interested in the fellowship when the fist cohort of fellows began to populate my twitter feed. The collaboration and passion I saw there was something I wanted to participate in.

My own work has benefited from bibliographic studies in ways I wouldn't have imagined prior to studying at UT where we had the Harry Ransom Center just across the lawn. Through my work on the reception history of Paradise Lost, I've become interested in the way that rare books retain traces not only of the production of knowledge that resulted in the printed book itself, but in how these volumes often preserve the presence of early readers. Part of my current interest is in how to prevent what is marginal from becoming more so as we advance deeper into the age of the digital humanities. The digitization of archives often neglects these aspects of books in favor of "clean" exemplars. In the same way that specific search terms and algorithms can preclude serendipitous discoveries among the library stacks for students who never venture into the library, so too does the digital exemplar potentially gloss over a history of readers engaging with these texts. I don’t want the marginal note, the underline, the reader’s reaction to be lost as we mine the text itself for data in ever more ingenious ways.

How would you say your graduate work at UT has shaped your areas of academic interest?

My time at UT was pivotal in shaping my areas of interest. I came to UT for my Ph.D. knowing that I wanted to be a Miltonist, but that I would need to be broader than that in order to survive in the marketplace of jobs and ideas. But I really didn’t know how to focus that energy, and I hadn’t done the sort of archival work that is available at UT. Did I mention that the HRC is just across from the six-pack? I could walk in any afternoon and have a first edition Eikon Basilike sitting next to Milton’s Eikonoklastes on the desk in front of me. Believe me, I miss that! But more importantly, professors such as Doug Bruster and John Rumrich showed me avenues of inquiry I wouldn’t have found alone. It was Professor Bruster’s seminar on “The Renaissance Book” that led to my first discovery of marginalia that was able to bring new knowledge to light. Later, Professor Rumrich generously offered me a chance to examine newly-discovered marginalia by Richard Bentley in a second-edition Paradise Lost and convinced me that the story of Milton’s reception has not yet been fully explored. Every professor I worked with at UT shaped my academic interest even as they were giving me the tools I needed to explore it.

What form has your career path taken before, during, and after your time at UT as a graduate student?

I’m a bit of an unusual case. I am an Army officer who has been on active duty for about 21 years now. I earned my B.A. (Magazine Journalism and History) and my R.O.T.C. commission at Syracuse University in 1993. The Army sent me for my Literature M.A. at UMASS Amherst in 1999-2001, and I taught at West Point for four years following that. Then I returned to the Army as a human resources manager for some years before getting my Ph.D. at UT. I’m now an Assistant Professor at the United States Military Academy, West Point.

Do you have any advice for current English graduate students whose goal is to attain an academic career at a college or university?

Because of my rather unusual path, I haven’t had to compete on the job market, so I’m probably not the best source of advice for this. In general, however, I think the “crisis in the humanities” is nothing new. Not that it should be ignored, but I don’t think we need to panic. Milton and Comenius, in their ways, were responding to a similar crisis in the 1640s. A.E. Housman’s 1892 “Introductory Lecture” responds with force to those who were even then weighing the “utility” of different fields of study. Based on my own experiences, I’m confident that studying the humanities nurtures the type of critical and creative thinking that is needed most where it is valued least. I’d challenge those seeking a life in this profession to figure out how to make that truth more evident.


Disclaimer: The views expressed by Dave Harper are his alone and not those of the United States Military Academy, the United States Army, or the Department of Defense.

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