I think, therefore I ILLUMINATE
Meet CCHS Director Aaron Jaffe.
Professor Jaffe, Department of English, leads the U.S. Department of State’s summer Institute on Contemporary Literature in the College of Arts and Sciences at UofL.
In addition, he is the director of the Commonwealth Center on Humanities and Society. In this Q&A, Jaffe lets us in on what it’s like to risk life and limb for a job, and why the critical distance between Henry James and The Big Lebowski’s Dude isn’t as far as you’d think.
Years at UofL: 12
Degree: B.A., Colgate (1993); Ph.D., Indiana University (2001)
Research Focus: Modern literature, media, and risk.
Why did you become a college professor? Like a lot of professors, I got into the professor business, because I really liked learning about things. For literature professors, this usually means they like learning about things from books and that they were especially good at talking and writing about those things. I liked other subjects as well, but literature seemed to me to be the discipline that took the greediest slice of everything – philosophy, history, art, science, and so on.
What do you teach at UofL? Why? I study and teach modern literature – poetry and prose, literary criticism, cultural studies and critical theory – and my interests and methods are broadly interdisciplinary. I like really difficult books, as well as things everyone else considers garbage.
Right now, I’m researching a big book, a literary reception history of the idea of risk that tries to provide the big picture and get into lots of granular detail. The task of a literary critic – in my view – boils down to making things more interesting, an idea I tried to distill into a book I published (The Way Things Go, Minnesota 2014), which traces the relationship between criticism, novelty and trash.
And, in the classroom, I see this task as central to helping students engage with material in unfamiliar and surprising ways: stop being bored is not just a motto, it’s an intellectual survival strategy. The goal, as Henry James put it, is to “become the kind of person on whom nothing is lost.”
And what’s cooking now? I’m excited about a book series I edit with a friend, The Year’s Work published by Indiana University Press, which aims to promote new thinking in literary studies, critical theory and fan cultures. The idea of the series is cultural studies done right – quirky critical books as smart as the things they study, a forum for adventurous scholarship that moves beyond dry-as-dust parochialism without compromising the scholarly values of erudition and intellectual rigor.
So far, we’ve put together two books, one on The Big Lebowski, another on zombies, and we have books in the pipeline on a variety of topics: nerds, collecting, cocktails, taxidermy, the World Cup, and superheroes. Stay tuned. There may seem to be a lot of ground between Henry James and the Dude, but I have found that a desire for intellectual cross-over and mashing up high and low styles provides both an animating force in my work and a productive laboratory of critical method.
What is something your colleagues don’t know about you? I used to work at a 7-11!
Who or what inspires you? Professor Tatjana Soldat-Jaffe (my wife), my kids, people who are curious to learn.
Tell us more about the Commonwealth Center for Humanities and Society. Since last year, I’ve served as the director of Commonwealth Center for the Humanities and Society. CCHS plays a vital role in supporting the research culture at UofL, and in advocating for the importance of the humanistic disciplines of knowledge to the future of the university. It organizes visits from distinguished speakers; convenes conferences and symposia, large and small; and arranges academic events for faculty, students and the community.
Having a vibrant, intellectually diverse, and renowned research culture in the humanities is essential not only for our faculty but for the university’s mission to multiple constituencies. Above all, CCHS serves the interests of an intellectually curious and engaged student body, directly and indirectly. For a university to be world class, humanities research and creative activity need stable institutional footing as one of three constituents of advanced knowledge alongside the social sciences and the natural sciences.
Indeed, the disciplines of the arts and humanities supply the imaginative glue that holds the three cultures together and that helps them engage, teach and inspire one another and the public at large.
The 2015 U.S. Department of State’s summer Institute on Contemporary Literature at UofL gathers 17 scholars from around the globe to discuss contemporary American literature through a series of seminars, events and discussions.
And what is the summer Institute on Contemporary American Literature? The Institute on Contemporary American Literature is one of the major projects of CCHS. The institute is part of the very successful Study of the United States Institute (or SUSI) program funded by the Department of State. We have been fortunate at UofL to have hosted this prestigious institute more than dozen times – for which we can thank Professor Emeritus Tom Byers, who laid its groundwork. For six weeks, 17 scholars – all professors, lecturers, or university teachers – from all over the world come to UofL to meet with our faculty as well as distinguished writers and scholars from other universities and exchange ideas about what American Literature means in our time.
We’re covering a lot of great material: John Ashbery, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, Percival Everett, Allen Ginsberg, Mat Johnson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-rae Lee, Ben Lerner, Harryette Mullen, Suzan-Lori Parks, Thomas Pynchon, Adrienne Rich, Vanessa Veselka, and Daniel Woodrell. The scholars return to their home countries with cutting edge ideas about literary studies and American literature and often implement these ideas in their syllabi, departments, and curricula.
It’s the kind of experience that makes UofL stand out from other places and that exists nowhere else.
What’s the most thrilling or adventurous thing you’ve ever done? Driving through a harrowing Kansas blizzard to get to a job interview.
This year’s U.S. Department of State Institute on Contemporary American Literature runs from June 12 to July 25, and features participants from Armenia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Montenegro, Nigeria, Pakistan, People's Republic of China, Poland, Rwanda, Taiwan, and Vietnam. To learn more, visit the SUSI website.