Anna Abramson is an assistant professor of English. She was a postdoctoral fellow at both MIT and Harvard. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Brown University in English and psychology, and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in English.
Q: What led you to want to pursue English in a Ph.D. in English, what led you to want to become a professor? A: When I was in college, I double majored in English and psychology because I couldn’t pick between two things that I was really interested in. There was probably a little time toward the beginning where I maybe was leaning to be more interested in psychology, but as I took more English classes, I just loved digging into texts; I loved that they frustrated me but that I would often write a paper and feel like I understood the texts in a way that I hadn’t before. I think but I was always interested in the kind of interdisciplinary conversations between English and psychology, at the time, but I wouldn’t say that I necessarily knew that I was going to make a career or profession or life out of it. At that time I knew it was something that I was really interested in, but then I took two years off after college and then I worked in New York for a foundation [as a] staff writer. Basically it was a writing job where I got to use my English background. A big thing that I did was write book jacket copy. I think one of the major reasons I went back to grad school was I always felt like I wanted to be the one writing the book instead of just writing the back jacket of the book. I felt like I missed that kind of intellectual intensity of the longer project [in academic research and writing] rather than these kind of short pieces. So that’s when I thought about going back to grad school, and I ended up going to Berkeley to get my Ph.D. in English, and once I was there I also discovered how much I really like teaching. I felt really energized and excited, being in the classroom with students.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about the research that then you did for your Ph.D. dissertation? A: When I got to grad school, I really wanted to continue to write about English and psychology. I knew I liked modernism and found a lot of these early twentieth century experimental works endlessly fascinating and frustrating — but fascinating for the same reason that they’re frustrating. As I moved towards writing a dissertation, I felt like the kind of psychological focus on the interior that I was interested in wasn’t really the right framework. I realized that actually what I had thought I wanted to write about, I wanted to completely flip on its head. Instead of writing about psychological interiors, I would want to write about environmental exteriors. I actually got this idea from Virginia Woolf, of course, because she talks about characters that you should “steep yourself in their atmosphere.” Atmosphere is not the same as a psychological interior mind. It’s something much more diffuse, ambient, and so then I kind of stepped back. I looked around, and a lot of these modernist writers were experimenting with ways to convey or depict atmosphere, which is a really slippery, difficult thing to convey because it’s so elusive. From there I stepped back to think, “What else is going on with atmosphere at this historical moment?” That’s how it kind of became a larger project about atmosphere in multiple senses of the word: weather and environment, the literal air, moods and aesthetics — so how art and literature create atmosphere. So at the end of the day, my dissertation was pretty much in disagreement with my earlier idea that what modernists were trying to do was to capture interior experience. I wanted to think about how they were capturing these broad atmospheres that people share together, that people inhabit, enveloped by and steeped in and then that led me moving forward to where I am now, which is to be even more interested in how can I put this modernist literature in conversation with larger conversations surrounding the environment. I want to think about a literary period that’s 100 years old but in many ways still in conversation with some of the environmental questions that we’re asking today. I want to think about how maybe modernism can be helpful in terms of the kind of newfound urgency we feel about climate today.
Q: Now you are working on a book project based on your dissertation? A: It’s a book manuscript in a contract with Johns Hopkins University Press, which has a series called the Hopkins Studies in Modernism. They publish a range of work in modernism and kind of are committed to tracing new directions and the subfield of modernism. I’ve gone back to revise and revamp [the dissertation] in a lot of ways. I want to extend it a little bit further into the present moment and to think about whether modernism really should be considered as just this phenomenon basically between the two world wars or or about ways in which modernism might still be alive and well today in contemporary literature. It’s mostly focused on early twentieth century literature, but something I’ve done since it was a dissertation is to write a final chapter, dealing more with how contemporary writers are still drawing on a lot of these techniques and traditions. It’s really interesting to notice how many contemporary writers today read these modernist authors and were profoundly influenced by them and then are still reshaping and reworking and recreating what the modernists created. I’m thinking of it it’s like an unfinished project.
Q: Could you describe the classes that you’re teaching this semester and like what you’re hoping to accomplish with them? A: For the 100-level class, Literary Storms, the idea came from a lot of things I had noticed that, for lack of a better way of putting it, leaked around the edges of the book project that I am working on. Atmosphere is a lot of slow drifting subtle weather, but also in doing this research, I had come across so many amazingly varied instances of storms, whether it’s hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones or rain storms and literature from the late 19th century to the present day. I really thought this was a fascinating kind of thematic thread to put together so that’s kind of what we’re looking at. In this class, [there] are all different authors with different historical context, different styles, some are writing about cities, some are writing about nature, but there’s this one thing that they all have in common, which is a storm. It has different effects and serves different literary purposes in each text, so that it also becomes a class about the fundamentals of close reading and writing. It’s a really helpful unifying thread to think about. In the Modernist class, really what I want to do is introduce students to modernisms, not just to give a definition or to say, “This is what modernism was,” but to show that “modernisms” is something that we can try to define for ourselves by looking at a range of texts written in the early 20th century. What I wanted to do was to give a lot of these authors the chance to explain themselves in their own words.
Q: What has it been like teaching at Amherst for the first time? A: It’s been great. It’s been everything that everyone told me and more, in terms of the kind of community feel and the sense of students being motivated and excited. It’s really resonated with me in terms of all of the different interdisciplinary interests that a lot of students have. I think that you get this sense of the small liberal arts college that is palpable compared to MIT, or Berkeley, which are amazing places, but they’re different. They’re large. There seems to be a much more closely-knit community or sense that the faculty and the students are sharing a community I think there’s closer contact between professors and their students. Things like that are quite different, but then there’s also a lot that’s similar. I think they are three great schools with motivated students, so I do see a lot of similarities between a lot of my MIT students who might never plan to go on to do anything with English, but did have a great appreciation for literature and a great interest in connecting it to their own field.
Q: Outside of your academic work, what do you hope to get involved with around campus? A: At some point down the road, I would like to look into forging connections between English and environmental studies for thinking about ways that we can foster conversations, whether it’s lecture series or classes. I’d like to be asking the questions of what kind of conversations can be going on between English and the environment. I’d like to get involved with the queer/LGBT community, in terms of what support and home away from home access for students. That’s something I would be really interested in and passionate about.