With My Gothic DissertationUniversity of Iowa PhD Anna M. Williams has transformed the dreary diss into a This American Life-style podcast. Williams’ witty writing and compelling audio production allow her the double move of making a critical intervention into the study of the gothic novel, while also making an entertaining and thought-provoking series for non-experts. Williams uses famed novels by authors such as Anne Radcliffe and Mary Shelly as an entry point for a critique of graduate school itself—a Medieval institution of shadowy corners, arcane rituals, and a feudal power structure. The result is a first-of-its-kind work that serves as a model for doing literary scholarship in sound. 

Anna M. Williams

This episode of Phantom Power offers you an exclusive preview of My Gothic Dissertation. First, Mack Hagood interviews Williams about creating the project, then we listen to a full chapter—a unique reading of Frankenstein that explores how the university tradition can restrict access to knowledge even as it tries to produce knowledge. 

You can learn more about Anna M. Williams and her work at her website
This episode features music from Neil Parsons’ 8-Bit Bach Reloaded

[ominous music plays]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power. Episode 15: Goth Diss.

[sound of wind blowing]

[ANNA WILLIAMS]

It’s May 4th 2017, and I’m in room 311 of the English philosophy building. 

[jazzy music plays]

Room 311 is a windowless closet crowded with a conference table and rolling chairs that currently contain the five members of my dissertation committee. A radio scholar, A romanticist, an 18th century-ist education theorist and Victorianist.

[MALE VOICE]

So we’re here to talk prospectus and I welcome you with my colleagues. And we’re interested in raising constructive questions that will help you with clarifying focus, the scope, and the process because the process is so interesting.

[ANNA]

It’s the job of these five people to advise me over the next months, or more likely years as I write my dissertation, which is the only thing standing between me and my doctorate in English. What we’re here to discuss today, isn’t my dissertation per se, but rather my prospectus, a Microsoft Word document spanning anywhere from six to 20 pages that describes the dissertation, the one I haven’t written yet. In this way, think of the prospectus as a sort of dissertation permission slip, a sheet of paper that once signed allows me to climb on board the bus and head into the field of academic literary criticism. And if I don’t earn my committee signatures at the end of this meeting, then I guess I’m going to have to stay behind and eat my bag lunch all by myself.

[music fades out]

[MACK HAGOOD]

Hey, everyone, its Phantom Power. Sounds about sound, the podcast where we explore sound in the arts and humanities. I’m Mack Hagood. My partner, cris cheek is out vagabonding. It’s summer, I caught sight of him via social media on the Appalachian Trail. As you hear this, he may be in London or Rome. cris, if you’re listening, I hope you brought your recorder with you pick up some good sounds for us. And yeah, it’s summer. But there was something I wanted to share with you because it’s hot off the audio presses. One of the really nice and unexpected fringe benefits of doing this show is we’ve started to get invites to come and talk to folks about how to do academic work in sound, and what the potential of podcasting is in the world of sharing ideas. And so I was giving one of those talks at the University of Iowa. And people were telling me we have a PhD student who is doing her dissertation in podcast form. The author’s name is Anna M. Williams, and her project is called My Gothic Dissertation.

[carnival sounds and music play]

It’s a study of the Gothic novel, something that many literary critics, like Williams have studied in the past. But she does it in podcast form. And she uses the Gothic novel as a venue as an avenue into a critique of graduate school itself. So it’s sort of this narrative about being a graduate student about that the actual practice of writing a dissertation, and how that experience is, in itself, a very Gothic style experience. You totally do not have to be a literary scholar, to understand and to, in fact, enjoy this podcast. It’s a compelling project. It’s really nicely produced. And it’s a peek behind the curtain into what grad school is really like.

[sounds and music end, replaced with victorian music]

[ANNA]

It’s as if I’ve been lowered into a mind maze, or like the heroines of the literary genre that developed contemporaneously with the Enlightenment, the Gothic novel, maybe I’ve been lowered into a crumbling ancient castle.

[organ music plays]

What led me to this place is the prospect of a life devoted to literature of professing it as a career. But once I arrived, the prospect of a professorship began promptly to fade from view, like the Gothic ghost that it is. And now I’m trapped here in this Gothic castle known as grad school, with its intricate system of locked passageways, trap doors and dead ends, all lorded over by the mysterious Cult of the profession. The only way out for me, the intrepid heroine, trembling with trepidation, is to figure out the secrets of the ancient cult. To gain some knowledge that for the next 500 pages or so will continue to evade my grasp. I’ve got to show my mastery of the rules of literary criticism, but at the same time critique them. I’ve got to outsmart the Baroque villain of the grad school Gothic, the dissertation itself by doing it, while also simultaneously undoing it. And like those breastfeeding readers enraptured by the illicit world of the Gothic and the 18th and 19th centuries, you’re invited along to witness my own daring PhD adventure, because this is my Gothic dissertation.

[music ends, the sound of thunder is heard]

[MACK]

Like I said, this thing is hot off the presses so hot, in fact that the final episode has not yet been produced, because that’s the episode where Anna Williams defends her dissertation. So I don’t even know she defended it successfully. We’ll have to wait and see. But I want to share an interview that I just did with her this morning. And then I’m also going to share a chapter that she did on the novel Frankenstein, because I think it’s a really interesting reading that she does, and it’s a lot of fun to listen to.

[sound of thunder is heard again]

[ANNA]

So there were three primary things that I wanted to accomplish in this dissertation. And the first one was that it was my actual dissertation. And so I needed to make some kind of critical intervention. So what I ended up doing was highlighting some under recognized educational themes that run through the Gothic. The second thing that I wanted to accomplish was just to share the lived experience of what it’s like to be a grad student, in this particular historical moment in the humanities, because I think there are a lot of hidden obstacles, and a lot of them are emotional, and psychological. And those things don’t get talked about a lot. And so I was pointing out these like emotional factors, this kind of like emotional privilege that people have this, like a thick skin, or whatever you want to call it, that helps certain people succeed more easily than others in academic settings. And then the third thing that I wanted to do, because I didn’t want it to be purely critique, I wanted to offer some positive alternatives for how we might do better in graduate education to make things more accessible. And just a healthier environment for education overall, in general.

[MACK]

One of the really distinctive things that I think is happening here is that you’ve written the dissertation that is impart a critical reflection on the process of writing a dissertation. So this idea of this sort of reflective peek behind the curtain. And in fact, the podcast format itself, were those in the game plan from the beginning?

[ANNA]

They were, the podcast part especially because I had, I had kind of a real one day, this one day and the summer of 2016, I was out walking and listening to this American life. And it was an episode in which Ira Glass and Hannah Jaffe Walt, were talking about their work life balance in their 30s, which was like, exactly where I was, I had just turned 30, I was trying to figure out what to do with my professional life. And they were both talking about how much they love their job, they love making radio, and how difficult it was to balance that with raising children and, and having friends and that kind of thing. And I was thinking like, God, I, maybe this is an unusual response. But I was like, I would love to have a job that I loved that much that I didn’t want to stop doing it at the end of the day. And then all of a sudden, I think this idea had been brewing for a long time, because of the way that I was listening to this American life as like a budding literary scholar, it just occurred to me like what they do is tell stories, and then explain why those stories matter. And that’s what we are supposed to be doing as literary critics like at the very fundamental level. So it just occurred to me, I could totally make a career, doing literary criticism in the same kind of podcast format that has been so successfully pioneered by This American Life. And that very afternoon, when I got home from my walk, I went, you know, I’m gonna see if Iowa Public Radio has any job openings, just on a whim, they’re probably not even based in Iowa City where I live, but I’m just going to check. Long story short, I ended up interning there for a year, while I was writing my perspective. So that is a very long way of telling you that, yes, the podcasting aspect of this project was, that was first, the subject matter came second.

[MACK]

What a cool story. And that really like answers a question that I had, because, you know, this sort of self reflexive move that you make of dissertating about dissertating. I immediately heard that as being in the tradition of, you know, two decades of NPR, and podcast shows, since This American Life, right. I mean, like, show like Sarah Canucks Cereal, you know, that show is as much about the process of reporting the story as it is about the story itself. 

[ANNA]

Yeah. 

[MACK]

One of the things that I really liked about your project is you do what a dissertation is supposed to do, which is sort of like make a critical intervention into a specialized field, right? But at the same time, you also do what a dissertation almost never does, which is frame the work in a manner that is accessible to a wider audience. So being able to do that double move, I thought, like, showed a lot of sort of dexterity on your part, as a writer, and as a producer of audio. 

[ANNA]

Thank you. 

[MACK]

So in the spirit of that, I want to make sure that we define our terms, it’s something I always try to do on the podcast. So what is a gothic novel?

[ANNA]

Sure. So a lot of times people define what makes something a gothic novel based on like a certain set of characteristics that it has. So it’s often set in like a medieval, an imaginary medieval past. And so that’s where the term Gothic originally comes from. Like it’s referring to Gothic architecture, which was, the cathedrals and everything that were built throughout Europe, in the Middle Ages. That’s the style of architecture. So the type of novel in which these characters are living and having their stories played out in the medieval past. That’s why they call it Gothic. So other characteristics are, they often take place in castles or monasteries. So setting is really important. There will usually be some kind of supernatural element or as in the case of Ann Radcliffe, something that seems supernatural at first, but is actually later it has a totally rational explanation. It’s the typical movie made by Scooby Doo as well. You know, and in the Gothic too like Scooby Doo, there will be some kind of villain who is out for personal gain. And they’re trying to scare people away from discovering their plot, with these supernatural or fake supernatural elements anyway. So those are some of the main characteristics of a gothic novel. And the heyday of the Gothic people say, was from about, you know, Horace Walpole 1760s, up until about 1820, which is right after the publication of Frankenstein, which is one of the most famous examples of a gothic novel.

[MACK]

So early on, you talk about an influential approach to the Gothic novel among literature scholars, which sees the genre as a sort of critique of pre modern institutions and ways of thinking, right?

[ANNA]

Yeah, yeah. David Punter and Chris Baltic, and Jared Hogole, I think are three of the major critics who look at the Gothic that way.

[MACK]

And then you extend this critique to the university itself? So you point out that the university is in fact, a premium modern institution.

[ANNA]

In a lot of ways. The university as we know it, began in the Middle Ages and the public imagination, I think, conjures up images of like, Gothic style, gray stone buildings with arches and covered in ivy, when we think about unit, the term university or college. And, I mean, that just speaks to like the medieval roots of this institution. So another element of the Gothic that these critics have pointed out when the Gothic represents these medieval institutions, which typically are the Catholic Church and feudal aristocracy. What they say the Gothic is critiquing about those institutions is the power dynamics that have traditionally ruled those places. 

[MACK]

So in the Gothic novel, we have these sort of sinister characters who have the shadowy institutions behind them. And in grad school, you have the PhD advisor, it’s a publish or perish situation for the student. And there’s a lot of sort of, perhaps arcane symbols and rituals that the student perhaps doesn’t entirely understand and yet needs to be initiated into, in order to gain the approval of this figure.

[ANNA]

Exactly. And, like, described in this way, I know that it sounds, I guess, melodramatic, and I’m totally aware of that. And the Gothic does have a lot of melodramatic elements to it. And so invoking the Gothic to describe the experience of the modern day graduate student is meant to be tongue in cheek, it’s meant to be like partly humorous, but it’s also meant to be partly serious, because that was kind of the tone that I think the Gothic successfully struck. Sorry, go ahead.

[MACK]

And I think you successfully strike that tone through audio production, particularly the way you use music. So sometimes you’re making this kind of argument, or you’re letting a character a graduate student character speak about their experience. And the music behind them is a sort of melodramatic soundtrack, you know?

[ANNA]

Yeah, yeah. And it’s not meant at all to like, undercut what they’re saying. It’s actually meant to evoke their psychological experience of what they’re talking about. Because it can feel very confusing, like you experienced these things as very emotionally painful sometimes and trying. But when you share these things with people, sometimes it can feel hard to be believed. And so you can start to really doubt yourself. And then it’s like this feeling like, you don’t have a right to feel the way that you’re feeling. It’s a complex emotional experience, which is another reason that I think the Gothic fits so well as a lens through which to view it because gaslighting is a phenomenon that often happens in the Gothic. And I think some form of that can happen in graduate school as well, even if it’s not intentional.

[MACK]

Let’s talk about that a little bit. The concept of gas lighting, in some of these Gothic novels, you point out that, there will be a character and there’s a, perhaps a secret passage that enters into her bedroom, and she finds evidence that someone has been opening this passage way into her bedroom. And she’s in this very insecure position. And then, you know, the master of the house is like, there’s no secret passageway into your bedroom. Like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And you’re being emotional. Right?

[ANNA]

Exactly. Yeah.

[MACK]

So in what ways is, is the relationship with the grad school advisor like that this sort of emotionally invalidating relationship as you put it?

[ANNA]

Well, I think it’s hardly ever intentional. But I think that for that reason, there needs to be more intention around how PhD advisors interact with their advisors, because I think sometimes PhD advisors forget how much authority they have in the eyes of the people that they advise. In terms of the advisee being invalidated, I think it happens often in terms of just inconsistency from one interaction to the next with the advisor like, and it could just be the advisors busy and forgot that they told them last time, something totally different than what they’re telling them now. But for the advisee, it feels so confusing and distressing.

[MACK]

Yeah. I remember having that experience. And I’m so afraid that I’ve probably perpetuated the same thing. As a professor at this point, you know?

[ANNA]

Well, I think that I’m I am almost certain that I’ve done the exact same thing to my own students. I like I said, I don’t think that it’s intentional. Like just being invested  and knowing what their experience of you is, and like seeking feedback, and not being afraid of their feedback is something that I think is really important for all of us to incorporate into our teaching practices, including myself.

[MACK]

So I’m, I guess, a Gen Xer. I don’t know how much stock we should put in these labels. But I think what your project really made me think a lot about this criticism that I hear from people of my generation about millennials, that they’re too thin skinned, or that the work environment has to change for them. And I’m always just like, confused by that, because I’m like, isn’t that a good thing? Like, the, the whole criticism seems to be like, well, why can’t they just suck it up? And just accept the same crappy things that we accepted? Do you have any thoughts about that?

[ANNA]

Sure. Um, so I just don’t personally, like put a whole lot of stock into the like lumping everybody born in between certain years into a category as being like, enough of the same to talk about. If I was going to accept the millennial category, as something worth talking about, I think, an entire group of like, generally young people who are pushing for things to be different, and for things to be better. Like, I don’t understand why people would think of that as a bad thing. Especially if these are academic humanists who are making this argument about millennials, that seems really ironic to me. Because so much of post-structuralist theory, has taught us to do the very thing that they’re telling us, we shouldn’t be doing. That very attitude that you’re describing of like, well, I went through this, and I survived, and I maybe am even better for having done it. So you have to do it too. And you should just suck it up. That is used as a rationale to cover like, all manner sense, if it’s young people, mainly, quote unquote, Millennials who are challenging these systems. Like, maybe it makes sense, maybe it’s because the times have changed, the economy has changed and the way that we train people needs to change to like to fit better.

[carnival music plays again]

[MACK]

That’s Anna Williams, PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa, and author of My Gothic Dissertation. And now without further ado, let’s listen to a chapter from Anna’s dissertation. It is chapter two, entitled Frankenstein, or the Modern Lift Master Part One.

[music fades out, eerie music replaces it]

[FEMALE VOICE]

Follow me, please.

[ANNA]

When Frederic Frankenstein inherits the estate of his grandfather, Victor in the 1974, Mel Brooks classic Young Frankenstein it’s not the infamous laboratory or equipment that interested him most.

[FEMALE VOICE]

This is your room. It was your grandfather Victor’s room.

[ANNA]

It’s the library.The books.

[MALE VOICE 2]

Well, seem to be quite a few books.

[FEMALE VOICE]

This was Victor’s. The barons Medical Library.

[MALE VOICE 2]

And where’s my grandfather’s private library?

[FEMALE VOICE]

I didn’t know what you mean, sir.

[MALE VOICE 2]

Well, these books are all very general, any doctor might have in this study.

[FEMALE VOICE]

This is the only library I know of Dr. Frankenstein.

[MALE VOICE 2]

Frankenstein. Well, we’ll see.

[ANNA]

After initially being deflected by Cloris Leachman as faur blooker, the housekeeper of the estate and in this retelling Victor Frankenstein’s former lover, Frankenstein played by Iowa’s own Gene Wilder eventually discovers a secret passageway that leads to what he desires.

[MALE VOICE 2]

What is this place? A music room?

[FEMALE VOICE]

But there’s nothing here but books and papers. 

[MALE VOICE 2]

Books and papers? It is! This is my grandfather’s private library! I feel it. Look, look at this!

[ANNA]

laid out on his grandfather’s desk is a large volume with the comedic Mel Brooksian title, how I did it by Victor Frankenstein. The it of course, being how he created his infamous monster.

[thunder sound effect]

Frankenstein proceeds to read it from cover to cover. This is what he’s been looking for all along the precise knowledge of his grandfather’s notorious work. The instructional guide for making a monster, the very thing he’s been insisting he doesn’t care about, has distanced himself from with the revised pronunciation of his name. As it turns out, he did care a little bit after all.

Although the film Young Frankenstein purposely even gleefully re inscribes a lot of early Hollywood’s inaccuracies in depicting Mary Shelley’s work, things that were never actually in the novel like the hunchback assistant, the Gothic castle the bolt of lightning causing the monster to come to life. Frankenstein’s interest in his grandfather’s books is actually a pretty insightful moment that harkens back to the 1818 text.

[violin music plays]

Subtitled the modern prometheus, the original novel Frankenstein deals like so many stories in Western civilization with forbidden knowledge. It’s a reference to the Titan Prometheus, who in ancient Greek mythology, disobeyed the wishes of Zeus and stole fire from Mount Olympus to give to the humans. This fire is often interpreted as a metaphor for the divine spark of knowledge that once lit can continue being kindled to become evermore large and powerful.

And in the hands of the humans, it’s not only life giving but also potentially destructive in the literal sense that it like burns things, and also in the metaphorical sense that it challenges the omnipotence of the gods. The more the humans know, the less power the Olympians have over them. And this is why Zeus decreed that Prometheus would be chained to a rock and tortured forever. His liver being eaten out of him by Eagles every day, only ro regenerate overnight for the next round.

[orchestra music plays]

Subtitling her novel The Modern Prometheus casts Shelley’s protagonist Victor Frankenstein as a similar figure who filters knowledge from the divine realm. Only he does sell at the University of Engleshtops in the late 18th century. There after years of intense study in his rented student lodgings, he discovers the secret to creating human life. But here’s where the insightful moment by Mel Brooks comes in. Frankenstein’s years of intense study focused among other things, on three ancient philosophers that people in positions of authority didn’t want him reading. Old,forbidden books, the stuff of private libraries, and those who didn’t want this modern for me theist reading these things. The Zeuses of Marry Shelley’s story where Victor’s own father Alphonse Frankenstein, and one of his professors at the university, a crass old natural philosopher named Maziar Cremp. And the ancient philosophers they didn’t want Victor reading?

[CREMP]

Paris office, an arrogant foolish swift. Albertus Magnus, his nonsense with exploded 500 years ago. What’s your name?

[FRANKENSTEIN]

Victor Frankenstein, sir, of Geneva.

[ANNA]

This imagined first exchange between Victor and Cremp is from the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And it isn’t far off from what Victor really says about his discouraging educational history in the novel, The occasion for which is often forgotten by modern readers. Shelley’s story begins with a frame narrative, in which an ambitious naval explorer named Robert Walton finds a hagard near death Victor drifting across the Arctic sea on an iceberg.

[ROBERT WALTON]

His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully Amai seated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition.

[ANNA]

His startling appearance, coupled with the fact that Walton ship is trapped motionless in a sea of ice gives Victor good reason to tell us tale. Beginning with the early years growing up in Geneva, and how one summer he made a chance discovery that would change the course of his life forever.

[FRANKENSTEIN]

When I was 13 years of age, we all went on a party of pleasure to the baths near Tronton. The clemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the inn. In this house, I chanced to find the volume of the works of Cornelius Agripo. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind.

[ANNA]

Agrippo was a 16th century theologian, and scholars have generally assume the book Victor found was one of the three volumes of his day occult philosophy, or of a cult philosophy, a kind of compendium of both learned and folk ideas about magic. Victor recalls how dazzled he was by his discovery. But when he presented the book to his father, he quote, looked carelessly at the title page, recognized Agrippo’s name,

[VICTOR’S FATHER]

Ah, Cornelious Agrippo.

[ANNA]

And said,

[VICTOR’S FATHER]

My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this, it is sad trash.

[ANNA]

After recounting this memory, Victor pauses to tell Walton that on reflection, it’s this moment that set into motion the series of events that would lead him to create a monster and bring about his life’s ruin. And this is important because as far as I know, no other literary scholars have given this moment the credit it’s due. Frankenstein has widely, famously been read as a novel about hubris, overreaching ambition, and pride. People consider Victor’s conquering of human mortality, to be motivated by an impulse to challenge the power of God and achieve personal immortality through things. But in my reading, it’s not God that Victor’s challenging, it’s his teachers. Those who cast themselves as the mortal keepers of knowledge, who can dictate to Victor what is sad trash and what is not. And what he really wants isn’t fame. Rather, it’s to redeem the work that so captivated his imagination, to show his father and Crimp not only that they were wrong and trying to forbid him from reading those books. But also that the forbidding of any knowledge from interested students is just bad pedagogy.

[FRANKENSTEIN]

I cannot help remarking here the many opportunities instructors possess directing the attention of their pupils to useful knowledge, which they utterly neglect.

[ANNA]

In other words, when they say things like, do not waste your time upon this, it is sad trash.

This moment at the end with his father is the first in a series of intellectual confrontations, episodes of what Sherry traffic would call epistemic violence that caused Victor to rebel. As he tells Walton, had his father had a little more patience. Have you taken the time to explain that, quote, modern science had just proven Agrippo’s theories and therefore had, quote, much greater powers. Then Victor says he probably would have dropped it. But, like Prometheus is challenging Zeus. Victor was only made more defiant by his father’s cursory glance, the careless brushing off of his intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm. He doubled down in his obsession with the occult, determined to demonstrate the worthiness of his interests, despite his father’s attempts to divert them to deem them unworthy of serious pursuit, to block has access with shame.

[FEMALE VOICE 2]

For now, please wait

[ANNA]

On a dreary morning and November, about six months after passing my prospectus, and then my 2800 accord, a slowly drifting iceberg straight into the sea of cars waiting to get into the parking lot of the EPB, the English philosophy building. We’re all just idling here and patiently waiting for people to exit the lot. So we can enter. It’s a one in one out situation you’d expect from some kind of nightclub. Only the spot we’re waiting to enter is actually four and a half floors of poorly lit brutalist architecture that was recently voted the ugliest building in the state of Iowa. Still, though, it’s a campus hotspot because it has is to underfunded general education courses that are every student is required to take rhetoric and the interpretation of literature, which is what I need to get into teach. Okay,I am in my car, hold on, gotta move up. Two people actually, three people just gave up in front of me, turned around and drove away. But I’m going to go try to talk to some of the other people who are sitting in line. On this day, it begins to dawn on me, this whole parking lot situation feels like a metaphor for the general feeling of blocked access that’s plagued me through this entire grad school experience. And since I have a kit of recording equipment from the radio essays class I’m taking, I work up the nerve to get out and interview the people in front of me. I want to know who they are, why they need to get into the lot. And if they find this situation, as frustrating as I do. The first car I approach is a blue Mercedes SUV, ask you a few questions. The driver seems startled, but agrees to talk to me. How long have you been waiting in this line?

[DRIVER 1]

I think it’s already 10 minute. Yeah.

[ANNA]

Do you have a class in there?

[DRIVER 1]

Oh, yeah. I have a class. It’s in the linguist center I think?

[ANNA]

The linguist center, probably the second ugliest building in the state of Iowa. It houses the education department. He tells me that he’s an undergrad, a sophomore. And he waits in this line three days a week like me.

[DRIVER 1]

So basically, my classes start at 12:30. So you know, I always come here at 11:40. You know, and maybe always with to the total as I can go in and.

[ANNA]

30 minutes to get it. pretty typical. That giant work was so by the way, is it the nearby power plant, and it signals that it’s now 12 o’clock. Meeting 30 minutes is also the amount of time I have before I should be calling roll in front of my classroom. Sorry, Did I scare you? 

[DRIVER 2]

Yeah just a little bit.

[ANNA]

I’m doing a radio story on the HPV parking lot line. Would you be willing to answer a couple questions for me? 

[DRIVER 2]

Sure. 

[ANNA]

Okay, so what’s your name? 

[DRIVER 2]

Paula.

[ANNA]

Okay. Hi, Paula. I’m Anna. So how long have you been waiting in this line today?

[DRIVER 2]

I’ve been waiting approximately one hour. 

[ANNA]

One hour? I find out that Paula is another undergraduate student. And unlike most, she’s not actually waiting to get into a class. She’s been in this line for an hour, she tells me because she needs to pick up a computer from her friend. 

[DRIVER 2]

So the person like can’t leave the building. And obviously, I can’t like park my car and go in. So I’ll just wait about which is fine. I currently don’t have anything to do. So it all works out. 

[ANNA]

Unfortunately, I do have something to do. So for me, it doesn’t really all work out. But I thank Paula for her time anyway, and move on. I did this thing for three days, getting out of my car and interviewing the people in front of me. And each time every single person I talked to was an undergraduate student and one of them was one of my undergraduate students. Hi, Thomas. I’m Anna, you look familiar. Were you one of my students?

[THOMAS]

Yeah. First our rhetoric class. 

[ANNA]

Yeah, you are my rhetoric student. Hey, how are you doing? As nice as it is to see them. It doesn’t feel quite right to be competing for resources with my own students. But what also doesn’t feel right is that while I was conducting all these interviews with the undergrads in front of me, there was something else happening to right beside us there was this other line that we were all restricted from entering. Or really, it’s kind of a non line because there’s never any one in it. It’s reserved for faculty members. And periodically as we were talking, they would zoom past us and enter the lot with their prepaid passes. No 30 minute wait, not even a one minute wait. They just pull up, swipe a card and go right in. And if that’s not frustrating enough, once they got through the there’s also be these large swaths of empty parking spaces on reserve for them just lying in wait to receive their Subarus and Volkswagens taunting all of us in the plebeian line. Every time a faculty member would zoom past, I’d asked the undergrad I was interviewing how they felt about it, including this Junior named Shana. At first, she said that no one should get special privileges. But then she made one important caveat.

[SHANA]

No, no, I don’t I don’t think so. Besides teachers, because I know there that’s important for them to be there on time, but they already have so they can go like they can go ahead and go in. So

well. 

[ANNA]

Actually, I’m a teacher. Teachers already have a line she was saying. The one people were zooming past us and when I revealed to her that I’m a teacher, she seemed kind of shocked at first, but then she asked something pretty telling.

[SHANA]

Do you lead discussion? Or are you like a teacher like the?

[ANNA]

The question is whether I’m a real teacher or mearly a discussion leader, a graduate teaching assistant who does things like take attendance grade papers, and lead breakout discussion groups once a week for large lecture classes. Still a person for the record who does very important things and deserves reliable access to their workplace. And I did serve as a discussion leader for intro to the English major when I first came here back in 2013. But for the past four years, I’ve been independently teaching the same intro level courses as the faculty members in my department. Even though I’m still technically called an assistant. Unwittingly, Shana’s question revealed the divide she had many others seem to see between grad students and real teachers, the divide between me and the ones that can glide right past this gate.

[jazz music plays]

Just like the line for the EP parking lot, only so many make it through this gauntlet of PhD work in the United States. According to the Council of graduate schools, only about 50% of students who start doctoral programs in the humanities will finish, at least in their first 10 years. And while that may seem like a long time, according to a 2016 report by the Modern Language Association, the average number of years it takes to complete a PhD in the humanities is 9.2. To get an MD, that is to be a medical doctor, and trusted with other people’s lives, takes just eight years of grad school. Of course, that doesn’t include all the residences that follow but still, postdocs are a common path for humanities PhDs as well. Meaning that in the United States, the time it takes to be able to teach Shakespeare to college kids is not all that different from the time it takes to be able to perform surgery on them. Why? What could possibly be so important about teaching college lit courses that it takes this long for someone to prove they’re worthy of doing it? Who are what are the lift masters in that process? And what is the freaking hold up? 

[music fades out]

For those of us trapped in the pursuit of our English PhDs, Lift masters come in many forms, and a lot of them are psychological.

[FEMALE VOICE 2]

Lot is for now. Please wait.

[ANNA]

Now back in the car, I’m stuck idling indignantly behind this lift master again, the master of lifting or not lifting the gates. And from here I can’t help it see its unwavering arm as reminiscent of another kind of barrier I’m stuck behind as well. My own feeling of intellectual subordination at this stage in my career. It says if the 12 foot reflective steel arm morphs before my eyes into the Alphonse is and Cramps of my own education story. The ones who, in their well intentioned and less blunt way have nevertheless told me my ideas are sad, trash, and not worth pursuing. Because every step so far, my comps exam, the perspectives meeting, it all feels like trying to prove that my ideas, my interests and powers of perception, are enough to grant me access to some kind of PhD Promised Land, my own personal spot in academia. Each time It feels like I’m being asked to produce some sort of pass that adheres to a set of English discipline rules I don’t completely understand. And I’ve managed to keep producing one up until this point that somehow, bafflingly turned out to be valid. But every time it seems to be just barely so

and it’s just barely ness makes my ability to produce it the next time even less surefooted. Because I’ve lost faith in its validity. In my validity. I feel ashamed that such important people seem to find my perspective, so flawed, but it’s the same time like with Victor, there’s this hard headed persistence to through all of this, it feels like the only thing keeping me from being one of those 50% that turn around and give up. Maybe driving to the nearest marketing firm or Starbucks drive through to submit a resume is my own sheer stubbornness. This conviction that I do deserve a spot in that lab. I’m more than just some undergrad who needs to pick up a computer from her friend. And in this process of getting my PhD, the more I feel like I’m being treated that way, like some frivolous underling on a mundane mission, easily brushed off and invalidated, the more hard headed I become. When Victor arrives at the University of English shot in some undisclosed year of the late 18th century, he’s immediately met with more disregard of his interests. Another unyielding gate standing between him and what he wants to study. Soon after arrival, he meets with Crimp. And although it occurs a bit differently in the novel than in the film version you heard earlier, the outcome is pretty much the same.

[FRANKENSTEIN]

He received me with politeness and asked me several questions concerning my progress and the different branches of science pertaining to natural philosophy. I mentioned it is true with fear and trembling The only authors I had ever read upon those subjects. The professor starRed.

[ANNA]

Sure enough, in response to Victor’s meek proposal of his academic interests, cramped assumes the familiar position of indifferent authority. scoffing Have you really spent your time in reading such nonsense?

[CRIMP]

Every minute? every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly lost. An entirely lost your burden your memory with exploded systems and useless names? Good God. What does it land if you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fantasies which were so greedily imbibed, or 1000 years old, and is musty as they are ancient, I little expected in this enlightened and scientific age to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and para Celsius, my dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew.

[ANNA]

although Victor claims he was, quote, not disappointed because he had long considered those authors useless. Thanks to his father. He still harbors an admiration for them and feels contempt for modern scientist. Because why is it exactly that Mr. Crump and Alphonse Frankenstein are so quick to disregard Victor’s interest? A lot of critics take the answer for granted. But really, why exactly are a group of parasitosis and Albertus Magnus sad trash and nonsense? This matters a lot in my reading of the novel, which I see as a sort of Tales, Victor’s one pree creature and one post. Pre creature Victor is the one with an interest in the occult, a curious student whose imagination has been kindled and he thinks he’s found something valuable that his teachers have overlooked. Despite their discouragement, he secretly pursues those interests in an effort to prove them wrong, which turns out to work. Combining occult knowledge with modern science, Victor discovers the method to reanimate dead matter, which is an astounding accomplishment in the realm of human knowledge. Victor was right about the potential of those forbidden books all along. The only thing that makes the creature into a monster was Victor’s abandonment of it, which I read as a moment in which he becomes a turncoat, a traitor to his own convictions, a sellout who gives in to his intellectual detractors. So again, I ask, what exactly were those detractors saying? What message about science and knowledge did Victor internalize from his father and Crimp that led to the making of a monster? What epistemic gate had been constructed in modern science, that Victor worked all those years to furtively tear down, only to end up abandoning it, and siding with the lift masters after all. To answer this question for myself, I reached out to Palma Muno, a history professor at Middlebury College and author of Solomon’s secret arts, a book about attitudes toward the occult during the Age of Enlightenment, Professor Muno was overseas in Oxford at the time, so our Skype connection here is a little less than optimal. But I asked him why someone like Victor’s father, a magistrate, for the government of Geneva and the late 18th century, would have called a group of sad trash.

[PALMA MUNO]

Well, it wasn’t taken very seriously by that time. It was it was regarded as a product of superstition and as something that had more to do with the period in which it was written, then, it had more to say to pre reformation society, even though Agrippo was a Protestant, probably were not certain of that. And the reputation of Geneva was for sort of Calvinist rationalism. So it’s, it’s not at all surprising that that would be the case. The image of Geneva is a very straight laced rationalist society. And so I think this is meant to bolster that image in the mind of the reader.

[ANNA]

I see. He’s referring, of course, to John Calvin, the puritanical theologian best known for his theory of predestination. 200 years before, Calvin had promoted the Protestant Reformation from Geneva, and his brand of rationalism or the belief that reason always trump’s emotion is reflected in his theory that all human wisdom consists of two parts, knowledge of God, and knowledge of oneself. knowledge of God and here’s the rational part, can only be attained through the reading of Scripture and the exercise of one’s reason in interpreting that scripture. Unlike this text and reason centric theory of knowledge, a cultist like Agrippo believes in the knowledge of God could be attained through secrets embedded in nature itself. Muno talked about this when I asked him about Albertus Magnus, who’s not actually in the book, Solomon secret hearts because, as it turns out, he was never really an occultist.

[PULMA]

And those who think that, you know, this, nature holds a cult secrets, hidden revelations, come to believe that Albertus was somehow privy to them in the same way King Solomon was pretty to them. I mean, this is but this is the myth of Solomon on which the title of the book is based. The idea that Solomon had this knowledge of all things in the world, and because he had that knowledge, he knew also the hidden things in the world. And the hidden things in the world were secrets that were put there by God that would, could raise you to a higher spiritual plane.

[ANNA]

So being thinkers of the occult tradition, a grip and parasitosis believes that nature helps secret divine knowledge that if humans could find it would bring them closer to God. Or according to their pious critics could usurp the divine knowledge of God that humans were never meant to wield. But for a Calvinist rationalist like Alphonse Frankenstein, the belief that knowledge could be attained this way, would have looked like superstition, naive, magical thinking that he didn’t want his son falling for. This debate surrounding the way we know things is also what crime seems to take up when he calls the work of a grip and the like, nonsense and exploded systems. But of course, Victor didn’t rely on mere superstition or magical thinking to gain his knowledge. He combined the old with the new. In my reading, it was never that he wanted to prove that the old way was the right one. Just that the rationalist distinction his father and crimp were making was too simplistic and closed minded. Sure, Victor came to Ingolstadt devoted to his medieval occult philosophers. But he did delve into the modern sciences with quote, an order that was the astonishment of his fellow students and a proficiency that all his teachers, including Crimp. Within two years, Victor tells Walton, he had maxed out his teachers abilities. by their own admission, he had nothing left to learn from them, and so he was considering leaving Ingolstadt and going home. What made him decide stay? Was the decision to set off on a kind of independent study, to answer this question that had continued to nip at his mind, a vestige of his still lingering admiration of occult philosophy.

[FRANKENSTEIN]

One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and indeed, any animal and dude with life wins, I often ask myself, did the principle of life proceed?

[ANNA]

In other words, what makes things alive?

[FRANKENSTEIN]

It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery. Yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness to not restrain our inquiries?

[ANNA]

He decides to be brave and break through that careless restraint. Combining his advanced skills in the modern sciences, things like anatomy, chemistry, physics, biology, with the occult belief that such a question can be answered. Victor goes on to fulfill his quest. He proves that modern and occult science aren’t mutually exclusive, as his father in crime would have him believe. It’s alive. He guns it through that intellectual gate and earns himself a permanent spot in any academic lot he deserves. And then he gives it all up. But that’s next time in My Gothic Dissertation. Back to my own dreary morning, or now afternoon in November, it’s 12:21. I’m second in line, and someone’s leaving. Oh, no. There’s a faculty member creeping up in the other in the other lane. Thomas hasn’t pressed. Okay, Thomas is pressing the button but I think that when these faculty members go in, I won’t be able to go in. Let’s see what happens okay. Thomas is going here. I go to faculty members both press the button before me.

[FEMALE VOICE 2]

Please press the button then take the parking ticket. 

[ANNA]

Sweet. 

[FEMALE VOICE 2]

Please take the parking ticket. Please enter following the guide.

[ANNA]

Up goes the lift master and I drive to find a place to park after 36 minutes spent in the car behind my own former student. I now have nine more before the beginning of my class, which translates to just enough time to find a spot. gather my motley assortment of bags, get inside, drop the motley assortment of bags in my basement office and dash up to my second floor classroom. There will be 50 minutes of discussing Wuthering Heights that an hour back in the basement coaching students on their essays or alternately fielding grade complaints about their essays. Then another 50 minutes of discussing weathering heights with another set of students. Finally, I’ll gather my belongings and head home to keep working on my dissertation. And after two more days, I’ll be back to do it all again. Because I’m chained to this rock for as long as it takes me to finish writing this thing. 

[birds cawing]

It’s kind of the inverse of Prometheus’ liver actually, after what feels like an eternity behind the gate. My past keeps materializing just in time, only to disappear for me to remake all over again the next round, like this chapter, now complete, but dissipating into the stark realization that after all of this, I have to write another one.

[rock music plays then fades out, electric pop plays]

[MACK]

That’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks to Anna Williams for being on the show. Her podcast does not have a home yet, but you can hear more excerpts at her website. The link is in the show notes for this podcast and on our website. Where as always, you can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to the things we talked about, as well as find previous episodes of the show. It’s all at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. And we’d love it if you would rate and review us in Apple podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. Today’s show was edited by me Mack Hagood with music from Neil Parsons Eight Bit Bach album. We’ll put a link to the band camp page for that in our show notes. And our intern is Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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