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Associate Professor Eric Keenaghan
The most rewarding part about teaching at a public research university is that it exposes me to everything I did not experience as an undergraduate. I attended a small liberal arts college—the best in the nation (if we are to believe U.S. News and World Report)—called Amherst College, in western Massachusetts, not far from Albany. My graduate education was quite different, since I went to Temple University—officially a commonwealth school, though with a substantial private endowment and located in North Philadelphia, a very poor and racially diverse section of the city. As a queer person coming from a low income background, I felt more at home there than at Amherst, and so the transition to UAlbany over a decade ago—when I joined the faculty in 2003—was quite easy. In many ways, it felt like home here…even as Albany is a smaller urban environment than I am used to.
Shortly after I began working here, I was appointed the Honors Program Director for the English Department. I enthusiastically took on the role; and it has been a pleasure for me to resume that post now, about a decade since I first served in this capacity (in 2004-2006). Writing a thesis was one of my most rewarding undergraduate experiences. At Amherst, we didn’t have a separate “Honors” designation there or a separate cohort of students; the college was too small for that. (Only 400 people or so graduate per year from that institution.) But the thesis-wriing experience was formative for my understanding of my potential as a researcher, as well as a creative writer. He doesn’t even suspect it, but Andy Parker, the professor who served as my thesis advisor, left an indelible impression on me and on what has become my pedagogy for mentoring students in individual tutorial scenarios, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Most importantly, when I wrote my undergraduate thesis, I was allowed to explore my interests freely. Some might think that my thesis was unorthodox for an English Studies project. I connected my work in Sociology (my second major) with queer studies, subcultural studies, and critical theory to my explorations in my English classes of non-canonical literature, linguistics and semiotic theory, and critical theory. My thesis’s general topic was on the political resistance one finds in literature (broadly conceived) written about and by “disaffected youth” in the U.S. and the U.K. between the 1970s and early 1990s. That is, I studied punk, usually queer, subcultures and their representative authors and cultural producers who were pissed off at the world. Andy let me explore theory freely—and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari became integral figures for my work then (and Deleuze is still foundational for my research and general thinking, to this day). I also wrote on queer goth and punk porn mags like Blue Blood, subcultural fave comics like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Death series, and the classic punk authors like Kathy Acker and Stewart Home. The thesis shaped up into an exploration of the connections between eroticism, verbal and visual representation, and the language of resistance. The critical project was complemented with a selection of my short stories that explored similar themes as the primary literary and sub/cultural texts I was studying. I was interested in exploring the relationship between critical reading and creative writing, on how criticism could lead to a kind of complementary cultural production; little did I know then, but I was actually writing what we call here in UAlbany’s English Department a generically “hybrid” thesis.
Needless to say, it was pretty out there. It’s now very clear to me why I was not accepted to graduate programs at, say, Harvard or Yale. (I didn’t understand why I was rejected from those programs back then.) Happily, my advisor let me explore my interests to my heart’s content. In retrospect, I am not sure that it was the most professionalizing experience I had during my long student career. Actually, I know that it wasn’t. But it was one of the most rewarding intellectual and creative experiences I had as a student.
As Honors Director, I now keep my own past thesis-writing experience in mind. I sympathize with, and am equipped to help, students who are developing projects with a professionalizing long-term goal in mind—such as professional degree (such as a JD/law degree) or a graduate degree in English Studies or creative writing (MFA, MA, or PhD in English, Comparative Literature, or a related field). But I also actually empathize with students who want to pursue their own interests and explore their own problem questions through their theses, without much immediate concern about the long-term. After all, I was one of those kids, not caring to go into graduate school right away and most concerned with the rare opportunity of exploring my own intellectual interests…a creative freedom especially important for a queer poor kid, as I was back then. But it also is especially pressing now for us to recognize the critical role that innovative thinkers associated with the Arts and the Humanities could play, despite the neglect and disparagement (even within higher education institutions, including our own) of individuals working in English Studies and related disciplines.
Although I’m much older—now the soon-to-be-neighbor of Neil Gaiman, and now a friend or acquaintance with the friends and publishers and agents of writers I once studied, like Kathy Acker (worlds do shrink as one gets older)—my own academic interests and research questions continue to be shaped by my own idiosyncratic interests and those interests’ often politicized relationship to American culture. That connection between politics and culture or society is reflected in my own work: the relationship between North and South American modernisms (explored in my first book, Queering Cold War Poetry), the development of unaligned Leftist and pacifist politics in US poetry during and after the Second World War (currently being explored in my in-progress book project, Life, War, and Love), the im/personal politics of the imagination (a recurrent subject in many of my uncollected published critical essays, an in-progress serial lyrical essay called Études, and my own original poetry), and the intersection of activism and poetic imagination (as in my current major editorial project, which recovers poet-activist Muriel Rukeyser’s uncollected and previously unpublished prose). Those connections also inform most of the undergraduate and graduate courses I have taught in the last several years at UAlbany, including seminars on: anarchist American literature; war culture and twentieth-century literatures; New Left and new social movements and literature since the late 1960s; and LGBTQ poetry and politics from the 1950s homophile movement until today. This semester I am teaching a 400-level capstone seminar that also fits this pedagogical vision, since it is about modern and contemporary U.S. literature and the representation of sex, theories of sexuality, and histories of obscenity and censorship. Next semester, my seminar for juniors entering the Honors sequence (English 399Z) will explore how literary authors—including formidable figures important for my own thinking and writing, such as Muriel Rukeyser, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, Buckminster Fuller, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, and Adrienne Rich—have modeled the uneasy role our creative writers assume when they also take up the mantle of public intellectual. Even though they were writing in past decades (c.1950-1990), they still can teach invaluable lessons to those of us who work in the Humanities and also identify, in some fashion, as activists. What we can glean from their examples ought to be shared with our students, the future faces of researchers, writers, and critical citizens trained in the Humanities.