Meet 2021-2022 Woodruff Fellow – Willem Parshley

This is the fourth post in a series of interviews conducted by the Woodruff Library with the 2021-2022 Woodruff Library and Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) Fellows. Funded by the Laney Graduate School, the library and ECDS award fellowships to advanced graduate students expecting to complete their dissertations by the end of the fellowship period. Fellows are placed within the Woodruff Library and ECDS to work in an area related to their subject specialization or interest, culminating in a formal presentation in the spring.

Willem Parshley

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Portland, Maine, the youngest of three, with two older sisters. Both of my parents are from small towns in Maine (Steven King graduated from Lisbon High School a year ahead of my mother), and nearly all of my childhood was spent there, apart from yearly trips to visit my father’s siblings and cousins in New Hampshire and a couple of stays with my maternal grandparents in Florida. I grew to love the southeast on those visits to my grandparents’ house, shooting hoops on a patch of old, fractured concrete surrounded by swampland, and, after graduating from high school, not yet caring much about anything else school-related, knew, at least, that I wanted to head south for college. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 2013. I then moved back to Portland and worked for two years in a substance abuse recovery center before applying to English doctoral programs in the fall of 2015.

What’s your favorite book? 

An impossible question! But some mainstays are Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë; The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar; Underworld by Don DeLillo; and my grandmother’s well-thumbed copy of The Poetry of Robert Frost (“And who’s to say where / The harvest shall stop?”). Recently I’ve been unable to put away Maurice Blanchot’s The Work of Fire (Le Part du feu).

What’s your favorite thing about Emory/Atlanta? 

The flora and the fauna, particularly the birds. Once upon a time, the nightlife.

What are you researching for your dissertation? 

My dissertation is titled Indefiniteness: Intimacy and Education in Austen, Eliot, and Pater. Responding to the unsettlingly frequent depiction in Anglo-American culture of the seductive teacher of literature, my project reconsiders the ethical implications of the intertwining of eroticism and aesthetic education in British literature of the long nineteenth-century, with a particular focus upon the novel of development, or Bildungsroman. The project draws upon recent work in psychoanalytic literary criticism and the history of sexuality, and in order to limit what is a somewhat expansive topic, focuses upon three especially pedagogically-oriented authors—Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Walter Pater—with each chapter offering a long comparative reading between an author’s early and late fiction.

In their early works, Austen and Eliot complicate an ethical assumption of the British novel of development inherited, I argue, from eighteenth-century sentimentalist philosophy: that the learning of an aesthetic perspective coincides with a protagonist’s moral growth from narcissistic self-interest to social feeling, allowing their “harmonious” integration within a community. In Austen and Eliot’s early fiction, this assumption is greatly compromised by a female protagonist’s aesthetic education becoming merely supplemental to a marriage plot. As aesthetic education blends with courtship, the former becomes indistinguishable from a protagonist’s seduction by a more artistically accomplished “teacher.” Austen and Eliot thus demonstrate that the monogamous channeling of a female protagonist’s desire for aesthetic learning ultimately disrupts the pedagogical aspirations of the traditional novel of development.

Each chapter eventually shifts to the formal experiments of Austen, Eliot, or Walter Pater’s late fiction. I trace modes of desire in Persuasion (1818), Daniel Deronda (1876), and Marius the Epicurean (1885) that render the simple opposition of narcissism and social feeling obsolete and thus evade the seductive relations of their early work. Complementing the scholarship of Sharon Cameron, Andrew H. Miller, and, particularly, Leo Bersani, I argue that these late works elicit desires for intimate relations mediated by literary form, which we might consider ethically and pedagogically appealing alternatives to the highly eroticized depictions of aesthetic education we’ve otherwise inherited.

What interested you about the Woodruff Library Fellowship? 

I was attracted to the Anne and Bill Newton Fellowship because it offers such a great chance to explore areas beyond my dissertation research and to contribute to the library’s pedagogical resources for scholars and teachers. Although my current project doesn’t directly engage the archives, the courses I teach often do, for example through capstone assignments that invite students to read between literature and non-fictional, primary source material. I am excited about developing curricular materials that will help faculty incorporate archival work in Rose-MARBL into their own assignment sequences.

What will you be working on this year for your Woodruff Library Fellowship? 

I will be primarily working to enhance the Rose Library’s pedagogical resources and services for faculty. During the springtime, this will more specifically involve curriculum updates to Rose’s Assignments Portal, a lovely project started by Shanna Early, a former ABN Fellow, and some revision of the Faculty Teaching Fellowship Program, particularly with an eye towards updating syllabi with new pedagogical approaches.

This semester, I’m preparing for this work by developing a new course titled “Black Baseball, 1865-2000,” that draws upon the Rose Library’s African-American and Sports Collection. This course builds upon one I’ve co-taught the past three summers with emeritus professor Bill Gruber titled “Baseball and American Culture.” The course will open with a unit that touches upon baseball’s relationship to nineteenth-century American mythologies of innocence, heroism, and cultural uplift, and the complicated representation of Black baseball in Reconstruction era journalism, including a document analysis assignment focused on Black newspaper coverage of the early days of organized baseball. The second unit explores the formation and dissolution of the American and National Negro Leagues, with a specific focus on Negro League baseball in Atlanta, which will have students accessing the Rose’s collection of player-correspondence and recorded interviews. The third unit studies the integration of Major League Baseball and the cultural-political legacy of Jackie Robinson (including reading documents related to both the FBI’s investigation of Robinson’s involvement with the NAACP and their investigation into a spate of hate mail sent to Hank Aaron as he approached Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, available in the African-American and Sports Collection). I plan for the final unit to consider literary representations of Black baseball and fandom in the latter half of the twentieth-century, including readings of August Wilson’s play Fences (1985), Don DeLillo’s novella Pafko at the Wall (1992) and poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa, Michael Harper, Quincey Troupe, and others.

My hope is that by developing a new course out of Bill’s already excellent syllabus, I’ll be able to transfer some of these approaches to my revision of the Assignment Portals/Faculty Teaching Program come springtime.

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