Crime, 19thC Literary Studies, and Graduate School: Ashna Bhagwanani


I’ve been trying to see Ashna talk about her work ever since I had to leave her panel at the Canadian Association for American Studies conference in Ottawa in 2011 due to a coughing fit. So when I saw the open invitation to her PhD defense in July, it seemed a perfect opportunity. Asha defended successfully (congratulations!) and has agreed to answer a few questions.

JLH: What made you choose Waterloo’s PhD program?
AB: I chose Waterloo’s PhD program because the Department was extremely receptive to my interdisciplinary project.  After visiting the campus, I knew immediately that Waterloo was the place where my proposed research would flourish.

JLH: In your PhD defense you opened by talking a bit about your interdisciplinary background; how did that influence your research?
AB: My interdisciplinary training influenced me immensely.  The rough idea for my dissertation came to me during my undergraduate studies.  At the time I was pursuing a Specialist in English and a Major in Criminology at the University of Toronto.  I was taking an American Literature course alongside one entitled Deviance – two courses which initially seemed to be polar opposites.  After a couple of weeks though, I began to notices similarities and intersections between the two materials. It occurred to me that in some way, each of the fictional characters I had become so intimately acquainted with after studying them in my American Literature course could be classified as a deviant.  It struck me that characters like Huck Finn, Henry David Thoreau, Hester Prynne, Holden Caufield, Jay Gatsby – all of them were deemed deviants for different reasons by the American community.  What became clear to me then was that classic American works permitted an understanding of human subjectivity that sociological data could never provide.

JLH: Looking back now, did you know the dissertation was going to take the shape it did?
AB: I didn’t realize that the project would take the shape that it did at all.  The National Police Gazette, which is a large component of the dissertation, was actually something I inadvertently stumbled upon while doing completely unrelated research for Dr. Lamont’s (my supervisor) course on American Literary Recovery.  The research I conducted on the Police Gazette at the New York Public Library was by far the most interesting of all the research I did for this dissertation.  The chapter on the Police Gazette really helped provide me with a clearer picture of the type of arguments I wanted to make going forth in the dissertation.

JLH: Your defense was unusual, in that your external examiner (Dr. Christiana Gregoriou) was really interested in talking about your future research. Did you anticipate this? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
AB: I had actually anticipated these types of questions after reading a number of Dr. Gregoriou’s publications.  Her work was inspiring and made me think about how I might incorporate quantitative methods of analysis into my work since it does use the social sciences as its theoretical framework.

JLH: I have no recollection of what I did between submitting the completed dissertation and defending it—it’s all a haze. I know one of your colleagues who has just submitted is going camping; some people crash, others throw themselves into sending things out for publication. What did you do?
AB: My husband and I are board game fanatics! My relaxation time between studying included multiple rounds of Catan and Dominion.  And of course, some mindless television!

JLH: A slew of my publications have developed out of tangents—a luxury you don’t have when writing and thinking about tuition. Did you hit anything that made you think “okay, I HAVE to come back to this”?
AB: Again, it would have to be The National Police Gazette.  There’s a very interesting weekly segment in the magazine entitled “Lives of the Felons” which reveals the exploits of the week’s most wanted criminal in detail. This section still exists in today’s online version of the Police Gazette and is updated yearly. I’m particularly interested in looking at previous and modern “Lives of the Felons” columns and using some of the corpus linguistic tools that Dr. Gregoriou suggested like the “cadence” tool (which examines the frequency with which certain words are used) or a “keyword” tool (which populates a list of words that characterizes a text).

JLH: Any post-dissertation reading plans?
AB: I plan on reading Will Ferguson’s 419 which was the 2012 recipient of the Giller Prize – it’s been sitting on my desk for ages.  I also want to go back and re-read some of the American classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and The Great Gatsby.  Although I didn’t discuss these in the dissertation, each of these was inspirational in its own special way.


8 responses to “Crime, 19thC Literary Studies, and Graduate School: Ashna Bhagwanani

  1. “Incorporating quantitative methods of analysis” into Literature studies sounds fascinating! I wonder if it would be along the lines of Franco Moretti’s approach? Or something new!

    • Ashna Bhagwanani

      I`m not familiar with Franco Moretti`s work, but will certainly have a look at it after your comment! I was thinking along the lines of using some of the corpus linguistic tools that Dr. Gregoriou had suggested. For example, I think it will be extremely beneficial to examine the specific adjectives associated with deviance or self-reliance (by creating a “concordance”). Or maybe even using something like a keyword tool in order to populate a list of words which characterizes these selected tests of American deviance.

  2. Ashna — this is a question originating out of your defence discussion. Have you thought any further about Professor Harris’s question “What would a sociological literary theory look like?” I’d be interested to know your thoughts!


  3. Ashna Bhagwanani

    Lacey, I would imagine that it would incorporate some of the specific tools that I suggested above in regards to Gord`s comment. It`s my hope that I`d be able to use some version of a sociological literary theory to eventually add more precision to the slippery term of deviance. It`s actually something that I have been thinking a lot about since the defense!

  4. Pingback: A great conference at Waterloo |

  5. Hi Ashna,

    Back in 2011 I took an exchange unit at the University of Waterloo, and you were my teacher for The Short Story. Would I be able to get in contact with you? My Waterloo email has since expired upon my return to Australia and I would relish the opportunity to ask you questions regarding literature.

    Thank you,

    • Hi Casey,

      I remember you well! I apologize for the delay in getting back to you. I had replied earlier and only now am realizing it didn’t get posted. You can contact me at Hope you are doing well.

      • Casey Williams

        Hi Ashna,

        I also delayed writing back to you because I wasn’t totally sure what it was I wanted to ask, but I believe I have it now. Unfortunately, upon drafting an email to your Waterloo address (as listed above) it states that it is no longer active.
        My personal email is; if you would like to send a message to that address we can go from there.

        Thank you for getting back to me!


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