Once again, I want to welcome one of our newest department members, Dr. Carter Neal. He brings professional expertise in developing and administering composition programs, as well as academic expertise in nineteenth-century American literature. But what many may find most intriguing is his current work on the ethics and aesthetics of the “spoiler alert,” which he considers in relation to contemporary television and technology, as well as paper production and nineteenth-century big books. Read on to find out more.
JLH: Welcome to UWaterloo. While you are a Canadian resident, this is your first time teaching in a Canadian institution. What interests you about the transition?
CN: Obviously it is an interesting time to make such a move, and I’m learning to adjust to things like the lack of pennies, slightly different accents and vocal inflections, and I’m developing a host of humorous answers to the curious questions about American politics. In many ways, however, Waterloo feels familiar. While I still claim the American South (Tennessee and Virginia) as “home,” I have spent most of my life living in the Midwest and near the Great Lakes, so much of the topography blends together easily.
At the moment, what interests me most is one of the differences that demands more than a moment of reflection: the reality of and attitudes towards diversity, immigration, and multiculturalism. I recently read a piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic that tries to think through the politics of populism and immigration in Canada. Thompson’s short piece necessarily overlooks many things (he glosses over the role of imperialism, he gives short shrift to continuing issues of settler colonialism, and he doesn’t fully engage with the internal differences of the United States and Canada), but I think his larger point that diversity looks and functions differently seems correct and points me towards something I need to learn. Thompson’s piece of “cansplaining” (J. J. McCollough’s term for explaining Canada’s uniqueness to the world) isn’t by any means a final word on this subject, and I look forward to experiencing these differences in the classroom, where I will be more the student than my students.
JLH: You bring a wealth of experience in writing communication and administration: can you tell us a bit about that?
CN: Before I returned to teaching and graduate studies, I was a professional editor and writer in Washington, D.C., working on large-scale grant and government contracting applications. Since then, I’ve taught in a variety of programs and departments from English departments to business schools, public administration to Honor’s programs, and courses in high schools and graduate schools. In the not-so-deep past, I helped to administer Indiana University’s first-year composition program as an Assistant Director of Composition, where I collaborated to develop curricula, implement programs, and to mentor graduate student instructors. While my research is in nineteenth-century American literature, these experiences have let me dabble enough in rhetoric and the scholarship of teaching and learning to know that I can’t answer most of the questions without asking for some help myself.
Necessarily, then, my teaching and my own work is informed by an appreciation for how things get done in different contexts, which is often the same way: collaboratively.
JLH: When you teach writing and communication, what are the things you most want students to learn?
CN: Even though I take Thoreau’s most famous piece of advice seriously (“Simplify, simplify.”), I still find that my list of each semester’s course goals seems to get longer and longer. So, let me take that advice and limit myself to the two things that I think are among the most important—the writer and their audience, and not necessarily in that order. Some will spot the rhetorical situation lurking behind this answer, but that way leads to complexity. So, we can say that communication is (often) all about the audience. I find myself frequently turning student questions (“should I do X or Y?” “How do I start?”) back with this simple question: “Who is your audience?” Secondly, I want students to see themselves as agents of change and to see their communication as the source of real-world transformations—in what others think, in what they do, in what they think possible to do.
We could simplify these two things together within Paulo Freire’s concept of the praxis, which combines reflection and action together, but then we run back into the complexity that is the fact that what the praxis means is manifold. For instance, reflection on one’s audience involves deep ethical considerations and transforms even simple, every-day messages into complicated interpersonal acts of relationship. And orienting writing towards change forces writers to consider the value of those changes. This is something that Thoreau knew full well, and the joke of his “advice” is really good: nothing is simple.
JLH: Can you tell us a bit about your current research? Is it what you anticipated doing when you started your PhD?
CN: I don’t even think the dissertation I wrote is what I anticipated writing when I started, much less the work I’m doing now. That said, what I’ve been working on figuring out the last 2 years is directly related to my graduate studies—but in a way I didn’t expect. I wrote my dissertation on the “splendid failures” of nineteenth-century friendship, particularly as theorized by Emerson, Fuller, and their friends. What interested me about friendship was that it is a relationship of choice conditioned almost only on the constant decision to make that choice over and over again. This means that it has the power to transgress social boundaries like race, gender, ability, and kinship. So, I wrote about a cross-gender friendship, about the development of adoption agencies, and I offered a new way to think about Emersonian friendship as a theory.
I borrowed part of my title and conceptual framework (“splendid failures”) from W.E.B. Du Bois, who used it to refer to the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War because I was interested in how friendship (as practiced, theorized, and implemented) never seemed to achieve all that they promised. Particularly in terms of social impact—the dreams some had for friendship—for relationships of choice—in antebellum America seemed to always fail.
Forgive the elevator speech, but I defended that dissertation in May of 2016, and then something—maybe you can remember—happened in the early November of 2016 that sent me off to ask more questions about failure, but this time with an explicit focus on the politics of separation or division, not inclusion. Last year, I helped to organize a reading group on the work of Jacques Rancière, specifically because it seemed to us a good time to consider his agonistic theories of democracy and aesthetics. That reading group has sent me off to think more about the splendidness of failure, as opposed to narratives of progress and regress. In a second thread, I’ve found helpful Joseph R. Winter’s recent book (2016) Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress, which charts a tradition of melancholic thinking about race back to Du Bois. Concretely, these two threads have sent me back to the crisis of the 1850s, when Emerson wrote one of his least optimistic books, The Conduct of Life (published 1860, but the essays developed from as early as 1851), and back just a bit further to Margaret Fuller’s (1845) Woman in the Nineteenth Century. At the moment, I am unsure what the deliverable—what the form of production—will be for this line of research, but I think these are necessary questions to ask, and I am enjoying returning to Emerson and Fuller with a different set of lenses.
On a lighter note, I’ve also been collaborating on a series of panels and some writing on the ethics and aesthetics of the “spoiler alert.” That work in progress continues an interest in ethics and aesthetics, wondering about the obligations we have to others and their reading experiences, but also trying to trouble the way that spoiler alerts function to privilege a certain kind of aesthetic experience—and a certain manner of control over content within capitalism. Of course, there’s a nineteenth-century connection here, as the bingeable television of today’s streaming technology parallels the bingeable novels, which were made possible then by the new technology of wood-pulp paper, but this project emerged more from sprightly arguments about new television adaptations of older books than from anything else.
JLH: Finally, I generally close on a book question: what was your favorite novel of the last year?
CN: Like many, I was struck by George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. I still feel like I haven’t made up my mind about the book, particularly the second half, but I found myself thinking about it more than I expected. On the non-fiction side, I will plug Elizabeth Catte’s short-but-dense treatise, What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia, which interjects a much-needed corrective to the dismissive and accusative conversations that so many are having about the Southern Highlands today.