Undergraduate Research in English

Pomona College students in the humanities have opportunities to apply for and conduct summer undergraduate research projects. Below are recent projects completed by students in the English Department.


The Dark Side of the Little Prince

William Baird-Smith ’20; Advisor: Kevin Dettmar

This essay is a philosophical comparison of two twentieth-century works of art: Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon and Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, focusing primarily on the former. The introduction presents both of these works and establishes the main problematic that they attempt to resolve: the impossibility of being able to understand others. With this established, two philosophical themes that play prominent roles in both are analyzed. The first of these is the absurd. In The Little Prince, the absurd is expressed through the mechanical lives of the people the Prince meets on earth and the different planets he travels to. In Dark Side, the absurd is represented through the passing of time and the inescapability of our human condition. The second theme considered is alienation. The works share similar passages that discuss the ways in which hate, greed, and other vices harm our relationships and alienate us from others. By analyzing these themes, I display the ways in which both of the works present their answer to the central problem in different manners. Ultimately, the two works display contrasting views. The Little Prince has a hopeful vision: that through love and friendship we can escape the despair of our insignificant lives. In contrast, The Dark Side of the Moon concludes that we must forever remain in the frustration experienced through our desire to understand and empathize, and our inability to do so.

"Synthesize the Real": Trans and Genderqueer Speculative Fiction

Olive Maurstad ’20; In partnership with the Humanities Studio

I researched trans and genderqueer speculative fiction for my senior thesis. As I am writing my thesis as part of a fellowship with the Humanities Studio, I was specifically interested in trans speculative fiction’s relationship with “post/truth”, this year’s theme for the Studio. How does trans speculative fiction interrogate and look beyond concepts we think of as “truths”? I primarily conducted my research at UCR’s Tomás Rivera Library, using materials from the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy. I read works from trans and genderqueer authors, as well as works by cis authors that dealt with gender nonconformity. I also researched works in non-literary mediums, including the films, videogames, music, and YouTube videos. Some specific works I’ve studied are the short story collection Meanwhile, Elsewhere, the videogame Dys4ia by Anna Anthropy, the film The Matrix by the Wachowski Sisters, and the short film Beauty by Contrapoints. Because I am still early in the process of writing my thesis, I have not yet fully defined my conclusions about the works I am studying. However, I have been tracking several themes throughout these works, such as the achievement of realness and authenticity through artificial means, and capitalism’s medical hold over trans bodies. I am also studying how trans femme authors often use trans masc characters to represent privileged, conformist queerness, and comparing that to trans masc authors’ representations of themselves.

He Smelled Like Lavender and Boy:​ Exploring Tenderness, Intimacy, and Alienation Within Coming of Age Novels

Nina Potischman ’21; Advisor: Jonathan Lethem

For my SURP, I completed the first draft of an illustrated coming-of-age novel. Over the duration of SURP, I wrote around 100,000 words, and created over 70 illustrations. My advisor, Professor Jonathan Lethem, was invaluable throughout this process. He provided guidance throughout the writing process, helped me structure the project, and created a reading list that greatly informed my writing. After my conversations with Professor Lethem, I have a strong sense of the changes I need to make going forward. I intend to work on the project throughout the year until I’ve fully actualized my vision. The novel, Lavender and Boy, is told through the perspective of Charlie Shapiro, a viciously competitive 14-year-old primarily interested in winning and creating absurdist cartoons. At debate camp, Charlie meets Peter, a brilliant, aloof, and wildly successful debater living 3,000 miles away. Amongst the turbulence of first kisses, sex, chronic illness, and national debate championships, Charlie struggles to distinguish her own desires from expectations, and ultimately find herself. Through this piece, I aim to create something that takes its protagonist seriously, paying tribute to the discomfort and uncertainty of growing up and falling in love for the first time. I want to bear witness to both the gravity and the beauty of being that age. The piece ultimately serves as a meditation on aggression, vulnerability, intimacy, and the desire to be seen.

Writing Fiction and the Study of Fiction Writing

Eileen Mahler ’20; Advisor: Jonathan Lethem

This summer I began my senior fiction writing project, which I will continue throughout the school year with my advisor, English Professor Jonathan Lethem. I developed a daily fiction writing habit with the goal of building a collection of short stories.

In addition to the daily practice of writing fiction, I studied literature analyzing the process of fiction writing in order to improve my theoretical basis for the craft. These texts include About Writing by Samuel R. Delaney, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter, “On Writing” by Raymond Carver, among others.

Thus far in my life, a lack of time and urgency have been the largest inhibitors to my practice of writing. This summer gave me the unmatchable opportunity to write with time and a goal. This structure alone helped guide me with the wrought practice of writing each day. It taught me frustration, doubt, and disappointment, as much as it taught me to work to improve the writing with which I have become frustrated, doubtful, and/or disappointed. As far as the theoretical literature goes, I carry with me many lessons, my favorites being: 1) the goal is to write so that the reader always wants to know what happens next, and 2) at the level of the sentence, good writing challenges the conventions of language.

The Spirit Mercurius: Alchemy in Jean Genet's /Our Lady of the Flowers

Layla Elqutami ’22; Advisor: Jordan Kirk

This project examines the impacts of alchemical tradition within the text of Jean Genet’s 1943 novel /Our Lady of the Flowers/ through a multi-layered study of divinatory poetics and incantatory histories of religious mysticism from ancient practices of sacrilege to modern interpretations of alchemical processes. By exploring the way alchemy shapes the moral society that Genet strangely molds, I am able to more clearly show the trick-mirror-like process by which the characters of the novel transcend zones of Earth/Heaven/Hell to thus transcend their own barriers of morality. I read upon primary alchemical texts of spells and poetry to gain a clearer basis on the complex ideals of the divine, as well as contemporary interpretations of alchemy within literature and modern practice to offer supplemented ideology on the idea of the transmutated character and setting. In a more abstract sense, I also read alchemical poetry and studying the divination of words/phrases. In the end, it was found that Genet’s /Our Lady/ was unto itself a transfiguration: Genet’s interjectionary narration allowed for a certain spell-casting, flipping on its head the normal Christian principles that Divine and others so heavily rely on for their own ascension to the Absolute Everything—instead, they ascend by going downward into a Hell, a mercurial mixing of the three alchemical worlds. By exploring this religio-literary transformation, other avenues are opened for exploring such intersections.


Abysmal Theory: Excess and Paradox in Blanchot, Bataille, and Deleuze

Andrew Reischling ’19; Mentor: Paul Mann

In the dialectical tradition of continental philosophy and its related discourses of literary theory, the critiques of subjectivity and literature revolve around the progressive establishment of identity. Hegel’s “men of history” or Nietzsche’s “Overman,” both aim to affirm a holistic and unique “I” as the guiding force of progression and the apotheosis of history. Moreover, it is through “negative action” the denial of the world’s present conditions as the way in which something more complete or more “truthful is created” that this “I” is articulated. My project is thus concerned with the exclusionary principle of dialectical progression. For if negation is intimately connected with “Being,” then is “Being” itself not negated in its process? Furthermore, what is at stake in literature, which, as an attempt to make language supremely “unreal,” would be the utmost limit of negative action? And perhaps more insidiously, what does it mean that literature’s universal negation ultimately fails due to an irreducible excess of meaning? Using this framework posed by Blanchot’s major theoretical works, Bataille’s “principle of insufficiency” and notion of non-productive expenditure, and Deleuze’s theory of the surface world of sense and the “chaosmos,” I seek to explore the critical implications of the literary and existential paradoxes of sense and nonsense, excess and lack, “Being” and impotence, and the indeterminate impersonality of this abysmal theory.
Funding Provided By: General SURP Fund

Med Men

Ashley Leader ’19; Mentor: Oona Eisenstadt

In many ways, the doctor in his hospital has deposed the priest in his church. We place quite a lot of faith in modern medicine and its practicants. We come to them with our problems, and they tell us what to do. If you’re sick and wish to be healed, you’ll call a doctor, not a priest. Modern medicine has rendered the supposed healing power of religion redundant, and now it is modern medicine we expect to work miracles. Wherefore this quasi-reverence for the doctor? Perhaps rather than having become obsolete, the shaman’s role has simply been subsumed into that of the doctor. I took it as my project to track down this figure who operates at the intersection of medicine and religion, perhaps even in their industrialized modern-day iterations. So, I tracked medicine men through the works of such authors as Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, and Leslie Marmon Silko. I began to pick up on another way in which the figure of the healer (or if you prefer drug dealer) muddies boundaries and presents ambiguities. The med man is frequently identified with the con man, the trickster. When dealing with such types it is hard to tell if you are being had. And it’s a different issue altogether whether or not whatever he’s selling even works. Now that I have a more fully developed picture of the medicine man, I look forward to continuing to study his varied incarnations in literature.
Funding Provided By: Aubrey H. & Eileen J. Seed Student Research Fund

Uncovering the Wagon: Narratives of White Imperialism in Nature Writing and Outdoor Recreation

John Flanagan ’19; Mentor: Aaron Kunin

This SURP explores the pervasive “whiteness” of natural recreation, specifically in national parks, through the medium of critiquing nature writing and the structures of imperialism and racism therein. Besides researching primary sources of nature writing and secondary sources of criticism, this SURP also included a two-week trip to Whitefish, Montana, gateway to Glacier National Park and home of notorious white supremacist Richard Spencer. It finds that deep within nature writing “and American Western culture at large” narratives of the hardy white pioneer continue to influence cultural engagement with nature, but that certain authors are moving towards a definition of “nature” that deprioritizes the idea of “wilderness,” that is, the classical frontier lauded by authors such as Emerson, Thoreau and Muir. Instead, this new wave preaches a more inclusive and holistic understanding of how humans fit into their local ecosystems, even in urban settings.
Funding Provided By: History & English Department SURP

The Future of “the Family”: Feminist Criticism in Shakespeare Studies

Peter Brown ’19; Mentor: Colleen Rosenfeld

In this critical history, I consider the state of feminism in Shakespeare studies. Looking at academic feminism from the 1980s until the present. I begin with tracing Shakespearean feminism from its psychoanalytic origins, focusing on gender difference and the family. Throughout the 80s, feminism and other historically based literary movements interacted and argued over the inclusion of women in progressive analyses of Shakespeare. Moving into the 1990s, feminists in Shakespeare studies grappled more with issues raised by queer and critical race scholars, moving more into the direction of intersectional analysis. After 2000, I argue that feminist inquiry has slowed down in its rapid change of focus, even though it still remains engaged in a wide variety of conversations. Today, Shakespearean feminists attend to new methodologies as well as their historical foundations, using intersectionality as an approach to cross both disciplinary and temporal boundaries of scholarship. Overall, I contest the idea that feminism in Shakespeare studies is dead, tracking its history in order to better understand its new directions in the present. Shakespearean feminism today may not look like what it was in the early 80s, but it is as active as ever.
Funding Provided By: History & English Department SURP