Dylan McCuskey ’23, chose Pomona so that he could study both physics and English without getting pigeonholed into either. Little did he imagine, however, that those two fields would come together for him as he is now preparing to publish an English paper in a literary journal employing a theoretical physics analogy.
For McCuskey, deciding to come to Pomona was an easy choice. The senior from Smithfield, Utah, knew he wanted to study in a liberal arts environment. On top of that, he was recruited to the Pomona-Pitzer men’s soccer team.
His passion for physics and English came together his junior year when he was taking Legal Guardianship and the Novel with English professor Sarah Raff and General Relativity with physics professor Thomas Moore.
As McCuskey read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, “a really complex, 900-page, twisty turning novel with two narrators,” for his English class, he realized there was a concept in his physics class—which studied space, time, gravity and theoretical astrophysics—that he could superimpose on the narrative structure of the novel “to better understand what was going on between the two narrators.”
One of the narrators is an impersonal, omniscient voice, which he designated as a “space” narrator, “moving across the city of London and observing everything that happens in the current moment,” he says, and the other narrator is a first-person character in the story, which McCuskey assigned as the “time” narrator, “driving the passage of time and guaranteeing a future from a single point in space.”
His textual analysis was ingenious, and his idea makes a wholly new, attractively interdisciplinary contribution to Dickens studies.
For his final assignment, he wrote a 25-page paper titled “Bound by Time and Place: The Spacetime Guardianship of Bleak House.” Raff was so impressed by it that she encouraged him to submit it to an academic journal to be published. “His textual analysis was ingenious, and his idea makes a wholly new, attractively interdisciplinary contribution to Dickens studies,” says Raff.
McCuskey and Raff worked together for several months to revise the paper, and this past fall the essay was accepted by The Dickensian journal and will publish later this year.
In the field of English, it is extremely rare for an undergraduate to publish in a professional peer-reviewed journal.
“In the field of English, it is extremely rare for an undergraduate to publish in a professional peer-reviewed journal,” says Raff. “In nearly all cases, it takes many years of graduate study to write for a scholarly journal in a literary field.”
For McCuskey, the experience of writing and publishing the article has been validating. “I’ve been interested in physics and English for a long time, but I haven’t had projects that do both,” he says. “In this project physics and English came together into this cool interdisciplinary product.”
Despite his modest demeanor, McCuskey is no stranger to accolades. So far during his time at Pomona, he has been awarded the Jaeger Prize for excellence in first year of mathematics, the John Dye Award in English for best piece of original writing to appear in a student publication, the Tileston Sophomore Prize in Physics for excellence in physics and the F.S. Jennings Prize in Critical Writing awarded for excellence in English writing.
“Working with brilliant students like Dylan is one of the most rewarding parts of my job at Pomona,” says Raff. “This accomplishment couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.”
Looking ahead, McCuskey would like to continue to combine his physics major and English minor in his career. He is planning on attending graduate school for physics and eventually doing research and teaching at the college level.
To teach, McCuskey says, “you have to have the science knowledge but also the humanities communications skills.”