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Reading Deeper: Student’s Poetry Analysis Earns Plaudits

Poet Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Greywolf, 2014) earned rave reviews when it was published, as the New York Times praised it for its sense of urgency, and the Washington Post lauded it for its innovation and “boundary-bending potency.”

When Rankine, recipient of Fordham’s 2016 Reid Writer award, shares passages of the book with the University community on April 15, at least one student will be paying extra special attention.

Matthew Schlesinger, a senior philosophy major at Fordham College at Rose Hill has read Citizen closely and has found a subtle but important undertone of feeling: disconcertedness.

For his final assignment in his Theories of Comparative Literature class, Schlesinger took the lessons about affect theory that he’d learned from Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005) and applied the theory to an examination of the feelings of disconcertedness in Rankine’s Citizen.

“Ngai focuses on feelings that are generally ignored in the literary cannon,” he said. “There’s already lots of talk about rage, anger, love—big grand emotions that make for good stories. She picks things you normally wouldn’t think would be subjects of great literature, minor feelings like anxiety, envy, or irritation.”

In Citizen, Schlesinger argues that “the disconcertedness of the speaker is the speaker struggling with racism, [and]in making the reader feel that disconcertedness, it [also]makes the reader ask all kinds of questions.”

When he submitted the paper at the end of the 2015 fall semester, it grabbed the attention of his instructor, James Kim, PhD, assistant professor of English and co-director of the Comparative Literature program. Ugly Feelings is one of the landmark works of affect theory, Kim said, and is not easily digested.

“I deliberately chose it because I knew it would be a challenge. I wanted to give students something fairly recent that would test their familiarity with literary theory at a pretty high level,” Kim said.

The biggest challenge of mastering affect theory, he said, is sorting out what part of a chapter is actually the main point—as opposed to just background information or context.

“From a student’s point of view, it’s all new, so everything sounds like a huge over arching claim, whereas if you’re more deeply grounded in literature, and more knowledgeable about that field, you can say ‘Oh, that’s been a topic of conversation for the last 30 years; that’s already well known.’ The difficulty is orienting oneself in an argument. Matthew just knows how to do that.”

Kim was so impressed with Schlesinger’s paper that he encouraged him to submit it to the prestigious American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) for inclusion in its annual meeting. They worked together to reformat it, and the paper was accepted.

Schlesinger presented it at a panel for undergraduates at Harvard University on March 17.

Kim said it’s exceedingly rare for an undergraduate to have a paper accepted by the ACLA. In fact, in his 12 years at Fordham he had never recommended one before.

But mentor opportunities like this are the reason he got into teaching in the first place.

“When I get to work with a student who’s talented and genuinely interested in the material, who’s capable of asking sharp questions and pursuing creative, interesting ways to address those questions that draw on an existing body of theory that he’s mastered, it’s very rewarding,” he said.

Schlesinger plans to teach English in Colombia upon graduation. After that, he’s hoping to follow in his father and grandfather’s steps and enter a doctoral program for comparative literature.

He credits Kim with helping him discern his future path.

“He’s been a great help as I work out these questions about grad school; he offered to work with me over the summer on my application, and I’ll eventually use this paper as my writing sample,” he said.

“Prof. Kim went out of his way to make this happen.”

Rankine will be at the Fordham Lincoln Center campus on Friday, April 15 at 11:30 a.m. to accept the award. For more information, visit the English department’s website.


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