by Kira Schukar ’22
In the summer of 2019, Professor Amy Elkins embarked on a year-long sabbatical to work on her first book, Crafting Modernity: Remaking Feminist Time from Literary Modernism to the Multimedia Present. Before her trip, she talked about her plans for the year in an interview with Miriam Moore-Keish ‘19. Her study took her to Cardiff University in Wales, the British Library in London, and Yale University in Connecticut. Although her research was interrupted by the pandemic, Professor Elkins found “radical joy and mindfulness” in her work, whether she was writing on site or at home. She returned to teaching English at Macalester in the fall of 2020. (Read about her reflections on remote learning in an interview with The Words editor Dalton Greene ‘22.)
Now, a year-and-a-half after her sabbatical started, Professor Elkins shares her thoughts on scholarship, craft, collaboration, and time. Enjoy!
What was the most important or informative part of your sabbatical?
When I read your question, the first thing that comes to mind is time—the importance of time to reflect, plan, research, write, revise an extended research project (in this case, my book monograph!). But time is a slippery thing, which is why we are always trying to fix it to a calendar, mark it on a clock, or track it on an app. My book thinks a lot about queer temporality—how women writers have used craft and art-making to subvert linear ideas of time, progress, and trauma. So it was interesting to be on sabbatical and to note the ways in which the time to write, while so very valuable, was sometimes quite unpredictable. Of course, it was also an extraordinary sort of year, which made finishing my book all the more important and rewarding.
How was your research affected by COVID, and how did you adapt?
Right in the middle of the pandemic, Zadie Smith wrote and published a slim volume of reflections called Intimations. She opens it by thinking about the “scraps of time” that allowed her to write the book—an experience that resonates with me (as you might guess from my last answer!). She reflects on the powerful impact of “death absolute,” which emerged this year in shocking and widespread ways. Right as the pandemic started, I was at Yale University’s Beinecke Library reading letters written by writers during periods of violence and sickness—the 1918 flu pandemic, the world wars, and the inevitable physical and emotional collapse that often accompanies collective trauma. It was pretty surreal, to be honest.
My fellowship ended early, and I came back to St. Paul for the remainder of my sabbatical. The Fellows I met at the Beinecke were incredible, though. In a short period of time I met curators, artists, and scholars, and we formed new kinds of community. For example, I met Jayme Collins, a graduate student at Northwestern who introduced me to Jen Bervin’s silk poems, which I’ll be teaching in Module 4. And Karla Kelsey (someone I could easily talk to for a million hours) invited me to participate in a forum on Feminist Poetics of the Archive published in Tupelo Quarterly. And I ended up writing a collaborative article for Modernism/modernity’s “Visualities” series with Glenn Adamson on women and typewriters. Adamson’s scholarship has defined the field of craft studies in ways that allow me to extend interdisciplinary conversations with literature and gender in my work, so it was a huge treat to collaborate, even virtually!
Like a lot of folks, I was navigating a range of challenges as I tried to process our political moment, police brutality and racial justice, and the pandemic. I found myself doing a lot of reading and art-making alongside my research and writing, and I was so excited to read Irish writer and artist Sara Baume’s new book handiwork. I published a review essay that reflects on Baume’s work at this particular historical moment when ideas of DIY, maker communities, and the global elegy seem to be aligned in new ways. That was an especially healing piece to write and share. I adapted to the challenges posed by the pandemic by cultivating as much patience as I could manage, thinking in innovative and strategic ways about teaching in this context, and finding spaces of radical joy and mindfulness wherever I could!
In a previous interview with The Words, you mentioned that your book will include a series of interchapters with “shorter, narrative accounts” of your research. Why are these stories important to your work? What do you hope your audience will learn from them?
When I set out imagining my book as an object, I pictured a hybrid design aimed at reflecting the feminist methodology of my approach to studying craft and literature. My research extends the literary archive to include the tactile, visual, embodied work of craft—a transmedia feminist archive, assembled through both traditional and nontraditional modes of recovery, the inclusion and expansion of voices on a range of feminist approaches to the politics of craft and historical time, and more intimate reflections on the work of assembling this archive as an early-career scholar and teacher. So each chapter of the book is prefaced by a Techne interchapter (from the Greek, techne means art or craft, a kind of emergence or bringing forth)—spaces of creative encounter that reveal the seams between the chapters and range from the personal to the theoretical. They were so challenging to write (especially when I included my own artwork experiments!), but they help to make visible my ongoing interest in the experiential, collaborative, and associative dimensions of feminist and queer research practices. I also hope they expand the audience for the book so that a wider range of readers can see their own lives, objects, and stories reflected in the pages of an academic monograph.
What have you been working on since returning to teaching?
Teaching, mostly! I have appreciated the opportunity to connect in new ways with students and find more innovation in my course design (despite the obvious, pervasive challenges). An article I co-wrote with my former Macalester advisee, Roan O’Neill [‘20], also came out in Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, which was an exciting moment after years of work, peer review, and revisions! And I have another article forthcoming in the journal Contemporary Literature on the poet and painter Lorna Goodison—I sent back the final proofs last week. I’ve also been working to create community with my colleagues and friends who are all navigating this challenging moment. The support we have found in one another has been super important and helpful, and I’m grateful for my network of scholar-friends who have shown up for each other this year with care and compassion.
Professor Elkins teaches courses in Modernism, Irish Studies, Caribbean diasporic literature, Eco-studies, Queer studies, and much more!