Andrews Hall Alumni News

The Newsletter for the English Graduate Program | Fall 2021

Cornerstone of Andrew Hall with engraving 'Andrews Hall MCMXXVII'

Erin Chambers

Stacey Waite, Chair of the Graduate ProgramWelcome to our English graduate program alumni newsletter, a place where we celebrate our current and former graduate students, and a place where our current students share their perspectives on their current graduate seminars. We are so proud of our graduate students, and we are very excited about creating this space to showcase their incredible work in and beyond our graduate program.

Stacey Waite, Chair of the Graduate Program in English

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Alumni Spotlight

Sunita Jain

Sunita Jain

1972 Graduate, Ph.D. in English

One of India's most celebrated contemporary female bilingual writers, Dr. Sunita Jain, has been memorialized with a newly established literary award for graduate students at UNL.

Upon earning her Ph.D. at UNL in 1972, Dr. Jain returned to India, where she went on to become an award-winning writer in two languages and multiple genres. Dr. Jain passed away in 2017, and in her memory, we recognize the achievements of this UNL alum who was not only a scholar and educator, but also a translator, novelist, short story writer, and poet.

Research through the University Archives, the Digital Commons, and our departmental files reveals Dr. Jain to have been an engaged, dynamic student and writer during her time at UNL. The university did not yet file specializations beyond the subject of English when she graduated, but not having to declare a specialization in one genre over another might have suited her multidisciplinary interests. She built a foundation in literary scholarship, writing her dissertation on John Steinbeck, but also wrote poetry and fiction throughout her graduate school career.

Dr. Jain’s granddaughter, Alpana Mittal, said that her grandmother’s love of writing and desire to inspire others to write was fostered by her experiences at UNL. She flourished in, and contributed to, the creative writing community on campus, publishing poetry in the student-run newspaper, The Daily Nebraskan, and winning graduate literary contests three years in a row. These graduate literary awards included the Vreeland Award, which she received for her creative writing in 1969, and the Mari Sandoz – Prairie Schooner “Short Story Award,” which she received in 1970 and then again in 1971.

After graduating from UNL, Dr. Jain became a Professor of English at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, where she also served as Head of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. In addition to her teaching and administrative duties, she wrote prolifically. She published over 60 books, writing in both English and Hindi and in multiple genres, including novels, short stories, children’s literature, nonfiction, and poetry. In the 2005 Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, Dr. Anjana Neira Dev identified three major themes in Dr. Jain’s oeuvre: motherhood and mother-daughter relationships, nature and creation, and patriarchal characteristics of marriage.

Among the honors that Dr. Jain received over her lifetime are two of India's highest literary awards, the Padma Shri and the Vyas Samman. In 2004, she was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award given by the Government of India. It was presented to her by then President of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. More recently, in 2015, Dr. Jain received the prestigious Vyas Samman, which is conferred upon one writer annually for an outstanding contribution made to Hindi literature. She was awarded the Vyas Samman for her poetry collection Kshama.

Even after over 40 years of professional accomplishments such as these, her granddaughter said, Dr. Jain still remembered and felt incredibly proud of the graduate literary awards that she received while she was a doctoral student at UNL.

In memoriam, Dr. Jain's surviving family members have established the Sunita Jain Award for Excellence in Poetry, a literary award with a prize of $500, to be given to one graduate student annually. In the words of Dr. Stacey Waite, the Graduate Chair, “Earning the honor of the Sunita Jain Literary Award for Excellence in Poetry helps our graduate students enrich their professional profiles, receive funds that help them enter their poetry manuscripts in contests, and have their work publicly celebrated by the department.” The award was presented for the first time last spring to Jamaica Baldwin, an award-winning poet in the Ph.D. program. [...]

View the story and photo gallery here

Jonathan Cheng

Jonathan Cheng

2020 Graduate, Ph.D. in Literature

Dr. Jonathan Cheng, who graduated last year with a doctorate in literature, is using his degree in surprising and exciting ways in the Research and Development division of Apple.

At UNL, Dr. Cheng earned a Certificate in Nineteenth Century Studies and a Certificate in the Digital Humanities (DH), an interdisciplinary field in which computational tools are applied to studies in the humanities. For his dissertation, he used digital tools to search literary texts dating back to the nineteenth century, focusing on gender and characterization, and then investigated the gendered ways in which male and female characters’ actions have been described differently.

Although Dr. Cheng studied computer science as an undergraduate, and his DH certification—along with the Digital Scholarship Incubator and his work at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities—helped to prepare him for his new role, he also sees connections to his literary studies, in general—to analysis, argumentation, and considering context, among other skills.

These experiences not only equipped him for an exciting career in Alt Ac, but also set him on a path of taking on personally fulfilling, challenging projects, even outside of work, as our conversation revealed.

What projects are you currently most excited about?

What they have us do (at Apple) is work on a bunch of different projects in different domains. One day, I might be working on video recommendations; another day, the apps team needs another pair of hands, so I’ll jump into that. I’m trying to talk about this in a roundabout way because I can’t talk about the things I’m actually working on (for confidentiality reasons).

The thing I’m always super excited about is that everyone on my team has a Ph.D., and I walk into the room, and I feel like … everyone here is way smarter than me, and I’m always super excited to talk to them about what we’re working on. Every Friday, we meet up, and (have conversations like) “I’m trying to implement this new approach, and this is what I’m looking for…” That’s what I’m most excited about (at work). All these smart people are in a room, and you get a ton of great feedback!

… Some of the research that I’m really getting into, I’m not doing for work.

Basically, my time at UNL helped me learn certain kinds of programming that help me do this new form of modeling and machine learning, where you (input phrases) and you learn what art style is best represented by (that text). So… (sharing the screen to show an example) someone put “King of the podcast summons his subjects,” and it auto-generates all these paintings! … It’s taking all the machine learning that we use for auto-translation—(translating from) English to Spanish, English to French, et cetera—but we use that to go from English to paintings. And I’ve been obsessed with this recently …

Now that I feel more comfortable with flexing the math, science, art, and literature parts of my brain as well, I feel like this kind of (project) allows me to fully indulge in all that—and do it not just for (work). That’s probably what I’m most excited about right now! People creating art with these very computer science sorts of approaches.

I do think that someone will try to monetize this eventually, so we’ll see what happens then. [...]

What connections do you see between what you do now and what you did at UNL, with your dissertation and in literary studies?

All the good intuitions! Like, “OK, we think this model can perform these sorts of tasks, and we think it can do it this percent of the time. But what's the larger significance of that? And how do we interpret the historical significance of that?” [...]

Read Dr. Cheng’s full interview here

Current Students

Simone Droge

Simone Droge

Second-Year M.A. Student, Composition and Rhetoric

Simone Droge’s incisive and sophisticated approach to rhetoric, feminist inquiry, and pedagogy set her apart when I met her as a first-year student.

What a gift to watch her scholarly and teaching abilities continue to flourish across the years, whether as a consultant in the writing center or as a scholar deftly analyzing Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dissent rhetoric.

Now, an instructor herself, she provides her first-year students a vibrant, caring, and engaging pedagogical space to learn. As a scholar, she is at work on an innovative thesis that melds digital humanities and writing pedagogy.

No matter the site of her work, Simone is someone whose deep listening, compassionate intellect, and caring presence make a difference for everyone around her.

We will miss her when she graduates!

By Shari Stenberg, Professor of English and Director of Women's and Gender Studies

Claire Jiménez

Claire Jiménez

Fifth-Year Ph.D. Student, Creative Writing – Fiction

Claire Jiménez is a joy to teach, to learn from, and to know. Her 2019 collection Staten Island Stories from Johns Hopkins University Press, which won the New York Society Library's 2020 Hornblower New York City Book Award, is gorgeously original, hilarious, and brilliant—a complete pleasure to read.

Claire’s urgent political commitment to intervene in literary history has resulted in a stunning accomplishment: a scholarly digital humanities project on which she is a co-principal investigator won a nearly $1.35 million Mellon Foundation Grant.

Her decolonial, bilingual digital archive, “El proyecto de la literature puertorriqueña /The Puerto Rican Literature Project,” will make approximately 50,000 items related to Puerto Rican poetry available to a broad audience, changing the face of literary history. We could not be more proud.

By Joy Castro, Director of Institute for Ethnic Studies and Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies

Malik Rasaq

Malik Rasaq

First-Year Ph.D. Student, Literary and Cultural Studies

The English Department is excited to welcome Malik Rasaq to our Literary and Cultural Studies graduate program.

Joining UNL after earning an MA from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, Rasaq has interests in some of our department's most significant strengths: African literature and poetics, digital humanities, digital literature, and creative writing.

Rasaq is an accomplished poet, and his chapbook, No Home in this Land, was selected for publication by the African Poetry Book Fund. He is also a cofounder of Àtẹ́lẹwọ́, the first digital journal devoted to publishing work written in the Yorùbá language.

And on top of all that, Rasaq is an excellent teacher, working generously hard with our undergraduate students in our first-year writing course! We feel lucky to have him teaching and learning here at UNL.

By Stacey Waite, Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor and Chair of the Graduate Program

Featured Courses

Students Explore Colonialism in African Literatures Class

Students Explore Colonialism in African Literatures Class

ENGL 845K: Literatures of the African Continent, with Dr. Ng’ang’a Wahu-Mũchiri, Assistant Professor

Dr. Ng’ang’a Wahu-Mũchiri’s “Literatures of the African Continent” explores novels, films, poems, artwork, historical texts, and music from the southern regions of Africa: Lesotho, eSwatini, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, to name a few.

While investigating the sociopolitical and historical context and challenging imposed national boundaries, students discuss narrative in conjunction with settler colonialism, highlighting, in Dr. Muchiri’s words, “the parallels between use of colonial land treaties, genocides of indigenous populations, racial segregation, political activism, art as resistance, and nationalism...”

Through these studies, we seek to uncover the colonial tools that create division and encourage, as Dr. Muchiri states, “isolationism [that] benefits … the oppressor.” In contrast to oppressive tactics, “mid-20th century anti-colonial and anti-apartheid practitioners were establishing [a public-facing humanities] … They thought widely, imaginatively, and creatively about what tools to deploy … There is still much to reflect on from their actions, thoughts, desires, mistakes, and visions that would positively transform our present and future….”

As I learn from the extraordinary writers and artists of southern Africa, and find connections to my own research, this course has benefited me and others who believe “that there is still much to reflect on,” to celebrate, and to change.

By Chaun Ballard, Second-Year Ph.D. Student, Creative Writing – Poetry

Queer Theory Speaks to the Implications of a “Post-Truth” Era

Queer Theory Speaks to the Implications of a “Post-Truth” Era

ENGL 892: Queer Theory in the Post-Truth Era, with Dr. Gabrielle Owen, Assistant Professor

Theory courses have double work to do. For one, they must catch students up on a complex tradition of thought and debate. But in another vein, they must push students to think anew about the time and place they inhabit.

This is exactly the spirit behind this semester’s “Queer Theory in the Post-Truth Era,” taught by Dr. Gabrielle (Brie) Owen.

Throughout this class, we have traversed the foundations of queer theory with Foucault, Sedgwick, Butler, and others in addition to turning our eyes toward more specific topics of transness, racialization, queer temporality, and more.

Our engagements with the course texts, which often endeavor to jeopardize hegemonic knowledge, are tinged by the not-so-distant memory of the Trump presidency. As Dr. Owen said of her despair during the Trump presidency, “it seemed even queer theory couldn’t save us, that alternative knowledge claims had been co-opted and corrupted, used for political gameplay and mass deception.”

Today, we work and think together each week about this new question posed to us: What is the value of queer theory today? Though this question is bigger than our class, we hope that what we learn will bring us closer to an answer.

By Cass Diaz, First-Year M.A. Student, Creative Writing - Fiction

In Memoriam: John Anders

John Piland Anders, who received his Ph.D. in English from UNL in 1993, died in Swansboro, NC, on August 10, 2021. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlantic Christian College, John served in the U.S. Army. Before entering the Ph.D. program at UNL, he earned master’s degrees in Adult Education and English from East Carolina University. John wrote his dissertation, “‘Only the Feeling Matters’: Willa Cather’s Sexual Aesthetic,” under the supervision of Susan Rosowski, and he was active in Cather-related activities on and off campus (I first met him at the Willa Cather International Seminar in 1993 and 1997). His dissertation was the basis for his book, Willa Cather’s Sexual Aesthetics and the Male Homosexual Literary Tradition, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1999. John remained in Lincoln for many years. He moved home to North Carolina, near family, after suffering a stroke.

By Melissa J. Homestead, Professor of English, Program Faculty in Women's and Gender Studies, and Director of the Cather Project

Books by Graduate Students and Alumni

A sampling of the fantastic writing and editing by English graduate alumni and current students. Visit our alumni books gallery to view more—and if we haven't added your book publication yet, please share it with us!

Cover image for Transnational Modernity and the Italian Reinvention of Walt Whitman, 1870–1945
Cover image for TransNarratives
Cover image for Nowhere
Cover image for Staten Island Stories
Cover image for No Home in This Land
Cover image for Entre Guadalupe y Malinche