FAQ: Adrienne Brown

Did you have a favorite class or text in college? What made it your favorite?

Spending three weeks on Moby Dick in a 19th century American Lit class. I remember reading it so quickly and voraciously and thinking how crazy it was that I, who at this time was ridiculously claiming to only be interested in post-45 literature (!), could be so hooked by a story about men on a boat. It put me in a kind of a trance state—I don’t think I’ve ever recreated that reading experience with another book. I came close with Roberto Bolano’s 2666 though.

What would you have liked to tell the 20-year-old version of yourself about college?

Enjoy your summers. Talk to your professors more.

Did you go straight to graduate school after college? If not, what was the most interesting thing you did in the interim?

I went straight through so sadly I had no interim to fill with interesting things!

What made you decide to specialize in your current subfield in English?

I got interested in architecture as an undergraduate. My roommate was an architecture major but sadly, because of poor depth perception, I knew being one myself was not in the cards. So I spent a lot of time hanging out in the architecture building, seeing how architects were thinking about space. I was also noticing in my English classes and in my everyday life the very different ways I was being taught and intuiting how to navigate space. It was the gap between these two that first propelled me towards trying to bring architecture, literature, and critical race studies into conversation.

What is the most intriguing or quirky idea that you have learned from your recent research?

W.E.B. Du Bois in the 1950s, when he was well into his late eighties and nineties, wrote mystery stories under the pseudonym, “Bud Weisob.” Some people claim he did this to avoid McCarthy-era blacklisting. But given Du Bois’s career-long love of genre fiction, I think there’s more to this story that I’m itching to think more about.

What is your favorite work of literature to teach to undergraduates?

Hmm, it’s too soon yet for me to have a favorite, but I had a lot of fun teaching Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches boy book, Ragged Dick in my Representing Poverty class last year. It’s such a weird, crazy book to unpack, particularly since it has gone on to be so central to a number of literary and social discourses for better or for worse.

What do you like best about teaching college students at the University of Chicago?

Their curiosity. It’s such a joy to have students who have deep and interesting questions about how texts work, how space works, how race works, how the world works, etc. Being able to explore these things alongside such motivated students makes not just for amazing class sessions but has inspired my research in numerous ways.