Did you have a favorite class or text in college? What made it your favorite?
My favorite class in college was on Marxism and postcolonialism. We read widely, both spatially and temporally (Marx and Lenin, Nkrumah and Nyerere, Fanon and Cabral, Gramsci and Dubois), and the sheer range of the class challenged me to think outside of accepted paradigms while simultaneously encouraging me to synthesize, to figure out what it is that brings each of these thinkers together. Reading Bhagat Singh’s courtroom defenses and letters from prison in colonial India, I found a new appreciation for the power of language.
What would you have liked to tell the 20-year-old version of yourself about college?
You will never have more time to read whatever it is in the world that you want to read than you have now.
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 to graduate school.
What made you decide to specialize in your current subfield in English?
While studying abroad in London, the professor of a postcolonial theory class that I was taking suggested that I read C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins and George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin. I have no connections to the Caribbean; I hadn’t even been there before. But twenty sentences into the preface of The Black Jacobins I was hooked, and spent the remainder of my time in London compulsively reading all of the Caribbean literature I could find.
What is the most intriguing or quirky idea that you have learned from your recent research?
High fructose corn syrup was developed, in part, by German utopian socialists who settled in Venezuela and Trinidad in the 1840s. They hoped that corn sugar would solve the problem of famine, while the technology they developed to harvest the corn—basically a robot—would make labor unnecessary for humans. The robot didn’t work, but corn sugar is still very much with us.
What is your favorite work of literature to teach to undergraduates?
Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World
What do you like best about teaching college students at the University of Chicago?
Students at Chicago take pleasure in thinking, and, just as importantly, they take pleasure in thinking with others.