FAQ: Lauren Berlant

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

I had quite a few majors in college: so, an American poetry course where I first read Tom Lux, John Berryman, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Ai; a materialist Sociology course where I first read Erving Goffman, Daniel Bell, Calvin Hernton, and Jean Baudrillard; a feminist psychology course where I read all the women and madness books, Juliet Mitchell, and Sheila Rowbotham; a film and performance class organized by surrealism.

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

I'd just say what I say to my students now: we have classrooms rather than MOOCS because you have to learn how to sustain a thought aloud, exposed to others and to your own ineloquence, in part to see that other people can help you reach where you can't quite go, and in part to see that you can be a resource to help them reach better clarity. So be less shy.

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

Yes, straight through: I was poor and you had to start paying back loans if you took time off. It was suboptimal. But I had had another life during high school living on communes, so I wasn't leaving home for the first time when I went to college.

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

I worked in critical and political theory because there were social and aesthetic conventions that I wanted to be able to historicize and explain; I worked in gender, sexuality, race, and citizenship because there were social, aesthetic, and political relations I wanted to help teach about and disrupt; and I became an Americanist because that's what I was hired as at the University of Chicago. Other jobs would have shaped my field in a different way.

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

After many years working on affective intensities as routes to understanding the historical sense or sense of belonging, and many years of accepting that melodrama was the affective dominant of modernity, and many years of associating the queer with camp, I have come to see that less dramatic traditions of expressivity require some storytelling. I am working on deadpan, dissociation, indie/mumblecore arts, coolness, and the distribution of recessive action.

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

I really love teaching my Trauma seminar: Survival in Auschwitz, Maus, Song of Solomon, Fanon; and my love seminar, Lolita, Lydia Davis, Junot Diaz, Roland Barthes.

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

My students are really game to experiment with how to conceptualize: to be creative, to be curious; to be researchers, to be thinkers.