FAQ: Lawrence Rothfield

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

Ron Rebholz's Shakespeare course at Stanford was like attending a one-man show, especially when Rebholz, who clearly identified with Falstaff, got to the Henriad. I recall one memorable lecture that involved much reading of Falstaffian speeches accompanied by the hoisting of martinis poured from a shaker and drunk with great lipsmacking gusto.

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

Shave that beard!

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


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

My dissertation advisor in grad school, Edward Said, instilled in me from the beginning an interest in the relationship between culture and power, culture and the state, and the ways in which academic experts could make a difference by intervening in real-world policy debates. But it was not until the early 1990s, during the culture wars, when I was accused by the Chicago Tribune editorial board of committing a "crime against the humanities" and when the NEA and NEH budgets were being slashed, that I began to think that the policy area I should try to intervene in was the one that affected me most directly: cultural policy. The decision to invest my time and energy heavily in cultural policy studies, though, came only because I was lucky enough to be serving as an associate dean in humanities when a donor approached us asking if we would be interested in starting a research center on cultural policy—an opportunity I leapt at.

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

I've been working with a couple of sociologists, Terry Clark and Dan Silver, trying to develop an theory of urban cultural scenes which permits us to distinguish different kinds of scenes depending on the kinds of theatricality, authenticity, and authority a given scene valorizes. The sociologists are using this analytic framework to study real scenes (i.e., Wicker Park vs. Hyde Park) quantitatively, and are getting some interesting results that are making a difference in the way urban policymakers think about using culture as a tool for community development. But I am more interested now in asking whether it might be possible to think about how the concept of scene might be applied within English, not only to the sociology-of-literature study of movements, cliques, groups, etc., but also to the formal study of the novel, where scenes could be thought of as in some ways the a priori of action.

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

Middlemarch. It is very long, so complexly plotted, and so laden with deep allusions to everything from pathological anatomy to St. Theresa, that it poses a daunting challenge—exactly what our undergraduates want! And of course, it is all about the question that our undergraduates are asking themselves: how can I choose a career that will not be a dead end but will be meaningful and rewarding?

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

They love to push and challenge each other, and prefer classes where the expectations are high.