- Tony, when we met you were an incoming transfer student from one of Chicagoland’s many community colleges, Joliet Junior College. When did you know you were going to be an English major?
Two semesters before I transferred to UIC, I was taking the equivalent of English 161, and we had to write an essay in response to The White Tiger. Our instructor was calling us up one by one to get our papers. I was confident that I got a good grade. As I approached the table where my instructor was sitting, he said, “Tony, you’re a pretty good writer. Have you ever considered writing for the school paper?” I told him “No” as he flipped over my essay to reveal a B-. I thought that after his comment an A was in the bag. After that, I wanted to prove him wrong. I got an A on my next essay, but even before that I was hooked.
- How did you learn about UIC’s English department?What motivated you to apply to UIC?
As I was searching for prospective schools and strong English departments, UIC English kept coming up in the national ratings. When I went through the faculty list and researched all the names (Where did they get their degrees? What did they write their dissertation about?), I found that UIC’s prominence in English has grown a great deal over the past twenty years. So, I wanted to be a part of that continued growth. Actually, UIC was the only school that I applied to because it was here or nowhere. If I wouldn’t have gotten accepted on my first application, I would have applied again the next year, and then the year after that, and the next year, too. I assumed that you all would have had to let me in eventually.
- I admire your persistence, but as it turned out you only needed to apply one time. Describe your first semester studying English at UIC.Was there a period of adjustment?What did you most enjoy about your first semester?
I remember it well and yes, there was a period of adjustment. At my community college I was only a part-time student, but my first semester here I was full time. Also, I had never read the sorts of things we were reading in the two English classes I was taking, so it took me a couple of weeks to get into the groove of things. Once I did, then I knew that this was not only the university for me but also the department for me. One of those classes was Professor Reames’ English 240: Introduction to Literary Study and Critical Methods. It was hard work, but it changed the way I saw the world.
- Can you tell us more about what you were reading during that first semester and how Professor Reames’ class impacted your worldview?
There were three pairs of readings that really stick out to me: Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel” with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; an essay by Frantz Fanon paired with Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea; and my personal favorite Gilles Deleuze’s essay about “Rhizomes” with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It was a combination of all those connections that made me begin to see all of these ideas woven together in some sort of intricate web. There are artistic depictions of Superclusters floating around where there are points of bright lights and dimmer ones all connected to each other. I feel like the ideas we talk about in class can be imagined in the same sort of way. It was not until Professor Reames’ class that I began to see it, and that moment was formative for me.
- That brings me to my next question. Since not everyone is as open as you are to the sort of mind expanding experience you describe, it is not unusual for English majors to be asked “What are you going to do with that?” How do you answer friends and family when they ask you about the usefulness of an English degree? Has your answer changed over time?
Generally, I would emphasize the importance of critical thinking. Not just critical thinking in the world of novels and literary criticism or theory, but critical thinking that requires you to think about our world in a way where there is no clear answer to the multitude of issues that pop up. Because of what being an English major demands, we become comfortable thinking in this grey world where problems and answers are much more nuanced and certainly not black and white. I think that being an English major not only prepares you for thinking through these big issues but also teaches you how to write and communicate effectively. So, not only does a degree in English mean that you are an advanced thinker, who can come up with solutions for a number of problems occuring in “the real world,” but it also means that you are an effective communicator. I have added one addition to my answer over the past couple of years, and it is that when you love what you do, and if you love what you do enough, then you’ll probably be driven to be good at it, and if you’re driven and good at it, then I think you can monetize that.
- Absolutely!I find myself telling prospective English majors and their families this sort of thing whenever I get the chance! Many, many of our alums are quite successful in their chosen fields. As one of the small number of 2015-2016 LAS Undergraduate Research Initiative (LASURI) winners in the Humanities, please share with us a significant moment (or moments) in your education at UIC that helped you to find your research project.
Looking back, it was a culmination of many moments, but one really sticks out. One of the most important lessons Professor Reames taught us in English 240 was to “never let yourself off the hook.” She encouraged us to keep asking “so what?” and to keep digging into an idea and pulling out everything that we could possibly pull out. I don’t think she knew that her statement would spark a curiosity and drive within me to ask all sorts of crazy questions.
- And look where that tendency toward “crazy” questions has taken you! If a prospective English major relatively new to the study of rhetoric asked you about your project, how would you explain how you arrived at your topic of research and what you hope to accomplish by pursuing this work?
During the Spring 2015 semester I was taking English 448: Advanced Studies in Rhetoric with Professor Cintron, and we began to ask questions that pushed the boundaries of rhetoric and what constitutes communication or persuasion. I thought about these questions a lot, and as I was streaming “How the Universe Works” there was a discussion about quantum entanglement. How two particles across vast distances of space can be spinning in opposite directions, and if you change the direction of spin in the one particle, the other particle instantaneously changes its spin to maintain its opposition. This made me think that perhaps this could be a form of communication and the questions that this raised eventually led to an inquiry into the ways that mathematical and verbal language generate knowledge and make truth claims. I hope that what I’m able to do with this project is start something that I can keep writing and thinking about over the years. I hope to eventually change the way we look at language, both mathematical and verbal, to bring us to a new understanding of the world around us and how we come to know the things that we know.
- Fascinating project! How would you frame your research if you were talking about it with a colleague at an academic conference?
This project is exploratory by nature, so no question is too crazy. Mathematical language has been given a certain privilege in the world, and I want to know why. Is it really the “language of the stars,” or merely a good description of it? What makes an object “1” more concrete and universal than “freedom”? It seems to me that numbers derive their meaning from the absolute guarantee that “1” is, in fact, a real thing that is “out there.” In virtue of “1” actually being an object 1 we can, with enough time, get all the way to a googolplex and logically prove the steps we took to get there. In verbal language, a similar phenomenon occurs through “linguistic communities” where words derive their meaning from other words within a given “community.” The difference between the two seems to be the incredibly simple and incredibly “real” 1. Is it as real as we all take it to be and how different is it from its pals on the verbal language side?
- Obviously, finding good faculty mentorship has played a key role in your success.Do you have any advice for fellow undergraduates in terms of how to get the kind of mentorship that can help them find their proper path at UIC and beyond?
First, go to class. Even if your head isn’t totally in the game, just show up. After that, try hard, and when you think you don’t have any more “try” in you, try harder. I think professors recognize when someone is genuinely committed to learning about the ideas and figuring out how they work. Also, there have been times where I show up at my professors’ office hours consecutive days in a row with all sorts of questions about a myriad of different topics, and so far, I haven’t been kicked out of anyone’s office for being a pest. Professors do the job that they do because they love thinking about these ideas and they love teaching them; so, when you show the initiative to care about the ideas outside the fifty minutes or hour and fifteen minutes that you have to be there, they will give you as much information as you can take in.
- We’ve been talking about you going to graduate school almost from day one of your transfer to UIC. What will you be looking for in the graduate program you hope to enter in the future?
The schools I am applying to all have strong English, Communications, and/or Rhetoric departments, but the other important criterion I am looking for are their Science, Math, and Philosophy departments because I find that the more I inquire into these ideas, the more connections begin to form that bridge all of these areas of specialization together. I think good convincing ideas are pervasive and affect not just their area of study, but many other fields as well, and the books and articles I read that pertain to Philosophy or Rhetoric seem to ask the same types of questions that the scholars in Math and Science departments ask as well. I do not believe that we are all so totally opposite from each other; rather, it seems to me that our lines of inquiry and the ends we wish them to go are much closer than some may think.
- Finally, why study rhetoric?
Well, why study anything? I think the choice to study Rhetoric, Biology, or Math is because many of us wish to answer some deep question that we may have been holding onto since adolescence. It just so happens that one path is chosen over the other to find answers to the questions we so desire. Perhaps, also, we want to have a stable job. Actually, what originally drew me to rhetoric was the job prospects because of its applicability to many fields, but in the process it has given me such a richness of being that I’m hooked.
- I can see that! Keep us posted on all the latest developments in your research and the results of your graduate school applications. We are expecting you to go far!