The Deviant Female Form

Knight

Nadine Knight, workshop coordinator, assistant professor of English

Description: We are interested in looking at how Black women's bodies, in particular, have been treated as transgressive, unruly, deviant or curious, and how these bodies have been put on display, under control, or been otherwise appropriated. It's exciting to have participants from all three divisions (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences) because we can share our expertise and also see how many of these issues intersect. For example, Sarah Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus of the 19th century, was seen as a medical curiosity for doctors to examine but was also put on display in freak shows across Europe. In the 20th century, she has inspired historical research as well as dramas, novels and even a new film. We're beginning our seminar looking more closely at the cultural, scientific and aesthetic histories of Baartman as a great meeting ground for our individual subfields and our interests. From Baartman, we will move into the 20th century and look at how Black women have been treated in everything from the realms of beauty and literature to the newly publicized case of Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman whose cells were harvested without her knowledge and consent and have been used to revolutionize modern medical treatment.

How will you accomplish this? We will meet for three-hour seminars daily during the week after Commencement. Each session will be guided by one or more faculty with expertise in the particular text or area.

How will this work be applied to your curriculum/classes? In the short term, it gives us new examples to bring in when leading classes. When I teach African American literature, for example, I will be able to incorporate my new knowledge of Baartman or Lacks to illustrate points about other "deviant" women in the novels we study. We are bringing in a visiting educator, Sharrona Pearl, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania. She will talk about her research on freaks and physiognomy, and visit classes in gender studies and politics. In the long term, this seminar will be the inspiration for more interdisciplinary courses, such as a course on the politics and psychology of beauty, or a course examining the history and literature of "freaks."

Why is this cross-disciplinary approach important? This cross-disciplinary approach is important to me — and to Whitman as a liberal arts college — because it privileges the expansion of knowledge. It is also a reminder that we become better scholars and teachers when we can deepen our areas of expertise. How can I do the best job teaching literature without understanding the history that informs it? And when I can add knowledge of how this applies to politics, or theater or medicine, then my students and I get an even richer sense of not just the text but also of the world around us. On a very practical level, being able to call upon different areas of knowledge is also a great way to appeal to the nonmajors in the courses we teach. One of my students might not be widely read in African American literature, but perhaps that student is a science major who can make a wonderful contribution to our class by better explaining the use of stem cells. In such a closely knit environment as Whitman, it would be foolish to miss any opportunity to take advantage of individual expertise and to build stronger ties between areas of scholarship.