Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Alycia LaGuardia-LoBianco


-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy Department here at UConn, where I have studied for five years. I received my B.A. in Philosophy from Stony Brook University. 

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

 During my fellowship year, I will be finishing my dissertation, “Action Guidance in Complicated Cases of Suffering,” in which I assess ethical responses to suffering given the nuanced ways in which someone may suffer. Ethicists hold that suffering is ethically relevant: another’s suffering calls for some ethical response, often relief of that suffering. However, this general formula hides some problematic assumptions. It takes the suffering agent as an unwitting victim who ought to be helped but does not necessarily owe anything to herself. It also assumes that, barring extreme circumstances, suffering ought to be relieved. My dissertation challenges these assumptions, arguing that the suffering agent is a moral agent, not just a victim dependent on others, and who therefore has obligations to herself. Additionally, I argue that relief of suffering is not always ethically appropriate. Rather, ethical responses to suffering are not unidimensional, but are as complex as suffering itself.

-How did you arrive at this topic?

I was lucky to take a philosophy course with Joel Kupperman here at UConn. During our discussion of Buddhism, which takes as its starting point the elimination of suffering, I was stuck on the question, why should we want to eliminate suffering? From there, I started thinking about the potential value of suffering, arguing that there are virtues that come from suffering that make it worthwhile. I then pivoted and became interested in internalized trauma and self-caused suffering. I turned to oppression literature for a framework to discuss cases in which someone unwittingly contributes to their own suffering because of oppressive or abusive forces. I realized that much ethical literature treats suffering as a blanket emotional or physical pain, and in so doing, oversimplifies widely varying experiences. These nuances matter: we should expect that the right ethical response to suffering depends on variables like the appropriateness of that suffering, whether suffering is caused by internalized behaviors, or whether an individual wants to suffer. This led me to take the suffering agent, rather than the phenomenon of suffering, as the focus of study, in an effort to recast her as a moral agent rather than a mere victim. Now, my dissertation is driven by analyzing difficult cases of suffering (such as self-injury or self-defeating behavior) with the suffering agent at the focus of analysis. 

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

I’m interested in messy, real-life problems that have been overlooked by philosophical analysis yet which can benefit from it. I think philosophy is meant to deal with just these sorts of difficulties, rolling up its sleeves and trying to untangle a problem knowing that the solution won’t be neat and pretty but trying to find an answer anyway. Real suffering is complicated. It can change someone from the outside in, it can test and destroy close relationships, and it can become something an individual depends on to feel like herself. It matters to our lives, to who we are and who we care about. So, suffering and suffering agents deserve the careful attention that philosophy provides to make some headway in understanding and addressing this painful reality. My hope is that this work will give others (philosophers or not) a new avenue to reckon with their own experiences of suffering. 

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Sarah Berry


-What is your academic background and what is your current position at UConn?

I am a PhD candidate in the English department at UConn. I began the program in 2012. Before that, I earned a bachelor’s degree in an interdisciplinary Great Texts program from Baylor University and a master’s degree in English literature from Boston College.


-What is the project you’re currently working on?

The title of my dissertation is “The Politics of Voice in Twentieth-Century Verse Drama.” It is a transatlantic study of plays that are written in verse (instead of prose) during the last hundred years. I argue that verse drama gets revived in the twentieth century not as a genre in its own right but as a hybrid of poetry and drama, which makes it a venue for experimentation with different literary and dramatic forms as well as literary and dramatic voices. All this experimentation with voice has political implications as well, since voice is as much a political concept as a literary one. Twentieth-century playwrights use the different vocal possibilities of verse drama to respond creatively to a variety of contemporary political crises, including fascism, colonialism, the struggle for civil rights, class conflict, and sectarian violence.


-How did you arrive at this topic?

I came to this topic from an interest in weird plays: radio plays, plays with stage directions written in verse, plays in which characters blur together or become someone else. I realized that what makes these plays so weird is that they are half drama, half poetry. They combine the rules and conventions of lyric poetry with those of modern drama, but sometimes these rules and conventions contradict one another. So I set out to investigate the tension between the dramatic elements and lyric elements of these plays.



-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

My hope for this study is that it will make people rethink the relationship between poetry and drama. We often think of poetry, especially lyric poetry, as the opposite of drama, but there is a long history, right up to the present day, of the interaction between these two genres. In fact, I think our conceptions of these genres are interdependent—that is, our understanding of lyric poetry is based on shifting notions of what drama is, and our understanding of what drama is has been informed by the emergence of lyric poetry as its own genre during the nineteenth century. This study is timely in genre studies, where scholars are contesting the value of categories like the lyric. But verse drama also provides us with an opportunity to think more broadly about the way that genres are created and reinforced.

I also hope that my study will demonstrate the inextricable relationship between form and genre on the one hand and politics on the other. Genre theory can sometimes seem abstract—or only of interest to literature scholars—but I think these plays show that questions of genre are necessarily intertwined with questions of politics, specifically through voice, which is always both literary and political.

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Deirdre Bair

Deirdre Bair

-What is your academic background and what is your current position at UConn?

MA and PhD from Columbia University, comparative literature major.  Tenured professor at U. of Pennsylvania.  Visiting professor, writer in residence, or distinguished scholar at (among other titles) Ohio State University; Bennington College; Macquarie and Griffith Universities. Humanities Institute at Australian National University, Canberra, (all Australia),  Visiting lecturer at Paris VII, Kassel U. (Germany), Upsala U. (Sweden), James Joyce Summer School ( University College, Dublin).  These are selected.  Currently independent scholar and writer.

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

Bio/Memoir: the Accidental Biographer (working title, subject to change).  It is the history of the seven years for each biography I wrote, of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. During those years I knew and worked with each subject on the research and writing.  It will include new information that was not appropriate to publish during their lifetimes, and it will also detail my coming of age as a writer and feminist.  It will be both a history of my personal evolution throughout this historical moment and will also address the many professional decisions I made as I created a new form of contemporary biography. It will also elaborate on how the genre evolved over the last several decades.

-How did you arrive at this topic?

I decided to write this book because so many individuals and organizations have asked me about my experiences. Other biographers, historians, psychologists, and art historians want my testimony for their books and because they sometimes change what I tell them to fit it into their particular theories or world views, I’ve decided to write my own account first so that my version of “the truth” (in all the post-modern ramifications of that term) will be on the record. After that, they are free to interpret it as they wish.

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

I hesitate to make assumptions about the impact my work will have.  I simply offer it as part of a historical record so that future scholars and writers may use it as they will.  I think of Margaret Atwood here, who said how can we think we are providing permanent answers now when we don’t even know what questions future generations will be asking.

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Mark Healey

healey-What is your academic background and what is your current position at UConn?
I have a doctorate in Latin American history from Duke University, and taught at NYU, the University of Mississippi, and the University of California, Berkeley before coming to UConn in 2011. I teach on the urban, environmental, and political history of modern Latin America. My strongest areas of interest are Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Brazil, but I have the pleasure of teaching broadly about the region for both undergraduates and graduate students. There’s a lively community of Latin Americanists here, in Humanities and Social Sciences, which has made UConn an engaging place to teach.

Continue reading

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Daniel Hershenzon

hershenzon-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

My first degree, from the University of Tel Aviv, is a double major of Philosophy and History. Before getting this degree , I was studying industrial design. I left the world of design for the university when I realized that I was enjoying the history and theory classes much more than the design workshops. After receiving my B.A., I continued to study towards a Masters degree and in 2004 enrolled in a PhD program in the Department of History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I was lucky to spend two years of my graduate studies researching in Spain (in Madrid, Valladolid, Barcelona, and the Canary Islands!), and another year in Florence, Italy, with a postdoctoral fellowship after I graduated. Then, I took my current position at the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, where I mostly teach medieval and early modern Spanish history.

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

I am completing a book that examines the entangled histories of early modern Spain, Morocco, and Ottoman Algiers, and by extension the entangled lives of Christian and Muslim captives in the region. Captivity was a serious problem in the early modern Mediterranean, and scholars estimate the number of captives, Muslims and Christians, in 2 to 3 millions. The book argues that piracy, captivity, and redemption shaped the sea, a space integrated on the social, economic, and political levels. It demonstrates that despite confessional differences, the lives of Muslim and Christian captives were interrelated and formed part of a single Mediterranean system of bondage. These captivities were connected by a political economy of ransoming shaped by ecclesiastic ransom institutions; Spanish, Ottoman, and Moroccan rulers; captives and kin; and Jewish, Muslim, and Christian ransom intermediaries. They all interacted through texts that captives created and circulated across the sea. The history that emerges from these stories is both local and Mediterranean. It offers a comprehensive analysis of competing Spanish, Algerian, and Moroccan imperial projects intended to shape Mediterranean mobility structures. Simultaneously, the project reveals the tragic upending of the lives of individuals by these imperial maritime political agendas.

-How did you arrive at this topic?

I became interested in captivity when I wrote a seminar paper analyzing the autobiographies of former Spanish captives. I was fascinated by how ex captives sought to convince their readers that they did not convert to Islam during their captivity, and yet, their accounts abound with different forms of religious, cultural, and imperial boundary crossing. I also began to see how problematic the absence of Muslim captives from this history is. Finally, I was struck by the importance of writing for captives—not only as a medium to make claims about one’s past after ransom, but also during captivity. Captives constantly wrote letters trying to arrange their ransom, and in its turn, this epistolary circulation extended the boundaries of maritime communities across the sea, putting captives in charge of channeling information about community members who had died, converted as captives, or suffered martyrdom. As importantly, researching Mediterranean captivity allowed me to spend two years in the Mediterranean.

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

As a historian, I engage in debates on the emergence of European territorial identities, cross-Mediterranean maritime networks, the political economy of forced migration, and the struggle between state and church over that mobility’s control and meaning. I do so by analyzing early modern interactions among 17th century Christian and Muslim captives, enslavers, redeeming friars, merchants, and rulers who struggled to shape piracy, slavery, and redemption according to their shifting vision – religious, economic, and political. The multiple cross-maritime interactions I explore do more than counter an image of a declining 17th-century Mediterranean dissolving into nation-states. They force us to rethink early modern Europe and its others questioning how seemingly European territorial identities were shaped by transnational maritime networks and their transformation. In this sense, the framework that my book proposes for the history of the early modern Mediterranean and Europe have repercussions beyond that specific history and can provide a lens through which to understand the current ongoing crisis surrounding mobility across the sea.



Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Dimitris Xygalatas

Xygalatas-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?
I am an Assistant Professor at UConn’s Anthropology Department and an affiliate of the Cognitive Science Program. Those two areas also reflect my background and training, which is interdisciplinary. I have conducted a combined 4 years of ethnographic fieldwork, but I have also worked in various social scientific laboratories. This allowed me to develop a research methodology which combines field and lab approaches and affordances.
-What is the project you’re currently working on? 
My research examines the effects of ritual participation at the individual and social level. One area of particular interest for me has been the practice of extreme rituals. I have studied some of the most intense rituals around the world, ceremonies that involve walking on fire, piercing the skin, altered states of consciousness, and other intense experiences. To do this, I often brought technological innovations into my field research, things like biometrics, cameras, motion detectors, and more. Using these quantitative methods has often raised important issues and questions. For example, as anthropologists, what are we to make of some of the discrepancies between our measurements and people’s phenomenological accounts? Say, when our quantitative observations about participants’ emotional reactions do not agree with what those participants report feeling, how do we reconcile these accounts? These are some of the questions that I am currently concerned with.
-How did you arrive at this topic?

I find ritual to be one of the most fascinating aspects of human conduct. It is a truly universal behavior, but we don’t think about it too much – we just do it. As an ethnographer, whenever I ask people why they perform their rituals, they typically respond along these lines: “that’s just what we do”; “we’ve always done it this way”; “this is who we are”. So, there is a sense of salience and sacredness about these practices; people agree that rituals are important to them, but more often than not they have no justification for why they are important. I find this quite puzzling, especially in the context of painful or stressful rituals, so the kinds of questions I am asking are concerned with what these costly activities offer to those who engage in them.


-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?
Anthropology studies some of the most meaningful aspects of human existence: the things we see as sacred or taboo, the things that unite and divide us, those that we see as worth fighting or dying for, the things that make us human. And yet, ironically, anthropologists often have a hard time reaching out to a wider public, beyond the world of academic conference rooms and obscure technical journals. In my own work, I try to keep this in mind, and to explore new ways of communicating ideas and findings, including electronic and visual media. I believe that as academics, especially those of us funded by taxpayers’ money, we have an obligation to engage with the public and make our findings available to everyone. Specifically with regards to my topic, I would like to contribute towards a realization that some of the cultural practices we might consider obsolete, superfluous, or even primitive, often play a very important role in who we are are individuals and communities, and that age-old traditions have been able to survive for so long because they are an inextricable part of our nature.

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Daniel Silvermint

silvermintWhat is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?
I received my Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Arizona in 2012, with a dissertation that developed a theory of oppressive burdens, and asked whether victims owed it to themselves to resist.  Although my background was in political science and political philosophy, struggling with the agency and obligations of victims made a feminist philosopher out of me.  After Arizona, I was a GRIPP/RGCS postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University from 2012-2013.  I then joined the University of Connecticut in 2013 as an assistant professor, jointly appointed in Philosophy and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program.
What is the project you’re currently working on?
The project is called Complicit Identities: The Ethics of Looking Out For Yourself.  While my earlier work focused on the obligation to resist oppression, this project investigates cases where victims stray into complicity simply because of who they are or what they aim to do in life.  None of these choices are inherently wrong, but they end up contributing to oppression because of the prior existence of stereotypes, unfair burdens, and other background pressures.  An example of a complicit identity is when a gay man or a person of color ‘passes’ as straight or white in order to escape oppressive treatment, but only escapes that treatment in virtue of participating in the very system that constraints them and others like them.  What should we say about such passing?  Is it wrong because it’s a form of deception or inauthenticity?  Does it reinforce stereotypes by removing counterexamples from the public’s view, or harm one’s fellow victims by opting one out of the fight against oppression?  These are the most common judgments you hear about passing, and I think they all miss the mark.On my view, passing and more traditional forms of resistance actually share an aim: they’re both attempts to improve one’s life or circumstances in the face of oppression.  But whereas resisting victims attempt to improve their well-being by undermining, changing, or escaping the oppressive system that constrains their well-being, passing victims keep those constraints in place, and make the most advantageous trade-off they can under the circumstances.  Passing might allow a person to advance her plans and projects, or to cultivate worthwhile connections, or to gain access to valuable goods, but at the expense of her security as she worries about discovery, or her sense of belonging as relationships with family and community fray, or her self-respect as she struggles with how she obtained those goods.  The trade-offs vary, but the strategy depends on making such a trade-off: giving up what you can live without to have the life you want.  Passing victims are thus complicit in their own oppression, benefiting from a system that’s still ultimately harmful to them.  But while that makes passing a limited strategy for improving one’s life, it doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.  These victims aren’t failing themselves.  They’re looking out for themselves in circumstances they shouldn’t even be in, and more often than not, they’re successful.  If we want to engage seriously with questions of victim agency, then we have to move beyond simple dichotomies of good resistance and bad complicity.  We need a new ethics of looking out for yourself.

How did you arrive at this topic?
Honestly, it was the realization I described in the last question.  Victim agency was more complicated than I was appreciating — maybe even too complicated for the straightforward principles and clean verdicts of academic philosophy.  I began my research talking about obligations to self, and why resistance was important for victims.  But the more I examined these cases, the more I understood that we don’t actually get very far by talking about resistance.  Of course it’s good.  The problem is that, for victims, complicity can also be good.  It can often unlock all the same benefits as resistance, and do so with diminished risk and fewer potential costs.  So we can’t just dismiss complicity as mere selfishness or an insensitivity to the demands of justice.  It’s a strategy for dealing with oppressive burdens, not a way to avoid dealing with them.

As you can imagine, I gradually stopped writing about resistance, and the focus of my research changed.  And while I was coming to this realization, ‘passing’ was the example I kept coming back to.  Partly because it presents a fascinating, messy, real-world dilemma for ethical systems.  Partly because it’s so timely, with many recent cases receiving national attention.  Partly because there are so many applications, like understanding so-called ‘reverse passing’ and the possibility of trans-race identities, reaching careful conclusions about how to navigate daily life with an ‘inauthentic’ identity, and making sense of invisible disabilities like mental illness.  And partly because, well, navigating the pros and cons of passing is personal for me.  (You should never 100% trust an academic whose research focus is passing.)

What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?
We badly need an ethics of looking out for yourself.  The trick is, the phrase ‘looking out for yourself’ has both negative and positive connotations.  It can be a term of reproach for individuals that shirk their obligations or opt out of a shared struggle against oppression.  But it can also be a term of praise for people that take care of themselves in circumstances that threaten their well-being, and for those who strive to live the life they want despite the burdens they face.  Complicit Identity cases are challenging because these individuals ‘look out for themselves’ in both senses of the phrase, upending simple verdicts about the importance of resistance and the impermissibility of complicity.  So while my project presents a framework for understanding victimhood and passing that moves beyond familiar, misguided debates about deception and authenticity, I hope it can also say something about a dilemma we all face: how to balance what we owe ourselves with what we owe others in times of injustice.

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Anna Mae Duane

duane.photo2-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I’ve been teaching in  the UConn English Department since 2004. I write and teach in Childhood studies, American literature, African American Studies and Disability Studies.


-What is the project you’re currently working on?

A book called Strange Place Blues: Growing up in a Slave Nation.


-How did you arrive at this topic?

I came across an 1822 skit where a nine-year old African American boy chastises another little boy for tardiness as part of a public examination at the The New York African School and I was hooked.  On one level, this was a very small moment–just a school performance with two young kids talking about the importance of schoolwork. Really, it’s not terribly different that something you might find at a school assembly today. But once I started investigating, it became clear how this small moment had incredibly large implications. Much of the ideology underlying the American Revolution, and the concept of citizenry it engendered, depended on the capacity for citizens to be born equal, and to come to rationality through education. Thus the question of whether black children could partake in education was vital. These small children were exemplars, held up as evidence by both anti-slavery forces. Their school performances were covered by local newspapers, and their schoolwork held up at national conferences as evidence of African American equality, and of slavery’s deep injustice.
My book explores the work of the school by tracing the lives and works of two of its most famous almuni, James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet. James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn a medical degree and Henry Highland Garnet was the first African American to address Congress. In particular, I focus on how they imagined the black child in their lives and work as they wrestled with questions of national belonging, of education, and of possible futures. I’m also keenly interested in how these political figures were deeply influenced by the experiences of black children who came into their own lives, whether it was their own children, New York city orphans, child fugitives from slavery, or in one case, a young African held up as a scientific specimen. Ultimately, I argue, that finding ways to cultivate and celebrate children as political and cultural actors was central to the work of black abolitionism, and later black political thought,  in ways we haven’t really engaged as fully as we need to.


-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

We’re in a moment where the very meaning of education is under stress. We are struggling to define what it is supposed to accomplish, and by extension, what we imagine a good citizen should know.  Both students and educators often feel overwhelmed by definitions that they had very little input in creating, and that might feel alien to what they really want to learn. My project seeks to learn from African American children themselves as they worked–and ultimately thrived– within systems that didn’t believe that they could ever become citizens in the first place.   In doing so, I hope to open up new ways of appreciating the capacity of children to be active participants in their own education, and to be political advocate


Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Jeffrey R. Egan

Egan2-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

 I have studied at the University of Connecticut since 2005, first as an undergraduate and presently as a PhD. Candidate in the History Department. My dissertation research has brought me to archives all around southern New England, and my work has been supported by the Graduate School of the University of Connecticut, the Massachusetts Historical Society and, currently, the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute.


-What is the project you’re currently working on?

At present, I am writing my dissertation, which is entitled: Watershed Decisions: The Environmental History of Boston’s Quabbin Reservoir, 1880-1940. My project studies the expansion of the Boston metropolitan waterworks and the building of the largest reservoir in the northeastern United States. To create this artificial lake, the state of Massachusetts decided to eliminate four towns and expel over 2,000 people from their homes in the Swift River Valley. The dissertation tells the human story of these valley residents building their communities during the late-nineteenth century, grappling with the threat of eviction during the 1920s, and memorializing their former towns after construction was complete. To this I add the environmental story of a landscape transformed, first by rural farmers and mill owners and then by engineers tasked with permanently altering the valley to satisfy Boston’s ever-growing demand for water.


-How did you arrive at this topic?

I arrived at this subject a few years ago, after my advisor, Robert Gross, gave me an overview of this curious story. He had heard the popular retelling of the building of the Quabbin Reservoir while living in western Massachusetts during the 1970s, and he wondered if an academic study of this event would make for a suitable dissertation. After a preliminary investigation, I found that my work could add to the ongoing academic conversations about the meaning of rural land use, urbanization, conservation, and scientific land management during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. When environmental historians consider the meaning of conservation and displacement, they usually tell stories about the development of the American West, such as the decline of the bison or the eviction of Native Americans from federal lands. Opposing visions of how humans should relate to their environments are typically found at the heart of these dramatic episodes. Yet, my historical evidence suggests that implementing conservationist policies and scientific land management schemes played out differently in rural Massachusetts. Here protestors used conservationist logic to defend their claims to the land, suggesting that these natural resources belonged to the people of the valley and that Boston was mismanaging its own water supply. When this complaint of waste and inefficiency proved unfounded, the residents of the Swift River Valley acquiesced to the logic that their sacrifice would serve the greater good of the Commonwealth state. The environmental thought of people in this rural section of Massachusetts had much more in common with that of Boston’s urban planners than the available academic literature allows.


-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

The story of the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir is one of broad interest in Massachusetts. Several novels, children’s books, and local histories have been written on the subject, and the newspapers and magazines in the state have rediscovered this human and environmental drama every two or three years since construction began during the 1930s. In western Massachusetts, where Daniel Shays raised his insurrection at the dawn of the American republic, this story of Boston “abusing” and “dispossessing” the people of the rural Swift River Valley looms especially large in the popular imagination. I hope that my thorough and rigorously researched study can give the people of Massachusetts an historically accurate and well-written account of this event. People living outside of this region might look to my study for insights into the meaning of rural life at the turn of the century and the human and environmental change brought about by the growth of cities during the twentieth century.

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Robert T. Chase

Chase-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

Trained as a specialist in twentieth century history and race, I am interested in examining the intersection of social, legal, and political history, African American and Chicano/a history, and the study of civil rights and social justice. I received my PhD in 2009 and my dissertation won the University of Maryland’s EB and Jean Smith award for best dissertation in political history. Previously, I was the public historian for the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, where I organized a large conference on Black Power. I am currently an assistant professor in the Department of History at Stony Brook University (SUNY) where I am completing revisions on my book manuscript, Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Prisoners’ Rights Movements and the Construction of Carceral States (UNC, Chapel Hill). I am also presently co-editing an anthology entitled Sunbelt Prisons and Carceral States: New Histories of Immigration Detention/Deportation, Incarceration, and Resistance (UNC, Chapel Hill).


-What is the project you’re currently working on?

My forthcoming manuscript, Civil Rights on the Cell Block: The Prisoners’ Rights Movement and the Construction of Carceral States (UNC, Chapel Hill), addresses the contemporary crisis over criminal justice reform by posing three historical questions: 1) how did the United States come to have the world’s largest carceral state; 2) what have been the sources of resistance to America’s carceral state in the post-civil rights era (1965 to present); 3) what is the political relationship between the two?

My book will be the first study of the southern prisoners’ rights movements of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and the subsequent construction of what many historians now call the era of mass incarceration. This project is therefore a regional study of civil rights cases across the American South, but the book’s narrative is centered on the social movement that resulted in the landmark case Ruiz v. Estelle, which was a massive omnibus lawsuit that demanded that Texas outlaw the practice of having inmates act as openly armed guards. This southern trustee/guard system was a hierarchical racial regime that constituted a vicious sex trade in which convict guards were given the tacit approval from the prison administration to use their power to rape other inmates and engage in the buying and selling of inmate bodies as a sexual commodity that signified cultural standing and societal power. As a regional model, the Ruiz case inspired prisoners across the South to wage a historically mindful public campaign for visibility that sought to convince the courts and the wider public that southern prisoners suffered terrible abuses as twentieth century “slaves of the state.”

My manuscript shows that this inmate civil rights rebellion, while successfully ending the existing system, failed to make conditions in Texas prisons more humane. As a result, the new Texas prison regime — one that utilized paramilitary practices, promoted privatized prisons, endorsed massive prison building programs and tolerated gang-related warfare — established a new prison system that reaffirmed its law and order focus while sublimating the legal and human rights of prisons. This new “Sunbelt” carceral approach, I conclude, became exemplary of national prison trends.


-How did you arrive at this topic?

When I started this research in the early 2000s, there were relatively few historical studies of twentieth-century prisons and almost none of the prisoners’ rights movement. Despite the development of a “long civil rights movement” historiography, I found that the literature simply did not discuss the ways in which what we now call mass incarceration has turned the gains of the civil rights revolution into another age of racial disparity.


-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

First, historians need to explain how and why the vast expansion of state power as expressed in the massive prison buildup of the 1980s and 1990s occurred without much public debate. Conservative backlash theories have provided one such explanation, but locating the growth of the prison simply in reactionary “law and order” politics fails to adequately explain how it is that the places where the prisoners’ rights movement scored the most victories, namely the South and Sunbelt states, have come to dominate the major trends of the modern-day carceral state. The question of legal success for prisoners’ rights in the South, on the one hand, and yet nearly simultaneous massive prison build-up in Sunbelt states, on the other, is a major historical problem that my forthcoming book will address.


Second, the history of resistance to carceral states reveals that regional, state, and local histories are integral to the shape of mass incarceration. By demonstrating how a variety of prisoners’ rights movement resisted mass incarceration, I make the argument that regional histories and different state prison practices constructed not a single carceral state but a variety of carceral states across the American prison landscape.


When activists, policy makers, and reformers attempt to curb mass incarceration, they must seek redress not only at the federal level through national legislation but perhaps more importantly they must encounter the ways in which policing and mass incarceration are governed at the local and state level where the American state is indeed strong. One suggestion that my forthcoming book offer is that social justice movements against mass incarceration should continue to focus as much attention on changes in local and state government as the civil rights movement once did when it sought civil rights as a matter of national and federal intervention. To dismantle this encompassing thicket, we must utilize the spade of history to reveal just how deep we must cut to reach the roots of intertwining carceral states.