20 Years of Fellows: Debapriya Sarkar

As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations, we've checked in with former fellows to gather reflections on their fellowship years, to get an update on their fellowship projects, and to see what they are working on next. Read them all here.

headshot of Debapriya Sarkar2019–20 Faculty Fellow Debapriya Sarkar is Assistant Professor of English at the UConn. Her research interests include early modern literature and culture, history and philosophy of science, environmental humanities, and literature and social justice. She has co-edited, with Jenny C. Mann, a special issue of Philological Quarterly called “Imagining Early Modern Scientific Forms” (2019). Her work appears or is forthcoming in English Literary Renaissance, Shakespeare Studies, Spenser Studies, Exemplaria, and in several edited collections. Her current project, Possible Knowledge: The Literary Forms of Early Modern Science, traces how literary writing helped to re-imagine the landscape of epistemic uncertainty at the time of the Scientific Revolution. She is the recipient of the Huntington’s 2021–22 Fletcher Jones Foundation Fellowship.

What was your fellowship project about?
While at the UCHI, I was working my first book, Possible Knowledge: The Literary Forms of Early Modern Science. In this project, I study speculative habits of thought—such as hypothesis, conjecture, prophecy, and prediction—that were at the core of Renaissance poetics, fascinating writers from Spenser, Bacon, and Shakespeare to Milton and Cavendish. I call these ways of thinking “possible knowledge,” and I use them to show how poesie (a general early modern term for literature) helped to re-imagine the landscape of epistemic uncertainty at the time of the so-called Scientific Revolution.

Would you give us an update on the project?

The book is forthcoming from The University of Pennsylvania Press in 2023.

How did your fellowship year shape your project, or shape your scholarship in general?

The fellowship year was instrumental in shaping the final contours of my argument. During my year at the UCHI, I was working through a lot of the conceptual issues that ultimately appear in the book’s introduction. Given that my book studies the relations between literature and science, and engages with the works of historians and philosophers of science, it was extremely helpful to have the chance to discuss these ideas with colleagues in those fields—these discussions helped me to address questions of methodology and audience that have become very important in the final version of the project.

Would you share a favorite memory from your time as a UCHI fellow?

My favorite memory from the UCHI is definitely the weekly gatherings of the fellows—these events produced so many interesting, and unexpected, exchanges of ideas! I especially recall the serendipitous nature of forming connections across our diverse experiences and interests—both scholarly and beyond—as one of most rewarding and exciting things about my time there.

What are you working on now (or next)?

I am completing the final revisions for my book, and I am starting a new project on the intersections of early modern ecocriticism, critical race studies, and postcolonial theory—in this project, I ask how early modern literary and cultural artifacts can help us think about the long, entangled histories of environmental and racial justice.

Our theme for UCHI’s 20th anniversary year is “The Future of Knowledge.” What would you say are some of the challenges facing the future of knowledge? And what do you think is most exciting or promising about the future of knowledge?

One challenge facing the future of “knowledge” is to confront the significance and scope of the term itself—our understanding of what constitutes knowledge, and what methods are the most appropriate ways of knowledge-production (the so-called objective scientific method, let’s say), are inevitably shaped by our training, our positionality as scholars and students, and the resources available to us. For instance, how might questions in the history of science and environment shift if we centered the insights of Critical Indigenous Studies? I would be interested in thinking through such shifts in our own scholarly practices—to think of knowledges, rather than knowledge as a universal idea. This challenge is, perhaps paradoxically, one of the most exciting things about the topic: as an early modernist, it has been eye-opening to see how the import—and universality—of the term “Scientific Revolution” has been challenged and complicated by scholars working on women’s knowledge practices, Islamic science in the pre-modern period, etc. We thus already have models to rethink the meaning of what constitutes varied bodies of knowledge—by delving into the long, and global histories, of these questions, we can make the future of knowledge(s) as capacious as they have been in the past.