Fellows Talks

Fellows Talk: Daniel Cohen on Maria Monk’s “Awful Disclosures”

Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures Reconsidered:
From “Me Too” to “Fake News” in the Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of an Anti-Catholic Genre, 1845-1960

Daniel A. Cohen, Department of History, Case Western Reserve University
September 25, 2019 (UCHI Conference Room: Babbidge Library, 4th Floor)

Contrary to the conventional view of Awful Disclosures (1836) as a great triumph of antebellum U.S. nativist propaganda, Maria Monk’s bogus account of sexual abuse, torture, infanticide, and murder in a Canadian convent was actually a disaster for the anti-Catholic cause. Despite its sensationalism, Monk’s exposé struggled to match the extraordinary sales of Rebecca Reed’s earlier Six Months in a Convent (1835); and, after being utterly debunked in 1836–37 as “fake news” by that era’s “mainstream media” (reputable secular and religious newspapers), it was not reprinted again in the U.S. until 1855. More broadly, the public exposure of Maria Monk as an outright fraud largely discredited the entire convent exposé genre, dragging down Reed’s far more credible narrative with it. Only during the century after 1860, did Maria Monk (who had died in disgrace in 1849) complete her posthumous comeback. By the early 1900s, huge numbers of anti-convent narratives, including Awful Disclosures, were being churned out by specialized nativist and anti-Catholic presses based in such cultural backwaters as Aurora, Missouri, and Milan, Illinois, which catered to the tastes of rural Protestant traditionalists and other bigoted, prurient, or unsophisticated readers. These widely dispersed nativist publishers—at least one of whom also peddled stereopticons, slide shows, and even motion picture projectors—constituted a massive communications empire apart from the “mainstream media,” arguably foreshadowing the rise of right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and white nationalist websites in our own time.

Cohen Talk Poster

The Schedule of UCHI Fellows Talks for 2019–2020

As is customary, every year each of our resident fellows delivers a talk on their ongoing research while at the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute. These talks are open to the public and take place at UCHI at the Homer Babbidge Library, 4th Floor. More details will be disseminated on social media prior to each talk.

Four Questions with Maxime Lepoutre

  1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.

Briefly put, my project aims to investigate the nature of political ignorance and the challenges such ignorance poses for democratic public life, by bringing recent work in epistemology and philosophy of language into closer dialogue with empirical political science.

Empirical social scientists have long argued that ordinary citizens tend to be highly ignorant about political matters. This result, in turn, has increasingly been used to support anti-democratic political systems (that is, rule by those who ‘know best’), or very minimal forms of democracy (that is, forms of democracy that only involve ordinary citizens in a very limited way). The problem with this research, however, is that it tends to rely on a theoretically unrefined understanding of what ignorance is. I believe this difficulty has led to unsatisfactory measurements of political ignorance, and has limited our understanding of the challenges involved in countering political ignorance.

To remedy this problem, we need a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of political ignorance. Accordingly, what I will do in this project is develop such an understanding by drawing on recent work in epistemology and philosophy of language. The first part of the project will explore what kind of epistemic state political ignorance is. Philosophers typically distinguish between having a true belief about something, and understanding that thing. Lack of political understanding, I will suggest, is what is really dangerous for democratic politics. But what social scientists measure is typically whether citizens have true or false political beliefs, not whether they have an understanding of political issues. As a result, their measurements tend to underestimate political ignorance in important respects, and overestimate it in others.

The second part of my project will focus on why it is difficult to counter political ignorance through democratic public speech.  Here, I will explore two obstacles that stand in the way of deliberative attempts at eliminating ignorance. To begin, political ignorance can be rational: in ethically divided societies, there can be good reasons for people not to heed the insights or testimony of others. Secondly, political ignorance can be sticky: conversational norms can be ‘asymmetrically pliable, so that it is easier to introduce ignorant views into public discourse than it is to remove them from public discourse. Exploring these issues should yield a deeper understanding of the rational and linguistic obstacles that prevent democratic public discourse from fostering knowledge.

2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?

I first became interested in the issue of political ignorance when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, entitled ‘Democratic Speech in Divided Times’. There, I explored the positive functions that public deliberation can play in divided settings: how it can be used to share knowledge, and to hold political decision-makers accountable. I was especially interested in how features of public discourse which are symptomatic of division and injustice—such as public expressions of anger—can actually play a crucial role in exposing and eliminating those injustices.

But the problem I encountered time and again during this project was that most of these positive powers of political speech could be subverted and turned to bad ends in conditions of political ignorance. Take the case of anger. When citizens who endure injustices know little about the true causes of those injustices, demagogues can exploit their legitimate anger and direct it, misleadingly, at vulnerable minorities. In such cases, expressions of anger create ignorance, not knowledge.

The upshot is that political ignorance is a serious obstacle for democratic politics. Accordingly, it seems to me that we will not be in a position to put public deliberation to positive use until we understand the nature of political ignorance better. The most exciting development of my current research project, then, is that it will bring us closer to addressing this significant problem. Not only will it help us measure political ignorance more accurately, but it will also shed light on what kinds of political speech are better suited to countering political ignorance, and when they might be capable of doing so.

2.What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?

The University of Connecticut Humanities Institute will be an ideal place to carry out this research. This is, first and foremost, because of the institute’s strong emphasis on interdisciplinary research: in many ways, the point of my research project is to suggest that there has been too strong and too artificial a division between social scientific approaches to ignorance, and philosophical approaches to ignorance. This, in turn, has had a deleterious effect on our understanding of political ignorance. So I am really enthusiastic at the prospect of working in an environment that actively encourages multidisciplinary work. I’m also looking forward to my residency at UCHI because it is such a strong and innovative centre for the study of language and knowledge. For example, I’ve learned a huge amount from Lynne Tirrell’s research on hate speech and Michael Lynch’s work on understanding in a digital era—and I’m eager to learn a lot more next spring!

3. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”

The humanities perform foundational research that is indispensable to understanding and addressing contemporary political challenges. To see this, consider that empirical research concerning social and political phenomena—for instance, the effects of hate speech or the rise of inequality—necessarily depends on theoretical research. When social scientists go about gathering data, they do not do so randomly. Instead, their research is guided by theoretical hypotheses. And the conceptual insights of philosophy and of the humanities more generally is directly relevant to generating these theoretical hypotheses.

Consider again the example of hate speech. When social scientists try to measure the harmful effects of hate speech, they operate with some background hypotheses regarding how hate speech might harm its targets. Now, philosophers of language—speech act theorists in particular—have deeply enriched those hypotheses, by exploring how speech can not only say things but also do things. Another important example is the measurement of inequality. Seemingly abstract debates in political philosophy concerning the so-called ‘currency of equality’—that is, concerning what kinds of goods or resources should be equalised—have revolutionised the way in which we now measure equality. Indeed, those debates gave birth to Amartya Sen’s famous capabilities approach, which in turn played a key role in developing the Human Development Index. The result has been a far more robust way of measuring and understanding one of the most important social phenomena of the past few decades: the drastic rise in global inequality.

Importantly, the research I intend to pursue at the UCHI models itself on these influential instances of humanities research. As I explained above, I hope to use philosophical insights concerning knowledge, understanding, and language, to enrich the theoretical hypotheses that guide social scientific investigations of political ignorance. And understanding political ignorance, how extensive it is and how it can be countered, is a first step towards more fruitful public deliberation.

 

Four Questions with Lani Watson

  1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.

    The primary aim of this project is to examine the relationship between questioning and intellectual humility. I take questioning to be a powerful expression of intellectual humility; one that is familiar across cultural and political boundaries, and accessible from an early age. Yet the role and significance of questioning is often overlooked or undermined by our social, cultural, and political institutions, and in education. I aim to examine questioning as a form of intellectual humility and investigate the factors that prevent people from expressing this form of intellectual humility, particularly in education.

  2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?

    My primary philosophical interest is in the practice of questioning. As an epistemologist, I am especially interested in how we use questions in order to gather information and come to know things. For the most part, we are living in a world that values knowing things highly. ‘Knowledge is power’, as Francis Bacon’s (1597) famous Enlightenment adage boldly states. This means that questions are a powerful tool for acquiring something that we value. I am interested in examining how this value system impacts upon our willingness and ability to ask questions.In situations where there exists a real or perceived expectation that one already knows something, one’s ability and/or willingness to ask questions will plausibly be inhibited. I think this is important in a classroom setting where students often feel under pressure to have the right answers at their immediate disposal. I am interested in examining how barriers to questioning manifest in education. Why would a student be either unable or unwilling to engage in questioning in the classroom? What features of our education systems generate, maintain, and schematize barriers to student questioning in schools? And what can teachers, administrators, or policy-makers do to address a lack of student questioning?

    I am excited to be collaborating with the Right Question Institute, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as part of this project and investigating their sustained efforts to teach questioning to students via the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), developed by Dr Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana. I will focus on the role that this technique plays in generating open-minded and intellectually humble classroom dialogue. Ultimately I aim to defend the claim that educating for good questioning offers an effective and resourceful means of providing students with valuable opportunities to exhibit, practice, and refine the virtue of intellectual humility.

  3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?

    I am very much looking forward to visiting UCHI and working with fellow researchers as part of the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project. It will be great to be part of a group of researchers with common interests in the public expression of intellectual character, which I believe to be an important and timely area of research in philosophy, as well as across the range of disciplines represented by the project and UCHI. Coming from the UK, I am looking forward to working in the US and having the opportunity to learn more about the US education system, through collaborating with the Right Question Institute. Having recently spent time in the US as a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing, at the University of Oklahoma, I can also say that I am greatly looking forward to once again enjoying the delights of the ‘Twinkie’ back on US soil.

  4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”

    As a researcher (and human) I am deeply invested in finding ways in which I can contribute to a better world. What that world can and should look like are questions that can be articulated and explored through the humanities. Without asking questions about the value or meaning of our choices and actions as a society or a species, it is unclear to me what progress in our intellectual or practical endeavours, or indeed in any other domain, would look like. Perhaps most importantly, I believe firmly that a diversity of perspectives must contribute to human thought and progress. Humanities research allows for this diversity through its departure from any single method, approach, or value system.

Four Questions with Dexter Gabriel

1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.

My current project, Jubilee’s Experiment: The British West Indies and American Abolitionism, examines the ways in which the emancipated British Caribbean colonies entered into the debates over abolition and African-American citizenship in the United States from the 1830s through the 1860s. It analyzes this discourse as both propaganda and rhetoric, created by abolitionists, black and white, and African-Americans more generally, in antebellum America.

2.What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?

This was a public discourse, taking place in newspapers, pamphlets, manuscripts, speeches, and even public spectacles. The most prominent of these were annual memorials of British Emancipation. These were held every August 1, primarily in the Northeast. It was coming across a poster for one of these events that first drew me to the topic, as I wanted to know why thousands of American abolitionists and reformers were celebrating the end of slavery in the British West Indies. What did it mean to them? Why did they think it important? What were they hoping to accomplish? As part of my project, I’m working on digitally mapping these August First commemorations as they took place throughout New England. It will be interesting to see what information they provide about attendants, mass mobilization, and social movements in the nineteenth-century.

3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?

First, I’m looking forward to getting work done on the manuscript. I’m grateful that the fellowship will allow me the space and time needed towards that goal. I’m also looking forward to engaging with the other scholars in residence, and the chance to work, dialogue, share and exchange ideas within a vibrant intellectual community.

4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”

The humanities remain a fundamental part of a liberal arts education. It helps us explore the human experience and provides a better understanding of both our own society and the world we live in. Within my own work, research into the history of slavery and emancipation helps us understand how people in the past grappled with the immense moral issues of their day—and perhaps offer some insight into how we might do the same in our time.

 

 

Four Questions with Jason Chang

Jason Oliver Chang

  1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.
    This project has allowed me to learn a great deal about Asian maritime history and has taught me how little I know. My initial interest in Asian sailors who came to the U.S. but did not become immigrants has opened up a broad inquiry across the Indian Ocean, the archipelagos of southeast Asia and the coastal regions of the South China Sea going back to the seventeenth century.
  2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?
    I was very much seduced by the concept of sailors as being estranged from the national and international order, but sailors are difficult to study because they do not leave many records. More importantly, I have found sailors and the maritime world not all together separate from terrestrial and continental histories, but deeply intertwined but often shadowed from each other.
  3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?
    I’m looking forward to finding out how wrong I was about my maritime subject. With a great deal of new research from India, UK, China, Singapore, New Zealand, and the Middle East, I know my earlier conceptions will be altered and that is exciting.
  4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”
    One thing this project has taught me is how regionally diverse, complex, and interlinked seemingly mundane lives can be when put together comparatively. This realization underscores, for me, the enormous value of exploring subjectivity, cultural production, and epistemology in power relations. Not only because it is important to understand the dynamics between the hegemon and subaltern but also to account for, acknowledge, and ward against the erasure of ways of being, ways of signifying, and ways of knowing by those who struggle to be recognized.

Four Questions with Dorit Bar-On

1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.
We humans are not the only minded creatures in the world. Nonhuman animals, too, can have various affective and cognitive states of mind. But (as far as we know) we are the only creatures who speak their mind. The question of interest to me is how that could come to pass. My project is a philosophical investigation into the origins of linguistic meaning, integrating conceptual tools and theoretical insights from linguistics, comparative psychology, biology of communication, and cognitive science (among other fields).

2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?
I have always been interested in language – its nature and structure, and its connection to mind. In more recent years, having learned about extensive research into animal communication, I became interested in continuities and discontinuities between nonhuman animal communication and human language and the time-old question of how language could have evolved from animal communication.

3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?

I am planning to complete a manuscript in progress titled Expression, Communication, and Origins of Meaning

4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”

Based on my experience of talking to people from diverse disciplines over the past 10 years, I see the kind of thinking cultivated in the humanities – broad yet detail-oriented, integrative, attentive to connections of ideas and similarities in patterns of thought – as immensely useful no matter the discipline or inquiry. Humanists’ common intellectual practice of ‘standing back’, taking stock, and adopting a broader perspective can have a transformative effect on any field of research.

Four Questions with Ellen Litman

Ellen Litman

  1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.
    My project is a novel in stories, tentatively titled Love Lessons, which tells the story of a group of friends who come of age during perestroika, in the final years of the Soviet Union. As high-school and college students, they witness and, in some cases, actively participate in the political events of those years, but over time their energy and hopes for the new democratic Russia turn to weariness and despondency. In her recent book The Future is History, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen writes of “the death of a Russian democracy that had never really come to be.” In my novel, I want to explore, on a personal level, why and how this had happened. My novel unfolds between 1990s and the present, and in the course of it, some of the characters in the novel remain in Russia while other choose to emigrate. While the two major themes of my work have been immigration and Russia, up until now I have approached them separately. In Love Lessons, I want to bridge the two worlds by connecting the modern-day Russians and the diaspora and by showing how, regardless of their location, the history has shaped their worldview and continues to influence their attitudes and choices.
  2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?
    Like my characters I grew up in the Soviet Union and lived through perestroika, so the topic definitely has some personal significance. Although it’s been over twenty years since I left, I remain deeply invested in the Russian politics and culture, and it pains me to see the country revert to its totalitarian state. I think my novel is driven by the need to understand why this has been happening and why the protest movement in Russia has become virtually nonexistent in recent years. Another motivation for this book is the Modern Immigrant Narratives class I have taught the last three semesters and, more specifically, the idea of transnationalism, which allows one to step away from the “old world” vs. “new world” binary view of immigration. I find it liberating to see the immigrant experience not as a linear process, but as a way of maintaining multiple connections between the two worlds. In the past I have felt the need to justify why I was writing about Russia. There was this implicit assumption that as a writer (and as an immigrant) I was supposed to become more American, i.e., move on to more “American” topics. Not only the idea of transnationalism made it easier for me to accept that yes, I was still compelled to write about Russia, but it also challenged me to envision a new kind of immigrant novel that Love Lessons might become.
  3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?
    I am so immensely grateful for being given this year at UCHI. I am looking forward to the time and space to focus on the new book. But I am also excited to learn during this upcoming year, to be inspired and motivated by the research of the other fellows and visiting scholars. In our usual academic life, it is so easy to get bogged down by the day-to-day teaching and service responsibilities and so hard to carve out the time to explore what lies beyond our immediate teaching or research topics. Finally, I’m excited to embrace the community of my fellow fellows. Writing (and research) can be such a lonely endeavor. I hope we’ll be able to help, motivate, and support one another in our respective projects.
  4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”
    It seems that we’re living in particularly dark and dispiriting times. Faced with either Russian or American political news, I find it hard to remain hopeful. If anything does give me hope, though, it is humanities. To me humanities are about telling stories – stories of who we are, who we used to be; stories of where and how we live; stories of our languages, beliefs, ideas, mistakes, and successes. By telling these stories, we, scholars and writers, have a chance to change things for the better, to inspire empathy and understanding, break stereotypes, answer questions.

Four Questions with William McMillan

  1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.
    My project leverages my research on a theologically conservative but culturally flexible church in Manhattan to think through the limits, tension points, challenges, and opportunities for evangelical Christianity (in conversation with other religious traditions) in the contemporary era of advanced modernity.
  2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?
    The training that I received in a particular theological tradition before transitioning to sociology actually helped broaden my perspective and provided me with greater flexibility and nuance in appropriating a particular set of religious commitments as an analytic or grid through which to make sense of the world. This paradox of pursuing a more robust set of convictions and arriving at a more capacious view of the world intrigued me and set me on the path to think through the adaptability and flexibility that is often entailed in a given religious tradition. One exciting development that I am anticipating is clarifying and substantiating ways that evangelical Christianity and other religious traditions are conversing with and/or positively articulating more immanent conceptual frames in response to today’s increasingly secular cultural climate.
  3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?
    I am looking forward to rich conversations with other scholars, as well as genuine interdisciplinary exchange. It is a privilege to be part of such a talented and diverse academic community and to think through and dialogue about such weighty, relevant, and important issues.
  4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”
    Humanities scholarship brings to the fore questions of meaning, purpose, aspiration, value, and telos. Answers to these questions are existentially unavoidable, though they are sadly and far too frequently ignored. The power and promise of various technologies and societal changes are touted, as science elaborates more and more a detached description of the world—the world of things. While all well and good, these tools and descriptions only go so far. Important questions inevitably emerge, such as: How can one discern between better and worse uses of a given technology? Is bigger, faster, and more efficient always the best course of action when it comes to human beings? How might the tools and techniques of science help human communities over the long term? Such questions fall in the sweet spot of humanities research, which at the end of the day concerns wisdom and deep reflection on what it means to live a noble, honorable, and worthwhile human life.

Four Questions with Richard Frieder

  1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.
    This project has allowed me to learn a great deal about Asian maritime history and has taught me how little I know. My initial interest in Asian sailors who came to the U.S. but did not become immigrants has opened up a broad inquiry across the Indian Ocean, the archipelagos of southeast Asia and the coastal regions of the South China Sea going back to the seventeenth century.
  2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?
    I was very much seduced by the concept of sailors as being estranged from the national and international order, but sailors are difficult to study because they do not leave many records. More importantly, I have found sailors and the maritime world not all together separate from terrestrial and continental histories, but deeply intertwined but often shadowed from each other.
  3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?
    I’m looking forward to finding out how wrong I was about my maritime subject. With a great deal of new research from India, UK, China, Singapore, New Zealand, and the Middle East, I know my earlier conceptions will be altered and that is exciting.
  4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”
    One thing this project has taught me is how regionally diverse, complex, and interlinked seemingly mundane lives can be when put together comparatively. This realization underscores, for me, the enormous value of exploring subjectivity, cultural production, and epistemology in power relations. Not only because it is important to understand the dynamics between the hegemon and subaltern but also to account for, acknowledge, and ward against the erasure of ways of being, ways of signifying, and ways of knowing by those who struggle to be recognized.