Monday, May 5, 2014

David Mohn Presents Original Research at AU's Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Symposium

On Tuesday, April 1, English (Integrated Language Arts) major David Mohn shared his research with fellow Ashland University students, faculty, and staff and the fifth annual College of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity (URCA) Symposium.  The Symposium, which follows the submission and presentation format of an academic conference, enables undergraduates to work closely with a faculty mentor to develop original research projects across Arts and Sciences disciplines.  David shared his analysis of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing, which details the thorny personal and social issues entailed when light-skinned African Americans passed as white, either to pursue relationships or economic opportunities otherwise denied to them in the context of the racially segregated United States in the 1920s.

David's mentor, Dr. Sharleen Mondal, interviewed David to get some insight into how Ashland University's English Department helped him develop and present high-quality research in literary studies, and more broadly, how studying English at Ashland has enriched his scholarly life. 

David Mohn presents at the URCA Symposium
What inspired you to select this particular topic and text for your URCA presentation?
I first read Passing in Dr. Mondal’s Gender and Literature class during my sophomore year. At that time Dr. Mondal suggested that I might want to expand my work and present it at URCA.  URCA was a fantastic way to challenge myself, to explore a subject about which I am passionate on a deeper level. Moreover, URCA undoubtedly helps to strengthen the scholarship, and scholarly community, here at Ashland.  

What do you regard as the broader significance of both the text you explored in your presentation, and of the argument you made?
In the novel Larsen directly refers to the Rhinelander case, a divorce case that featured the act of passing at its nucleus. She does not, in other words, allow the reader to forget that this story is real. That is not to say that the novel’s characters actually lived, but rather that the challenges they faced, and the decisions they were forced to make, were far from uncommon in the era in which Passing was written.   The simple fact that this is a part of our shared history, then, is significant, and makes the novel worthy of study. Moreover, I think that critical study of any work like Passing can eventually lead to valuable reflection on the state of things today. For example: boiled down, a portion of my central argument essentially contends that Larsen’s Passing suggests that eliminating racism is impossible if people try to ignore it, blindly assimilating instead of tackling it head-on with a consciousness of (often society-imposed) difference. Whether this entirely true, somewhat true, or entirely false can be debated, but the idea is, at least, worthy of conversation. Moreover, this idea cannot only be applied to conversations about racial justice, but to conversations about many different varieties of discrimination (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) which we as a society/world still sustain. Being able to explore such an important issue is, I think, the broader significance of the text as well as (albeit in a smaller way) my presentation.

As a reflection on your time at AU, and as a way of tracing your intellectual influences/community here, can you speak to some of the key things you learned during your AU education that most informed the research you presented at URCA?  
This is difficult question, but I think the most obviously place to begin is in Dr. Mondal’s Gender and Literature class. Like all of the English professors here at Ashland she challenges students to develop deep understandings of the text through encouraging nuanced close readings. Moreover, I think that Dr. Mondal’s passion for social justice is both obvious and contagious; it is difficult, near impossible, to exit her class without understanding the special ability of literature to challenge stereotypes, discrimination, and apathy.  This, in fact, is a common trend in the English department.  Many of the department’s professors and courses attempt to pay particular attention both to marginalized authors, as well as marginalized characters in texts that could be said to belong to the widely studied literary canon. As a result, I think Ashland’s English department produces students who are particularly attentive to literary voices that are commonly silenced. Its students are able to see texts and issues from multiple perspectives, empathizing with characters of different backgrounds, cultures, races, etc.  

This approach to literature was perhaps especially prevalent in a course I took by Dr. Lehman called African Literature which primarily focused on South African literature. This led up to a summer study abroad trip in South Africa which I and several other class members attended. Whether written in the apartheid or post-apartheid era, it is nearly unavoidable for South African literature set in South Africa to avoid establishing race as at least a subtext. Now that I have studied South African literature and even visited the country, I would allege that my understanding of societal injustice in South Africa informs my understanding of societal injustice in the U.S.  It is unquestionable that this study abroad experience informed the research I presented at URCA. This is not to say that I am attempting to make any direct comparisons or to force a certain framework onto my research, but it is to say that my approach to, and perspective on, these types of issues has been substantially affected by my experience abroad. 

At Ashland, the professors are eager to hear what students have to say, to explore literature with students instead of lecturing at students or necessarily forcing a specific framework on students’ interpretations. By valuing each person’s input professors at AU undeniably help students to develop creative, yet sound, responses to what they read. This, in turn, exposes all of us to diverse perspectives that inform our interpretations of the texts we are reading.

Do you have any plans to expand on the research you presented--and if so, what are those plans?
I hope to submit my research to The Sigma Tau Delta Review, an undergraduate academic journal published by the national English honorary Sigma Tau Delta.  Because of length requirements I do not plan to necessarily expand upon the research I have already least at the current time.