May 2nd  2016 RISD Hot Seat VIII


Nicole M. Merola

 is head of the department of Literary Arts & Studies. She holds a PhD in English Literature and is an associate professor of Ecocriticism & American Literature at RISD. Her interests include climate change, contemporary environmental literary, visual and material culture, animal studies, green film, polar regions, and theories of natureculture.



          I went to Nepal for a year when I was in college, went trekking off the beaten path with a map my friends and I didn’t know was wrong, and got very lost. That experience led me to the North Carolina Outbound School (NCOBS) after college, where I trained to be an Outward Bound Instructor, and found that I really loved teaching. I found it very satisfying to help students increase their comfort with a range of outdoor skills, including navigation, rock climbing, and leave no trace methods. While at NCOBS, I applied to graduate school, thinking I would study postcolonial and feminist theory, which I did early in my graduate program.  As I progressed toward the dissertation, reading scholarly work in the emerging field of ecocriticism helped me realize I could bring together two, formerly separate, parts of my life: literary studies and paying attention to environments. So, I can say that my year spent in Nepal, living in a completely unfamiliar environment and having to think about what my assumptions were about space, place, and environment, set me on the path to teaching at RISD.

          In my scholarly work I’m thinking a lot about the Anthropocene, the idea that we have shifted from the Holocene, the official, current, geological era into a new one: “the age of man.” Basically, the idea is that humans have impacted the planet so intensely that the record of those impacts can be seen in the geological record. I think this is a really interesting idea, in part, because of the conceptual pressures it puts on how we think about ourselves and our relationships with other creatures and with the planet. I’m especially interested in thinking about the Anthropocene and emotion. For example: how do we feel about this idea of humans as a geological force? How do texts register emotions about things like climate change or extinction? I’m drawn primarily to less happy emotions--fear, anxiety, sadness, melancholy, etc.--both because of trends in contemporary novels and films and because I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a time of anxiety about uncertain futures. I have a lot of conversations with my colleague Damian White (HPSS) about whether we should think futures through utopian or dystopian lenses. He tends toward the utopian and I tend toward the dystopian, which makes for great discussion. 



          I never know what’s going to happen in class, which is both terrifying and fantastic. I can prepare, read the novel a million times, have questions I think students will ask, but then an unexpected question or comment from a student reorients the class and sets us off in a new direction. I think the greatest thing about teaching here is students’ curiosity.

           I would like to see the development of new structures that would make it easier for grads to find people outside of their departments with whom to work.  Interdisciplinary exchange is an important tool for testing out ideas. RISD’s education is so strong in techniques of making but I feel sometimes students lack the ability to place their work in context: political, historical, environmental, material, etc. One of the most important skills for a student is to learn how to identify and articulate the stakes of one’s work, the interventions one wants it to make, how different audiences might receive or respond to it, and how it sits in relation to work that precedes it.

          In liberal arts classes students are often talking about someone else’s work, or about an event distant from them in space and/or time, which can make it easier to adopt critical distance from the work or event and to develop a set of critical frameworks and tools for encountering the work. Students who can use these frameworks and tools to interrogate their own work end up, I think, making stronger work. In the fall, there are two new research courses being offered for graduate students, one focused on research methods in art and design and the other an advanced research seminar on putting your work in context. I’m teaching the advanced research seminar. My goal in that class is to help students use liberal arts-based research to conceptualize and contextualize their degree projects.

           Sometimes I think it is easier for someone outside of a field or discipline to come in and ask a disorienting question. We all have training in an area; this training teaches us to ask some kinds of questions but not others. If I come to a critique, I’m likely to ask about the story behind the work and the argument you think the work is making. I can ask these questions because I’m not as concerned about whether, for instance, a proposed building is structurally sound. It's not my job to fix the building. It’s my job to help you think about what the building is arguing. 

           Being able to develop shared critical vocabulary that's not based in one's discipline of making can serve as a commonplace for students from different disciplines. For instance, in my class on representing climate change class I ask students from different majors to think about how their discipline might tackle thinking about events of incredibly long duration. A question like this gives students a chance to speak from the perspective of their own form of making but also to be cognizant of the limits of their discipline. The thing I like about collaboration is the way that it forces both partners in the collaboration to make their positions and assumptions clear.



          Advice. Sleep is important! I’m using sleep as a stand in here, but time away from your work is really crucial. Sometimes if I’m struggling with a piece of writing I find that the only way to resolve the impasse is to put it in a drawer and really truly not think or worry about it. Even though you’ve consciously moved away from the problem, your brain is still working on it. Unless you get away from the the field of gravity that is the work it becomes hard to see where else it could go or what else it could be.  Whether it's sleeping, exercise, talking over coffee with a friend, or staring at clouds, put the work away and come back at it with a fresh set of eyes.

      Find critics who will tell you what's not working in a way that you can hear it. The second part is as important as the first. Look for people who understand your work for what it's trying to do and can offer feedback that is generous to what you are trying to do while also being rigorous. 



Question from John Dunnigan. "What are the tools, materials and processes for making in the literary arts?"

           It’s interesting, I wouldn’t normally think about my work in these terms.  I’m reading all the time, hoovering up ideas. I would say ideas and the work of other scholars are some of the tools. When I think about a particular theoretical concept that's a kind of tool. Material is usually a pencil and note paper. I’m always writing, jotting down ideas. Processes include slowing down, which for me is one of the most important things. I spend a lot of time thinking about what the right word for something is. So I’ll write a sentence, and just sit and think about it for a long time to determine if what I’ve written is what I mean, if the words are carrying the ideas I mean to convey. Composing sentences, making structures for arguments, sitting with ambiguity, and aiming for precision are processes I use to craft the arguments I make. 



Question for Laura Briggs

Which little-known U.S. architect of color should we be paying attention to and what makes his/her work compelling?


Hosted and edited by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio



Look out for May 9th

RISD Hot Seat with Laura Briggs from Architecture!



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RISD Hot Seat is a new, student-led interview getting to know individuals at RISD found by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio in Graduate Student Alliance.

Through understanding the unique perspectives and interests each individual contributes, and asking about the ins and outs of different programs, our goal is to bridge conversations between graduate students, faculty, and staff to build a stronger, interdisciplinary graduate community in RISD.