In the last two years, Ball State English has welcomed nine new faculty members to the department. Undergraduate interns Tyler Fields and Nakkia Patrick, as well as graduate student Craig Schmidt, each interviewed three of the new faculty for profiles. We begin our new faculty profiles this week with Dr. Miranda Nesler. Continue below to read Dr. Nesler’s interview conducted by Craig Schmidt.
Dr. Miranda Nesler grew up in Houston, Texas, where she attended an all girls’ prep school called Duchesne Academy. She earned her BA from Texas Christian University in English and Philosophy, and she earned her MA and PhD from Vanderbilt University. She specializes in Early Modern British Literature.
Can you tell us about your ongoing book project, Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama?
It emerged out of the dissertation that I wrote at Vanderbilt. But whereas the dissertation itself was more interested in histories of genre and overlaps between closet drama, masque, and commercial theater, the book is a little more nuanced. It is interested in the way the connections between those different dramatic genres and their respective expectations of silence and speech helped women to carve out a space for dramatic participation despite legal and social prohibitions. So, what I look at are the ways that conduct manuals, laws, and commercial theater represent silence and I find definitional ambiguities which allow women to use silence as a potent activity rather than experiencing it as a passive constraint. I argue that as women participate in these so-called “silent’ household entertainments (closet dramas and masques) they create dramatic discourse without breaking the law.
By doing the things that they’re allowed to do—they write, dance, create costumes that allow them to communicate through allusion—women show that they don’t have to talk to generate public expression. Since it was silent, they were able to publish their work and perform it in front of limited audiences, and this helped women to influence the way that playwrights like Shakespeare or Fletcher or Ford represented female authorship and female performance in their commercial plays. Even though the women were always represented on commercial stages by boy actors, the plot points and representations of silence were drawn from real Stuart women and the work that they created. This is where my concept of disruptive compliance comes from. These women are complying with the rules of silence and domesticity that are put on them, but that compliance gives them the opportunity to disrupt oppressive structures. I think that they appropriate and manipulate silence and enclosure to their own advantage.
Is there any other research that you are currently working on (aside from your book project) or will be working on soon?
I’m beginning a piece that will move my work into the second book project. I’ve become increasingly interested in concepts of humanity and animal hybridity during the Renaissance, and I’m thinking about how problematic blurs between the categories of human and animal intersect with unstable assumptions about gender. What does it mean to define humanness legally through rational speech, and then to force silence on women so that you can deny them human status? A lot of the literature positions women as being animalistic, as being incapable of rational thought processes or rhetoric that mark individuals as human. But of course as legal categories shift, so do gender categories.
I’m interested in examining how drama represents women as human-animal hybrids, and how those roles shift when women gain or lose opportunities to vocalize for themselves. Is there a sense in drama that women have the ability to strategically perform humanness when it’s convenient for them and, when it’s not, to use animal nature as an excuse or protective cloak for their behaviors?
So, it’s in its very beginnings. I’m actually going to be presenting a piece at the Renaissance Society of America in the Spring, looking at animal trials and Ovidian allusions in Titus Andronicus to consider how those two lenses can help us to read feminine and racialized bodies.
You have your own blog based on a course you taught last Spring (performinghumanity.wordpress.com) and about which the English Department posted about this past summer (found here). Do you have any further plans for Performing Humanity? Either in respect to the blog itself or ideas for future courses?
It’s an ongoing website that my students and I have put together. It has a series of scholars, both from Ball State and beyond, who’ve contributed research. It underwent a shift in September. Previously, it had been posting the research of the students who had been in that class. Those posts ran from May all the way through September, and then we opened submissions to the scholarly community at large. We’re interested in exploring not only hybrid representations in the Renaissance but also previous to and afterwards—how did the Renaissance affect the way we think about human and animal categories now?
We’ve actually been receiving submissions from scholars all over the place. The furthest scholar, whose work just recently appeared, was from Australia. We’re actually finding a great deal of interest, and things are trickling in from philosophers, literary critics, and people at schools of education. Hopefully, as the site grows, we’ll get a sense that these categories are never monolithic in any period and that all of these periods interact with each another in ways that break down historical boundaries. The website has submission guidelines, and we have a CFP that’s been posted on the University of Pennsylvania call for papers. Most of the people who submit proposals, from what I gather from the site statistics, have located us through Twitter and have gone to our submission guidelines page (found here). At this point, the website has about 4,187 regular viewers. It’s consistently growing.
Aside from Early Modern British Literature in general, is there a particular theme or author that pervades your work?
I’m always interested in and always drawn back to the constructed nature of gender narratives. It’s something that, in some ways, has drawn me to the Renaissance, and the Renaissance helps me to see it in other places. How is it that storytelling and performance help us to construct identities, sexual categories, gender categories; how do those narratives affect the way that we control other people, the degree to which we control ourselves? Once we’ve set up those stories, what happens when people violate them—which will inevitably happen—and what kinds of social violence occur? I’m always interested in this kind of storytelling; not only linguistic and verbal storytelling, but also the kind that happens when people use their gendered bodies to communicate. I think this is something that not only leads me look at something like Shakespeare or John Ford during the Renaissance, but it also to think very seriously about texts by Ernest Hemingway or Edith Wharton—prose pieces that verbally represent bodies and those activities. I think that you can find these issues across time and across literature, and that’s where teaching is such a great thing because, even though my research is very focused on the 16th and 17th Centuries, I can actually use the classroom as a space to interrogate and explore with my students how these things happen over time and change across genres.
Are there any course ideas that you have which you are simply waiting to get a chance to put into action?
I would love to teach a class on banned texts. I love the notion that these pieces of literature speak so much to what’s happening in a culture and inform you about the major issues. What happens when a culture tries to reject or eradicate those issues from itself—to deny that part of its identity or history? I’d love to look at banned books lists—particularly in the United States and Great Britain—and think about what we learn about ourselves considering that these particular texts were put on a list; to what degree is that actually foreclosing people’s desire to read them and to what degree is it actually inspiring them to read them?
What sorts of activities or hobbies do you engage in outside of your scholarly work? How do you unwind and recharge yourself?
I grew up horseback riding, and I am a western rider. I compete in ranch horse riding and reining. Those are equestrian sports which originated out of the ranch work that happened in the Southwest but became more performative. So, instead of just stopping your horse, it became how far could your horse slide when you stopped it; or instead of just turning your horse quickly, it became how fast and precise can you turn your horse five or six times. I also travel a great deal. I grew up traveling, and that was something that was always instilled in me. I love traveling by myself. I like traveling with friends, as well, and family members, but I tend to be a solitary traveler. I also spend a lot of time with my dogs. I have two very funny Labradors.
-Interview conducted by Craig Schmidt