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LSU Today Flagship Faculty
What was your previous position and where?LSU was my first full-time academic appointment. While a graduate student at Harvard University, I served initially as a research and teaching fellow, then was promoted to head-of-sections for several interdisciplinary, core curriculum courses. I’m afraid that I began my career working the evening shift at a suburban Winchell’s Doughnut Shop.
What brought you to LSU?When I was recruited by LSU, our university was engaged in a robust drive to strengthen humanities research and instruction. Ambitious projects underway at the time included the development of the English Short Title Catalogue, which is now a renowned database managed by the British Library; the development of rare book collections; and the cultivation of early-modern studies initiatives with universities ranging from our sister campus in Shreveport to the University of Goettingen in Germany. The mixture of strong support for cultural education, international humanities outreach, fervor for the then-emerging field of computer applications in the liberal arts and the genial ferocity of then “A&S” Dean Henry Snyder made for an unbeatable combination and an irresistible attraction.
What are your research interests?I presently am pursuing two major research projects while managing several others. My lead project might be described as “the excavation of the early cultural history of cataclysmic geology.” For several years, I have been exploring the vast, multi-lingual body of 17th- and 18th-century writing on the mysteries of the world underground: on volcanoes, earthquakes, caves and even the surprisingly large number of hermits for whom extreme circumstances made subterranean dwellings the best option. My “underground” project covers a huge body of speculative literature — what we might now call “science fiction” — about a world that few may enter and where fewer may even survive. It investigates the way that science deals with the invisible: with phenomena beyond the reach of apparatus. My second project examines another dimension of the invisible world: that of laughter, as codified in the joke anthologies of the early modern period. Evoked by but never contained within texts, that which is “funny” belongs to an array of invisible phenomena in which the Enlightenment had a keen interest. I am attempting to explain the reasons for the prodigious expenditure of energy by “the age of reason” in the preparing and publishing of multitudinous joke collections. I am also preparing edited multi-author volumes of essays on the sea and on motion and locomotion as understood and represented by enlightenment writers and artists. And I edit my two journals, 1650-1850 and ECCB: The Eighteenth-Century Current Bibliography.
What do you hope to accomplish at LSU?Although an individual person constitutes less than one-tenth of 1 percent of an institution, that measure is similar to the level of active ingredients in some of the most powerful chemical agents known to humankind. My present goal is to serve as such an active ingredient at LSU. Owing to the economic difficulties and related frustrations of our times, many faculty members feared being rendered inert. I aim to set an example of engagement by intellectuals in decision- and policy-making processes. I especially hope to change the way that LSU interacts with other institutions around the state: to set an example of leadership rather than rivalry in the statewide educational project.
What do you enjoy most about LSU?What I enjoy most is service as LSU Faculty Senate president, which is the best job in the state, with the most opportunity to work constructively with the greatest number of people in the widest variety of contexts. A close second would be the opportunity that LSU provides to interact with the other nine campuses and myriad institutions of the LSU System as well as with faculty and administrative leaders from campuses from Lake Charles to Ruston, from New Orleans to Shreveport, and around the nation. I must also confess to an inordinate pleasure in the production of “The Faculty Senate Monthly Newsletter.”
What are your major accomplishments?On the academic and research side, my favorite accomplishment is surely being honored as a Distinguished Research Master here in Louisiana and having published an array of books that have revived more than a few precious but forgotten cultural and intellectual resources. The privilege of organizing conferences in venues from Singapore to Shreveport has been an unforgettable odyssey through the frontiers of academic life. On the administrative side, having served in a leadership role in the development of the highly productive Louisiana Transfer Degree, the fruit of service on the Statewide Articulation and Transfer Council, ranks almost as high as several years of service on budget committees, assignments that have allowed me to contribute to the sustaining of a great institution in difficult times while also revealing the wondrous intricacies of a university filled with highly talented people. I am also pleased with having created a statewide network of colleagues interested in faculty governance, a network that now maintains the “Alexandria Summit Meeting” series.