Meet Dr. James Coby, who graduated in December 2016 with his PhD in English. After graduating, he returned to his home state of Alabama where he is now a lecturer and full-time, permanent faculty member in the Department of English at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.
Why did you choose to pursue your PhD in English, and why did you choose UL Lafayette?
After completing my M.A. I knew that I wanted to delve more deeply into literary studies, but wasn't totally sure on the areas where I wanted to focus. UL Lafayette's generalist program interested me because it allowed me to dip my toes into the waters of several different genres before ultimately deciding on my primary field. So, while I never ended up pursuing early-modern British literature or linguistics, my classes with Dr. Jennifer Vaught and Dr. Clai Rice were invaluable by providing me with new avenues for understanding literatures and language.
Tell us about your dissertation and your research.
Under the direction of Dr. Mary Ann Wilson (my chair), Dr. Jo Davis-McElligatt, and Dr. Shelley Ingram, my dissertation examined four works of literature revolving around diluvian disasters (floods and hurricanes), each of which were set in the U.S. South. I was interested in how these authors treat disasters and use them as enabling metaphors for re-examining (mis)conceptions about the South (such as gender roles, southern exceptionalism, and so on). Here's a short intro to my dissertation:
My dissertation examines how southern authors have utilized ecological disasters in their works as points at which to deconstruct monolithic mythologies about the American South. Employing theories of affect and emotion, I examine William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem], Barry Hannah’s Nightwatchmen, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly’s The Tilted World. Each of these novels features a diluvian disaster, such as the Great Flood of 1927, Hurricane Camille, or Hurricane Katrina, as the central catalyst for their respective plots. My project argues that authors often use ecological catastrophes, not simply as plot devices, but as forums for demythologizing pervasive ideas about gender, race, and identity in the American South. Building on recent trends understand the American South through its national and global connections, and the turn to affect, a theoretical framework that explored the importance of feelings and refuses to exclusively privilege logic, my dissertation intervenes in current (mis)understandings of the U.S. South.
How did you approach your research project? What about it was of intense interest to you?
I came into my research by way of William Faulkner's "Old Man" — one of my favorite texts of all time. Faulkner's treatment of life were so human and real, but framed so poetically; there's a passage I always return to, which feels particularly appropriate for studying in South Louisiana, where he describes two characters hunting alligators in the Atchafalaya Basin as "stalking their Pleistocene nightmares up and down the secret inky channels which writhed across the flat brass-colored land." There were several moments where I was overtaken by the beauty of his writing and had to sit the book down and focus on other things for the rest of the day (this is not an advisable strategy for completing a dissertation, by the way).
Anyway, the more I studied Faulkner's text the more I saw similarities with other texts revolving around diluvian disasters in the South. I decided I wanted to spend significant time with these other works, mining them for clues about what these treatments of crisis might mean for the greater landscapes of literature of the U.S. South.
What experiences did you enjoy the most at UL Lafayette? What new opportunities did you have inside and outside of the classroom?
I enjoyed so much about my earning my PhD in English. While there were certainly trying times, they were far outnumbered by the various successes and achievements I had along the way. I loved how much teaching experience I gained and, an important aspect of that, how much freedom I was given in course design. Particularly with literature courses, graduate students propose courses in their areas of interest or expertise and, if the courses are approved, get to take students down the rabbit hole with them. I taught classes in southern literature and U.S. travel film and literature, specifically, and had a blast in each course.
Outside of the classroom, the numerous workshops on publishing, presenting academic research, and crafting persuasive CVs have shown to be very helpful in my academic career. And, of course, I'd be remiss to not mention the uproarious Thursday Night Reading Series that's put on by our creative writing graduate students. (Next year, the TNRS will be spearheaded by Patrick Holian and Saul Lemerond.)
When did you start your job at UA Huntsville, and what topics are you teaching?
I began teaching at UAH in the fall of 2016. I’ve taught various 100-level college writing courses, including a freshman honors course that's a fun hybrid of composition and literary studies.
How did your experiences at UL Lafayette prepare you for your new gig?
One of the aspects that draws graduate students to the English graduate program at UL Lafayette is the teaching opportunities afforded. I was able to teaching myriad English courses — from freshman composition to sophomore literature courses to technical writing. This experience left me feeling fully prepared to tackle my first semester of teaching as a full-time faculty member.
Beyond that, I served on various committees at UL Lafayette when I worked as Assistant Director of First Year Writing and as President of the English Graduate Student Association. Because of this, I entered my new job comfortable with the non-teaching/research aspects of academia.
How is your experience at UA Huntsville?
I'm loving my time at UAH. The faculty have been so welcoming and helpful, making sure I'm prepared for the challenges of full-time faculty life. My students, too, proved engaged, inquisitive, and thoughtful - all of the qualities you want from a class.
In addition to all of that, Huntsville sits just a few minutes down the road from my parents, so it's wonderful to be so close to them (and to have free babysitting for our 7-month-old).
Anything else you want us to know?
I truly enjoyed my experience at UL Lafayette and am grateful to those who helped my grow as a teacher, scholar, and person. While I'm excited for new opportunities and horizons, I will confess that I'm dreading another spring semester without a Mardi Gras parade.