Joanna Davis-McElligatt is an associate professor of ethnic studies in the UL Lafayette English graduate programs and is known for her sense of humor in the classroom and dedicated mentorship of grad students. She teaches a range of topics in literature theory in our English grad programs, and she’s currently working on her first monograph, Black and Immigrant: The New Black Diaspora in American Literature, 1945-present.
You may also remember her from her takeover of the @ULgradschool Instagram account a few weeks ago.
What do you find is the most interesting or unique feature of the English graduate programs?
Our graduate students come together under the banner of “English,” but they represent a number of distinct disciplines: Literary Studies, Rhetoric and Composition, Folklore, Linguistics, Creative Writing, and Professional Writing. In a single graduate seminar, you might find yourself learning alongside a future teacher of English as a second language, a poet, a memoirist, a scholar of 19th century English novels, and a writer of science fiction. It’s an incredibly dynamic and exciting environment – everyone’s perspectives informing others, filling in gaps, offering new ways of seeing and reading.
Late spring is a fun time of year because students are defending their theses and dissertations. I’ve got several projects on my docket this semester, and their diversity is thrilling: a crime novel, a collection of short fiction, a science fiction novel, a dissertation about the function of women in speculative fiction, and a dissertation about women of African descent imagining and sustaining a sense of space and place while in diaspora.
The English graduate program’s commitment to interdisciplinary work, to encouraging our students to think across and within disciplinary boundaries is unique and effective—our students are unbelievably well-rounded!
What is your favorite subject or class to teach in the English grad program?
I want to say that I love teaching more than anything else—and that it’s hard for me to prioritize which is my favorite.
But I can safely say that I absolutely love to teach theory. Here at UL Lafayette, I teach African American Literary Theory, Queer Theory, Feminist Theory, theories in Subcultural and Cultural Studies, Critical Race Theory, and a survey of Literary Theory. After each semester of teaching a theory course, and thinking and working with my students (either undergraduate or graduate) I truly feel intellectually renewed.
When I was earning my English graduate degree, my initial engagements with theory were terrifying. I was very good at reading literature closely, but theory often left me feeling lost and confused. I’ll admit something: I wept after my first theory class in graduate school from despair! I thought I would never, ever be able to understand any of it.
But over time I developed a number of strategies for making sense of theory—I studied glossaries of literary theory, read critical articles that employed theoretical structures I was interested in, thought about the ways in which reading theory is similar to, yet distinct from, reading fiction. I asked my professors likely ridiculous questions. But gradually I began to find myself genuinely excited by and in love with theory, with the process of thinking through the complexities inherent in the way we read, speak, write, and make sense of language.
And now I get to share those hard-won strategies with my students. I sound like a nerd, but I’m with it: helping my students work through complicated arguments and make sense of them is now at the top of my idea of a really fun time. I love that moment when a student really gets a complicated idea or argument, or when they find an idea that really scratches an intellectual itch they’d always had, or when they find themselves locking horns with a theorist.
Why did you choose to teach at UL Lafayette?
I had an opportunity to stay in Iowa after I finished my doctoral degree, but I made the choice to come to UL Lafayette for a number of reasons. I genuinely enjoy the people with whom I have the pleasure to work—and I know not everyone can say that. I absolutely love my students; UL Lafayette has the best students of any school I have ever seen or attended. My life has been totally enriched by the student body community.
I am able to be the kind of scholar and teacher I most want to be at UL Lafayette. And I can’t think of anything more important than that, to be perfectly honest. I’m very lucky.
What is the focus of your work and research?
This year I have two book chapters forthcoming—one on the construction of history and memory in Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, and Rep. John Lewis’s comic book March: Book One, and another on the appropriation of black and queer liberation discourses in HBO series True Blood. I am at work on a monograph tentatively entitled Black and Immigrant about the representations of black immigrants to the United States in American fiction after 1945. As a scholar of Ethnic Studies, I am always writing about race, ethnicity, identity, and nationality in a variety of 20th and 21st centuries media.
I have also edited a collection with Dr. Keith Dorwick (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and Dr. Santosh Khadka (University of California, Northridge) entitled From the Outside: Narratives from the Othered in the Academy. The collection seeks to shed light on the ways in which marginalized populations navigate the rigors of higher education. We are very proud of it, and hope to see it in press soon.
What do you think the future of English graduate degrees and education looks like? How is your department adapting?
Students earning their English graduate degree will need to be increasingly attuned to the importance of interdisciplinarity, to concerns that are the scope of the literary—cultural, ecological, political, technological—and to be able to be versatile in their approach to education and to fields outside of higher education. Because the English department at UL Lafayette is inherently interdisciplinary, we’re already preparing our students to meet those challenges. The Deep South in the Global South Conference, the UL Lafayette English graduate student conference, is a vibrant example of our commitment to interdisciplinarity impacts our students’ intellectual and professional lives.
I believe the future of English graduate education is strong, and that our work will continue to be vitally necessary. I know that as we move into our global future, fields in science and technology will be important. But we can’t forget that people are reading, writing, and engaging with language more than ever before. Our increasingly literate populace is fascinated by stories, and are craving ways to increase effective communication in professional and technical writing. Humanity as a whole needs the kinds of lessons my disciplinary area in English—literary art—has to offer. The world needs more compassion, understanding, ability to communicate with others who are nothing like us, to be able to communicate difficult and sometimes painful and beautiful things. Our program is dedicated to the full-spectrum of language—from the morpheme to the metaphor. And I think our practice is fundamentally future-oriented.
Learn more about English grad programs at UL Lafayette >