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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Scholars at Work

By Denise Grollmus

The last time I spoke with UW Professor of Communication Ralina Joseph, she had been recently awarded an inaugural Mellon/ACLS Scholars & Society fellowship for her work with Interrupting Privilege, an intergenerational, skills-building, anti-racism space of dialogue and critique that argues that everyday people can work together across generations and race to combat racism with the support of youth leadership, commitment to critique-in-action, spaces to share and hear racial hurt, and careful training modules. After running the program for two years on the UW campus with UW students, faculty, staff, and alumni, Joseph decided to move the program to Seattle’s Black community hub, the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), where the class now includes the voices and perspectives of community members, alongside Garfield high school and Seattle Central College students of color, as well as UW graduate students.

Since the move to NAAM, Covid-19 has not only made in-person meetings of Interrupting Privilege impossible, but it has also amplified and laid bare systemic racism and racial inequality, while giving rise to new forms of microaggressions online. A week before the country erupted in protests over the killing of George Floyd and other black men and women, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, by the police and white vigilantes, I checked in with Joseph to see how Interrupting Privilege was going in terms of moving online and in the context of America’s two deadliest diseases: racism and Covid-19.

How have things with Interrupting Privilege been going in light of the lockdown?

It’s going. Of course, as you know, we pivoted this year. We were at the Northwest African American Museum. We kept much of the same curriculum as previous years, but we shifted in different ways. For example, we still had a session on language and power, but we made it relevant for our all-black community session. The session on language and power started off the same, but then it quickly went to a discussion of the n-word and intraracial users of the n-word. For that meeting, I assigned a podcast on the history of the n-word that everyone listened to in advance, and then we ended off the session with some sociometric exercises where people registered their comfort and discomfort in using the word with their body positions in the room.

Those sessions were great. And then we have this wonderful group of graduate students from Communication,...

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By Jesús Hidalgo

As part of the Translation Studies Hub’s team-taught Translation Studies Across the Disciplines graduate seminar, Professor Brian Baer offered a talk titled “Current Trends in Translation Studies” on May 1st.

Baer—a professor of Russian and Translation Studies at Kent State University who has taught Translation Studies courses for twenty years and is currently the President of the American Translation and Interpreting Studies Association—was originally scheduled to be on campus April 30th and May 1st. The visit, aimed to present his recent scholarship in Translation and Sexuality Studies and work with the Hub on the development of a graduate certificate in Translation Studies, had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Baer's talk was offered via Zoom to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the seminar, and had three parts. In the first section, Baer focused on translation studies pedagogy and the challenges involved. In the second part, he explained the concept of polysemy, i.e. the multiple meanings of a word, and how it complicates the decision-making process and creativity of a translation project. Finally, following literary critic George Steiner’s ideas on translation, Baer proposed that, “meaning is constructed in the act of interpretation; it does not exist somehow outside language or before it is subjected to interpretation.” In that sense, he argued that both the reception context and the production context are key to understanding the translation process.

For Baer, translation is, in fact, a complex decision-making process, since translators can use not one but multiple solutions in their daily practice. “I think we’re actually trying to be ‘faithful’,” he told the virtual audience. “It’s what constitutes faithfulness, or how we conceptualize that faithfulness what distinguishes translation from other forms of writing, such as adaptation and, of course, original writing.”

According to the Kent State University professor, translation fidelity should not be connected to the idea of literalness (translating a text word by word verbatim); instead, it should be linked with the idea that translators attempt to communicate ideas effectively from one language into another. To do so, they have to interpret what is relevant in a text by making the most out of their translator competence.

One piece of advice Baer gives to his own students and that he shared with the attendees of his talk is that one should demystify translation theory. “Think of it as just the way people conceptualize the task of translation that transcends any one specific translation project,” Baer said. “If we think about theory that way, then we can design our theoretical support in ways that directly meet the needs of the students to guide their decision making.”

A broader audience had the opportunity to talk with Baer following a Q&A with the students taking the...

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#UWtranslators is a series of interviews with translators by the UW Translation Studies Hub.

By Jesús Hidalgo

Annegret Oehme is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Germanics and affiliate professor with the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies. Her most recent publication is a short-form monograph that explores the construction of female agency in German and Yiddish Arthurian stories about Gawein’s son (‘He Should Have Listened to His Wife’, de Gruyter, 2020).

Tell us about your research in the Department of Germanics.

My research interests include medieval and early modern German and Yiddish literature, and pre-modern cultural transfers within a German-Jewish context as well. I have published on old Yiddish literature, early modern marriage treatises, and most recently on a German graphic novel.

A lot of my recent projects were related to a German-Yiddish story tradition around an Arthurian knight called Wigalois / Viduvilt, respectively. He is the son of the better-known Sir Gawein. In that context, I have dealt with translations, transliterations –and, sometimes, texts that present a hybrid form– a lot, in addition to ideas of translating words into images and vice versa, a topic that is particularly relevant for the illuminated medieval manuscripts I have been working with.

How do you use Translation Studies in your classes?

I’m teaching mostly classes on medieval literature, sociolinguistics, and a variety of German language classes for the Department of Germanics, at both undergraduate and graduate level. Naturally, translation is a big topic when it comes to the literature I assign. Although graduate students are not required to know Middle High German for my class, I bring in some untranslated material to give them an idea of the original tone, and the relation between medieval and modern German.

In the linguistics classes, students can often re-create relations among the Germanic languages by looking at different translations of texts such as the Lord’s Prayer, which was translated early on in many languages to boost Christian missionizing efforts as one part of geo-political expansion.

A reoccurring topic in my classes is untranslatability and the limitations that arise from accessing material through translations. A concrete daily example is one word that students thoroughly enjoy and often remember: verschlimmbessern. The word comes originally from the field of manuscript preservation, and means that in an attempt of preserving a severed artifact, it gets ruined rather than improved, often with the sad result of parts of a text being rendered illegible. The word perfectly captures the universal feeling that occasionally we make something worse when attempting to improve it!

How did you become...

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A screenshot of presenters from the May 15 online workshop

On May 15, Feminist Media Histories: An International Journal marked its move to the University of Washington with an online workshop on affect attended by more than 200 people from around the world. Initially designed as a two-day celebration of the journal's transition to Seattle, where it will now be housed at the Simpson Center for the Humanities, this workshop, organized by the new editor-in-chief, Professor Jennifer M. Bean, was moved online.

The four-hour workshop featured presentations by seven speakers, including Paula Amad (University of Iowa), Ann Cvetkovich (Carleton University), Maggie Hennefeld (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities), Amber Jamilla Musser (Georgetown University), Sandra Soto (University of Arizona), Zhen Zhang (New York University), and Simpson Center Director Kathy Woodward (University of Washington). Each presenter considered how the term “affect,” and its cognates, enables us to think, describe, name, or feel feminist and queer media histories differently. Media objects discussed ranged from art installations to experimental videos, and from early cinema to African relics and photographic memoirs.

The workshop will inform a special issue of Feminist Media Histories (FMH 7.2). The journal publishes original research, oral histories, primary documents, conference reports, and archival news on radio, television, film, video, digital technologies, and other media across a range of historical periods and global contexts. Inter-medial and trans-national in its approach, Feminist Media Histories examines the historical role gender has played in varied media technologies, and documents women’s engagements with these media as audiences, users and consumers, creators and executives, critics, writers and theorists, technicians and laborers, educators, activists, and librarians.


Welcome to Virtual Pedagogies, a regular series in which we ask UW faculty to share their experiences with a particular aspect of teaching online. While there have been a lot of resources that walk through the technicalities of remote teaching, we were hoping to create a space where faculty can share pedagogical approaches. As we’ve all learned quite quickly, what worked in the classroom, doesn’t necessarily work in Zoom.

For this installment, we asked Simpson Center-affiliated scholars how they were ensuring equity and access in their online classrooms. Here’s how they answered:

Alan Michael Weatherford, Former Mellon Summer Fellow in Public Scholarship, PhD Candidate in Cinema & Media Studies:

In order to address issues of power and difference, I utilize metacognition primarily. I use certain activities to situate my students’ individual knowledges, and then have them assess the power dynamics of their having or not having had access to that knowledge. Before teaching a specific topic, I ask students to account for: 1) what they already know; 2) what they don’t know; and, 3) where they got their information from. You can do this in a variety of ways: homework before class, a three-minute reflective write up, small-groups, or a Q&A poll divided up by question. I then do small-group discussions on our access to those knowledges and reflect on if those knowledges were dominant or shut out.

In order to mitigate differential access to my class, I do a few solid things. Generally speaking, I found ways to make sure my students did not have to pay for any of their materials for the course. This may take some planning beforehand; working with a librarian is key. Secondly, Powerpoint Version 16 (maybe even earlier) allows for real-time transcription as you talk and move through your slides. This is ideal for when you’re screen-sharing over zoom.

Joanne Woiak, Co-organizer of Exploring the Fault Lines in Disability Studies, Disability Studies Lecturer, along with "Introduction to Disability Studies" Teaching Assistants Shixin Huang (JSIS PhD Candidate) and Ronnie Thibault (iPhD Candidate): 

In disability studies (DS), course content and pedagogy are inseparable. Centering disability as a lived experience and framework for analysis involves attending to the role of disability in the classroom. Many of the methods we typically use to improve accessibility for disabled students also support all of our students. This was true to an even greater extent when our 90-student Introduction to DS course went online. Students rotate as official note-takers for a day, creating documentation of lecture details and discussion topics that everyone can use; extensions and other modifications...

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By Rachel Arteaga

In recent weeks, writers, scholars, and other readers have turned to their shelves, pulling down and dusting off works like Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), or turning to the relevant sections of the diary of Samuel Pepys, who survived the plague of 1665, a calamity that shuttered London and felled thousands of its residents. Our minds have gone immediately to the citations filed under the many names for this particular calamity: plague, pandemic, outbreak, contagion. We have searched these texts for their insights, and talked with friends and colleagues about how we might best apply that knowledge to the situation we now face. “The only means of fighting a plague is common decency,” Camus writes, and we take note.

Literature is the place where humanity keeps its reference points for events that we cannot individually imagine, because they are beyond our own personal experience. Most of us, in the United States, have not survived a plague—though there are lessons we can draw from listening to those who have. So we turn first to depictions of plague, to see how novel diseases move not only through bodies but also through cities and societies, through families and communities, through registers of understanding, which include the emotions. We want to know: what does a pandemic do? How does it strike, and how does it inflict damage? How can we mitigate its harm, overcome its frightening power over our lives, and rebuild our worlds—or build new ones in its wake?

We are right to...

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The Columbus Dispatch photo of an anti-social-distancing protest in Ohio. (Joshua A. Bickel/AP)

By Denise Grollmus

The last time I spoke with English Professor Eva Cherniavsky was in October, when we were filming the “Neoliberalism” video for Keywords, in which she discussed how zombie apocalypse narratives offer us a lens through which to think about the logic of neoliberalism. Since then, we’ve found ourselves in a pandemic that many are comparing to their favorite zombie films, comics, and novels.

Listening to Cherniavsky’s prescient observations about how zombie apocalypse narratives reflect and refract the logic of neoliberalism, I was struck by how much they resonated with our current moment. She kindly agreed to jump on Zoom and chat a bit further about how her work might help us think through the peril, politics, and possibilities of Covid-19.

A lot of people have been talking about the pandemic in relation to zombie apocalypse narratives, which is something you’ve been thinking and writing about for two decades now. How have you been thinking about our current moment in relation to the work you’ve done?  

It’s really been making me think about the different iterations of zombie narratives in the genre. There is a really bleak one, where the zombie apocalypse happens, the dead rise, civilization collapses and yet it turns out that the collapse of civilization delivers us right back into a world of hyperbolic survivalist individualism. The collapse of organized social order just sort of catapults into a neoliberal nightmare of every man for himself. Jane Eliot has written about this in really interesting ways, she calls it the microeconomic mode: my survival depends on your demise. It’s always about the cost-benefit analysis. It's about hoarding. It's about necropower. That’s one version of the zombie apocalypse narrative that, in my darker moments these past few weeks, I've thought about. 

But even as the economy shuts down, here we are in this moment where the air is breathable again. We actually walk in a quiet city breathing breathable air. There are these pastoral interludes at the same time that the shutdown seems to have exacerbated that sort of survivalist mode. I heard Arundhati Roy interviewed and she talked about the crisis as a portal, a moment of transformation that opens this field of possibilities.

Both of these versions are true. What I think is so affectively charged about the present moment and feels so profoundly distracting—the reason I can't turn off my news feed, I can't look away...

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By Caitlin Palo

Shortly after we closed the Simpson Center’s physical offices and moved to working remotely, I packed up all my library books into wine boxes and lugged them into the trunk of my car. Parked in front of my apartment building, I put my head on my steering wheel. I’d finished all but the edits on my last dissertation chapter and the final draft of my introduction. After years of struggling to find a rhythm, my Simpson Center office had become the one space where I’d managed to develop a regular and fruitful writing routine. How was I going to develop a new one on the fly and so close to the finish line? And in the midst of a pandemic, no less? Should I even try?

[See Inger Mewburn’s post on the Thesis Whisperer, “Should you quit (go part time or pause) your PhD during Covid-19?” for thinking through some of the logistical questions.]

As I unpacked my books at home, I reached for Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write.  I first bought Sword’s book when I was worried about how to finish my dissertation while also working a 9-5. I was intrigued by her critique of the common recommendation to ‘write everyday’—something I knew I’d never be able to do alongside my new job, because I’d already tried and, like most, failed. Sitting among the stacks of books in what would become my new, makeshift office, I began to reread Sword’s compelling take on productivity and how to make space to write.

Over the past few weeks, I return to her book every time I start to feel overwhelmed by the emails promoting productivity and the social media memes slapping back against the same.  Buffeted by these ‘should I/shouldn’t I’ debates, and the necessary bureaucracy of figuring out possible defense timelines, Sword provides no answers to my “should I” questions. Instead, she provides much needed solace, largely because Sword orchestrates the voices of scholars who have always been writing ‘apart together,’ at their desks and kitchen tables all over the world. By sharing their diverse practices, Sword invites her readers to “[do] away with should and focus instead on may, a lovely old fashioned auxiliary verb that connotes possibility and permission.”

The Particularities of Productivity

The author's workspace before (above) and after (below)Unlike other academic success and productivity books that set out to prove a hypothesis (usually a variation on the theme that daily writing is the key to success), Sword starts with curiosity about what successful academics actually do. She found that,...

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In Time’s recent special issue on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—which coincided with the opening of the immersive virtual exhibit The MarchHaley Professor of Humanities (UW Tacoma) Michael Honey contributed an article titled “What Happened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream of Economic Justice?

His article emerges, in part, from his recent book, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, which was published by Norton last year and for which Honey conducted research as a 2011-12 Society of Scholars fellow. UCLA Professor and a previous Katz Distinguished Lecturer Robin D. G. Kelley writes of Honey’s work: “This is a dangerous book.” According to the publisher’s website, To the Promised Land goes beyond the iconic view of Martin Luther King, Jr., as an advocate of racial harmony, to explore his profound commitment to the poor and working class and his call for “nonviolent resistance” to all forms of oppression, including the economic injustice that “takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

Aside from his piece in Time, Honey has published a number of other public-facing pieces that emerge from his scholarship on racial and economic justice. This fall, the website Portside: Material of Interest to People on the Left published his article, “Evil in the Delta: Elaine, Arkansas, 1919,” which recounts the 1919 massacre that took place during a gathering of 100 African Americans who were organizing the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America.

Honey also recently directed, wrote, and produced the documentary film, Love and Solidarity, an exploration of nonviolence and organizing through the life and teachings of Rev. James Lawson, who provided crucial strategic guidance while working with Martin Luther King, Jr., in southern freedom struggles and the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968.

Illustration by Olaf Hajek for The New York Times, 2012

In this time of upheaval and vulnerability, the Simpson Center is committed to fulfilling its mission of fostering crossdisciplinary exchange and building intellectual communities across the UW and beyond, while also working to secure much-needed resources for our faculty, students, and staff in the present moment. The current crisis has, in so many ways, laid bare the mutuality and interconnectedness of our well-being towards which the humanities so often gesture. 

I am in admiration of the spirit of collaboration and inventiveness on the part of our faculty and graduate students who have embraced the commitment to online instruction and generously shared their resources and knowledge with the wider teaching community. I can also report that our intrepid faculty have turned to imagining new ways of recasting the in-person research conferences and workshops they had planned for this spring. We have postponed the majority of our spring events until next academic year, including the visit of Ruth Wilson Gilmore as our Katz Distinguished Lecturer. But this quarter at least four events will be moving online, enabling us to learn how best to create and support remote as well as hybrid events in the future, drawing inspiration, too, from the Ecology and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference we hosted this past September.

At the Simpson Center, we envision our space as one that brings people together to think through pressing concerns and lines of inquiry shared across disciplinary boundaries. Sometimes we transcend them—in enlivening conversations that are themselves events of research. We did so this past February when the anthropologist Anna Tsing was here, inviting us to think with her about world-building projects. “It takes concrete histories to make any concept come to life,” she writes in her intellectually exhilarating and sobering book, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, which offers an anthropology of “always–in-process collaboration” among humans and non-humans in what Tsing describes as the “more-than-human” Anthropocene.

I think of the mushroom book, as it is affectionately called, and Richard Powers’s magisterial novel The Overstory as companion species, books to carry with us in our minds and as memories. Both portray a sprawling and interconnected posthuman world. Tsing and Powers share a deep feeling for forests and believe trees serve as protectors of humankind—and other species—even as they are at terrible risk of mutilation and murder, subject to clear-cutting for so-called economic development that can contribute to disastrous unintended effects, including events like our current pandemic.

I think of these two books themselves as protectors, gifts of the humanities, offering us equipment for living—renewing our...

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