HFA Faculty Profile: Britt Rusert
Britt Rusert, the new assistant professor and Chief Undergraduate Advisor of the Afro-American Studies department, discusses how the humanities and sciences intersect in her research and the scholarly implications of Samuel Delany's fantasy fiction.
Where are you from originally?
I was born and raised in Tonawanda, NY, which is a small town that sits on the Niagara River, halfway between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. I like to think that my interests in nineteenth-century African American literature and culture began germinating early on. Western New York was an important crossing site for fugitive slaves to Canada and a hotbed of abolitionist and political activity throughout the antebellum period: Frederick Douglass (and later, Emma Goldman) lived and worked in Rochester; the author, activist, and playwright, William Wells Brown, helped former slaves escape to Canada while working as a steam boatman on Lake Erie; and the poet and early black nationalist, James Whitfield, worked in a barbershop in Buffalo where he also sold and circulated his poetry. Of course, the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls is also the site where W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter founded the Niagara Movement in 1905.
Tell us a bit about your academic background.
My interests in science and literature began when I was an undergraduate at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, where I juggled coursework in molecular biology, English, and what was, at that point in time, called gay and lesbian studies. My professors were extremely supportive in helping me reflect on and integrate my interests in the natural sciences, the humanities, and politics, more generally. I received my Ph.D. in English and graduate certificate in Women’s Studies from Duke University in 2009. Although my degree is in literature, I benefited from the incredibly cross-disciplinary and innovative intellectual environment at Duke, which is a place where ideas and collaborations naturally flow across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. I have been lucky enough to hold two postdoctoral fellowships, both of which furthered my training in interdisciplinary research. In 2009-10, I was a postdoctoral associate in the Center for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy (GELP) in the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke. At GELP, lawyers, bioethicists, historians, literary critics, and policy scholars all work together on common projects related to issues of technology development and intellectual property in genomics. In 2010-11, I was a postdoc in the interdisciplinary humanities at the Center for the Humanities at Temple (CHAT). These experiences helped to solidify my commitment to scholarly collaboration and in thinking—and working—across disciplinary boundaries as they are traditionally conceived. I’m particularly interested in how the humanities might incorporate models from the natural sciences, including working in lab-like environments, collaborative and team-based research, and joint publishing.
What got you interested in Afro-American studies?
My initial point of entry into African American Studies was through feminism and Women’s Studies. I became very compelled and convinced by the queer of color critiques of feminism and sexuality studies that were emerging during my graduate career. This body of scholarship has been formative in showing—the now generally accepted idea—that race is deeply imbricated in the history and construction of gender and sexuality (and vice versa). I have also been deeply influenced and inspired by the histories and interventions of Black feminism.
You’re a new professor here in AfroAm. What drew you to UMass?
So many things. First, my interest in the histories and methodologies of Black Studies made the prospect of joining an African American Studies department a very appealing one. I also thought my work and interests would fit well in a department that is composed of scholars who have different and diverse disciplinary backgrounds – I love working in a department with historians, political scientists, other literature professors, and scholars of music. I was also attracted by the idea of teaching at a big public university. At Temple, I really enjoyed being on a campus with so many different students, communities, and interests. I also believe wholeheartedly in the value and importance of public higher education. I’m a first-generation college student, and I like being at a place where I feel inspired to support and advocate for our students.
Could you tell us a little about the projects you are currently working on?
I have a few different things on the burner right now. I’m working on my first book, which is titled Radical Empiricism: Fugitive Science and the Struggle for Emancipation. I’m also working on a collaborative project on the science fiction writer and visionary, Samuel Delany, with the fabulous Jordana Rosenberg of UMass’s English Department. Delany spent much of the late 70s and 80s working on a 4-volume fantasy fiction series called the Nevèrÿon series. As works of fantasy fiction, these books are masterful and as reflections on capitalist development and processes of enclosure and dispossession, they are of monumental importance; however, they have been generally neglected by scholars. We’re currently writing an article about how the Nevèrÿon books periodize a number of key developments in the Long 1970s, including the rise of neoliberalism and global finance, the ossification of particular ideas and categories of race after the Civil Rights Movement, and new regimes of dispossession for populations both inside and outside of the U.S. And finally, I’m getting started on my second book project, which will be a somewhat polemical call for Black Studies to think more seriously about contemporary developments in genomics and biotechnology. These fields are already transforming how people understand race and identity and I argue that as scholars, we ignore the sciences at our own peril!
You seem to have a diverse set of interests: history of race and science, gender and sexuality studies as well as 18th and 19th century African American literature and culture. How would you say these things all tie together?
My research and teaching is energized by making connections between seemingly divergent domains of inquiry, genre, and form, and I’m interested in showing the points of intersection between those various domains. My current book is invested in breaking down traditional boundaries between literature, art, and science and showing how some of these distinctions didn’t make sense from an early nineteenth century perspective. The book aims to be a new history of racial science in the nineteenth century and argues that we get a different view of that history when we take black cultural production—including literature—into account. Early black print culture is filled with dynamic and sustained engagements with scientific theories of race. In addition to crafting critiques of emerging regimes of race science, early black writers and intellectuals, from Frederick Douglass to Henry Box Brown, Martin Delany, and Sarah Mapps Douglass, were interested in linking popular science—including ethnology, astronomy, anatomy, and even phrenology—to freedom struggles during the period.
What have you enjoyed most about your time at UMass so far?
The vibrant intellectual community. In just my first year, I have had the opportunity to plug into a number of different working groups and scholarly communities both at UMass and across the Five Colleges. I have also found the students at UMass to be earnest and generous, open to engaging with new ideas and concepts. They are a joy to teach.
As the Chief Undergraduate Advisor of AfroAm, what are the main questions students approach you with?
Students often ask, “Can I double-major in Afro-American Studies?” The answer is absolutely! Our program offers a lot of flexibility and we are happy to work with students to craft an academic plan that will fit their needs and their schedule. A major in AfroAm nicely complements other majors: we provide a small, hands-on environment and the requirements for completing the major are very reasonable.
Any advice for students interested in pursuing a major in AfroAm?
Come visit us in New Africa House! We would be more than happy to talk with you about your academic plan and career goals. We offer a unique and highly interdisciplinary major and students have the opportunity to take courses from national experts in African and African American history, music, art, political science, and literature. Our students are highly motivated and involved individuals who supplement their coursework in the major with internships, membership in on-campus organizations, and involvement with a variety of community organizations and initiatives.