From Mars to Gothic novels, Sherman's podcasts deliver

Literature Lab brings scholars and critics to listeners. Now available on iTunes, for free

Photo/Mike Lovett

David Sherman

David Sherman has a lengthy commute to Brandeis, including a fair amount of walking through Cambridge before he jumps on the train. So what does the assistant professor of English do to fill the void? Listen to podcasts.

In 2011, during a period of frustration at being unable to find exactly what he was looking for, Sherman created Literature Lab, a podcast series of interviews with literary critics and scholars [listen now], which can now be downloaded on iTunes. The one on one interviews, led by Sherman, allow listeners to get inside the minds of scholars, who dissect information ranging from literary innuendos to large concepts.

“I love the field of literary studies,” says Sherman, who came to Brandeis four years ago after teaching at New York University “It can seem esoteric, it can seem abstract or removed, but I think literary studies is compelling as it brings up fundamental questions and exciting problems that make the pleasure we take in reading a novel or a poem much richer.”

Sherman’s personal field of research is Modernism, specifically early 20th century British and American writing with a focus on Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. He’s also investigating how Modernism was a response to changes in the way that people died and how people tended to the dying. The book he is working on explains how the literature of the period helped people think through this anxiety.

Focus on Faculty
In the spring, Sherman will be teaching a course called Literature and Medicine, which investigates literary representations of sickness, healing and the doctor/patient relationship. The class is a part of a movement called the medical humanities, which helps people training in the field of medicine to be more sensitive to their patients.

Sherman says that a critical approach to literature is part of a passionate approach, which was the premise behind the Literature Lab project. 

“To spend time thinking critically about what literature does and what it means, is part of the pleasure of reading it, says Sherman.

Thanks to the support of the Theodore and Jane Norman Fund at Brandeis, which supports faculty research, creative projects or course development, Sherman has produced seven podcasts and a list of upcoming guests. Among the podcasts that are ready for downloading include John Paul Riquelme from Boston University who talks about the literary genre that will not die: The Gothic Novel. 

How do vampires, zombies and other undead inhabit the literary imagination? What does the darkness of the gothic mean and why do we need it? And why does the darkness of this dark world give such pleasure?

Riquelme traces the strange life of the Gothic and how it’s changed from it’s heyday in the end of the 19th century into the 20th  century, and how it has affected literary practice.

An interview with Robert Waxler, professor at UMass Dartmouth, focuses on Changing Lives through Literature – a program for convicts that incorporates literature class as part of a condition for probation. Waxler is one two people to initiate the program, which began in 1991 and is now being incorporated nationwide. The alternative sentencing program relies on the deep power literary narrative to fundamentally transform the sense of self and possibility that one carries into the world.

By discussing books, such as James Dickey's “Deliverance” and Jack London's “Sea Wolf,” the men began to investigate and explore aspects of themselves, to listen to their peers, to increase their ability to communicate ideas and feelings to men of authority who they thought would never listen to them, and to engage in dialogue in a democratic classroom where all ideas were valid.

Instead of seeing their world from one angle, they began opening up to new perspectives and started realizing that they had choices in life. Literature became a road to insight.

“The recidivism rate is dramatically lower for those who go through this program than for those who go to prison,” says Sherman.

Another podcast is with Harvard professor Nicholas Watson, who explained medieval concepts of the imagination and representations of the mind in medieval literature.

“The interview is about a very different, alien, pre-modern way of thinking about what consciousness is, how we create something new with our mind,” says Sherman.

Watson makes the connection between medieval imaginative theory or theory of mind and the recent structures of knowledge related to the Internet or networking.

Soon available for downloading will be an interview with Professor Emeritus, U Mass Boston Robert Crossley, who discusses Mars writing in science fiction, the way Mars has been imagined in literature. 

Sherman interviews his guests in person, then spends hours editing the audio on his computer.  Jon Sudholt, a PhD student in the English department, also edits episodes and maintains the website. The goal, Sherman says, is for this to be a discipline-wide project.  Now that the podcast is more established, he is looking forward to bringing professors from the Brandeis literature and language departments on board.

Sherman says he was influenced to begin his project by the work he had listened to on Philosophy Bites, a series of interviews with academic philosophers, focused specific concepts.

“They’ve done a great job in showing how academic work in philosophy matters to everyday life - how it can be of interest to anybody outside of academia,” says Sherman. “I wanted to do the same thing with literary studies.”

Sherman says there are a lot of people who enjoy what they read, think about the works and feel passionate about them, but very few who know what those in literary studies have researched the books that they like to read.

“I want to expose our work to a wide audience,” Sherman says. “I want anybody who reads and enjoys reading to have exposure to some of the ideas that these experts are working on.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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