Episode 8: John Plotz
Transcript[Peter] Hello, welcome to the OpenBook Podcast, in which the UDRs for English and Creative Writing interview faculty in those programs. My name is Peter Diamond.
[Caroline] I’m Caroline Greaney.
[Peter] And today we are here with Professor John Plotz. It’s nice to see you today.
[John Plotz] Hey, it’s nice to see you guys.
[Peter] Excellent. So, let’s just jump right into learning a little bit more about you.
[Caroline] If you could take a famous author to dinner, who would you choose?
[John Plotz] Oh, wow. I think probably Willa Cather, who is an American writer, born in the late nineteenth century, so she was, I guess, born a Victorian, but most of her great novels are World War I or a little bit later. She’s a Nebraska writer, but she was queer, she left Nebraska and came to New York and made a life for herself that was sort of part of the bohemian Village scene, but she was always a little bit apart from it. I think a lot of the writers that I like are kind of gregarious, but solitude-loving, and I think one of the things that I like about Willa Cather’s novels is that a lot of them are Nebraska novels, or great West novels, so they give a sense of big open spaces, but you can tell she liked to go to parties as well. I’ve read a lot of her letters, and I think she’s an excellent conversationalist, so she would probably be a little bit mean, but in a good way.
[Peter] So, we’re having fun here doing a podcast with you, but we understand that you yourself are a podcaster.
[John Plotz] Oh, yeah.
[Peter] Could you share a little bit about what your work in this field has been?
[John Plotz] Totally. Well, I’ll start by giving a shout-out to Professor Dave Sherman, who did the first English Department podcast, called Literature Lab, and that was an inspiration. It sort of made me realize, oh wow, this is something that ordinary human beings can also do. The point of it is to be collaborative, so it’s with my colleague Elizabeth Ferry, in the Anthropology Department, and our idea was always to make a triangle, so a conversation where you would have three people in the room who have three different ways of thinking about a particular topic. So, one of the first things we did was talk about opiate addiction with our colleague Gina Turrigiano, in the Neuroscience Department, and what we liked was how an anthropologist thinks about addiction and discourses about addiction, how a neuroscientist thinks about them, and how an English professor thinks about them. And predictably, we ended up taking very different positions from what you would expect. So, the neuroscientist argued that there is no such thing as addiction, there’s just habits. We’ve had a lot of great conversations like that, so I think the pleasure of it has been to try to capture on tape, on card, the sorts of conversations that scholars and academics have when they’re trying to get on the same page with somebody who thinks really differently from them.
[Caroline] We know that anthropology tends to involve a lot of traveling and getting different cultural perspectives, and we’d like to know what’s the most interesting place you’ve ever been to.
[John Plotz] I love traveling with my family. We did a drive across the country that I liked, when my kids were pretty young, and in a way, what I loved about that was seeing it through my own eyes and their eyes at the same time. So, case in point, we were driving across Arkansas and we drove across a ford. Have either of you guys ever driven across a ford?
[John Plotz] So, when I was a kid, this was actually relatively common: like, there’s just a place where a stream goes over a road, and you drive through on the road, but there’s a stream. And my kids? It was just as if I had said, “We’re gonna go sleep in a log cabin with a caveman.” They were like, “What?! What is this thing?” It felt like we were inhabiting two different worlds at once. So, you know, I guess that would mean small-town Arkansas was the favorite place I had ever been to. But I also have been on trips for work and research to sort of more far-afield places, so I’ve spent a bunch of time in Australia, and some time in New Zealand, and for me, because I do nineteenth-century literature, those places have been really exciting, because I feel like I get a really interesting sense of what the nineteenth-century sort of British culture looked like at the moments that there was contact with very, very different cultures. And if your next question is a place that you’d want to go, the answer is really related to that, which is that I really want to go to South Africa, because it’s a place that also was colonized by the British in the nineteenth century, and obviously a lot of things about it, including the language that a lot of people speak, has British roots, but enormously diverse cultures, that first contact in the nineteenth century between the British and people who are living there before, but also just an incredible synthesis of different cultures since, so I would really love to go. But I’m still waiting for my invitation!
[Peter] Another question on the theme of work that you do, I guess, outside of the traditional tasks of a professor… I know that you do editorial work for a public-facing journal. Could you talk a bit about what work you do there?
[John Plotz] Oh yeah. I love that actually. I edit what’s called a feature for a journal called Public Books, which basically is based on, actually, an anthropology journal called Public Culture. They went online. And if you know something like the Los Angeles Review of Books or the New York Review of Books, it’s kind of a scholarly version of those. So, they do a lot of contemporary reviewing, but what they asked me to do was to think about favorite books from the past that are essentially undeservedly neglected. The name of the feature is “B-Sides,” and what we do is we get a writer every month to pull a book that they love, that they think has been buried, and to write about it. So, one of the first people to write for it was someone I’m sure you guys will interview, Steve MacCauley. So, he wrote about something called Prater Violet, which is a Christopher Isherwood novel, which even people who love Christopher Isherwood have often not read, and it’s about screenwriting and how novelists in the mid-twentieth century were thinking about the movies. It’s just a wonderful book, and part of the exciting thing about being the editor of the series is that I actually get to read these books that people have chosen to write about. So, I love it. There’s one forthcoming by a Brandeis graduate student, so it’s been a chance for me to meet people of different generations, I guess I would say, and to hear, you know, just get a sense of how people’s voices are developing. And the final thing I’ll say about what I love about it, is that mostly when you end up in the graduate world or the professional world of doing literary scholarship, you’re writing quite long pieces, but these are only a thousand words, so it’s a different voice for people, and it takes them out of their comfort zone. Sometimes, they get freaked out, so sometimes I have essays that come in six months late because somebody couldn’t write it in just four pages, but sometimes it just opens up a switch for them that they didn’t know was there, and I really like that.
[Caroline] Continuing the conversation about books, what’s a book you’ve read that’s had a significant impact on your life?
[John Plotz] I actually just got commissioned to write a book about a book that’s had a significant impact on my life, so I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I have a list of three. Can I say all three? Okay. So, one is by Willa Cather, who I mentioned. It’s called The Professor’s House, and actually, we’re going to have a one day conference which is devoted to The Professor’s House at the end of next semester, this thing called the Brandeis Novel Symposium, is going to be devoted to Professor’s House this year. The second one is by my favorite philosopher, I guess if you’re allowed to have a favorite philosopher, who is Hannah Arendt, who is a German Jewish philosopher of the mid-century. She’s most famous for Eichmann in Jerusalem, but she wrote a book called The Human Condition, which to me is a way of understanding how you take things that are really interesting about ancient philosophy and apply them to the modern condition. And I love her… she’s got an account of how we think about how we work and labor and act in the world, so she thinks of labor, work, and action as three distinct categories, and it’s just helped me understand so much of what it is I do and how I understand my own work in comparison to other sorts of work that people do in the world. But the book I think I’m actually gonna end up writing about is called The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, and so it is a young adult novel. It’s actually the first ever young adult novel, so that’s kind of an interesting fact. But it’s an amazing book from the late 1960s by one of my favorite writers.
[Peter] So, Ursula Le Guin is a sci fi writer, correct?
[John Plotz] Yes, sci fi and fantasy.
[Peter] And I know that those are subjects that you’ve taught here. Could you talk a little bit about your sort of attraction to those particular genres?
[John Plotz] Yeah, very happily. So, Ursula Le Guin’s a great place to start actually, because Wizard of Earthsea I teach in my fantasy class, but I actually teach this book, The Lathe of Heaven, in my science fiction class, ‘cause she writes science fiction as well. And I think what I’m interested in for both of them—you might call them speculative fiction genres—I’m interested in the way that sometimes you have to leave our own world in order to be able to turn back and look at the world that we live in. In other words, I’m interested in genres that attempt to make people see with new eyes their own situation by asking them to imagine how things could be different. That’s part of it. The other part is that I’m a fan of the power of the imagination unchecked. A lot of the podcasts we do actually are conversations with scientists about how scientific creativity works, and I think that science fiction, from talking to scientists, it’s a big resource for scientists to think about the realm of the possible and the impossible. Even though I think a lot of what science fiction does and what fantasy does is turn and look back at our own world from a different place, I also think another thing it does is just turn and look away. Like, it’s the power of escape, but not escapism. I think I might teach a class that would be called “Escape, Not Escapism,” because I don’t think it’s so bad to want literature to function as a site of alterity, like a place of difference.
[Peter] Are there any media or texts that you’ve lately found yourself escaping to?
[John Plotz] Actually, “media” is a great way to ask that question. I’ve gone and listened on audiobook to books that I knew I loved, but I had not read for a long time. So, I did a bike race this summer, so I did a lot of time on my bike, but I will say on very safe streets, and I only listened with my right ear, so I always had my left ear to the traffic. But while I was biking, I listened to—okay: War and Peace, Brothers Karamazov, Walden, Moby-Dick, and Paradise Lost. And it was amazing, and the thing I loved about it, to go back to your question about media, is that I loved not being able to skip, and I think when people talk about Moby-Dick especially, one thing they say about it, “You just have to skip the whaling chapters. You just have to skip this chapter and that chapter. And who cares about blubber?” And the thing is, when you’re listening on audiobook, you have to care about blubber, too. So I really enjoyed that quality, and especially with War and Peace. I think I had always skipped the war sections, but it made me realize how much the war and the peace sections were interwoven with one another, so there’s something about the world-making that was incredibly gratifying and fascinating.
[Caroline] You mentioned that you bike, which seems like a really cool hobby. When you’re not working, what are some other activities that you enjoy doing for leisure?
[John Plotz] Biking is definitely the big one. I have a couple friends that I go out with, and then I bike to and from work, so that’s a great way for me to feel like my brain is working in a different direction. I also just like going on walks with the family. I know it’s kind of boring, but again, I just feel like—I don’t know how you are with your families, but sometimes with my kids, it helps to change the scene, in terms of having a conversation. Like, you’ll talk about one thing when you’re all sitting around the dinner table, but when you’re out in the world, you see things differently, and so I like that. We have chickens. I spend a lot of time taking care of our chickens… I spend some time taking care of our chickens. I did pottery a lot when I was a kid, and I’ve been thinking about getting back into pottery, but it’s more like a potential hobby than an actual one, because I haven’t done it in a while. I wrote a children’s book not that long ago, and in order to do that, the person I was writing about, William Morris, was a book-maker, a typesetter, and he basically had a press, and so in order to get into his mindset, I took some typesetting classes, and then last year, when I was at Wellesley, I worked at their Center for the Book to learn about other things about book production, so I actually ended up making a couple books for my family, and that was really fun.
[Peter] Can you talk a little bit about the time you spent last year at Wellesley?
[John Plotz] Oh, yeah. It was where I started the podcast, which was great, because sometimes having time away just allows you to look back and see what you could do differently about your life at Brandeis. Part of my time at Wellesley was spent with Elizabeth Ferry, just planning the podcast. And then I was with a community, including a novelist who I ended up spending a lot of time with, Elizabeth Graver. It was wonderful to be with a novelist, because I think when you write mostly about fiction the way that I do, it’s helpful to know what fiction looks like on the production end. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write a book actually, was to try to understand more completely what was going on in the minds of the people who were making this artifact that I was then studying. So, hanging out with a novelist was great. I worked on the science fiction book. The nice thing about science fiction is basically wherever you go, you discover that there are a few people in cubicles or closets or corners somewhere who really love science fiction, so I met both an undergraduate, the kid of a friend of mine who was writing their own science fiction novel. And I met this terrific guy named Larry Rosenwald, who’s actually coming to give a talk about pacifism at Brandeis. And he’s mainly a historian of anti-war literature, but he grew up in the 1950s and was a science fiction addict and had all of these weird 1950s and ’60s science fiction novels that I didn’t know about, so that was a great connection.
[Caroline] We know a lot of your research has focused on Victorian literature. What sets the Victorian era apart and makes it an interesting time period in literary history to study?
[John Plotz] So, it’s a very cosmopolitan period, but that’s not always a good thing. So, it’s like nowadays, it’s a sort of “Earth is flat” moment where people from very different cultures are encountering one another. And I think we all know the dark side of that encounter, because the British themselves were often setting themselves up either to have economic or military dominance over places that they went. But I will say that going to New Zealand especially, but other places as well, has helped me think about the way that the contact zones of the nineteenth century are more complicated than we give them credit for. So, I’m interested in the way that intermarriage rates were really high in the early nineteenth century between settler colonials and so-called indigenous persons in those contact zones, and then they kind of declined in the later nineteenth century. So, I see the birth of some of the most hopeful aspects of global cosmopolitanism in the nineteenth century, even though I also see the birth of some of the most terrifying aspects of imperialism that we still see nowadays.
[Peter] Could you talk a little bit about your path into academia? At what point in your education did you decide that going to get a PhD, and continuing in this field, was your path?
[John Plotz] I can tell you my own path, but I should preface it by saying that a friend of mine and I from Indiana thought that we would someday write a book about how we became professors of nineteenth-century literature, and the title of the book would be Mama’s Boys, because both of us have mothers who are also literature professors. So, my mom was a nineteenth-century literature professor. So, I think there’s a very short answer to that, which is ultimately I followed my mom into her profession, and I’ve been very glad I did. She had 47 years at George Washington University, and she loved her job and her life, and she was President of the Children’s Literature Association of America and got a bunch of lifetime awards. So, part of the story is just like, I saw my mom doing something that made her happy, and I ended up following her. That’s the underlying answer, but the longer answer is that I was very political as an undergraduate. I went and studied in England, but I dropped out of the program I was in in England in order to go teach English in Czechoslovakia, because this was 1989, so it was the year—or, when I went, it was actually 1990—but the year of the revolutions. So, I spent time in Czechoslovakia. I saw what it looked like when a new civil society was being formed. That was incredibly exciting to me. I really thought I wanted to continue on a political path. I ended up working at a lefty Jewish magazine called Tikkun, which is based out of San Francisco. I thought about other journalism jobs. My brother actually ended up as a journalist and has had a wonderful life as a journalist and podcaster actually. But at some point in the end of my first year in that magazine in San Francisco, I thought through literature more clearly than I thought through other things. Even the political work I wanted to do, I could make it make sense—it felt granular and detailed and persuasive—if I was working through a study of particular books that interested me. I thought I could tell the story of what those books were up to. And so, going back to graduate school seemed like a great way to continue that. After two years out in the world, I went back to graduate school actually in the same place that I was an undergraduate, and I had a great experience, and pretty much I’ve just kind of been in a harness ever since.
[Peter] You mentioned you were looking at journalism as a career. When looking backward, is that what you imagine you would be doing, in the alternative universe in which you weren’t a professor, or are there other career paths that you could’ve seen yourself falling into?
[John Plotz] A lot of the career paths I can see myself falling into, unfortunately, I think I’m just too clumsy for. The whole making books and doing the letter press stuff was incredibly inspiring and satisfying to me, and I was just reading a recent article about the guy who has the last Linotype machine in Massachusetts, and I was like, “Man, that’s just a great career,” to keep those old technologies around long enough so that people in the digital world can kind of capture what’s most resonant about those technologies and translate them into the digital world. So I think a lot of things I would like to do involve being very delicate around very heavy machinery, and generally, when I do that, I end up either hurting myself or screwing something up, so that’s a problem. But yeah, to come back to journalism, for sure. I mean, journalism has always been attractive to me, and I think one of the great things about the thing you were asking me about, Public Books, is that being an editor is really satisfying, because those thousand-word articles… that’s a labor of love. It takes a lot of connection to get that. You really have to build the rapport with the writer, and that’s something I really enjoy, and I think when working with graduate students, I’ve always enjoyed working on the end stages of chapters. It’s nice to feel like there are interlocking skillsets there, where I can see it going in a slightly different direction. So, the journalism is for sure a part of that.
[Caroline] Traveling back in time, do you remember what you were like in high school?
[John Plotz] Oh my God, I was a total nerd. I was very lucky. In junior high school, I was a nerd at a very un-nerdy junior high school, and I remember, there was this very sad little hill behind the playground, and I remember sitting—I know, it’s so sad—sitting out there. I probably reading Willa Cather, for all I know. I ran into someone from my junior high school recently, and he said basically the first memory he had was, “Oh yeah, remember that time you played a simultaneous chess game against six of us?” And I was just like, “No, but that’s the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever heard.” So, I was quite nerdy, and then I went to a high school that was a nerdy high school, and that actually allowed me to be something other than a nerd, which was nice. So, I did a lot of track and field in high school, and I actually kind of found myself as a runner, which probably is where the biking comes from now, if I’m tracing it back. I had a lot of hair. That feels really different, but nobody else thinks of that as different, but I liked having a big, curly head of hair.
[Peter] One question I’ve asked everyone I’ve interviewed so far, is what is something that you hate, but that everyone else seems to like?
[John Plotz] That’s such a good question. It’s really hard, because I’m just not a very good hater. It doesn’t mean I don’t hate things, but it’s like, I tend to block the things I hate out of my mind. So, I think I might do better with a “What do you love that everyone else hates?” I mean, it’s not fair to say… I can’t say football, because everybody hates football now, so it’s like, I’m just one of the crowd, but I’ve always hated football.
[Peter] What is something that you love that everybody else seems to hate?
[John Plotz] I love Boston weather! I absolutely love Boston weather. Because as a biker, it is very satisfying to go out on cold days, when the weather is dry. I like to be out. I like being on the beach in the winter. I just generally like the forms of cold weather that we get in Boston. I know that… that will be controversial.
[Peter] One thing that we’ve also been doing with each podcast is we’ve been putting a different outro song to each podcast, by recommendation of the person we’ve been talking to. So, what is a song that you would recommend us sharing at the end of this podcast?
[John Plotz] There’s a Woody Guthrie/Cisco Houston collaboration called “What Did the Deep Sea Say?” Do you know it?
[John Plotz] It’s just like a beautiful… I think it’s originally a Woodie Guthrie song, but I know it in the version… I think it might be actually with Huddie Ledbetter playing guitar, too? But it’s just a beautiful song that, to me, feels… it’s a little bit like Willa Cather, like it has a kind of deep country feel to me, but there’s a kind of emotion in it that is not a simple emotion. I think it’s a little bit like why I like the Carter Family. I always feel like there’s more levels of meaning than just the surface.
[Caroline] Do you listen to any Spotify channels, or music while you work?
[John Plotz] I don’t usually listen to music while I work, actually, but I do listen to music with the kids or with my wife. We were both on the radio station in college, so my upbringing is kind of punk, because DC was a punk scene in those days. So, I grew up with Minor Threat and that generation. But lately, a lot of country in the country, in the kind of Lucinda Williams/Gillian Welch area that I really like. There’s also… I love German lieder too. I know that’s not very fashionable, but I like that.
[Peter] You mentioned a book that you have recently been commissioned to write, but do you have any sort of dream project that you’re not sure when you’ll get to, but a text you really want to write about or an article?
[John Plotz] Yeah, I do. I have a dream project which has a great title, which I discovered was also the same title of a poem by Thomas Hardy. So, the book I want to write is basically about a series of people in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly living in New York, though not all, who are people who really didn’t fit into the triumphalism of what people call the American Century. So basically, if you think about the ’40s and ’50s, people thought of liberalism as having won, like Lionel Trilling wrote a whole book which is basically like, “We all know liberalism is the only way that anybody mature can think about the world, so how do we go on from there?” And I’m interested in these people who just never believed that. Mostly they’re women, but I’m interested, for example, C. L. R. James, a Caribbean intellectual who’s living in the United States for a while, was also living in New York at the time, for a while he was in a prison on Liberty Island I think, I want to say. He was in a prison in the New York Harbor, waiting to be deported, so he would be one of them, but there are other people. There’s actually a woman named Dorothy Van Ghent, who taught briefly here at Brandeis, who I think of as part of the same set of outside people. So, the title of the book would be The Recalcitrants, and the idea is that they’re people who, at the time, were often thought of as reactionary because they didn’t go along with the flow of the moment, but I think in retrospect we should think about them more as radical than reactionary. But it’s a hard book to write, because in a way, what connects them is their outsider status, which means they don’t necessarily form one community. There’s a few great group biographies, where people formed friendship circles. This is almost a group biography where the premise is that the people often didn’t even know of one another’s existence. But nonetheless, I think they’re kind of in tune with one another.
[Caroline] Do you subscribe to any magazines or newsletters that you’d recommend to people?
[John Plotz] I love the London Review of Books. I read it a lot. When I think about subscriptions, for me it’s actually the podcasts that I’m excited about when they show up on my podcast feed. So, the one’s I really love these days are one called Rough Translation from NPR, which is about what a problem in our own society looks like in a different country. So, thinking about the issues of race in Brazil, something like that. It’s a translation where the translation is not that precise from one problem to another. I love that podcast. I love 99 Percent Invisible, which is a podcast about… it’s basically about the built environment, but it’s about all these invisible things in our world, like the carpeting in airports that actually tells you where to walk, but you’re not aware of it, but when you walk into an airport, something on that carpet is gonna point you the way that you’re supposed to go. So, that’s a podcast I love, because it makes me see things about my life that I don’t normally see.
[Peter] I know that there’s a lot of fear and warning around the future of this discipline. I’m curious what your sort of intervention in that conversation is. When you’re looking forward toward the humanities in the 21st century, what do you see, and what optimism do you have, and what optimism don’t you have?
[John Plotz] Yeah. It’s a great question. We’re in a very pessimistic moment in general obviously, for reasons we don’t need to get into, and there’s a lot of pessimism about the future of graduate education in humanities because people are seeing a diminishment of the number of jobs within traditional, research one universities, and maybe the universities in general. We’re all aware of colleges around here that are closing down, especially alternative and progressive ones. I don’t have a rebuttal to that pessimism, because I think that pessimism is justified and understandable. But I also think that people have been too quick to dismiss the other sorts of teaching that are going on, which are sometimes called community-engaged learning, or community-engaged teaching, where people try to take the disciplines of the humanities and put them into unconventional places. Professor Sherman does stuff with medical literature, or the literature of medicine, which is very relevant to how medical schools work now. So, that’s an exciting avenue. The thing that actually does give me cause to want to get out of the bed in the morning is that I think in Massachusetts, there’s a ton of interesting work going on, connecting the humanities up with criminal justice education. So, that’s teaching behind bars. That’s the thing that people know most straightforwardly, and in fact, there’s a great PBS documentary that’s about to come out, which I just saw an advanced screening of, called, I think, The Class Behind Bars [note: actual title is Class Behind Bars], which is about the Bard Prison Initiative. So, that’s one form, but there’s a bunch of programs here in Massachusetts which are what’s called diversionary, which is basically meaning there’s classes that people are offered as part of their parole package, or as part of their probation package. There will be an education program to that. There’s also pre-release facilities where humanities classes are, and so a bunch of us at Brandeis have started a conversation about how Brandeis can be more involved at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty level of putting people into those programs. So, there’s a bunch of undergraduates now working with Roz Kabrhel in Legal Studies, who are participating in what’s called the Petey Greene Program, which is—maybe you know about it—it’s a way for people to tutor youth offenders or people inside the criminal justice system. You know, school-to-prison pipeline, and the racism of the school-to-prison pipeline, is another reason to be pessimistic about America, but the only optimistic side of that is that in Massachusetts, we have a new criminal justice bill that at least recognizes that problem and tries to think about if there’s a kind of prison-to-school pipeline that we could build that would represent an alternative. So, when I think about the next five years of my life, I definitely think about trying to make that a bigger reality at Brandeis.
[Peter] Our typical last question is: what is a piece of advice that you feel like you wish someone had given you when you yourself were in our shoes?
[John Plotz] I wish someone had told me to talk to professors more, actually, and I know that sounds very anodyne, but I think it’s strange how few tangential and sideways conversations undergraduates end up having with professors. I don’t necessarily mean having purely social interactions, like playing ultimate frisbee with the professors—though that’s good too—but what I mean is that I love getting to know students who are in my classes, when I see what else they’re doing, how else their minds are working. I think people underestimate the extent to which those conversations can be a two-way street. Professors think of what they’re doing as by no means the whole of your life, like you guys have a giant life out beyond the classroom, I get that. But we feel like we are meeting you at a time when your thoughts are developing, when the life of your mind is taking shape in ways that you can’t yet predict but are gonna be very important for the next 10 or 20 years and beyond, and we just like having those conversations where we can see what other things are at work in your thinking.
[Caroline] We’re gonna go ahead and wrap up. Thank you so much for participating in our podcast.
[John Plotz] Thank you. It was a pleasure
[Caroline] It’s been fun.
[Peter] Thank you very much. Alright.
[John Plotz] Take care.