Victoria Wiet ’11
Given my personal background, choosing to attend Brandeis was both idiosyncratic and yet, in some ways, totally inevitable. I grew up in a small farming town in Illinois, and my peers rarely left the Midwest. Yet, I knew I wanted to go East for college, and Brandeis seemed like a perfect fit given my two somewhat conflicting curricular impulses. My high school English classes provided an outlet for the imaginative thinking cultivated as a child voraciously reading fiction, yet our fledgling Model UN club gave me a passion for learning about other cultures and analyzing social and political inequalities. Given Brandeis's strength in the liberal arts and activist history, I knew Brandeis was the perfect place to find the answer to the following question: should I major in English or Anthropology?
I soon realized that as an English major, I wouldn't have to choose between my love of literature and interests in the social sciences. My English professors encouraged me to bring what I learned in sociology and anthropology classes—such as Marxist theory and structural linguistics—into my essays. My English classes often stressed the role which inequalities shaping class, gender, sexuality, and race have in structuring literary texts, and I soon learned how to analyze the cultural politics of language and representation. It's unsurprising, then, that I ultimately supplemented my major with a minor in Women's & Gender Studies. I incorporated anthropological and philosophical analyses of gender into my close reading of novels and plays, and I quickly realized the important role literature has in the production and disruption of norms of gender and desire.
My English coursework also troubled the boundaries of time periods, geography and genre. Classes like "The Political Novel" and "Queer Studies" used a core concept or term as a rubric for juxtaposing diverse readings, and in John Plotz's "From Magic Lanterns to Movies" we read Victorian literature while watching silent films in order to compare literary and cinematic conventions of storytelling. Brandeis encouraged me to draw surprising connections across materials which normally wouldn't be juxtaposed, and this way of thinking has profoundly shaped my way of constructing academic arguments. In my senior honors thesis, for which I was the co-recipient for best thesis in the Humanities, I situated burlesque artist Marisa Carnesky's 1999 solo performance Jewess Tattooess within the Victorian and turn-of-the-century traditions of burlesque and Salome dancing. My senior thesis helped me realize that I didn't have to choose between another set of interests—my love of Victorian literature and the intellectual satisfaction I took in using theatre as a means for analyzing the history of gender and sexuality – which were catalyzed by two quite different classes: Plotz's "English Novel from Austen to Hardy" and Tom King's "From Libertinism to Sensibility: Pleasure and the Theatre, 1600-1800."
Now in my fourth year in Columbia University's English PhD program, I can truly appreciate the tremendous impact Brandeis has had on my work as a scholar, teacher, and even public servant. Still devoted to WGS, I can claim my work as Undergraduate Departmental Representative as important training for being the Graduate Fellow for Columbia's Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. My dissertation, an expansion of my award-winning Master's thesis, examines the way that Victorian novels invoke the intermediary pleasures of the theatre in order to signal the importance of narrative middles to the representation of newly emergent sexual orientations. So many of my undergraduate interests—theatre history, critical theory, and even burlesque travesties of Restoration rakes—coalesce in this project.
However, perhaps nowhere else in my professional life is Brandeis's legacy more evident than in teaching. Every single English professor I had has inspired my strategies as a teacher, and the enthusiasm, acuity, and attentiveness with which King, Plotz, and David Sherman treated me as an advisee have inspired my standards for engaging with students. Brandeis's influence is also palpable in my course planning. While Columbia's undergraduate curriculum focuses more on the traditional categories of time period and genre, I successfully applied to teach my own transhistorical, genre-crossing undergraduate seminar, "Melodrama: Race, Gender, Sexuality, 1850-present." Moving through diverse works like Victorian melodrama, post-war films like The Imitation of Life, AIDS drama, and ending with, of course, Mad Men, the course examines the centrality of melodrama's narrative and visual devices to modern definitions of race, gender, and sexuality. I'm so looking forward to importing a little bit of my Brandeis experience into the Ivy League.