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GRADUATE PROGRAM STUDENT SPOTLIGHT
HILLARY CHUTE

 

Greta Nelson Hillary Chute defended her dissertation, “Contemporary Graphic Narratives: History, Aesthetics, Ethics,” in 2006. It focuses on how contemporary graphic narratives consider the problem of representing history. Chute argues that the unique qualities of the medium allow authors to investigate historical trauma and to reimagine personal stories and collective histories. She is currently working with Art Spiegelman as associate editor of his book MetaMaus. She has an article forthcoming in Twentieth-Century Literature and co-edited a graphic narratives issue of Mfs: Modern Fiction Studies with Marianne DeKoven. Her freelance work has appeared in The Village Voice and other publications. In the fall, she will start a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard University Society of Fellows.

 

How did you come up with the idea for your research?
Unlike a lot of people who love them, I wasn’t particularly a fan of comics growing up. I developed this interest in graduate school. In 2000, I read Spiegelman’s Maus for the first time in Marianne DeKoven’s contemporary literature class—that experience got me interested in studying comics seriously. I happened to sign up to give an oral presentation on Maus. Totally blown away by the book, I threw myself into researching my presentation and made Maus the subject of my final paper. Seven years later, I haven’t stopped writing and thinking about it.

In conducting your study, what experience have you had with Rutgers English faculty?
For my comprehensive oral exams, I had a list on “cross-discursive media,” which I studied with Harriet Davidson, who was incredibly supportive of my interests and motivated me to think critically about work that some might consider offbeat to study in an English department. Everyone else on my orals committee—Marianne, Elin Diamond, and John McClure—was also very supportive of my interest in comics. Marianne encouraged me to write a dissertation on comics, which I still wasn’t sure would be acceptable! When I began writing the dissertation, I took a writing seminar with Carolyn Williams, who subsequently became a reader on my dissertation committee. She suggested that I write a complete draft of the dissertation straight away, and then work back and reshape it—which worked really well for me. Richard Dienst also helped me a lot by reading a chapter on Maus that became the anchoring chapter of the dissertation.

How has the graduate program prepared you for an academic career?
My committee has been terrific, both in responding directly to my work, and in helping me figure out aspects of the profession. I would recommend taking the writing seminar to anyone; Carolyn trained us to write in different academic registers for contexts ranging from conference proposals to journal articles. In 2005, Marianne encouraged me to submit a proposal for a special session on graphic narratives at the Modern Language Association annual convention, which organizers accepted. My committee suggested journals where I could submit my work, and it was their idea that I might try to edit a special issue of a journal on graphic narratives. Their confidence in me made me confident in myself.

How has working with Art Spiegelman—or interviewing Alison Bechdel—developed your understanding of graphic narratives?
I tell Art all the time that working with him feels like winning the intellectual lottery. He’s an unbelievably intellectually generous person. We’re both talkers, so our meetings are usually cushioned on either end by hours of chatting as he pulls book after book from his phenomenal comics library. But we have different perspectives on Maus. He’s not necessarily thinking of his work in academic terms, and talking with him about my ideas and hearing his forces me to clarify or rethink aspects of the book. We have a genuine open dialogue, which is just amazing to me. Last summer I interviewed Alison in person for a feature in The Village Voice, and we really clicked. I was amused to see that she wrote on her blog, “Today I had a long, intense newspaper interview with a woman who did her doctoral dissertation on autobiographical comics”! She expressed interest in my dissertation, so I sent it to her. When she walked me through her creative process I learned the crucial role that production practices play in creating graphic narratives. I was thrilled when Carolyn told me Alison was coming to read in the Writers at Rutgers Reading Series next spring—even more so when Carolyn asked me to introduce Alison at the reading.

How has your scholarship influenced you as a teacher?
I first taught Maus in an introductory literature course, grouping it with several canonical novels, and was really gratified that students became more critically aware of narrative strategies and devices in literature generally. The course was about narrative, and instead of deflecting attention away from the written word, including Maus in the syllabus invited them to consider how and why stories are structured the way they are.

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