Cultural criticism: MSU students share research with university community in class symposium

Andrea Spain 2020

by Sam Kealhofer, Intern on the A&S Research Support Team


Taking student research beyond the Mississippi State classroom and into the community, Associate Professor of English Andrea Spain’s students ended the semester with a public symposium presenting their research to the MSU community. The virtual WebEx event took place on November 24, 2020.


Spain’s contemporary literature students presented their final papers in an open forum, illustrating how postcolonial and political theory can work to grasp the historical precursors of today’s local and global realities, allowing the scholars a platform to share thoughts and research on pressing issues in society, and demonstrating the unique insight critical theory can offer for current natural and political catastrophes, mass displacement, and a pandemic.


“By deploying formal aspects of our professionalization in English Studies, I call students into the position of seeing themselves as serious thinkers and writers whose task it is to engage with contemporary global, ethical-political problems,” Spain said. “The end-of-semester symposium enables students to take up what it means to be a public intellectual, one who can analyze the framing and narrative structures of our contemporary world, and place them in conversation with a scholarly community that is deeply concerned with what it means to live an ethical life.”


The symposium, “Multitudes in Biopolitical Time: A Symposium on Contemporary Literature,” consisted of three panel discussions in which students presented talks on critical theory and works of world literature they had studied, including Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza,” Lidia Yuknavitch’s “The Small Backs of Children,” Don DeLillo’s “Mao II,” and Bhanu Kapil’s “How to Wash a Heart.”


During the first panel, students discussed testimony, historical violence and inherited trauma in Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza.” Drawing on the work of Achille Mbembe and Michel Agier, students applied theories of displacement and “necropolitics” to contemporary literature. Papers focused on how “multitudes” are represented and how those representations are central to the management and containment of populations categorized as stateless and deemed disposable in the contemporary globalized world. Individual papers discussed transgenerational trauma, the dehumanization of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, and the artistic license taken by Sacco to communicate truths about memory, testimony and events formerly relegated to “footnotes” of history.


Robert Blackmon, a senior at Mississippi State, said, “Drawing on my own experiences of receiving testimony, this course opened my eyes to just how vital the narrative structure of testimony is to achieve impact, no matter the vein of discussion. It altered how I viewed hope, violence, time, memory, and most of all, how I viewed the people I heard testimony from not as individual stories buried in a larger mass of conflict, but instead, as vital pillars highlighting the larger architecture of the story on global ethics and necropolitics.”


Yacine Soumare Issa Mamoudou, a master’s student in literature at Mississippi State, focused his presentation on state violence, dehumanization of others, and inherited trauma. Mamoudou found Michel Agier’s “Managing the Undesirables” helpful to grapple with the contemporary global ethical/political issues presented in the class. “Algier discusses the fate of refugees, internally displaced persons, and other people finding themselves in similar positions,” said Mamoudou, who discovered the theory applicable to contexts well beyond the class. “Even though my country, Niger, welcomed many refugees who fled their own country, Mali, I have never thought over what their existence feels like. I was more interested in the immigrants who were dying because they went to Europe than something that was happening in my own country. The class helped me realize that,” Mamoudou said.


The second panel, “Writing and Imaging the Feminine,” focused on how traditional figures of “the feminine” in literature—from muse to mother—must be disrupted or re-framed to reimagine women’s desire, agency and artistic practices. Student research focused on artistic, critical and theoretical approaches that contest the positioning of women as minor characters to official national histories of major events, where women are most often represented as passive witnesses, survivors or mourners of war, genocides, or legacies of colonization. Papers in this session analyzed representations of women in literature and how female writers work to reclaim a sense of place where they are often erased.


Anna Robinson, a senior at Mississippi State said, “This course has enabled me to view just how important an individual’s perspective is within a novel as well as in life, specifically just how different one’s perspective on what is going on around them can differ from another’s. For example, my paper focused on how different female artists – poets, photographers, performance artists, and writers – take on the specificity of women's grief and how effects of trauma are so often displaced or repressed. The various narrative perspectives and artistic forms allow readers to view new levels of complexity of the themes of the novel and speaks to the reality of women's lives in today’s world. The perspective through which our stories are told has to be taken into account for us to critically analyze what we see and hear in our modern society."


The last panel focused on the effect photography and “the image” has on imagination, and in particular, modern conceptions of multitudes and others, highlighting the ways in which narrative and visual framings render entire populations illegible to the larger global community except when seen as a threat.


Kameron Keel, a senior at Mississippi State, focused on the politics of everyday fear and the way in which photographs of traumatic events, particularly those of the aftermath of terrorist acts, can seize the imagination. “My research focused the power of the image and how photographs contribute far more to terrorism than is normally recognized,” said Kameron. “Without the image, the act does not cease to exist, because violence is violence captured within a frame or not, but it ceases to have power on a global scale. My paper argues Don DeLillo's “Mao II” prompts readers to think about how the image does more than just present a visual; it gives rise to the chance to create a story itself. These stories and frames bring forth an entirely new danger, and fear, as they circulate."


Kayla Van Dyke, a senior undergraduate English major, drew on what Agier calls the “world of camps” to analyze the effects of Covid-19 on those living in the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. Van Dyke argued that categories of impermanence attributed to the refugees living in the camps work to obscure their “permanent state of altered normality” in the words of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, stripping them of political agency. She stated that seeing refugees only as “victims of forced displacement” makes it difficult to understand their actions, such as when they set fire to the camp to escape the contagion of Covid-19. Instead of political actors, categories coupled with images render refugees as part of a dangerous multitude, Van Dyke argued, perpetuating a “fictionalized notion of the enemy” from “the outside.”


Spain’s commitment to mentoring undergraduate and graduate research has resulted in more than 48 conference papers presented at independently organized conferences and symposia. In each of these cases, students revised and presented papers written for her upper-division literature courses on contemporary and postcolonial literature. Since 2010, with Spain's mentorship, her undergraduates have presented 38 papers at regional and national conferences, and 10 have presented at the Shackouls Honors College Undergraduate Research Symposium.


Spain’s graduate students regularly present at regional conferences, and she has mentored and trained both undergraduates and graduate students to develop panels of their own design and to chair sessions. Twelve students have created and/or served as moderators for panels at regional conferences such as The Mississippi Philological Association Annual Conference. Two of her M.A. students, Lisa Gooden-Hunley and Robin Walden, presented at the African Literature Association Annual International Conference in Bayreuth, Germany, where Gooden-Hunley earned accolades from the internationally renowned Bessie Head Society. Gooden-Hunley is now a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at MSU.


In an effort to contribute solutions to the various challenges facing the nation, as well as insight into other points of interest, the College of Arts and Sciences will continue to highlight faculty research in our “Research in the Headlines” series each Monday and Wednesday. For more research in the headlines, visit; and for information about the College of Arts and Sciences or the Department of English, visit or

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