SSU English major Michelle Jones is serious about literature. In ’21, Michelle won a Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholarship, a prestigious scholarship “designed to increase the pool of potential California State University faculty by supporting the doctoral aspirations of CSU students who have experienced economic and educational disadvantage.”Working with SSU English department faculty mentor Dr. Chingling Wo, Michelle researches 20th and 21st century American Literature through the groundbreaking lenses of critical posthuman theory and Discrit (disability and critical race studies). Michelle’s work looks to literature to analyze systemic mechanisms of oppression, especially those which affect multiply minoritized populations. She asks questions about how how the cultural construct of “the ideal human,” forged during the eras of the Enlightenment and European colonial expansion, has and continues to lead to disenfrachisement.
What led you to become an English major?
Storytelling was a huge part of my childhood. Listening to old time radio shows, books on tape, and my grandparents’ stories of their childhoods during The Great Depression were commonplace ways of spending an afternoon. As I grew older, literature grew with me, always offering new adventures, new questions, new challenges. If I am being entirely honest, it was an inevitability that I would become an English major. The allure of exploring the human condition through the written word was too intoxicating for me to pass up.
“We, as a species, have written down who we are, what drives us, what frightens us, what compels us to be as we are, and I am enthralled with the stories we have woven, true, false, or otherwise. I believe that they all contribute some important thread to the tapestry of our collective truth.”
What was it like applying to the Sally Casanova Scholars pre-doctoral program? How do you feel the program connects with your previous experiences?
Applying to the program was an excellent test run at preparing application materials for graduate programs: writing and revising admissions essays, securing letters of recommendation, and more. Although the process of applying to graduate programs was certainly more involved, with more individual steps and a seemingly endless number of institution-specific requirements, the experience I obtained from applying to Sally Casanova absolutely aided in preparing me for taking part in the graduate school application cycle.
The Pre-Doc program feels like a natural extension of SSU’s McNair Scholars program. It provides guidance to prospective Ph.D. students from traditionally underrepresented communities, allowing us to be competitive applicants to our desired programs.
What aspects of your research project for the Sally Casanova Scholarship have you found the most challenging and the most rewarding?
Both of my theoretical frameworks are, themselves, intersectional. They each have the capacity to overlap with so many other fascinating areas of scholarship. So, narrowing down my foci to make projects more manageable has definitely been a reoccurring challenge.
I think that challenge leads into the most rewarding aspect of my research as well. By exploring fields of academia other than my own, I have begun to gain a broader understanding of the complexity of the issues I am attempting to address. Perhaps this complexity should frighten me away. It doesn’t. Instead, it invigorates me, making me ever-excited to dig just a little deeper during my research process, curious to see what I might come across.
What's a surprising way that something you've explored in an English course has come up in daily life?
Grappling with the potential biases of a narrative has helped me to recognize the crafted and craftable natures of stories. When watching news coverage, for example, I am more keenly aware of who is telling the story, what cultural biases might influence how they depict the various players, and for whose benefits such biases might be proliferated. I suppose that sounds rather pessimistic, but I believe that understanding the circumstances surrounding the creation and spread of a narrative are immensely important if one wants to avoid being taken in too easily by excellent, if not entirely honest, storytellers.
That sounds really important! As one last question, what would you say are some of the most rewarding aspects of studying literature?
There’s something so profoundly intimate about studying literature. Whether I am reading a memoir focused on the story of a single person, or engaging with a more expansive novel, I always feel like layers of veneer are being peeled away––like slowly but surely, I am being granted a clearer and more honest look at the human experience. I am honored and humbled to be able to study literature. We, as a species, have written down who we are, what drives us, what frightens us, what compels us to be as we are, and I am enthralled with the stories we have woven, true, false, or otherwise. I believe that they all contribute some important thread to the tapestry of our collective truth.
The Sonoma State English Department offers a major with a choice of official concentrations in Creative Writing, English and American Literature, and Single Subject English Education (Secondary Teaching Preparation). An English Minor program is available for students in any major to add, while SSU’s graduate MA program in English welcomes applicants from SSU and from throughout the region and beyond for advanced study. Learn more at the SSU English website – and follow SSU English on twitter at @ssu_english