How I Got Here
I came to Michigan eager to join a community where serious thought was cherished. I have learned a lot from my students, peers, and professors, and they also give me what is essential at every stage in intellectual life: demonstrated interest in what I am thinking. As a doctoral student in comparative literature, I read old books, letters, and manuscripts to see how the passage of time alters what passes for realistic, smart, or scientific. My dissertation explores Hans Blumenberg's fascinating hypothesis that one linguistic snag resists historical change; the hypothesis states that any prolific thinker eventually must resort to the treasury of irrepressible metaphors (like the stars, lions, and sea). These, in turn, remind us of the imagination lodged within logic.
Backtracking to 2001: I enrolled at UC Berkeley with an interest in the life sciences as I had known them. At the university level, however, the only science courses I enjoyed were the ones that presented complex topics for non-specialists: “Brain, Mind, and Behavior” and “Artificial Intelligence.” In introductory chemistry courses, the lectures overwhelmed me, and I dreaded the tedium of labs. Like Victor Frankenstein, I could not adjust to the contemporary paradigm of science, which seemed to demand that I “exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.” Rather than construct secret monsters, I explored other interests.
An undergraduate course launched my curiosity about the comparative analysis of literature from different languages and periods: “ancient Greek cosmologies and cosmogonies.” I didn’t know either of those long words before I saw the course description, and I promptly looked them up. Once enrolled, I became fascinated by the breadth of ways that Greek authors conceived of the universe and speculated about its origins. Hesiod’s cosmology describes natural forces as reproductive—ever since Chaos (the primal void) begat Eros (physical attraction). The Epicureans thought that the mind was made up of small, slippery atoms (like sodium ions in nerve cells), while Heraclitus thought that all perceptible matter was changing, though often imperceptibly (like radioactive decay). As a student of the past, I could learn about science without doing science; I would learn about the imaginative background, where rigor was dreamt up.
Next, I had to learn German—to absorb some of Nietzsche’s imagination. The professor of my cosmology course suggested that I also see if I had a talent for ancient Greek, which I began learning alongside studying more German in Berlin. Greek is hard, but there was a joy in learning Greek grammar that I couldn’t find in carbon-bond structures, the grammar of life.
I have been pursuing my doctorate at the university’s Comparative Literature department for 5 years now and will soon enter the academic job market. I have fallen in love not just with Michigan and academic life, but also with one beautiful Michigan poet who recently finished her M.F.A. in poetry at U-M. This fall, I will teach a course about comparative literary, film, and journalistic perspectives on technological innovators.
About the Author
Spencer Hawkins, Ph.D. Student, Comparative Literature
Published in: Student Voices