Peter Thompson, Unit for Criticism SCT Fellow, Summer 2017

As a PhD student of intellectual history, I felt that I was taking a slight risk by attending the 2017 School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University. Historians at the University of Illinois traditionally spend their first ABD summer in the archives, starting the research that will become the backbone of their dissertation. However, intellectual history is a unique crossover discipline in which scholars are often concerned with both the historical context of knowledge/thinkers and the pure content of said thought. A fellow SCT participant joked about the strange role of the intellectual historian in the academic community when he said, “you have to be nice to the gatekeepers.”

I ultimately chose to attend SCT in order to be exposed to texts and thinkers that I would not normally encounter as a historian. In my case, German intellectuals who were connected to broad social, cultural, and political events often dominate my thinking, excluding those who are integral to discussions in philosophy or comparative literature. SCT proved highly satisfying in my search for theoretical breadth. I was a member of Professor Faisal Devji’s “Humanity” seminar where I was able to spend significant time reading texts from thinkers who I had previously neglected (e.g. Badiou, Derrida, Balibar). Admittedly, class discussion did at times prove demanding for me, as I was surprised by the methodological dominance of comparative literature (this is most likely course specific). However, I found this difference in previous knowledge and training to be challenging in the best sense. I was encouraged to read valuable extracurricular texts that other participants found foundational, while also sharing my own interests and thematic strengths. I feel that this has benefited both the theoretical thinking and the historical knowledge that will help form sections of my dissertation.

I also found the variety of SCT participants to be particularly refreshing. I was exposed to the methodological and theoretical debates in numerous academic disciplines, including but not limited to: comparative literature, philosophy, English, architecture, media studies, and political theory. Furthermore, I found students’ various temporal focuses to enrich our conversations. Classicists, medievalists, and early modernists, studying everything from Heraclitus to Meister Eckhart, challenged and clarified the seminar's modern theoretical assumptions. Even exposure to basic political considerations at different academic institutions was illuminating. The visiting guest lectures often provided a forum to observe and discuss the political motivations that informed their work.

In the end, I believe that SCT was a valuable experience as an intellectual historian, and that it will inform my future work in ways that could not be replicated in the archives. I would like to thank the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory for granting me a Nicholson Graduate Student Fellowship.