Sabrina Lee (English), Unit for Criticism SCT Fellow, Summer 2021

Reflections on the School of Criticism and Theory, Summer 2021

The weeks I spent attending the School of Criticism and Theory in Ithaca, New York were wonderfully energizing and helped me think through major aspects of my dissertation project. This iteration of SCT faced the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic: during Summer 2020 SCT hosted a free, mini, online version that foreshadowed the in-person Summer 2021 session. While planning for the in-person session was difficult because of the ongoing pandemic and increased cost-of-living in Ithaca, Professor Susan Koshy and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory were incredibly understanding and supportive. I am grateful to have been able to participate in such an invigorating experience.

SCT was an intense six weeks. We followed a Monday–Thursday schedule, so three-day weekends left time for reading/working, getting to know the other participants, and exploring Ithaca. (There are waterfalls and trails in the city, and there are several state parks within a 20-minute drive. The ice cream is also quite good.) The program was structured around several kinds of events. Major seminars met twice a week. There were also stand-alone lectures, mini seminars, a couple of academic professional development talks, and colloquia—spaces where we offered questions and feedback on unpublished pieces written by the seminar leaders. This variety provided us with many different topics to think with and through, including whiteness, the categorical imperative, world religions, nuclear colonialism, routine and formalism, and the formation of the “West.”

The major seminar I attended was on “Magic” and was taught by Professor Matthew Engelke, an anthropologist and scholar of religion. I came to this seminar with a specific goal: I wanted a stronger definition of magic for my dissertation. During our six weeks together, we read a variety of scholarship and looked at different approaches to magic—from anthropology to literary studies to contemporary film—and I was able fulfill my goal. But more than that, through vibrant, interdisciplinary discussions in and out of class, I was also able to hone my approaches and responses to other theories that are important to my project and its placement in literary studies.

Potential SCT fellows should be aware that SCT offers a particular kind of engagement with theory; not everything one might be looking for is represented there nor falls within its radar. The emphasis is on disembodied theory. (George Yancy’s and Karen Barad’s excellent lectures were exceptions.) The program exudes a strong “life of the mind” sensibility, which can be dissatisfying, even alienating. Some participants half-jokingly referred to SCT as a “deradicalization summer camp,” a characterization I find apt. I am indebted to my training in ethnic studies for helping me navigate these frustrations and giving me the tools to think with and beyond the theories I encountered. This helped make my summer both enjoyable and productive.

One of the best parts of SCT was getting to know the other participants, and we were reminded of the joys of in-person learning. However, just a few days after the end of the program, about 10 percent of the participants tested positive for Covid. I learned this news through WhatsApp group chats (something I highly recommend future SCT fellows create to connect with people across seminars!), but the SCT administration had to be pushed by participants to send an email that alerted everyone of possible exposure. I am not sure what caused such hesitation and delay in issuing an official notification, but for participants worried about their classmates who weren’t connected on WhatsApp, it was a souring end to an otherwise delightful summer.

Again, I would like to thank Professor Koshy and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory for all the support. Potential SCT fellows are more than welcome to reach out if they want to talk further about this program. While my time at Cornell was lovely and constructive, I also found it helped to have a sense of what to expect. If anyone would like more details, feel free to contact me at