by Tynan Drake, Ball State University
Dr. Vanessa Rapatz, Assistant Professor in the English Department at Ball State University, obtained her BA at San Francisco State University; her MA at the University of California, Santa Cruz; and her PhD at the University of California, Davis. Her area of expertise is Early Modern Literature with emphases in drama, gender, religion, and material culture. She helped found a community theater in Davis, California and continues to bring theater to the Muncie community through the Dead Shakespeare Society and dramatic readings at the Kennedy Library. She will be joining the Digital Literature Review next year to teach the theme of Utopias and Dystopias. Recently, Tynan Drake, the publicity team leader for the DLR this year, conducted an email interview with Dr. Rapatz to discuss her plans for next year’s journal.
Tynan Drake: Why did you volunteer as tribute J, and what is your interest in utopia/dystopia?
Dr. Vanessa Rapatz: I’ve been interested in working on the DLR since I first joined the English Department. However, it took me a while to settle on a topic that would bridge my expertise in early modern literature with broader themes that would suit the journal and help us reach a wide audience of contributors and readers. For the past two years, I’ve been teaching a course on Renaissance Utopias in which the class looks closely at Thomas More’s Utopia and utopian writings by his contemporaries set within an age of heightened exploration and colonial fantasies. In this class, I have students present on a contemporary utopian or dystopian text (texts could include novels, poems, graphic novels, films, television series, songs, and art) and consider their engagement with and divergence from the early modern texts we were reading for the course. The presentations have been excellent with students digging into feminist, political, and ecocritical continuums of early utopian ideals in texts ranging from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, to Pink Floyd’s album The Wall, and the recent Disney film Moana. This course, then, became the basis for my “Brave New Worlds” theme, and I’m excited to see what new texts and media our students will delve into next year.
Tynan Drake: How do think utopia/dystopia differs from post apocalypse?
Dr. Vanessa Rapatz: There are quite a few similarities; in fact, dystopian texts are quite often post-apocalyptic. The basic difference is that post-apocalyptic texts are set after the world has ended and focus on various forms of survival. Utopian and dystopian texts can be, but don’t have to be set after the world’s end. Utopias imagine new worlds that are radically different from the writer’s/creator’s own world. Like dystopias, which are set in dark, nightmarish landscapes, utopias critique the current world and social structures. Of course, in attempting to create a perfect world, they have to grapple with the very origins of Thomas More’s neologism; “utopia” means at once “good place” and “nowhere place”; it’s perfect, but impossible. I am excited to follow Dr. Adam Beach’s post-apocalyptic themed issue of the DLR particularly because I think it will allow us to continue exploring important focuses on politics, gender, race, sexuality, class, technology, and the environment.
Tynan Drake: What are the leading theories you plan to address in the course?
Dr. Vanessa Rapatz: The DLR is an immersive learning course; so I hope that we will decide on the guiding theories as a class when we meet up next fall. My own engagements with feminist and queer theory will certainly inform my approach, but I’m looking forward to wading into the burgeoning field of ecocritical theory and collaborating with my students as I help them focus on their own theoretical interests as well. I am positive our current political landscape will factor into the directions we take our issue of the journal. So stay tuned!
Tynan Drake: Every year the professor teaching this course changes. What is your teaching philosophy and how do you think that will impact the course?
Dr. Vanessa Rapatz: Like most of my colleagues in the English Department, my teaching philosophy is student-centered. While my research and teaching are naturally rooted in literary studies, my pedagogy is interdisciplinary in nature. I often weave together discussions of art, material culture, historical background, and religious philosophies in my classroom. My immediate goals, whether in an early modern survey, a Shakespeare lecture, or an introductory course, are to have students interact with texts, dig into language, and gain a sense of ownership over their readings and critical analysis. My ultimate goal is to foster peer collaboration and scholarly communities that extend beyond the classroom. I think these goals will work well in the immersive learning setting, and I hope that my approach will continue the tradition of excellence that my colleagues have established in their own approaches to the DLR.
Tynan Drake: What are you looking forward to most in the class?
Dr. Vanessa Rapatz: I’m looking forward to seeing the way my students take on the multi-faceted themes of our utopia/dystopia theme. In past years, I have so enjoyed attending the DLR Gala and watching the students present on texts and topics that they have been working on for a whole year. You can see the work that they have put in and sense how they have grown as scholars, and their excitement about the work is palpable. I want to be a part of that. I’m excited to learn from my group of students and see everything come together in a journal at the end of the year.
Tynan Drake: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dr. Vanessa Rapatz: I just want to encourage students to join the course. If you are on the fence about the topic or the process, I’d love to sit down and chat with you about it. I’ll probably geek out over the fact that I’m getting the chance to work on authors like Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler or that I might get to talk about the new Blade Runner film in class; so be warned! But please be in touch.
Rapatz, Vanessa, PhD. Personal interview. 23 Mar. 2018.