Q&A faculty spotlight: David Brewer
David A. Brewer works on the literary, theatrical, and visual culture of the long eighteenth century, plus the history of the book more generally. He is also interested in how magic works, both historically and in fantasy. He is the author of The Afterlife of Character, 1726-1825 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) and a number of stand-alone essays, including the prize-winning “Rethinking Fictionality in the Eighteenth-Century Puppet Theater.” He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and of the Ronald and Deborah Ratner Distinguished Teaching Award.
Please list your educational history including degrees earned and universities attended.
I have a BA in literature from Bennington College and a PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley.
Please describe your current research/creative activity or area(s) of interest.
I am finishing a book on the centrality of authorial reputation to the workings of the eighteenth-century literary world. I also have side projects on late seventeenth-century Japan and on the place of magic in fantastic worldbuilding.
What influenced you to select your area of study and how has that impacted your career?
I have been interested in the eighteenth century since second grade. But I did not expect to be a literature major, much less pursue a professorial career. I fell into literature largely because I went to a tiny college with only two faculty members in history and one of them (the one I liked) was going to be on leave my senior year, when I would be writing my thesis. So rather than be a history major working with someone I didn’t find particularly interesting, I switched to literature (my college did not divide it up along national or linguistic lines). When I graduated I was torn between going to graduate school (most likely to become a teacher at a private secondary school) and joining the Postal Service—I’ve always had a thing for the mail. But I was moving to Chicago and was told, correctly or otherwise, that postal jobs in Chicago required political connections that I didn’t have. So I went to graduate school instead and discovered that I really enjoy research.
What undergraduate classes do you teach?
I teach a fairly wide range of classes: on film genres, film sound, fantasy and science fiction, poetry, the history of the book/books as material objects, and the history of magic. Occasionally, I even teach the courses on literary history in which I have my formal training.
Why do you think a student should take these classes and why would they be of interest to students majoring in other disciplines?
All of the courses I teach encourage students to grapple with how different sorts of texts and objects work and what consequences follow from those workings. I certainly try to pick fascinating and memorable examples to examine, but the questions and skills that students gain and practice in my courses should be transferrable to lots of other courses and to their post-college lives. I also try to come up with assignments and activities that can’t be done on autopilot and so require students to engage with the specifics of what they’re doing, rather than rely on the memory of what worked well enough in high school.
What aspects of your teaching give you the most satisfaction?
Watching students make connections and build upon one another’s ideas to develop something that they probably could not have come up with on their own. Those sorts of connections are what the best seminars foster and I am continually trying to provide that seminar experience regardless of the size of the course I’m teaching.
Are there opportunities for undergraduates to connect with you for research?
If students are interested in doing independent research in the areas in which I teach (especially the history of the book), I’d be happy to talk with them about possibilities.
What book would you recommend to students?
I would recommend Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: a delightful and incredibly smart novel that imagines what would happen if there was a robust tradition of English magic that died out and was then revived in the early nineteenth century (the era of Jane Austen and the Napoleonic Wars). It’s a wonderful, innovative, and deeply satisfying combination of fantasy, alternative history, and historical fiction.
What is the most interesting place you have visited?
Probably either Helsinki or Tallinn (the capital of Estonia). In both cases, the proximity of Russia (both past and present) is really palpable and has shaped life and geography in those cities in fascinating and sometimes troubling ways. They’re also just stunningly beautiful.
What is the best advice you have received?
To not believe everything I think. We’ve all acquired deeply engrained, but unhelpful ways of thinking from growing up and part of becoming a sane and happy adult is disentangling them from what's actually true.
What advice would you give to undergraduate students?
Pursue your curiosity, take intellectual risks, and don’t be afraid to go out on some limbs. There are lots of ways to prepare for a career (and the career or careers you have may well not yet even exist and so can’t really be prepared for). But having a few years in which to learn both broadly and deeply and figure out what interests you now (which may be different than what you or your parents thought would interest you in high school) is amazing and precious and shouldn’t be rushed through in a narrow, pre-professional way.
Feel free to stop by my office hours.
I love to talk about how we interact with books in ways that go well beyond simple reading. I’m also fascinated by magic (both historical and fantastic), table-top roleplaying games, and whiskey. Plus, of course, the eighteenth century. Always the eighteenth century.
Would you like to share a fun/interesting fact about yourself?
I almost always prefer the middle of novels and films and tv shows to their conclusions.
Learn more about Professor Brewer's work, email and office location on his department page.