Professor Jessica Wolfe Studies Pseudodoxia Epidemica on NEH Fellowship

Professor Jessica Wolfe has just returned to the UNC classroom after a eight-month fellowship funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities. Wolfe, who teaches both classical and Renaissance literature in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, spent six months at the Newberry Library in Chicago, followed by two months in Germany at the Herzog Augusta Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, working in both archives on a new scholarly edition of Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646; 1672) for Oxford University Press. This edition also features the work of her UNC colleague and husband Reid Barbour, who is editing Browne's Religio Medici.

Browne, a 17th c. English physician and essayist best known for lyrical prose works such as Religio and Urn-Buriall, composed the Pseudodoxia as a kind of Renaissance 'Mythbusters' -- an encyclopedia of legends, myths, and "vulgar errors" about subjects ranging from unicorns, curative stones, and mandrakes to pygmies, gypsies, and whether the participants of the Last Supper should be depicted sitting up or reclining at that meal. At the Newberry Library, Wolfe benefited from that archive's world-class holdings of early modern maps and atlases to research topics including the colour of the Red Sea, the mysterious source of the Nile, and the fantastical sea monsters of Renaissance cartography, which Browne dismisses as non-existent 'crotescoes' used to fill up empty space in maps.

Olaus Magnus, Carta Marina, 1539

Both there and at the Herzog Augusta Bibliothek (see below), a collection first assembled by the 16th and 17th c. dukes of Braunschweig-Lüneberg, Wolfe studied early modern medical texts, works on magnetism, electricity, and lunar observation, commentaries on classical philosophers such as Aristotle, Galen, and Dioscorides, and -- her favorite new genres of early modern scholarship -- works on calendrical matters and biblical chronology, which grapple with questions such as whether the creation took place in spring or autumn (Browne refuses to decide conclusively) and what effects, if any, are associated with the so-called dies caniculares, or 'dog days' of summer.

Herzog Augusta Bibliothek, Main Library

While in Wolfenbüttel, the picturesque town in Lower Saxony that houses the Herzog Augusta Bibliothek, Prof. Wolfe had the opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of a German summer and to travel widely throughout the country, including brief trips to Hamburg, Goslar, and Regensburg. Despite its appearance of a tranquil market town (see below), Wolfenbüttel has long been a center of scholarly and cultural activity: Leibniz and Lessing both served turns as librarians of the H.A.B., and the town's many half-timbered houses boast signs marking illustrious inhabitants of centuries past, including the organist Michael Praetorius and (in the 1620s) an entire troupe of English travelling players.  Wolfe was delighted to discover that Thomas Browne's own son, Edward, reports in his travel journal about hearing local legends about a "spirit" that supposedly inhabits silver mines a few miles from Wolfenbüttel -- the 1,000-year-old Rammelsburg mines that tourists (Wolfe included) still visit, just as Edward may have done in the 1660s.

Wolfenbüttel, Cornmarket square


Statement in Support of Professor Neel Ahuja

The faculty of the Department of English & Comparative Literature at UNC, Chapel Hill declare our support for our colleague, Professor Neel Ahuja. In light of recent criticisms over his first-year seminar, ENGL 72: Literature of 9/11, we offer these observations: First, the criticisms of the course originated with individuals who have no first-hand knowledge of the class. The student who wrote the first piece condemning the class for having an ostensibly slanted perspective had neither taken the course nor read any of the course texts. In actuality, ENGL 72 requires that students study and write about literature and art that memorializes the victims of 9/11.  Second, we recognize that Dr. Ahuja has a strong record of teaching, mentoring, and scholarship, which makes him an excellent instructor for this particular course material. Finally, we believe absolutely in academic freedom for all our faculty.  Discouraging faculty members from presenting controversial or dissenting viewpoints in class compromises the critical thinking and free speech essential to genuine education. Our department faculty share commitment to the foundational principle of open intellectual inquiry, which we promote in our classes by challenging students to engage with a variety of perspectives, controversies, and tensions. We reaffirmed commitment to such productive pedagogical inquiry in our recent self-study report:

The Department’s course offerings present a diversity of approaches to the study, production, and appreciation of literary and nonliterary texts. We pursue a four-fold mission to 1) explore the history and significance of American, British, and world literatures; 2) promote interdisciplinary connections and incorporate the study of culture, theory, and history; 3) offer training in rigorous thinking, precise analysis, and critical reading; and 4) foster practical skills in rhetoric, composition, and expression in written genres, creative pieces, and digital media. These emphases resonate well with the UNC Academic Plan through their interdisciplinary and global nature. Further, we reap the benefit of our highly recognized and engaged faculty, particularly as they provide transformative experiences for our students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

We are very proud of the articulate explanations of Professor Ahuja’s course on Literature of 9/11 recently published in a variety of forums by his former students, who from direct personal experience attest to its value as a learning experience that sharpened their critical analytical skills, enabled them to achieve nuanced command of complex issues, and increased their understanding of one of the seminal events in recent American experience.

Carolina Tasting Salon: September 17th, 4-6PM at the IAH

We’re very much looking forward to the Carolina Tasting Salon at the IAH on Sept. 17th, 4-6 pm. Join us for a lively conversation with five UNC faculty about their current work in food studies, complemented by our region’s best seasonal food and drink: charcuterie, cheeses, local pickles and relish, Italian-style fruit sodas. Featured speakers include Inger Brodey (English and Comparative Literature), Elizabeth Engelhardt (American Studies), Marcie Cohen Ferris (American Studies), Bernie Herman (American Studies), Sharon Holland (American Studies). There is no registration required for the 17th event.  Don’t miss this lively conversation, PLUS, seasonal refreshments provided by April McGreger of Farmer’s Daughter, Hillsborough, NC.  Learn more here:




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January 2018