Cohort 2006–2007. I completed my PhD in 2010 and took up a fellowship and lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 2018 I moved from Cambridge to Oxford, where I’m currently Professor of English Literature and a fellow of University College. When I am asked about my experiences as a graduate student, and especially about the differences from the system in the UK, I usually focus on two aspects. The first is the opportunity that I was given to explore widely during the first two years of taught coursework. When I arrived at Princeton I was not yet sure that I wanted to focus on the early modern period, and the courses allowed me to clarify my interests while continuing to range broadly. I benefited tremendously from classes that afforded me sustained encounters with Shakespeare and Spenser, but I was also able to wander beyond the Renaissance, and beyond English – a seminar on Nietzsche in the philosophy department, another on Hegel at the New School in New York via the consortium of local universities.
The range that was encouraged in these first two years was reflected in the kind of work that I chose to pursue when it came to writing my thesis, and this was assisted by the second key characteristic that I usually emphasise: the multi-advisor system. I worked with three advisors, varied but complementary in intellectual inclination, and at Princeton this was a genuinely collaborative process, in which no one voice was able to become excessively dominant. In my thesis, on the sense of touch in early modern writing, I was therefore able to combine attention to canonical and to lesser-known writers, and to modulate between historical specificity and theoretical breadth, to an extent that might have been difficult in another institution.
The directions in which my work has developed in the years since I left have been deeply informed by my Princeton experiences. In 2014 I published an expanded and revised version of my PhD thesis as Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England (Oxford University Press). My subsequent work has developed in several directions, which appear quite different, but each of which have their origins in avenues of thought that I began to pursue at Princeton.
My second book was focused on the seventeenth century polymath Kenelm Digby, whose wide-ranging interests – philosophy, poetry, theology, alchemy, cookery – seemed to exemplify within a single life the entire breadth of the early modern. I published a book aimed at a general audience on his 1628 voyage around the Mediterranean, titled A Stain in the Blood (William Heinemann, 2016). My third book, Iconoclasm as Child’s Play (Stanford University Press, 2019), began with the practice of giving holy things to children as playthings during the Reformation, and connected it with modern theoretical writings and artworks. Each of these books began as a short section within my PhD that then took on a life of its own.
I would say, in summary, that I have enjoyed my research and teaching so much since leaving Princeton precisely because I have not yet decided what kind of scholar I want to be – and my studies there made me feel that I do not have to do so in any narrow way. Careful historical scholarship, close literary analysis and theoretical exploration do not feel like opposed alternatives, but different ways of approaching the questions that interest me and taking pleasure in doing so; it is this varied enjoyment that I see as the deeper legacy of my time at Princeton.