Sarah Wasserman

Cohort 2006–2007.  I arrived at Princeton in 2006, after leaving a job in material sciences and completing an MA at the University of Chicago. I didn't know quite what I wanted to work on when I began the PhD program, but I was drawn to seminars that brought seemingly disparate theories and texts together: Zahid Chaudhary’s course on postcolonial theory, Frankfurt School, and visuality; Diana Fuss's seminar on American elegy that incorporated feminist thought, queer theory, and psychoanalysis; Bill Gleason’s class that made sense of 19th-century best-sellers through historicist criticism, economics, and cultural studies. These classes excited me because they showed me how dynamic and interdisciplinary the study of literature could be. Interdisciplinary is a word that gets thrown around too often, but my training at Princeton was rigorously and exhilaratingly interdisciplinary. In addition to my coursework in English, I took seminars in architecture, German, and African American Studies. But I never felt that my wide-ranging interests were too scattered. Instead, it was the ability to think across fields, texts, and media that helped guide me toward new and original ways of thinking about my field of 20th and 21st century American literature.

That’s only partly true. The full story is that my amazing dissertation committee, Anne Cheng, Zahid Chaudhary, and Val Smith, taught me how to think expansively, write precisely, and—most importantly—be a humane, generous person while weathering the tempests of academia. They never expected me to replicate their interests or methodologies; they encouraged my idiosyncratic pursuits, so long as those pursuits were made intelligible and intelligent in my writing. Anne, in particular, taught me not only how to think and write across media, but also how to teach across them. In 2011, we developed and taught a course on Hitchcock together and I learned how to make disparate materials and forms cohere on a syllabus. And the incredible friends I made in my cohort and those from other departments helped push and develop my ideas along the way. I still turn to them when I need an eye on my writing or a perspective on what’s happening in adjacent fields.

I applied to jobs and post-doctoral positions for four years. Lots of jobs and lots of post-docs. One year I had three campus visits… and was the second-place choice for all three jobs. I was devastated, but fortunate enough to land a post-doc position in Germany, in the Department of American Studies at the University of Bonn, which I began after defending my dissertation in December 2012. After three semesters in that position, I moved to an Assistant Professor job at the JFK Institute of American Studies in Berlin. In 2015, I applied selectively to just a few jobs and was thrilled to get hired as part of an open-rank, open-field search in Material Culture Studies in the Department of English at the University of Delaware. In some ways I was an unlikely hire—my work focuses on the disappearance of objects in post-1945 US fiction—but I’ve found it incredibly satisfying to put my ideas into conversation with more conventional understandings of material culture. Now I’m Assistant Professor of English and the Associate Director for the University’s Center for Material Culture Studies. One of the things I enjoy most about my job is that at UD, as at Princeton, I have the freedom to roam across media and disciplines. Having museum studies students in my graduate seminars, engineers in my undergrad classes, talking about 3D printing with a colleague in the art department, or thinking through digital preservation with a librarian from special collection enriches and expands my ideas. It’s a privilege to learn from the incredible people at my workplace and beyond. The fundamentals of close reading and good writing that I learned at Princeton freed me to engage with so many different kinds of work and lines of inquiry happening at the large research university where I am now.

My monograph, The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel, is truly a product of all the generous, cross-boundary thinking I’ve been able to do since I started at Princeton in 2006. It was published with University of Minnesota Press in October 2020 and an edited volume on modeling in the humanities is forthcoming (also with UMinn Press). I’ve found I really enjoy writing for public venues like LA Review of Books and Public Books, so before I dive into another monograph, I’ve started working on a shorter trade book about popular images and imaginings of “computer love” in the 1980s.