Aku Ammah-Tagoe

In some ways, I haven’t strayed far from English. After college, I was a Teaching Fellow in English at Phillips Academy Andover; now, I’m a PhD candidate in American literature at Stanford, and I hope to eventually become a professor of English. That path began when I took Contemporary Fiction with Professor Benjamin Widiss (and a fearless preceptor, Adrienne Brown) in the spring of my freshman year. The class made me excited about close reading fiction and film; I was delighted by all the new things I learned to see in different types of texts. I still get to feel that excitement and pleasure when I develop an especially good close reading or talk to students about a short story they’ve just read. As an undergraduate, I learned that I could build a worthwhile life around literary analysis, and now I’m actually building it.

But studying English has also opened me up to other worlds. My current research links discourses of urbanism in the 20th and 21st centuries to formalist developments in American literature. I engage with scholars and practitioners in urban studies, sociology, law, and ethics, all of whom are interested in how cities are hubs of human interaction and thus key sites for making human lives better. My disciplinary training helps me see things they don’t always see—an archive of urbanist fiction by midcentury African-American writers, or illiberal impulses in urban planning texts—that I believe are essential to conceptualizing cities. Even as my research becomes more interdisciplinary, I’m grateful for the scholarly practices I learned as an English major: attentiveness to formalist detail, a preference for unconventional and surprising arguments, and clear writing, which makes it possible to talk to scholars outside of our discipline.

The community I found in the English major was incredible. I’m still close with several of the undergraduates, graduate students, and professors I met there. My Princeton English friends are the most thoughtful analysts in my life; regardless of the topic, they refuse to settle for simple conclusions, and they often surprise me with new approaches to problem solving. This community of innovative thinkers has bolstered me in contexts where I’ve had to be intellectually flexible: as a member of Princeton’s Board of Trustees, overseeing major policy decisions at the university; as a member of sexual assault task forces at Stanford, working to find new solutions to one of our most urgent problems; and as a participant in arts and politics initiatives in San Francisco, trying to imagine a sustainable, progressive city in the 21st century.

People often say that the study of literature helps us imagine new worlds. They tend to mean that in an escapist sense, but I find it immediate and practical. I learned at Princeton that vividly imagining alternative worlds, and rigorously analyzing them, is a crucial step towards bettering our own. As a scholar, teacher, administrator, and citizen, I use these skills every day, and they make my life better as well.