Dr. Ryan Trimm has been in the English department at URI since 2001. During his tenure here, he has served as the department chair and the director of graduate studies. He currently has a joint appointment in Film Studies and serves on the board for the Center for the Humanities on campus. Trimm received his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and worked at Florida International in Miami before coming to URI. His main area of research is contemporary British literature and film, including postcolonial theory and literature. He recently published Heritage and the Representation of the Past in Contemporary Britain, which uses a broad range of British film, television, literature, as well as political theory and historic conservation texts. We had the chance to talk to him at the start of this spring semester to hear more about his recent book, other projects, and his current graduate seminar, Cultural Capital and Financial Fiction.
In 2017 your book, Heritage and the Representation of the Past in Contemporary Britain, came out with Routledge. It is described as interrogating the metaphors and tropes that surround heritage in contemporary Britain, from the transmission of the past into the present, the necessity of death for heritage, to its function in tourism and as alternative to the commodity driven market. In working on this project, how did you find yourself following these seemingly different threads around the idea of heritage in contemporary film, television, and literature? Additionally, is your interest in how this identity is constructed in Britain related to your youth outside Birmingham, Alabama? In one of your informational biographies you say the “experience […] accounts for [your] interest in the role representations of the past serve in articulations of community.” Could you elaborate on how the past in the American South lead you to consider how the past influences the conception of British identity?
I’ve made the joke my book is a covert autobiography. I grew up around Birmingham, Alabama in the 1970s and 1980s—the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Growing up, I would hear and read appeals to “heritage” and “tradition” but the gesture to some fantasy Gone with the Wind South seemed far removed from the world I knew of kids learning to get along (Prince was an infinitely more relevant guide!), and de-industrializing steel mills and coal mines. “Heritage” was actually the word I detested most because I did not identify with the groups and classes that had a formal inheritance. In grad school, I was left cold by Southern Lit studies with its talk of “Lost Causes” and such. I thought I saw parallels between contemporary Britain and the South I knew: both use appeals to a white-washed history that seems at odds with a multicultural present; both employ an iconography heavy on the pastoral, again in tension with an urban and industrial actuality (there was a 3 mile-long complex of steel mills near where I grew up); etc. And it wasn’t hard to find the word I so disliked in Britain: it shows up everywhere—a genre of film/tv shows; a wave of new museums, historical sites and “experiences”; etc. In the UK, “heritage” is a well-worn cliché to talk about the past in any form: even old internet sites and mid-twentieth-century swimming pools are discussed as “heritage.” I became interested in thinking through why I had detested the word so much, and what types of rhetorical and ideological work the word accomplishes, so I connected all the dots you list out. But I had also come to realize that appeals to the past can work not just as a type of cultural gate-keeping (in terms of asserting who does and who doesn’t really count as a fully-fledged citizen) but also as something that can help mobilize notions of community, a site from which to critique the present, etc. Because heritage assumes the death of the legator, it can also thus foreground a sense of distance or estrangement from the past, can underscore difference rather than sameness over time. As a result, it doesn’t have to just be a conservative trope.
Your dissertation focused on post imperial identity in Britain. Would you say that you are still interested in how “Englishness” is constructed or have your research interests changed more considerably since then?
Yes, as you can see from the way I talk about “heritage,” I’m very much interested in thinking about national identities and the tensions around how they are negotiated, the types of iconographies they use, etc. I’ve always been interested in literary form (all that New Critical training from undergrad!), so when I saw arguments like Benedict Anderson’s connecting the narrative form of the realist novel to imagining nationness, I became intrigued about how the storytelling modes of modernism, postmodernism, post-postmodernism, and the like connect with collective identities. More covert autobiography: I’m quite interested in messy connections to a group identity, complications stemming from the hangover of the past.
I also read that your next project will consider cultural value and finance. Is this related to the graduate course you will be teaching in the Spring, ENG 610 – Seminar in Historical Periods: Cultural Capital and Financial Fictions, and the examination of postmodernism in terms of economic theory? Speaking of teaching graduate seminars, when you design a course, what do you consider first: the primary texts or the secondary texts? Is the graduate seminar a place to master theory or explore ideas? When I took ENG 620 – The Culture of Afterwards with you in Fall 2015, you discussed graduate pedagogy with us a bit, which I found to be invaluable.
610 is connected to my new project! Like many, I’ve been horrified at the way the realm of finance/banking, economistic types of thinking, and all the things associated with neoliberalism have led to tectonic changes in all our lives and what seems possible for each of us. In many ways, the idea of value seems to be constricting to only that which has the most immediate bottom-line impact. And yet value is such a complicated measure, encompassing many different facets: the aesthetic/cultural, human rights, etc. Further, it seems we are going through a transition period in which many of the frames for talking about cultural texts and the world around us no longer fully work. Postmodernism is a good example of that, particularly regarding value. In the 1980s and 1990s, many critics talked about postmodernism as signaling the death of older ways of thinking about value: in a world seemingly dominated by exchange and consumption, Marxian theories foregrounding production didn’t appear to work the same way any more. Now, if anything, speculation and complicated investment vehicles seem to dominate our world, all those things Marx called “fictitious capital.” And from the literary end, whole new genres of novels have sprung up concerned with capital, both in terms of finance and those other forms of value. The course—and my project—arise from exploring how shifts in literary form and genre intersect with what has been happening economically and how the representation of value has changed.
And my grad classes usually do arise around a problem I’m interested in/working on. I believe that is a good foundation for a seminar: a course that is truly an investigation helps convey the sense that knowledge is not a set and settled body but an active process, one in which a researcher needs to consider and evaluate the texts he/she is working on, the methods/theory to employ, the types of background/context (historical, social, critical, intellectual history, etc) helping frame the questions that need to be asked, etc. On an on-campus interview eons ago, I once had someone sarcastically remark to this pedagogical idea that I must teach “what I didn’t know.” But I think foregrounding that knowing is a dynamic process is exactly what grad seminars should convey. In that way, a seminar is like preparing to write a dissertation or book: the questions that drive a project need to be informed by some sense of the literary historical and critical landscape but look for ways to help us develop new understandings of key corners of that topography.
Along those lines, I think grad seminars need to introduce and model pedagogy and research as practice, for grad students are mastering being a teacher and scholar just as much as a period, canon, or set of theories. So, when I set up a grad class, I try to triangulate between a survey of a particular field (contemporary lit, say) and particular texts, between primary and secondary texts, between literary/critical overview and specific themes. For me, a desire to teach both specific primary texts (for the “Afterwards” class, I was particularly eager to teach novels like Remainder, The Stranger’s Child, and Umbrella) and specific theoretical works (Bernard Stiegler and that Heidegger excerpt for the class you were in) help structure a seminar. And similarly, I hope my seminars will help students strengthen their handle on methods/theory as well as providing a laboratory to explore ideas.
Another recent project you have been engaged in is a faculty-lead study abroad opportunity to Kolkata, India. Focusing on film and literature, this intersession opportunity offers undergraduates the chance to consider globalization and cross-cultural forms. How did you become involved with this course? Do you find overlap in the material you would focus on in this course overlaps with your work on “Englishness” and heritage in Britain?
Unfortunately, not enough students enrolled and the J-Term class did not run this year. The class was sparked in part because Professor Ashish Chadha in Film and I won a grant to explore a partnership between URI and Jadavpur University in Kolkata. We’ve also talked about developing an international conference that would take place there. Ashish and I were going to team teach a class examining Calcutta/Kolkata and India as a cultural crossroads through various cinematic and literary works: Satyajit Ray, The Lowlands, A Passage to India, and the like. With that class, there are indeed overlaps with my research work in terms of talking about national identity but also in thinking about postcolonialism, etc. Also, talking about national identity quickly moves into thinking about globalization and the tension between the cosmopolitan and the local/particular; that means that global cities are curious places that are distinctly national but also connected to other international global cities. So, comparing such cities becomes very interesting—the tension between what is distinctively local and what aligns with international flows and networks.
It has been very interesting to explore Kolkata—because it was the British capital of India until 1911, there are parts of the city where there is still a marked colonial presence in terms of architecture. Ashish introduced me to the South Park Street Cemetery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Park_Street_Cemetery). It’s a haunting place where the major Brit colonial figures in the 18th and early 19th century created grandiose tombs for themselves—large obelisks, pyramids, mausoleums, and the like. Now, with all the accelerated decrepitude of the tropics, it gives the appearance of the remains of some long-lost civilization.
Finally, do you have any sage advice for graduate students?
These are challenging times for everyone connected to a university but particularly for grad students. Grad school has always been challenging but it certainly seems the hardships in terms of diminishing financial support, etc have increased. That being said, the type of life associated with universities seems increasingly rare and valuable—to take classes, teach, and work on projects because you are interested in them, to choose things because they interest you, is an opportunity ever more scarce.
So, choose projects because they fascinate you (this will help you keep going) but look for angles that might also pique others’ curiosity (so your work might resonate). Keep an eye out for developing yourself professionally (through conferences, publications, etc) but don’t let those things slow down your time-to-degree (unfortunately, funding runs out so quickly!). Select opportunities that will pay off in multiple ways—you might select conferences where you can try out ideas that are directly part of your project rather than a different field in which you are interested. Publications are more important than conferences but several quality publications are worth more than trying to develop an extensive publication record. When you write for publication, I think it is good to be anxious about the clarity of your argument, as well as why your thesis matters—internalizing a skeptical reader who is fussy about clarity, evidence, and why someone should care about your topic can help you craft stronger prose and arguments. Breaking essays into sections and giving them subtitles can help keep yourself on track about the arc of your argument (and when a section might become a digression). When you apply for fellowships and grants, remember that for most awards the bulk of those making decisions will be outside your field (and, as for the URI dissertation fellowship, often substantially outside it—biologists, economists, etc), so let that knowledge shape your argument and prose. When you edit an essay or larger project, make an “outtakes” folder for sections that need to be pared away; sometimes this “extra” prose can be used to craft another essay (I’ve had several publications that started this way). And try to be prepared for life adding an extra degree of difficulty somewhere along your way in grad school: many grad students are in their late 20s/early 30s, and that is often the time when something big happens regarding parents, relationships, health, finances, and the like.