Junior Faculty Awardee Profile: Eliza Zingesser, PhD

Editor's note:

Jennifer Leach, Assistant Director for Faculty Advancement, recently sat down with Eliza Zingesser, PhD, Assistant Professor of French and Romance Philology and 2019 Junior Faculty Grant recipient, to talk about her work.

November 06, 2019

Tell me about yourself. Where are you from, and what brought you to Columbia?

I am originally from New York City, actually, and I never expected to end up back in New York City, because it’s not how academia usually operates. I did my PhD at Princeton, I did a junior research fellowship at Cambridge, and then my first job was in Canada at the University of Ottawa. I loved it there but this job came up and I thought it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; I have to apply.

Can you tell me about your research interests, and how those came to be?

I’m interested most broadly in medieval literature. I knew, even as a high schooler, that I wanted to do medieval literature. I chose a college for its French department, because I knew that I wanted to do medieval French, specifically, and there are not many liberal arts colleges that have medievalists in their French departments, but mine did—it was Smith, in Massachusetts. I think what hooked me on the Middle Ages was the discrepancy between the way women are treated in literature versus the historical reality for women, and at a women’s college, that was brought to the fore often. So that’s what got me hooked, and I never considered another career path.

Can you say a little bit more about the way women were treated?

In love poetry, they’re put on a pedestal; their beauty is flawless. One has the impression that the power dynamic in literature suggests that women hold the reins, and the historical reality was, of course, not that way.

And how, as a high schooler, did you realize with such absolute certainty, that this is what you wanted to do?

I don’t know if I want this in print for the world to know, but Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon was popular when I was in high school. It’s a feminist retelling of Arthurian legend. So I don’t know if that was the element that sparked it, or consolidated it, but I never turned back.

How does your area of study relate to your teaching, and what you hope to accomplish with your students, or bring to light?

I’m interested in marginalized people of all sorts, mostly from a gender and sexuality perspective, but also other kinds of marginalization, and that translates into my teaching. I have taught a lot of classes that are co-listed with The Institute for Research on Women and Gender, which may have been renamed since I last attended a meeting. I actually try to avoid teaching what I know best in the classroom, because I find that pedagogically it’s often disastrous. It often leads to a kind of guessing game of, you know, “figure out what I have said about this poem that I know like the back of my hand because I’ve read it 500 times,” and that’s terrible for the students and for you. So when I teach in my subfield, I try to steer clear of what I know very well.

"People think of medieval literature as a really dusty, boring discipline, as sort of buttoned-up and heavily influenced by the Church, and it really couldn’t be farther from the truth. Medieval literature is actually zany, weird, wonderful. It’s so exuberant and bizarre and I love that students come away shocked by what they find."


Are there things that you hope to change—or influence—through your work, whether it’s at the societal level, at the school level--—or in some other way?

I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that I think there’s a kind of misguided backlash against the canon right now, which I see a lot in Lit Hum. I would say a) that these canonical texts have been canonical for centuries, and any writers you’re interested in, including contemporary writers, have most likely read them cover to cover. Reading the canon enriches and broadens your understanding of a writer like Toni Morrison, who herself was influenced by it. So that’s one reason to read them. And b) I think anything can be approached from a contemporary lens, and I am all for anachronistic reading.

I try, when I teach Lit Hum and other classes, to show that old texts can ask very interesting and contemporary questions about gender roles, about societal roles. People think of medieval literature as a really dusty, boring discipline, as sort of buttoned-up and heavily influenced by the Church, and it really couldn’t be farther from the truth. Medieval literature is actually zany, weird, wonderful. It’s so exuberant and bizarre and I love that students come away shocked by what they find.

Can you give an example of a text that surprises students?

Sure. There is one text that could have been written by Judith Butler. It’s called The Romance of Silence, and it’s about a baby who was born and assigned as female at birth, but then is raised as a boy, so that she can inherit. And over the course of the text, you have personifications called Nature and Nurture who debate whether gender is a social construct, how much comes from biology and how much comes from the environment. It’s so contemporary in its set of interests; it’s really astonishing.

How has your research evolved since you received the Provost’s Award?

I just sent off what I hope will be the last version of my first book, which is called Stolen Song: How the Troubadours Became French. That book is about how this group of poets called the troubadours became packaged as part of the French literary canon, which makes absolutely no sense historically, because they wrote in a language called Occitan. It’s a distinct Romance vernacular from French. And Occitania was also at war with France at the time that the troubadours were composing; France was conquering what is now southern France. So this positioning of the troubadours makes very little sense but it is treated as a kind of given in literary history and I became interested in the backstory to that phenomenon. And what I discovered was that, even in the immediate aftermath of the war, the troubadours were assimilated into French literary culture. Their language was modified to make it closer to French so that you could actually read an Occitan poem and have the impression that you were reading a French poem, even though it’s still kind of linguistically weird. They were transmitted anonymously. Medieval names often have place names in them (John from Aragon, or whatever). So, without the name, there’s no attachment to a different geographical region. And they are also transmitted in manuscripts as if they were part of the same canon. They’re not labeled in any way; they’re just sort of floating with everything else. The first book is about that process of cultural appropriation and assimilation.

And my second book is going to be about theories of animal rationality and language in the Middle Ages. I just finished the first part of that. One of the things that I’m interested in is the disjunction between what medieval theorists and philosophers say about animals’ capacity for language, and then how poets depict animal languages. The theorists were very confident that animals could not communicate, or if they did communicate, it was in a very rudimentary way, where barking indicates pain or anger. They were very eager to draw a line between human and animal linguistic capacities. I think that poets were less confident about this line. I’ve uncovered a whole body of poetry, which is essentially what we would think of as sound poetry, where you can actually hear birdsong in the texts without it being presented as a distinct language. In other words, it’s not that the poem switches into gobbledygook, which in fact, etymologically means ‘turkey talk’. It’s that the poets, through these sound games, conjure up the sounds of birds through really extraordinary, sometimes intricate mechanisms. For example, I’ve written about a pair of poems about starlings (starlings are expert mimics) in which the starling consistently copies the rhyme sounds of the people to whom he speaks.

So that’s the first part of the book. It’s still in the oven, but at the moment, what I’m imagining is a second section about rationality as we would define it today. I have a chapter in the works on how birdsong is often invoked in relation to what we would call involuntary memory. There’s this trope in medieval literature where birdsong triggers a memory of someone (e.g., when I hear the nightingale sing, I remember my beloved). And this trope is very, very common, but nobody has really thought very critically about it, and involuntary memory is usually thought of as being born with Proust. But what I think is going on is that this poetic trope is a reaction to classical mnemonic treatises, which advise people on how to memorize large quantities of information.  One of the tricks is that you’re supposed to organize the information spatially, and sometimes this space relates to birds. Some texts mention a columbarium, where you have one bird (which is mapped onto one piece of information) here, and another bird (mapped onto another piece of information) there, and so on. In other words, birds often come up in mnemonic treatises in relation to conscious memory, like voluntary recall. What I think is going on is that poetry instead associates birds with the irrational, with memory that’s beyond human control..

How did your interest in animals develop?

I think it actually came from my first book project. One of the things that happens to troubadour poetry in its medieval French transmission is that it gets transmitted in this very garbled form, so that it can sound like French but it doesn’t really make sense as French. One thing that authors do, I think, in response to this nonsensical poetry that they’re transmitting, is to compare it to birdsong. Birdsong was thought of as a liminal category in medieval theory, as the kind of animal vocalization that was closest to human vocalization. I noticed that the troubadours were being compared to birds in my first book, and then I became more interested in how birdsong was theorized, what its associations were, and I got going from there.

Can you tell me about the classes you teach?

Last year, I taught Lit Hum, which is my favorite class to teach.

First of all, I love freshmen. They’re absolutely delightful. They are so excited to be here. They want to make friends, this intellectual adventure has just begun, the world is wide open to them, they’re not yet jaded, they haven’t figured out that you don’t have to do all the reading. They’re wonderful. And they ask the strangest questions. It happens very quickly at Columbia that they’re socialized into appropriate classroom etiquette of all sorts, including what’s an appropriate question. But initially they ask strange, and sometimes, really, really wonderful questions that we should all be asking. I also love teaching first years because of the transformation in their writing, in their ability to take a text, pick it apart, spit it out again. It’s really phenomenally rewarding, and I wish all schools had a program like the Core. In fact, if I get tenure, I’m going to try to teach more of the core.

If you did so, would you add or remove texts?

I’ve thought a lot about this because I was on the curriculum review committee a few years ago. I think what needs to happen is for Columbia to decide what Lit Hum is supposed to do, and I don’t think there’s a consensus about that right now. I think there’s a lack of agreement about the identity of the class; it’s called Masterpieces of European Literature in some places, but we end with Toni Morrison. I have absolutely nothing against Toni Morrison; I think she’s fabulous. I think it’s a great idea to end the class with her, but I’m not sure she would have appreciated being labeled as “European.”

I can imagine a few interesting ways of structuring Lit Hum. One would be a format where you’d read one text from the canon and then one more contemporary response to the work, e.g., The Odyssey and then Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which is The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective. I think that could be very interesting.

There are obviously arguments to be made in favor of diversifying the Lit Hum curriculum, but I think the best way of going about that is not so obvious. I don’t think the solution is to add a few more texts by people of color at the very end of the syllabus. I don’t have an ideal solution, but I would stress that so much of Lit Hum depends on the way that it’s taught. It can be taught in such a way as to illuminate these texts’ engagement with contemporary issues. For instance, I talk about gender ad nauseam. I tell them students, if they don’t want to talk about gender, they should switch sections.

What would you consider your favorite part of your job here?

I would say working with the undergraduates. I just generally find them delightful and brilliant. I have had discussions in Lit Hum in particular that rival the best of what I’ve seen in literary criticism. Some of the students here are absolutely stunning. Not only are they very brilliant, they’re also, for the most part, humble and generous and I think, for an Ivy League school, that’s extraordinary. I couldn’t love the undergraduates more.

What’s challenging for you?

I think most junior faculty, if they’re being honest, would say that the tenure expectations are not entirely clear. In writing, the administration shies away from giving quantitative guidelines, presumably because they don’t want to be sued. And so, there’s a certain amount of confusion as to when one has done enough. I think, also, that the level of feedback that one receives along the way varies considerably from department to department. I think that some consistency in the level and type of feedback that’s given to junior faculty university-wide would be much appreciated.

How do you spend your free time?

I have actually become a fitness addict as a way of coping with stress, so I spend a lot of my time at the gym. I also recently acquired a puppy who is on his way to being housetrained. He’s not quite there yet. So recently, a lot of my life has involved taking him outside and going for walks.

I also sing in a choir called Cantori that does mostly contemporary works, mostly newly-commissioned stuff.


To learn more about Dr. Zingesser's work, visit her faculty profile or email her directly.