January 30th, 2013 (Jupiter, FL)—At Florida Atlantic University’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, students are given an opportunity to explore their research interests across the full spectrum of the liberal arts and sciences. A distinctive part of the Wilkes Honors College experience is the honors thesis, an extensive work of undergraduate research that is completed by all honors students during their final year. For some students, settling on just a single area of academic research is challenging. For others, however, the ultimate goal is clear from the very beginning. Take, for example, Honors College senior Kaitlyn Blum who knew the focus of her research long before she began her project.
“I knew since freshman year that I wanted to write on Twelfth Night,” explains Blum. She became enamored with the play during an Honors Shakespeare class taught by Dr. Michael Harrawood, associate professor of English in the Honors College and a longtime Shakespearian scholar. Blum has found in her study of the British literary canon that the value of literary research extends far academia itself, contradicting the opinion some people have that studying literature doesn’t prepare you for “the real world.” “I’ve definitely been asked the question, ‘Why in the world would you study that?’” says Blum with a smile. Nevertheless, comments like these do not detract her from her goals. “I like to think we study literature to become better people. Analyzing texts helps you develop empathy towards the characters you study.” Her examination of Twelfth Night has shown her that even literary works several centuries old can have a profound impact on how we view the world today.
“There is so much you can do in Twelfth Night; so many different angles you can take with it,” Blum exclaims. One of those angles is to incorporate her newfound love of philosophy into her literary study, something she became very interested in within the last year. Her thesis, entitled “Madness and Mimetic Violence: Laughter and Language in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night,” discusses the themes of violence and desire that result from the various identity crises in Twelfth Night. Through an original line of inquiry, she wants to marry her close reading of the play with the work of French philosopher and critic René Girard. Blum is most interested in Girard’s concepts of mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry: The belief that all people feel the need to incorporate aspects of others into their own identity while simultaneously defending a unique sense of self. The result can be a profound sense of interpersonal conflict and identity confusion. Blum claims that evidence of this philosophy can be found throughout Shakespeare’s play. “Girard says that in order for people to act out this mimetic desire, they often pick a scapegoat.” In the case of Twelfth Night, the scapegoat is the character Malvolio, who is repeatedly badgered by the other characters for his gullibility. While these scenes are typically considered to be comical, Blum maintains that darker forces are at work in the characters’ interactions. She states that what may pass as a joke is actually a moment of violence against Malvolio that results from the shifting identities of the other characters. “Malvolio takes the brunt of that violence,” says Blum. According to her reading, Shakespeare’s comedy may not be much of a comedy at all, but rather a serious display of one of the human psyche’s darker elements.
For Blum, this line of inquiry has implications beyond academia. “I wanted to bring this play out of an academic setting and say ‘How can we use this play to look at our lives?’” Blum explains. “Is using literary examples a way we can reveal something about the human experience?” Blum’s answer to this question is derived from the empathy she has developed from studying literary figures. For her, researching and analyzing Shakespeare’s characters has amplified her desire to help others and made her an advocate for marginalized members of the community. “My hope is that by studying literature, and especially by studying the violence and cruelty present in so much of our literary canon, we can become more aware of what we’re doing when we interact with others and learn to avoid that kind of violence,” she says.
Blum will graduate from the Honors College at the end of this semester, and she hopes to continue to advocate these views after she completes her studies. “I want to find a niche in the world where I can help people,” she says. “I’ve always felt a strong calling that my life isn’t only just for myself, that I should aim to improve at least a little corner of the world.” Her time at the Honors College has been fundamental in shaping her outlook on the world and her goals for the future. She greatly appreciates the help and support of Dr. Harrawood and Dr. Miguel Vázquez, an Associate Professor of Spanish at the Honors College, both of whom pushed her to study literature critically and stretch beyond her academic limits. Blum adamantly encourages her fellow students to consider literary study during their undergraduate years. “At times, studying literature is more than academic study. Sometimes it’s an emotional and spiritual journey as well,” states Blum. “It can absolutely make you a better person.”
Byline: Megan Geiger (HC student)