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Faculty Spotlight and Interview: Shifra Sharlin

Faculty Spotlight: Shifra Sharlin
Interviewer: Amber C. Snider, MALS Student, Women’s Studies/ Gender/Sexuality Concentration and Website Team Member

Dr. Shifra Sharlin is a distinguished lecturer and Deputy Executive Officer in the Master of Liberal Studies Program at the Graduate Center in New York City.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, with the Graduate Center closed for the majority of the week, I ran into Professor Shifra Sharlin at our neighborhood cafe. After exchanging general niceties and catching up about the status of New York after such a devastation, we decided to sit down together for an afternoon interview. Sipping a ginger ale, with her thick curly hair creatively situated atop her head, glasses poised on the bridge of her nose, and her larger-than-life smile, she settled in the seat adjacent to mine at a small window table.

ACS: Thank you for granting this interview! I guess we’ll dive right in…so here’s the first question: How did you become interested in obtaining a degree in Greek?
SS: Oh in Greek! Well, my first love was Greek Mythology. When I started at the University of Chicago I went into the bookstore and I thought I would choose my courses by the books that I would get to read. And then so, in the bookstore I saw a new Intro to Greek [book] and I thought to myself, “I can learn anything! I’m in college! So I’m going to learn Greek.” And I’m really glad I did.

ACS: And so you finished your undergraduate degree at Berkeley?
SS: I left the University of Chicago in the middle of my undergrad. You could say I “dropped out of the University of Chicago,” or rather, transferred to Berkeley my junior year.

ACS: Why Berkeley? What exactly led you there?
SS: I went on a trip with my parents to the Bay area and it was very beautiful. And at the University of Chicago people were very miserable–and I thought “Why? I don’t have to live like this, I’m going to go somewhere where it’s beautiful…” So I left very surreptitiously.

ACS: Why the shift from an AB degree in Greek to Composition and Rhetoric?
SS: I got an AB in Greek and then an MA in Rhetoric. When I was at the University of Chicago, I had a course with Wayne Booth and he wrote the Rhetoric of Fiction. He changed the way I read, he was a brilliant teacher. So when I was at Berkeley, and I was just kind of looking around for a course, I looked in the rhetoric courses because of Wayne Booth. And in those days, there were a lot of ‘out of box people’ in rhetoric…this was before Judith Butler was there, of course. When I was in the rhetoric dept, it was just this crazy fun place.

ACS: How has the field of rhetoric changed since you started?
SS: The people in the rhetoric department, back then, were just people who were maybe…well, in the 70s there was the “linguistic turn,” which was, in retrospect, a very timid and rudimentary interpretative step or approach. It was ‘rhetorical.’ Rhetorical departments have always had problems with self-definitions.

ACS: I see. So did you know Judith Butler personally? How did she end up at Berkeley?
SS: No, I didn’t know her. I don’t know why Judith Butler ended up at the Rhetoric Dept at Berkeley, it’s not like she has a degree in it. But it was like 20 years later that I ended up in the Composition and Rhetoric Program at Madison. Comp & Rhetoric came out of teaching first year English, so there’s a big pedagogical element to it. So the Rhetoric Department that I was familiar with was all about interpretation and it was theoretically adventurous.  Composition and Rhetoric, that’s more about pedagogy, and about pedagogy in teaching writing.

SS: The reason why I went there was for purely pragmatic reasons. I was teaching, I had this great day job. I was teaching this English course for Business majors, professionals in communication, and in order to hire me full-time I had to get a PhD. So I thought, “Sure, I’ll go get a PhD, why not?” (laughter) I thought I would just get my ticket punched and go back into the business school.

ACS: But something changed…what was it?
SS: It was intellectually a lot…I got into more than I expected to at the time. [Comp. and Rhetoric] was more intellectually exciting, but the big thing was that I kind of discovered that I could write essays. There was an essay I wrote for a seminar class and it was just an insane piece of writing…

ACS: How so?
SS: My professor really loved it, and I thought I should submit it to a really good journal, a public intellectual kind of journal, called Raritan. And they accepted it, to my total astonishment, and it wasn’t like I  had recommendations from people, I just sent it–it’s not like I had any ties in that way.

ACS: What was the essay called?
SS: “Thucydides and The Powell Doctrine.” And then it just unexpectedly….I was pretty excited about my regular comp rhet. work. Then the Times Literary Supplement…well they have a column called “NB” and they choose to review different things that are interesting to them, and they chose to review my essay, which was absolutely bizarre [to me]! They thought I was a Classicist scholar (laughter) and so then some scholars from Oxford wrote in saying the thing about the history of Thucydides was wrong. It was kind of hilarious to be called a Classicist in the TLS.

ACS: What other publications did you have?
SS: An academic article on the genre on secretary and business writings. I submitted it to an academic journal, and it was just, it was not (pause) ….writing the essay was so much more exciting. There are only so many minutes in the day, so I wanted to spend my minutes writing this other stuff.

ACS: Can you talk a little bit about your dissertation?
SS: I learned Russian for my dissertation, and it turned out that no one from the Comp. Rhet. program was on my dissertation committee. Then I got a job, sort of on the strength of my writing. I started teaching Integrated Liberal Studies at University of Wisconsin, in Madison. We lived there because that’s where my husband had a job.

ACS: What’s your primary line of writing? Why essays, for instance? Why does that form and style resonate with you?
SS: Ok, so I would say that what I do, and this really informs my teaching and my academic work, you could say [I work on] personal essays of ideas. It’s about taking ideas and implicating them into the world that you live in and your life. It’s not just your writing out there about modernism and what now, but seeing how, when you look at these ideas, seeing how they help you understand the world and yourself better. So the ideas are really important, but so is looking at the world.

ACS: What’s your writing “process” like?  For instance, Do you write everyday? Do you hand write things or use a computer/typewriter? Are you immediately inspired by the current texts you are reading?

SS: I don’t write everyday. I virtually never handwrite anything. I started typing years ago. My work is definitely inspired by the texts, almost always, that I read. There are texts that I, you know, things I read for my dissertation, things I happened to have read, and I wonder why I love them so much.

ACS: Where do you usually write? Do you have a particular writing “nook” you love?
SS: I write everywhere, except my actual study. I’ve never had a lot of “space,” and I finally had my own study, and that turned out to be the place where I never worked. It was like a prison cell, so I write, instead, on the couch, in the car (when I had a car), in my office, I write in museums, anywhere, but not my study…so now we don’t have one of those rooms!

ACS: What would you say about Virginia Woolf’s idea of modern women needing a “room of their own” in order to create and write? Is that applicable today?
SS: (laughter) She needs to have a LAPTOP of her own!

SS: I like writing with noise around me, sometimes I write very late at night, but I’m trying not to do that anymore…

ACS: Do you have a teaching style? If so, how would you classify it?
SS: I think my teaching style is to decenter myself in the classroom, so that students can learn from each other. I’m more of a coach.

ACS: What is the most fun text/theory/author for you to teach (currently)?
SS: There’s so many fun things, it’s kind of hard to….But recently, I’ve really liked teaching Kopytoff. It’s fun teaching things that are a little out there. I like to teach things that are eccentric to show my students that they can be eccentric too [in their writing]. And I like the Laura Berlant stuff, or the same reason: to show a range of possibilities for their thinking and writing.

ACS: What do you think of the MALS program?
SS: I love the MALS program. I love it!

ACS: If you could use 5 adjectives to sum up the students at the GC, what would they be?
SS: Oh…diverse, original, hard working, terrific people,

ACS: One more…
SS: Oh! I don’t know! I have all good things to say, so yeah. Smart! That’s right. (laughter)

ACS: If you could be a student again, at the Graduate Center, which professor would you like to work with and why?
SS: You know who I’d really like to work with… I think I’d like to work with Ammiel Alcalay.

ACS: Yes, he’s amazing! I think you guys would really get along great. Okay, so can you talk a little bit about your forthcoming book Differences?
SS: Oh that’s just an essay, I just write essays, I mean maybe I’ll write a book, but I doubt it.

ACS: Where did the concept come from? What’s the main thesis? Why are you
interested in that topic?
SS: “Difference” is an essay that, well…the intellectual starting point was, in Foucault’s The Order of Things, he says that the Marquis de Sade stands the beginning of the modern world, that he is the frontier to the modern world. And so, things are, I don’t know, dark and hidden and violent…

ACS: Sounds like Nietzsche…
SS: Sounds like Foucault! So when I read that, this is when I was preparing for my prelims, I thought, “Okay, good for you, but let’s pretend that Jane Austen was the frontier of modernity. I mean, why the Marquis de Sade? What about Jane Austen?”

ACS: Can you elaborate a little on that?
SS: They’re close contemporaries in time, so what would our relations look like if we imagine Jane Austen as the frontier instead of Marquis de Sade? What would the world look like? So somehow, what the crux is, how you think about relationships and differences…you know difference.

ACS: Like perspective?
SS: You know, to put it in a relationship format, Foucault and the Marquis de Sade are imagining certain kinds of sexual relationships. Well Jane Austen is imagining a totally different kind of relationship, .and if you take that difference seriously…

And then I thought, you know, this is about marriage. Sort of like, “what is this about for me?” And I thought it’s about my marriage. Even though Foucault is saying the “modern world,” he’s really talking about the 60s, like Marquis de Sade was one everyone’s big hit list in the 60s. And then, sort of, the world turned a little bit, and Jane Austen started to be on everyone’s hit list–so it’s more about the cultural change from the 60s to the 70s, and onto the 80s and 90s.

ACS: Talk more about Jane Austen, modernity, and marriage in regards to your new essay…
SS: It’s hard to write about what is exactly a ‘fairly ordinary marriage,’ there’s nothing really…it’s not like there’s some really dark story to be told. So it’s like putting those things together and a few other things together as well. So there’s a Foucault, Marquis de Sade, Jane Austen, there’s all sorts of things…I mean, (laughter), my neighbors [are in it], my neighbors when I was young, my neighbors now, driving, I mean really life is so much fun, and we always try to put it in little boxes, but it’s so much more fun when we put it all together.

ACS: So why not a book?
SS: “Differences” is only 3,000 words, this is why I could never write a book. And it took me, how long did it take me…it took me over 9 months.

ACS: Like gestation…(laughter)
SS: Yes, but gestation makes it sound so much more peaceful! (laughter)

ACS: Okay, last question. What about a book of essays?
SS: For someone like me to publish a book of essay it would take like an act of God. It’s dimly possible. I know in the world I live in that it’s important to publish books, but I like that essays are sort of ephemeral. So I like that they’re short and very little jagged things. No, I love the essay form and yes, it’s ephemeral. It’s not like I’m making the world a better place or something, I’m not making a difference…(laughter)

ACS: Of course you are! Through writing and teaching…
SS: I’ve always loved handmade things, I love when things are made like, when you can see all the work, when people take so much time making an object. And so I love, I feel, really really lucky that my life is arranged so that writing things like this is possible. I feel incredibly lucky and privileged.

ACS: Any closing remarks?
SS: I love the MALS program. Students are there for all different kinds of reasons! And for me, that’s great. “Self-selected ends” is a mantra in the Comp Rhet department…

ACS: What’s that? Self-selected ends?
SS: It has to do with re-centering the teacher, so the students goals reshape the class.

ACS: Shifra, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a real pleasure.
SS: Of course!

Submitted on: NOV 4, 2012

Category: Liberal Studies, Liberal Studies - Faculty News