Five Questions with First-Years: Whitney S. May


It’s the start of the Spring semester, which means it’s time for our next installment of “Five Questions with First-Years!” Today, we bring you Whitney S. May. Whitney is an educator and alum from Texas State University with research interests in carnivals, clowns, the circus, and horror literature and culture. She also cites a “serendipitous encounter” with Dr. Janet Davis’s Circus Age as her motive to come to UT AMS. Read on to learn more! 

What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your research?

I received my B.A. in English and my M.A. in Literature from Texas State University. Most of my work while pursuing each degree dipped, sometimes intentionally but always eerily, into horror literature and culture, especially as this interprets doubling and doubled spaces. This line of inquiry has allowed me to explore the negative double in everything from Poe stories to American Horror Story. Because doppelgängers—as well as clowns, vampires, and other monsters—are how I make sense of the world, this bleeds into my teaching in delightfully monstrous ways. For example, there is something delicious about watching a gaggle of first-semester students use zombies to make sense of political rhetoric.

Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work?

As so many of the best things do, it all goes back to a serendipitous encounter in a library. I was browsing books on circuses for an evil clown project when I (think I) jostled Janet Davis’s book Circus Age from the shelf. (She’d even taken the time to sign The Alkek Library’s copy, naturally!) At that time, I still told people, and sometimes even believed myself, that I was an aspiring literary scholar. That book showed me that I wasn’t in the traditional sense, or that if I was, it was in relation to something else—see the bonus question. It also modeled the kind of work that I wanted to do, but didn’t yet realize that there was a place for. From there, it was just a matter of, well, looking for that place. Everything else, as they say, is vaudeville.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

Well, shoot, this is why you read ahead. Dr. Davis’s Circus Age has clearly inspired my research, as well as Helen Stoddart’s work on representations in and of the circus. The recent, vibrant work being done in spatiality also invigorates my own. In that vein, Robert T. Tally Jr.’s Topophrenia comes to mind, as do Dylan Trigg’s Topophobia, Eric Prieto’s work on the poetics of place, and Andrew Hock Soon Ng’s work on Gothic spaces. And on that note, anything Fred Botting writes about the Gothic is an immediate fave!

What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?

From my lofty vantage point here in year one, the possibilities seem endless. Dr. Beasley recently introduced me to labor history, a subject that has since seized my attention. I’d like to explore this more fully, very likely into my dissertation. While at UT, I’d like to lean more heavily into my research on carnivals and clowns, of course, as well as to develop a more nuanced range of pedagogical skills. If I get to do more research on ghosts and goblins and the spaces they occupy while I’m here, well, so much the better!

What are your goals for graduate school? What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?

While at UT, I’d like to study zombies without becoming one myself. If I can manage that, then once I graduate, I’d like to… keep doing that, preferably with at least a glimmer of job security on the horizon.

In all seriousness, my passion is teaching. All I really want is to be able to do that until I die. At that point, my plan is to become a ghost and settle down to haunt a nice library where I can throw books at unsuspecting people in need of serendipitous encounters in a library.

Bonus: In your own words, what is American Studies?

Honestly? It’s a place where there’s value in the different and beauty in the weird, and where unexpected communities emerge and flourish in peculiar and exhilarating ways. You can see where I’m going with this.

For what it’s worth, I always did want to run away and join the circus.

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