Why Major in English?

Prof. Chris Gabbard
Specialties: Disability Studies; British literature and culture of the long eighteenth century (1660-1800); narrative medicine

"Everything in this world . . . is big with jest,--and has wit in it, and instruction too,--if we can but find it out." Faculty - Chris Gabbard

  --Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

I came to the University of North Florida in 2001 from Stanford University, where I wrote a dissertation on late-seventeenth English stereotypes about the Dutch. On its face, English anti-Dutch stereotyping might seem a topic of ‘vain scholarship,’ but for me it spoke to much about the world in which I was living. For two decades I had resided in San Francisco, a city known for its lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. The vitriolic stereotyping directed at San Franciscans stemmed from anxiety about new developments in gender relations. Similarly, Holland, the birthplace of capitalist modernity, troubled the English because they believed it was a “topsy-turvy” place where everything—even relations between men and women—was backwards. England’s gender order was profoundly patriarchal, whereas in Holland modern sex roles and relative gender equality were beginning to emerge. English anti-Dutch satire strove to shore up traditional gender roles by depicting Holland as an ‘unnatural’ place where women ruled men. The dissertation was published in a number of articles, the most important of which were “Clashing Masculinities in Aphra Behn’s The Dutch Lover” in SEL and “The Dutch Wives’ Good Husbandry: Defoe’s Roxana and Financial Self-Fashioning” in Eighteenth-Century Studies.

Imaginative literature is the site for exploring major issues that are emerging in a society but that remain too unformed to be systematically addressed. Only later—after new stories start to circulate—do other disciplines (i.e., psychology, sociology, economics) formally examine them. One type of story that has emerged in the last thirty years is that associated with disability. People who in earlier generations would have died from an injury, ailment, of congenital defect today are surviving on account of the benefits afforded by medicine, biotechnology, and pharmacology. And yet, all too frequently these survivors must live with severely compromised bodies. So many are surviving, in fact, that a new category of identity is emerging: if one were to ask people who have spinal chord injuries or who are living with Spina bifida what most makes them who they are, the first thing coming to their minds would not be their race, ethnicity, or gender. The stories behind these medical ‘miracles’ are beginning to be told in inconsiderable numbers and are forcing society confront new questions.

Since coming to UNF, I began developing an interest in Disability Studies in the Humanities, and I now serve on the editorial board of The Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies. This field delves into the nature, meaning, and consequences of what it is to be defined as disabled and explores the historical and cultural dynamics of disability. In my teaching I bring to my students’ attention texts from literature, film, television, the arts, and other cultural media addressing the stereotypes associated with and the experiential aspects of disability. To a lesser degree I also ask my students to think about disability rights and identity, legal issues, and public policy.

I have become fascinated by how our present-day conceptions of mental ability and disability grew out of the period known alternatively as the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. This was a period when the criteria by which the question of what constituted the human were shifting from those based on physical shape and presence of a soul to those dependent on mental capacity and especially linguistic capability. As Lennard Davis points out, “philosophers of the period were obsessed with trying to define what made humans human” (Enforcing 55). The question of who qualifies as a ‘person’ remains terribly relevant today as cost containment in public policy matters becomes ever more pressing. In cash-strapped times, among the first to be escorted to an ‘assisted suicide’ will be those failing to meet Princeton philosopher Peter Singer’s definition of a ‘person’—the cognitively impaired. My research responds to this trend by disclosing the genealogy and contingencies of our concept of cognitive impairment. I am working on a book-length project, “Idiocy and Wit: Reading Mental Dis/Ability in the Age of Reason,” which, in addition to other texts, looks deeply into John Locke’s 1690 Essay concerning Human Understanding, considering its depictions of physiologically based mental impairment and its metaphorical applications. Two articles represent my work in this field: “From Idiot Beast to Idiot Sublime: Mental Disability in John Cleland’s Fanny Hill” in PMLA and, operating in the later, Victorian period, “From Custodial Care to Caring Labor: The Discourse of Who Cares in Jane Eyre,” which will form a chapter in a forthcoming anthology, The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability from Ohio State UP.