Carissa Harris – Obscene Pedagogies

During the week of vIMC 2020, we hear from Carissa Harris, author of Obscene Pedagogies:

Describe your book

My book investigates how obscene words were a tool for educating people about sex and consent in medieval England and Scotland. I focus especially on drawing connections between medieval and contemporary rape cultures and analyzing continuities across time, so I discuss things like British football player Ched Evans’s rape case, Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, and contemporary street harassment alongside medieval texts.

Why did you decide to publish it with a university press?

I had no choice but to publish with an academic press if I wanted any chance of getting tenure. 

Do you enjoy the writing process?

I do. I love drinking iced coffee and writing while listening to my writing soundtrack (usually melancholy white men with some female rage thrown in; this book was written to Modest Mouse’s Lonesome Crowded West, Hole’s Live Through This, Asgeir Trausti’s Dýrð í Dauðaþögn, and several Jason Molina/Songs: Ohia albums). My writing state can be a bit akin to Louisa May Alcott’s vortex, in which she holes up in her garret, refuses to talk to anyone, writes all day and night, and lives on apples (in my case, that was fruit-flavored candy and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which I haven’t really been able to eat since I submitted the book manuscript). In the final three months of writing the book, I’d turn off the WiFi on my computer, put my phone in another room, and write until I couldn’t physically write anymore and my bones ached, which was usually 3 or 4 in the morning. 

What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to you?

Sir Philip Sidney’s first sonnet from Astrophil and Stella has a line that I’ve always loved: “‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘Look in thy heart and write.’” I got that line tattooed on myself shortly before I dove headlong into writing the book in earnest, and it was my mantra throughout the process. I knew that to write this book the way it needed to be written, I had to write from my heart and from my gut.

What piece of advice might you give to young academics looking to follow in your footsteps? Who inspires you?

It’s important to show up every day and write with as few distractions as possible. Even if you aren’t feeling it that day, you need to write. I track my word counts every day, and I write them down in a writing log. I typically don’t use WiFi at coffee shops and manually shut it off on my laptop at home if I absolutely need to produce something, and I zip up my phone in my purse. I encourage writers to be brave, to do things that feel scary, and to write things that are difficult to write, but make sure to take care of yourself while you’re doing that.

Carolyn Dinshaw is the medievalist who most inspires me. Her writing is both beautiful and full of conviction, and she is such a wonderfully kind and generous scholar. Brittney Cooper and Duchess Harris inspire me because they’re badass academic women of color who have been able to make their work accessible beyond academia, and Salamishah Tillet combines her academic work and her activism together to fight sexual violence. 

What’s next?

I’m co-editing a volume of essays on consent, resistance, and the medieval pastourelle with two colleagues. The volume includes a set of Middle English and Middle Scots pastourelles and rape songs that I’m editing for undergraduate classroom use along with eleven essays contextualizing the poems. A lot of these are pastourelles that I discuss in Chapter 3 of my book. I’ve been teaching them for years, and I want other people to be able to teach them as well, since I find that they resonate deeply with students and are a useful way of teaching about consent and survival. I’m also contributing an essay on rape survival narratives to the collection in which I analyze three rape poems that I didn’t have room to discuss in my book. In addition, I’m working on a second book about women’s anger and histories of misogyny, since my work on misogyny in Chapter 2 of Obscene Pedagogies made me realize that I want to think much more deeply about misogyny.

Carissa M. Harris is Assistant Professor of English at Temple University. Her book, Obscene Pedagogies, was published by Cornell University Press in 2018