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IU doctoral student honored with university's first-ever election to Harvard Society of Fellows

December 2010 was a life-changing month for Maura Smyth.

On Dec. 10, the doctoral student in Indiana University's Department of English successfully defended her dissertation, "The Flight of Fancy, 1611-1725." Two days later, Smyth learned she had been elected to the Harvard Society of Fellows for 2011-2014 -- the first IU student to ever receive this honor.

Maura Smyth

Photo by Peter Stevenson

Maura Smyth

Wrote Karen Hanson, IU Bloomington provost and executive vice president, in a letter of congratulations: "As you know, this unique award is highly prestigious and presents an unparalleled opportunity to pursue your research, in the company of other promising young scholars, without any formal requirements ... You are the first Indiana University Ph.D. to receive this award, and all of us at IU will watch with great pride and interest as you take up your fellowship and begin your professional career."

"We are tremendously proud of Maura and her accomplishments," said Jonathan Elmer, chair of the IU Bloomington Department of English. "She is a first-rate scholar, a superb teacher and a key player in the intellectual community of our Ph.D. program."

Professor Linda Charnes, Smyth's dissertation director, said she's had the opportunity to watch the young academic become an accomplished scholar and thinker.

Charnes said Smyth's dissertation offers a "compelling and fresh alternative to more standard arguments about the emergence of the novel."

Smyth's 'Flight of Fancy'

"The Flight of Fancy, 1611-1725" explores the splitting of the faculty of imagination into two parts (both of which link to a theory of how the novel became the dominant literary form): the Enlightenment empiricist project and "the Fancy," which she connects with the emergence of women's writing in the 17th century.

"Maura has ingeniously discerned its newly privileged position among the discourses of the 'new science' and the empiricist world view that was ushering England into modernity," Charnes said. "She writes magnificently, and I believe that her dissertation has the potential to change how scholars look at gendered discourses of rationality, affect, imagination, ethics and the 'rise of the novel' in the literature of the period."

Smyth said she was grateful to receive the College of Arts and Sciences Fellowship last year, which enabled her to devote herself full-time to her research.

She was extremely honored to receive notice of the invitation to the Harvard Society of Fellows -- "especially since this department is chockablock with some of the smartest thinkers and writers I've yet met, all working on fascinating projects," she said. "I believe strongly in my work -- frankly, I find it to be endlessly fun to research and to think through -- and I was gratified to know how much the Department of English believed in it, too."

The junior fellowship is a three-year post-doc program with no formal requirements beyond weekly lunches and dinners with junior and senior fellows from various disciplines. Fellows are free to devote time to "productive scholarship" by undertaking research projects or other original work, and can devote time to the acquisition of accessory disciplines that will better prepare them for investigation of problems between conventional fields.

The number of junior fellows at a time is limited to 30, with just 10 new fellows selected each year.

During her fellowship, Smyth plans to revise her dissertation into a book manuscript, in the process adding a chapter that looks to the 1790s, a period marked by crises of authority in political and literary discourse that has come to define modernity. "In this decade, Fancy seems to be as explicitly and self-consciously deployed across a variety of literary forms as it was in the mid-17th century," she said. She will consider how this period differs from the mid-17th century by exploring the generic stakes for Fancy on the other end of the Enlightenment. "This chapter will look to the 1790s as Fancy's afterlife and final hurrah before Coleridge's definitive quashing of it in the early 19th century."

'A profound sense of gratitude and debt'

Smyth said she can only talk about the mentoring relationships she's had with Department of English professors "with a profound sense of gratitude and debt."

"I feel privileged to have spent the last seven and a half years in IU Bloomington's English department," she said. "From my exams through the dissertation, I was lucky to have been surrounded by a committee who encouraged me to pursue my own interests and supported me all along the way with nuanced feedback and illuminating conversations."

Among her mentors: Charnes, her adviser, who taught the classes that inspired Smyth not only to focus on the 17th century, but also to stay in graduate school. Charnes' classes were "electric," Smyth said. "Deciding to work with her for my dissertation was a no-brainer; she is a brilliant thinker and exceptional adviser whose guidance has been indispensable at every stage."

Some other faculty members who impacted her: Ellen MacKay, whom she describes as "brilliant, kind and endlessly generous with sharing both her time and insights into my project;" Penelope Anderson ("She always drew out and challenged my assumptions and helped me bring the contours of my argument into better focus"); and Christoph Irmscher, whom she credits with encouraging her to go to graduate school. "He has never stopped mentoring me, and even though we are in very different fields -- he does 19th-century American literature -- he has had a profound effect on me as a thinker, scholar and especially as a teacher."

Smyth's dissertation writing group, composed of her friends and fellow graduate students Annika Mann, Tracey Metivier, Sarah Withers, Erin Pryor Ackerman and Rebecca Peters-Golden, was another invaluable resource. "We have all read each others' dissertation chapters, sometimes multiple times. The days when we workshopped my chapters were some of the most intense, rigorous and productive conversations I have had about my project. There is nothing like talking through your ideas with a group of formidably smart scholars to make your argument better and sharper."

Another highlight from her time at IU: teaching "L314: Shakespeare's Late Plays," a course usually reserved for faculty. "Teaching many different classes has been a highlight of my time at IU; I've had many vibrant and dedicated students throughout the years, particularly in the L314 class I taught last fall. It was the first chance I'd had to teach an entire course in my period; doing so was a thrilling experience."

For more information about the Harvard Society of Fellows:

This story was originally published Feb. 25, 2011, in IU Home Pages.

--Jennifer Piurek