Research Radar – Zan Cammack

Dr. Zan Cammack is a Lecturer in the Department of English at Utah Valley University. She is a Fulbright Scholar, the co-host of The Thing About Austen podcast, and the author of the just-released Ireland’s Gramophones: Material Culture, Memory, and Trauma in Irish Modernism (Clemson UP, 2021). Follow her on Twitter @z_cammack and @Austen_Things and visit her website

Who is an academic whose work has influenced you?

Elaine Freedgood’s The Ideas in Things (U of Chicago P, 2006) was the first book-length study on thing theory I read that really demonstrated the range of possibilities of studying material culture and literature together.

From there, additional influences include Paige Reynold’s editorial work on Irish material culture in the special edition of Éire-Ireland, Irish Things: Special Issue on Irish Material Culture (Spring/Summer 2011), Chris Morash’s A History of the Media in Ireland (Cambridge UP, 2009), and Damien Keane’s Ireland and the Problem of Information: Irish Writing, Radio, Late Modernist Communication (Pennsylvania State UP, 2014). Each of these works had a massive impact on the way I situated my work at cross-sections of media studies and material culture in my own work, Ireland’s Gramophones: Material Culture, Memory, and Trauma in Irish Modernism (Clemson UP, 2021).

What are you reading for work and/or for leisure these days?

I have been an audiobook fiend for the past two years, consuming an average of 4-6 books each week and in a range of genres. So, this isn’t an easy one for me to nail down. For sheer enjoyment, I’m eagerly awaiting Sherry Thomas’ newest installment in her Lady Sherlock series, Miss Moriarty, I Presume.

For work, I have been reading a great deal of word and music studies materials. This includes reading/listening to Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies and Charles T. Griffes’ musical settings of Oscar Wilde’s poetry. I find the interplay between music and text something that forces me to flex some long-atrophied music theory muscles but that is also incredibly rewarding as its own form of creative exercise.

What podcast do you recommend?

I am the co-host of The Thing About Austen, a podcast about Jane Austen’s material world. So, even though it sounds terribly self-aggrandizing, I recommend it if you have an interest in the material and social culture of the Georgian era. My favorite episodes so far are “The Thing about General Tilney’s Pamphlets” and an upcoming interview with musicologist Dr. Lidia Chang in “The Thing about Mary Crawford’s Harp.” Such nerdy deep dives into seemingly innocuous objects!

Since material culture is clearly one of my fascinations,I also recommend 99% Invisible, which examines the thought and design that goes into the things we don’t really think too much about but still have an impact on our daily life. They have an entire sub-series on Objects which is where I like to nerd out the most. But the whole premise for this podcast is my particular brand of academic catnip.

I also have to mention Dr. Ibrim X. Kendi’s podcast Be Antiracist since I learn with every episode.

What is your favourite archive or library?

I have a long-standing crush on the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive at National University of Ireland, Galway. That’s normal, right? I was first introduced to the archive as an MA student at NUIG while studying materials related to The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge, but I have since used the archive in chapters and articles and my book and on a wide range of authors and productions. And it’s kind of a niche detail, but I love that some of the resources I’ve used were clearly saved from the Abbey Theatre fire in 1951, like a photograph of the set for Lennox Robinson’s Portrait that has singed edges.

I am also chomping at the bits to travel to the New York Public Library to access their archival material on American composer Charles T. Griffes; this archive will help me further delineate the artistic influence Oscar Wilde had on Griffes and America’s first Impressionist art songs.

What book or movie changed your life?

I think I can identify two books that really had an impact on my career in unexpected ways. The first was Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which, apart from being a perfectly delightful version of industrial revolution Pride and Prejudice fanfic (don’t fight me on this), is a novel that makes references to the Irish working forces in northern England throughout. When I first read the novel, I was completing my first MA degree and I fell absolutely and madly in love with it. (I’m not exaggerating when I say I read the novel at least ten times in a matter of months.) A few years later I was in Ireland, working on my second MA in Irish studies and the Irish laborers from North and South were the focus of my thesis. I would never have expected Gaskell’s works to lead me more directly to Irish Studies, but here we are.

The second work that changed the trajectory of my academic career is Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September. I read the novel years before beginning my PhD program, but during my coursework I was required to read it again and my instructor casually mentioned Bowen’s obsession with objects and that a reading of the novel through Thing Theory would be interesting. I took the advice and while reading the novel a second time I really started to focus on the gramophone in the novel. After writing a seminar paper on the gramophone’s “death” in the novel, I couldn’t stop seeing gramophones in Irish literature. I changed my proposed dissertation topic and the end result is my book, Ireland’s Gramophones, and a lasting obsession with material culture.

Do you play music while you work?  If so, what?

I like to listen to instrumental music while researching and writing. I often try pairings, though not always. So, while working on an article on Jane Austen and Mansfield Park, I listened to the 1999 film soundtrack. I’m working on a project with Oscar Wilde and Charles, Griffes, so I listen to the Griffes’ art songs I’m studying on repeat, but also his piano compositions. However, for general use, I lean toward soundtrack scores by composers like Dario Marianelli and Martin Phipps.

What are your essential research tools/supplies and why?

My research toolkit at the moment includes a Moleskine lined notebook and fine-tipped black pen, Voyant Tools for text-based analysis, and Zotero for tracking sources and my annotations. These latter two resources are relatively new to me, but they have changed the way I research. Voyant allows for quick, quantifiable, visual representations of trends within a corpus and Zotero (particularly when integrated as an add-in for Google Docs or Word) makes citation work effortless while also providing cloud-based storage for my downloaded and annotated files for research. They are essential to my research practices now.

What do you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning of your career/degree?

I wish I had had a little bit more guidance or intro to digital humanities resources as a beginning scholar. I’m learning a lot by trial and error on my own, which is its own kind of rewarding. And while not everyone wants or needs to go into DH, the tools available out there can make research easier and more accessible to a wider audience. (What scholar doesn’t want that?) It also enables a lot more cross- or inter-disciplinary work, which is a huge asset to scholars, schools, and administrators alike.

What is your favourite way to de-stress?

I go for a long walk/jog while listening to an audiobook when I need to de-stress. And I go on walks daily. I also find a sense of calm by organizing things. This can be a bookshelf, a linen closet, a desk drawer, or my kiddos’ toys. Anything really. I love tangible order.

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