Professor Ayanna Thompson is technically a new hire—but she isn’t actually new to ASU. Thompson was a professor of English here from 2004 until 2013, when she left to join the faculty at George Washington University. After five years in Washington, DC, she moved back to the Phoenix area. Thompson said that she missed ASU’s sense of energy and ambition—and its institutional-level commitment to inclusivity. Since she's been gone, Phoenix has become more diverse and dynamic, Thompson said. She is pleased to see this burgeoning diversity reflected in her classroom: for example, students engage in discussion in Spanish and veterans offer their own unique, valuable perspectives on Shakespeare’s work.
In addition to her teaching and scholarship, Thompson is the director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS). She is particularly excited about ACMRS's Race Before Race symposium, which took place this past January. The symposium, in which prominent scholars of medieval and Renaissance studies presented their research, focused on race formation in medieval and Renaissance-era texts. During the symposium, ACMRS also featured a lecture from Peter Sellars on January 19. Sellars is an internationally renowned avant-garde theater director whose work is the focus of Thompson's latest book.
Planning is already well underway for a “sequel" to the popular symposium: Race and Periodization: A #RaceB4Race Symposium will take place this September in Washington, DC.
Thompson's work uses Shakespeare to explore and understand ethical questions; she believes that scholars ought to seek to make the world better. She traced her interest in ethically motivated scholarship to her study of postcolonial theory with her undergraduate mentor, the late Edward Said. An early interest in the subject of race brought Thompson to the early modern period—and Shakespeare—as a field of study. She said that she wanted to know how “racial formations came to be,” and the Renaissance was a period during which the formation of race was particularly visible.
Thompson’s interests are not limited to the subject of race during the Renaissance, though. She is also interested in the ways that race informs how Shakespeare’s texts are treated today—not only by directors and performers in the theater, but by teachers, students, scholars, readers, audience members, and the general public.
I asked Thompson what was happening in the next few years that she was most excited about, and she pointed to the 2020 ACMRS Conference to be held at ASU. The conference is focused on the theme of “Unfreedom” and aims to bring together scholars studying the separate issues of captivity and slavery.
Thompson's return to ASU—and her efforts to bring together scholars from disparate sub-fields and disciplines—will doubtless be an asset to the department.
Image: ASU photo of Ayanna Thompson.