An interview with Kent Linthicum, ACLS fellowship winner
Kent Linthicum, ASU English (literature) PhD 2016, is known to many in the department from his years of award-winning research, excellent teaching, and selfless graduate student leadership, which brought forward the GSEA, the Nineteenth-Century Colloquium, and the Book Traces project. In the years since graduation, Linthicum’s work in all areas has continued to impress, with scholarly publications in SEL, Environmental Humanities, European Romantic Review, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, public-facing work in The Atlantic and Slate, as well as a teaching award.
Last year, Linthicum gained national recognition for his fine scholarly work when he won a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. Linthicum was one of 60 scholars given this highly coveted award, which provides funding for dedicated research time, usually to complete a book project. That’s exactly what Linthicum—a Brittain postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech—has been doing this academic year, as he’s been released from teaching to conduct full-time research and writing. His book project in progress, supported by the ACLS, is a groundbreaking, timely project, Crowning Coal: Slavery, Fossil Fuels, and Literature 1755–1865.
I had the pleasure of working with Linthicum during his years at ASU as a member of his dissertation committee, so it was a special treat to interview him about the ACLS’s recognition of and investment in his brilliant book project, about what he took away from ASU English, and about the eventful life he’s led after moving from Tempe.
DL: What is the project you’ve been working on for the ACLS fellowship? What were its origins? How has work on it unfolded over the course of the pandemic?
KL: I’m currently working on my book, Crowning Coal: Slavery, Fossil Fuels, and Literature 1755–1865. In it I argue that the symbols and tropes of American slavery were used to legitimize British industrialization in print culture. I came to this project after reading more about both slavery and industrialization in the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries. I realized that while there were clear economic links (cotton grown by enslaved Black peoples was processed in coal-power factories) the links in the media of the era were less clear. So I started looking for evidence in literature and found some surprising connections between enslavement and fossil fuels in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century media.
I am immensely fortunate to have gotten the fellowship when I did. I have been working from home since last fall. The biggest challenge has been taking care of my infant daughter, who is understandably demanding of my time. But she gladly listens to me as I brainstorm whatever I’m working on which helps!
Not only do grant-awarding organizations want to see that you know how your work fits into a conversation, they also want to know you can actually do it.
(Note: Linthicum’s daughter Juniper was born just as he began his ACLS fellowship in fall 2021. He reports that he’s been writing and caring for her by turns in the months since.)
DL: Kent, you decided to work on a book that was a new project for you, not one that grew directly out of a revised dissertation. What is the connection between your dissertation and this book project?
KL: They are both linked by my interest in the environmental humanities. In my dissertation, I read multiple texts on geology and worked to understand how nineteenth-century writers thought about volcanoes and deep time. So it was an easy step towards researching coal and coal power, as many of those same treatises were interested in coal. In fact, some natural historians thought that volcanoes were fueled by coal. (This belief though went away as geologists learned more about igneous rock.) While I think my dissertation provides insight into a critical intersection between deep time and culture, understanding the relationship between energy and race is much more important as we slide further into the unsettled ecologies of the climate change era.
DL: Do you have any advice for PhD students (or advisers!) about the process from dissertation to (new) book?
KL: Just like the dissertation, it is helpful to break everything into smaller pieces rather than trying to write the entire book at once. So for years now each conference paper I gave was a fraction of a chapter. And after a handful of conferences, I had the material for a completed chapter. It was much easier to conceptualize and manage this kind of workload, especially during semesters when I had heavier teaching loads.
DL: Do you have any advice for PhD students (or, again, advisers) on applying for grants and fellowships? What do you think made your application successful?
KL: I think my application was successful, in part, because I was clear about the logistics of my work. Of course, I was able to define my work in relationship to the scholarship inside and outside of literary studies, and how I would move the conversation regarding energy and race forward. Beyond that, though, I outlined everything I had done thus far (down to the word) and gave an estimated schedule for completing my work (including, for instance, the number of words I could write in a day). Not only do grant-awarding organizations want to see that you know how your work fits into a conversation, they also want to know you can actually do it.
DL: Since receiving your PhD, you’ve been an ASU English instructor, a visiting assistant professor (at Oklahoma State University) and a Brittain postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech. What experiences and skills have you gained?
KL: I am a much better teacher and manager of my own time. Teaching anywhere between 75 to 125 students a semester means thinking strategically about how to get my own work done and, importantly, how to be the best teacher under such conditions. For instance, I have switched to a labor-based grading model (pioneered in part by Asao Inoue of ASU’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts) so that I can give students the feedback they need and still have time to apply for jobs, do research, and be part of my family.
DL: What experiences in ASU English do you think laid the groundwork for your many post-PhD successes?
KL: I am immensely grateful for my time as part of ASU English. I was fortunate to be surrounded by very supportive colleagues and mentors throughout my time. One important facet of my work, and something I see as core to ASU English, is interdisciplinarity. While I am a literary scholar, I think it is obvious from my previous responses that I work with a range of texts outside of novels, poems, and dramas. Throughout my time at ASU, faculty helped me approach and think through media beyond the literary. Furthermore, ASU English’s faculty are attuned to critical conversations in English and adjacent fields; the attention to cutting edge research in nineteenth-century studies and the environmental humanities really helped me focus my research and teaching.
DL: You’ve just accepted a new position. Please tell us about it!
KL: I am quite lucky because my next job is just up the road from ASU. I will be joining Northern Arizona University as an assistant teaching professor of the environmental humanities in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies this fall. Not only will I be teaching introduction to environmental humanities for first-year students, but I’ll also get the chance to teach upper-division classes on the energy humanities in the fall, and environmental justice in the spring. And I am looking forward to working with my new colleagues—who have all sent me kind notes welcoming me to the department—and ideally finishing my book!
DL: Any last words of wisdom or advice for current PhD students, especially in literature, for seeking opportunities for professional growth beyond ASU?
KL: Diversify your skills: take classes on technical communication, learn how to teach English language learners, become proficient in qualitative coding, collaborate with other schools/departments at ASU that interest you, do service in administration, etc. The greater your array of skills and experiences, the easier it will be to apply for a range of positions. The landscape of higher education has changed dramatically even in the short time between when I graduated and today. Fortunately, ASU and the English department offer students a wide range of opportunities to be prepared for such uneven terrain.
Image 1: Courtesy photo of Kent Linthicum
Image 2: A group of Book Traces volunteers at ASU's Hayden Library in 2017. Linthicum is kneeling, second from the right. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU.