Note from the Chair

Does it make a difference to our students that they attend a research university—a place where faculty are expected to make new discoveries that contribute to the world’s store of knowledge? The day after the midterm election, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos maintained that the only worthwhile research is the kind that carries a direct economic benefit: “Of course I want research, but I want to have research done in a way that focuses on growing our economy, not on ancient mating habits of whatever.” 

While university research certainly contributes to the Wisconsin economy, launching nearly 300 start-up companies and supporting 97,000 jobs in the state, that’s not the only reason it matters. 

UW English Professor Rob Nixon, for example, has published a prize-winning book called Slow Violence. In a media environment where we have become accustomed to storytelling that moves at a rapid and sensational pace—events such as riots and storms, which tend to erupt suddenly and to unfold fast—Rob asks how we might instead learn to tell stories that can track the subtler movements of climate devastation and other “slow violence.” 

New faculty member Josh Calhoun is another great example. He is writing a book about the materials that literally make up Renaissance texts, including recycled clothes, felled trees, and animal skins. Josh argues that both readers and writers at the time were highly aware of the materials that made up their books, and he situates Renaissance debates in a long history of anxieties about media that continues into our own electronic age.

Does this research matter to our students? Certainly both Rob and Josh are beloved and inspiring teachers, and both are bringing their cutting-edge questions to all of their classes, from the most introductory to the most advanced. The fact that research faculty write for publication also helps us to be effective teachers of writing. And the knowledge we produce—unfettered by corporate or political interests—can be entirely dedicated to serving the public good. Sometimes that knowledge is not popular with politicians, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. 

As the UW Regents put it in 1894, “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Did UW research affect your own education? Did you learn from a writer or scholar who changed your outlook? Please send me your thoughts and memories at clevine@wisc.edu. 

With warmest wishes,

Caroline Levine 

Professor and Chair of the English Department