Arts & Culture / Mosaic / February 5, 2014

‘Common Room’ looks to expand theoretical architecture

Though it has been on-and-off for several years and recently underwent a brief hiatus, Common Room’s editorial staff is ready to celebrate the journal’s 15-year anniversary by re-opening submissions and re-branding the kind of submissions they’re interested in.

“It’s true that [Common Room] has traditionally been a literary theory publication,” senior and Common Room Reader Jenna Cohen said, “but Emily and I have been talking about it, and that’s the main thing that we want to change.”

Sophomore and Managing Editor Emily Madden became interested in Common Room during her freshman year after taking several required courses for the English major.

“I started to become concerned with this strange lack of extracurriculars that I perceived, where I wanted to start getting involved in the department but I felt like there was Catch and there was Cellar Door and there was Milk Route and there was Caxton Club and they all felt very oriented towards creative writing majors,” Madden said. “I was really interested in finding [someone] in the English department who was interested in theory and really loved Ways of Reading.”

After taking Ways of Reading, a class which serves as an introduction to literary and cultural theory, Madden undertook an independent study on narratology, or the study and theory of narrative structure and its effect on the way things are read and understood. Though she knew that becoming a Teaching Assistant or taking on a larger scale research project would be the easiest way to achieve her goal of finding an extracurricular activity which reflected her interests, she felt such options were beyond her as a freshman.

After receiving an email winter term that Common Room was looking for editors, she felt she had finally found what she was looking for. By the spring, however, she had yet to receive a response.

“I had read about Common Room when I was applying but I hadn’t heard anything since I got to campus. It seemed like it hadn’t been published since I got back,” Madden said. “I was really interested in the idea of maybe not even working for them but submitting to them in the future.”

The hiatus was due to a combination of staff issues and faculty leaves, according to Common Room’s advisor and Professor of English Rob Smith.

After Madden contacted senior Christopher Poore, Common Room’s then-managing editor, about the journal, things began to move along, with positions being delegated amongst those who had applied and Madden eventually becoming managing editor. Because the other two people who expressed interest in the journal were readers, Madden had to do much of the initial groundwork to re-start the journal, experiencing several “IT nightmares” along the way, including the need to convert the email group to a Google group, losing the password and therefore access to the Common Room email. By the time things had been technologically sorted out during winter break, however, Madden had had enough time to think about the journal and her commitment to it.

“Once I’d finished fall term [this year], I’d taken my favorite English class I’d ever had in the department, I’d met the person who I thought was going to be my advisor … and at that point I said, ‘I really want to bring Common Room back to campus. I really want to do something in the lit department. I really want to get involved. I want to have an outlet for people who are really seriously engaged in theory.’”

Over the course of fall term, Madden also got the opportunity to witness the direction other campus publications had gone in. After talking to Poore about his interest in expanding Catch’s analytical nonfiction section to include science and math papers, Madden began to consider the different ways Common Room could explore different facets of theory across departments and programs.

“I personally believe that literary theory is a very multidimensional thing,” Madden said. “It explores a lot of different mediums. Great literary theory almost functions as a creative nonfiction piece.”

Cohen agrees.

“While there’s art to poetry and there’s art to storytelling, there’s also an art to analyzing things,” Cohen said. “It takes a special voice to analyze something interesting and then make your own thoughts approachable to other people, which I think is really cool.”

Madden provides one of her favorite essays, Slavoj Žižek’s “Coke as objet petit a,” as an example of analytic power and beauty. In it, Žižek blends the work of thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Jacques Lacan to discuss consumerism through the lens of art history. For Madden, the strength of the essay comes from the way it applies familiar theorists in unfamiliar ways. She has since opened Common Room to accepting essays from different departments and programs that work with theory, including art history, gender and women’s studies, Africana studies and history. Though Cohen is unsure if Common Room would necessarily expand to include math, she is open to possibly including departments like psychology.

For Cohen, Madden’s vision is one she would never have imagined Common Room going in, but which she is also interested in seeing carried out.

“It’s not that theoretical essays are looked down upon. It’s just that people don’t look to them for artistic inspiration as often as they do, say, a poem. But I think we’re underutilizing that and that’s one of our hopes in getting this geared up again,” Cohen said. “There are so many things that I know I don’t know about gender and women’s studies, about Africana studies, about art history, about world studies that I would love to know and that would be more approachable in a small essay. A 16-page essay could teach me about an entire subject within an era that I would otherwise not know. I see them almost like TEDTalks. Little gifts.”

Common Room’s deadline is February 7.

Tags:  common room english essays literature research

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Gabrielle Rajerison
Gabrielle Rajerison is a senior double majoring in English literature and gender and women's studies. This is her second year working for TKS. Over the summer of 2012, Gabrielle interned with the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press. She previously served as a copy editor and writer for her high school newspaper and hopes to eventually work in publishing.

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