Areas of Excellence

Theatre, Performance Studies, and Visual Culture

In the past two decades the department has built, both through programmatic initiatives and faculty scholarship, important interdisciplinary strengths in visual culture, film, and theater and performance studies. The department has a core of faculty with specializations and teaching interests in a vast array of theatrical and performance traditions. These include the intersection of literature and theatre in Early Modern France (Larry Norman), the history of comedy and commedia dell’arte (Rocco Rubini), slave portraiture, performance, and race in 19th century Latin America and the Caribbean (Agnes Lugo-Ortiz), performance, race, and visual culture in 21st-century Latin America and the Caribbean (Danielle Roper), twentieth and twenty-first century Francophone North African theater (Khalid Lyamlahy), and the films of Pier Paulo Pasolini (Armando Maggi). The department also includes co-appointed faculty from Art History and Music. The diversity of approaches of the individual members of faculty is an asset to the program and has strengthened theatre and performance as a key area of specialization in the department.

In terms of curricular programs, RLL was one of the pioneering departments at the University to launch, in 2017, a new joint degree PhD program with Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS); graduate students are admitted jointly to both programs. The department regularly works with a wide range of interdisciplinary centers (Center for Latin American Studies, France-Chicago Center, the Neubauer Collegium) and arts organizations (Smart Museum of Art, Logan Center for the Arts) to invite and collaborate with leading international artists, filmmakers, and performers whose work engages Romance languages and cultures.  

Literature and Philosophy, and Intellectual History

“Literature” has never been only narration; it has been expected to “think” and its practitioners to defy the age-old divide between poets and philosophers and to emerge as intellectuals, challenging rigid professional/institutional dichotomies. Faculty in our department keenly study such writers, who have tackled a metacritical assessment of their place and their own work within the worlds they inhabit and the traditions they hail from and which they wish to challenge or advance. In the European context, the intellectual’s creative and epistemological daring reaches back to the Middle Ages with, for example, the textual technologies attaching to Ramon Llull’s mnemotechnics, the pioneering feminism of Christine de Pisan, and, at the dawn of so-called “modernity,” the empathetic philology of Italian Renaissance humanists (Petrarch, Alberti, Poliziano, etc.). The latter group’s anti-scholasticism opened the canon to expansion and allowed a larger past to return in new forms: Ficino’s neo-Platonism; the amoral politics of Machiavelli; the self-scrutinizing skepticism of Montaigne; and Bruno’s and Campanella’s defiant iconoclasm.

These are just some of the intellectual movements and figures our faculty investigate and teach, along with subsequent rebirths and criticism that includes the work of Enlightenment philosophes and the counter-Enlightenment Giambattista Vico. The ongoing project we call “modernity” brings us into the 20th century, an era whose avant-gardes are included in our curricula, starting with the formal experimentations of Georges Perec and the OuLiPo in France, Italo Calvino and Elsa Morante in Italy, and Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina. The formal revolutions of these innovators are matched by the moral and political reforms articulated by heroes of thought who include Primo Levi, Antonio Gramsci, Brazilian intellectuals such as João Guimarães Rosa, Clarice Lispector and Gilberto Freyre, and voices of new societal changes and “Springs” near and far, such as Maghrebi intellectuals Abdelkébir Khatibi and Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine. 

Caribbean, Latin American, and Latinx Studies

Department faculty regularly offer a comprehensive series of graduate and undergraduate courses pertaining to the fundamental areas of Caribbean studies, including the languages, literatures, cultures, history, politics, art, economics, and geography of the region (which encompasses 28 island nations and at least 10 South and Central American countries). At the graduate level, the department has trained numerous doctoral students whose individual research spans many facets of the Caribbean from slavery to contemporary society, from literature to history.

We also have faculty whose range of interests facilitate a strong and stable research program for students who plan to pursue advanced research in Latin American, Latinx, and Chicana/o studies. Areas of specialization include cultural productions of the Caribbean, Mexico, the Andes, Brazil, the Southern Cone, Latinx and Hispanic diasporic communities in the U.S., and the African diaspora in the Iberian empire; relationships between cultural production and the formation of modern socio-political identities; environmental humanities; popular culture; religious subjectivities in literature and visual culture; interconnections between queer sexualities, gender, and anti-colonial politics in the twentieth-century Caribbean; and contemporary performance from the Andes to Jamaica. Our faculty co-direct and involve graduate students in a number of research projects and initiatives related to these fields of study, including the Working Group on Slavery and Visual Culture and the digital journal on Puerto Rican politics and Culture Categoría Cinco.

Iberian Studies

The intercultural relations and multilingual complexity of the Iberian Peninsula constitute a major focus of research and teaching in our department. Our integrated curriculum offers a wide variety of courses in Basque, Catalan, Portuguese, and Spanish languages and cultures, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and the University also offers instruction in Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. Students interested in Iberian Studies will be able to not only acquire linguistic and cultural competence in various languages, but also develop and conduct advanced research from a multidisciplinary perspective. Our faculty has strong expertise in areas that span from medieval and early modern to contemporary, including visual studies, performance, film, translation studies, nationalism, material culture, and intellectual history. Thanks to collaborative agreements with the Etxepare Euskal Institutua and the Institut Ramon Llull, every year we host the Koldo Mitxelena and the Joan Coromines visiting professorships in Basque and Catalan Studies, which have brought to campus renowned writers and scholars in literature, linguistics, philosophy, cinema studies, performance, musicology, and political studies. 

Medieval and Early Modern Studies

Our approach to Medieval and Early Modern Studies is wide-ranging, transnational, unrestricted by narrow temporal boundaries, and theoretically diverse. RLL includes faculty specialists of medieval literature and culture who work in Latin, Old French, Catalan, Castilian, and Italian. Areas of specialization include the heterogeneity of allegorical writings; the performance of gender, poetic, and political identities in late medieval France; Montaigne and early-modern historical thought; the longue durée of eminent figures such as Charlemagne; the history of the novel; the intersection of law and literature, especially in the works of Dante and Boccaccio; early-modern love treatises, epic, and religion; Renaissance historiography, early-modern theater, and the reception of classical antiquity; Cervantes; Spanish and Portuguese epic poetry and questions of empire; colonial Latin America and the Atlantic world; medieval manuscript culture; Renaissance Italian space and architecture; and Italian and Spanish early-modern music. 

Theories of Fiction and Narrative Studies

Many faculty members in the Department have expertise in theories of fiction and narrative studies, and relatedly in the study of factual or hybrid genres such as literary testimony, autobiography, memoir, and autofiction. Faculty scholarship in this domain includes Alison James’s work on documentary literature, which encompasses reflections on the archival impulse in autobiography; her broader interest in questions of factuality and fictionality has led her to collaborate with scholars in France and Japan to co-found, in 2018, the International Society for Fiction and Fictionality Studies, a multidisciplinary network of researchers. Khalid Lyamlahy’s teaching and research interests include North African Francophone autobiography in general, and more specifically forms of nostalgia and notions of selfhood in Moroccan self-writing. Maria Anna Mariani’s work explores the ways in which memory shapes and is shaped by narrative forms: her study of contemporary autobiography (Sull’autobiografia contemporanea, 2011) is a comparative approach to the relation of memory and mimesis, while her book on Primo Levi and Anne Frank (2018) investigates the fraught relationship between testimony and fiction. Mario Santana brings a strong interest in narrative theory to his research on twentieth-century Iberian and Latin American fiction, which crosses genres and media to consider a wide range of cultural objects (including literature, film, and television). Placing fiction theory in dialogue with ecocriticism, Victoria Saramago’s scholarship on Latin American fiction seeks to understand the role of literary mimesis in shaping environmental imaginaries in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her book Fictional Environments (2020) develops an analysis of “two-way mimesis,” whereby the natural environment shapes representations that in turn influence perceptions of and even actions upon the environment. This work also shows, however, that the rights of fiction and the rights of nature do not always converge.

Considered as a whole, the Department’s research in narrative and fiction studies balances expertise in specific narrative genres and local contexts with broader comparative approaches and transhistorical studies, as well as innovative theoretical perspectives on the nature, limits, and possibilities of fiction. On the creative side, many of our faculty members and instructors are also practitioners of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction narrative, including Frederick de Armas, Khalid Lyamlahy, Maria Anna Mariani, Bel Olid, and Victoria Saramago.