Associate Professor of English, Director of EBA Program, English
My research interests include digital humanities, law and literature, political theory, early modern literature, global studies, and the history of political thought.
Fundamentally, I’m fascinated by the histories that readers use to make sense of texts. When Thomas Hobbes in 1640 wrote, “Of our conceptions of the past, we make a future,” he formulated not just a key dimension of his distinctive human psychology but the exceptional stakes of our historical narratives. As a scholar of early modern literature and culture, my questions emerge from the ways disparate histories enable and disable certain kinds of analyses and futures.
My first book, Literature and the Law of Nations, 1580-1680, published by Oxford University Press in 2015, is a literary history of international law in the age of Shakespeare, Milton, and Hobbes. Before this work, few would have said that 400-year old literature could tell us much about the history of international law. Influential philosophers, lawyers, and politicians had argued that international law is “not law.” Many scholars had assumed that international law only began with the United Nations or the League of Nations—or so it appeared, for international law had rarely even been mentioned. Literary critics were increasingly invoking terms like cosmopolitan, world, transnational, and global, but none of these seemed to capture the force of a term that Shakespeare, Milton, and most of their contemporaries invested with deep polemical and explanatory power: a law they called the “law of nations.” I soon learned that Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century had actually coined the word “international” to describe this very law of nations. Further research in law and literature, legal history, early modern archives, and genre studies ”helped me to develop the first book-length account of literature and the law of nations in early modern England.
The digital humanities project I founded with Daniel Shore, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, aims to be the broadest, most accessible source of who knew whom in early modern Britain. On the beta site we released in 2015, scholars and students seeking historical context can search for any individual who lived in Britain between 1500 and 1700 and generate a network map showing two degrees of separation. Researchers can ask how any two individuals' networks intersected, or query the overlap of two historical groups say, civil war Parliamentarians and epic poets. Those who create accounts can download rich datasets and add names and relationships, permitting Six Degrees to grow even more useful over time. The site foregrounds the need to integrate scholarship on women and non-elite networks into broader scholarly discussions by presenting less studied individuals in attention-grabbing red.
Working with colleagues in Carnegie Mellon's Statistics and Information Systems Departments, and with support from Google and the Council for Library and Information Resources, our team has pioneered an innovative statistical method to infer large historical networks from textual sources; refined and published a major dataset of over 13,000 early modern persons and nearly 200,000 relationships; created the first historically sensitive ontology of relationships specific to the early modern world; and developed several purpose-built prototypes where scholars, students, and citizen humanists can search, query, and contribute. Articles in progress include a statistical method for reconstructing historical social networks, a piece on interoperable network ontologies, and a study of gender and British social networks.
My teaching includes various courses in Renaissance Studies for the English BA, for the M.A. and Ph.D. programs in Literary and Cultural Studies, and for the interdisciplinary Global Studies major. I also direct the Pittsburgh Medieval and Renaissance Studies Consortium (PCMRS).