Carnegie Mellon University
September 28, 2015

Three Books, One Year

Michael Rectenwald Michael Rectenwald

Ever since Michael Rectenwald earned a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies from CMU in 2004, he’s been a prolific writer of significant books.

In less than 12 months, he will have published three books, including his most recent, “Global Secularisms in a Post-Secular Age: Religion and Modernity in the Global Age,” that he co-edited with distinguished Victorianist scholar George Levine.

Broadview Press’ “Academic Writing, Real World Topics” hit shelves this past May, filling a void in the writing-across-the-curriculum textbook field. And, “Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature” will be published in February 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan.

In “Nineteenth-Century British Secularism,” Rectenwald covers several disciplines, including literary studies, the history of science, social history and religious history.

“It offers a new paradigm for understanding secularization and secularity in nineteenth-century Britain and beyond,” said Rectenwald. “As a historical work, it addresses the current crisis in the secularization thesis by foregrounding a nineteenth-century development called ‘Secularism’ – the particular movement and creed founded by George Jacob Holyoake from 1851 to 1852.” 

Rectenwald “rethinks and reevaluates the significance of Holyoake's secularism, regarding it as a distinct historic moment of modernity and granting it centrality as both a herald and exemplar for a new understanding of modern secularity. It explores Secularism in connection with several other secular moments in the period – in science, religion and literature,” according to the publisher’s website. 

The book grew out of his chapter on “Secularism” from his CMU doctoral dissertation on “The Publics of Science: Periodicals and the Making of British Science, 1820-1860.” In it, he investigated secularism as a counter public sphere that contributed to the nineteenth century development of scientific naturalism, the epistemic creed that supported Darwinian evolutionary thinking.

“From the point that I engaged with Secularism during the dissertation, my dissertation director Jon Klancher advised me that I was onto something important and to continue to pursue the topic of secularism per se,” said Rectenwald. “His advice has proven to be spot-on.”

To this day, Klancher continues to advise Rectenwald on his research, writing, and professional development. 

“I think Michael’s success owes in no small part to his persistent and penetrating intellectual vision, and to his achievement in turning that vision into some remarkable research and writing projects that will influence current debates and lend them greater historical and analytical depth,” said Klancher, who is also the director of the Literary and Cultural Studies Program.

Rectenwald’s work has also appeared in “George Eliot in Context,” “The British Journal for the History of Science” and the “International Philosophical Quarterly.”

He credits his Carnegie Mellon education with helping him get to where he is now – a prolific scholar and a clinical associate professor for New York University’s Liberal Studies Program.

Rectenwald said English Professor David Shumway’s expertise in the Foucauldian studies of institutions, which focuses on power relationships in society, was vital to his thinking. And, Professor Kristina Straub's course, "Rationality and Its Discontents," gave him a late 18th-cenury background for much of what he currently studies.

“Michael’s dissertation opened up connections between science and popular culture in the nineteenth century that I had not thought of prior to reading it,” said Straub. “I always learn from my best students, and Michael is no exception.”

"The preparation and mentoring that I received at CMU has been indispensable for my academic career, including my research and writing,” said Rectenwald.

Rectenwald also noted that CMU’s Literary and Cultural Studies Program prepared him to think and work across disciplinary and discursive boundaries. 

“After all, my dissertation was in the history of science treated from the standpoint of cultural studies,” said Rectenwald.

Discover what a Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies can do for your career.

By Amanda King