To begin to reshape society, we must first imagine that things could be different. As co-editors of last fall’s issue of the prestigious journal American Literature, English Professor Joseph Entin and former student Clare Callahan ’08 M.A. asked readers to consider how literature can help us think bigger and more imaginatively when it comes to combating poverty.

“Inequality and exploitation are so deeply baked into the everyday life of our society,” says Entin, “that people are often either inattentive or don’t have the language” to talk about them. But literature, he says, can act as a corrective. “It opens our minds to see and think and speak and feel differently.”

Clare Callahan ’08 M.A

Clare Callahan ’08 M.A

Callahan discovered in the course of her research that while poverty has long been a focus of the social sciences, it has received less attention from literature scholars. “Literature can do things that the social sciences can’t do when it comes to engaging with questions of poverty,” she says, “particularly in terms of thinking through this relationship between poverty and power, poverty and creativity, poverty and resistance.”

In addition to filling this gap in scholarship, this issue of American Literature offered an opportunity for a professor and his former student to work together as peers.

After receiving her M.A. in English from Brooklyn College, Callahan enrolled in an English Ph.D. program at Duke University. She is now an adjunct assistant professor at Elon University, in North Carolina, and an instructor in the Focus Program at Duke.

In part, Callahan traces her interest in how literature can address poverty to a course taught by Entin on American modernism. She found that ideas from his course “were really germinating” in her mind as she pursued her Ph.D. Also formative were Callahan’s experiences “working with such an economically diverse group of students” at Brooklyn College.

Callahan and her dissertation adviser at Duke, Priscilla Wald, came up with the idea for a special issue of American Literature devoted to the topic. Wald, a prominent literature scholar and editor of American Literature, suggested that Callahan contact Entin, who was also interested in the topic and had continued to be a mentor for Callahan over the years. He joined as co-editor, with enthusiasm.

“It’s a huge thrill to have a student who returns in that kind of way,” says Entin of the collaboration. He had also advised Callahan’s M.A. thesis, which focused on literary theory and what he calls “a fantastic piece of work.” Entin served as a member of Callahan’s orals and dissertation committees as she earned her Ph.D.

Together as editors, Entin and Callahan worked to make sure there were a diverse set of voices in the issue. They asked two more scholars to join as co-editors: Irvin Hunt of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Kinohi Nishikawa of Princeton University. “We all thought very differently and wrote very differently,” says Callahan, “and yet this special issue came together in a cohesive way.”

Entin sees education as a “two-way street,” in which “educators are always getting educated.” He experiences this when former students like Callahan go on to become professors. But he also experiences it in a larger way at Brooklyn College.

“I feel like I have so many students all the time—undergraduates, graduate students—who are peers,” says Entin. “I mean, all my students are peers in that way. They’re young adults or older adults with brilliant minds.”