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Q&A with Arnaud Zimmern, Ph.D. candidate in English

Author: Carrie Gates

Arnaud Zimmern 600Arnaud Zimmern

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series with Arts and Letters graduate students. Read more Q&As with graduate students and faculty members here.

Arnaud Zimmern, a Ph.D. candidate in English, received a bachelor’s degree in English, world languages, and mathematics from Southern Methodist University. He specializes in early modern literature and is pursuing a graduate minor in the history and philosophy of science. His research focuses on the literary and narrative dimensions of medical thought and practice. 

How did you choose Notre Dame?  

It was an unlikely event: I applied to one graduate school and got admitted to one graduate school. I was looking to work with scholars like Susannah Monta, Laura Knoppers, and Steve Fallon — whose research bespeaks outstanding conceptual rigor and elegant, creative interpretations of classic texts. 

And I was looking for a history and philosophy of science program that would let students from other disciplines interlope and hang out — that was decisive. In fact, it has continued to be decisive for me and my advisers, as we try to figure out if I’m ultimately more of a historian of medicine or literary scholar. Knowing that I could pursue a graduate minor in HPS while completing doctoral coursework and eventually dragoon a historian from the HPS faculty into my dissertation committee certainly helped seal the deal.

But most of all, I was looking for mentors who could show me how to teach literature in ways that respect the claims of faith traditions. Widespread caricatures of English departments as hotbeds of anti-religious sentiment had me worried I would be ill-suited for the discipline as a whole, but the ND Department of English’s focus on religion and literature offered a place where critical skepticism could interact with genuine belief in an honest manner. There just aren’t many places you can hope to find that combination.

What are you researching right now?

I’m fascinated by 17th-century Europe’s scientific and medical revolutions. This gigantic shift in our relationship to knowledge drew on the resources of literature and fiction, in ways that seem puzzling in light of modern boundaries between the sciences and the humanities. 

My way into this vast topic has been to look at the history of panaceas, or universal remedies in early modern England. The 17th century saw a market boom for exotic ingredients like potable gold, quinine, tobacco, mummy (fossilized human remains), and other instant remedies that promised to solve all persons of all diseases. In England especially, that enthusiasm faded and skepticism grew — but not as quickly as we might expect, nor for the reasons that historians of science tend to suggest. Empirical drug testing and the rise of modern chemistry had less to do with the decline of panaceas than changing habits regarding spiritual belief, hope, ambition, and trust. 

My approach is to think about this medical event from the perspective of literature and to examine what Shakespeare, Milton, and other canonical writers thought about panaceas. They reveal a very different set of insights into the literary practices driving early modern medical developments and offer exciting perspectives on the hypotheses, fictions, promises, and ambitions that were animating medical history in this transitional period.

What drew you to the topic of panaceas?

These wondrous promises to cure absolutely everything offered a chance to think about how universal claims happen in language. In my undergraduate studies, the whiplash from jumping between advanced math classes and advanced literature classes often left me pondering how we make generalizations, blanket statements, and universal claims in scientific contexts as opposed to literary contexts. It struck me that truths seldom make good bedfellows with generalizations, but that we understand very little about how the two actually interact. 

The more I probed the topic, the more I was surprised to find that panaceas remain tacitly at play in our modern techno-medical culture, especially when, in outbursts of utopianism and futurism, we’re presented with new superfoods, gene therapies, stem-cell implants, and custom-built organs that promise to cure our every ill. How these science-fictions, suspended on the horizon of progress, manage to deeply influence our everyday lives remains mysterious to me.

What impact do you hope your research will have?  

Studying promises for panaceas has taught me to keep my hopes modest. I would be pleased if a book-length study of panaceas could remind literary scholars and historians of the relevance of storytelling and fiction in the development of modern medicine. If, in addition, my research can motivate today’s physicians and care-providers to be more conscientious about their use of narratives as they strive to elicit hope in their patients — that would be phenomenal. 

It’s important to consider the role of false and true promises in medical environments. We have gotten to a point in America today where caretakers hesitate to offer compassion for their patients, lest words of sympathy and hope be misread by patients as unfulfilled promises of cure. At the same time, we remain captivated by infomercials announcing the latest pharmaceutical wonder drug. What then are our own habits of belief and hope in modern medicine and where did those come from? I’m hoping my research can get at some of the answers.

Beyond the concerns of medicine though, there remains the divorce of the arts and sciences in today’s universities and the frequent discrediting of “liberal artsy” ways of thinking. I’m not pitching any instant solutions, but I’m not the first to predict an instant dissolution of knowledge if we continue to privilege empirical objectivity at the expense of modes of knowing tied to intuition, felt experience, beauty, and storytelling. These ways of knowing are intricately interwoven in ways that we need to recover and that even well-meaning labels like “interdisciplinary research” only betray.

“I would be pleased if a book-length study of panaceas could remind literary scholars and historians of the relevance of storytelling and fiction in the development of modern medicine. If, in addition, my research can motivate today’s physicians and care-providers to be more conscientious about their use of narratives as they strive to elicit hope in their patients — that would be phenomenal.”

Your graduate student page says you “keep a toe in the digital humanities.” How have advances in digital humanities facilitated your research?

It is hard to overestimate the value of digitized archives, databases like Early English Books Online, digital concordances, and the many search tools that our librarians generously make available. I don’t think a dissertation on the culture of panaceas would have been imaginable without these search engines and the thought that went into conceiving them. 

Where I have tried to contribute to the digital humanities myself and where there is still much work to do is in data visualization. Like generalizations, visualizations foster intuitions about the broader picture while more or less effacing the noise of details; they’re tricky to invent, tricky to deploy, and easy to critique, but a good one is, as the adage goes, worth a thousand words, perhaps more. 

Again, data visualizations are one of those important places where the arts and mathematical sciences interact in beautiful ways. Advances in that domain continue to facilitate my work and that of so many others, especially when the information gets too big to handle. We’re still in the infancy of our visual literacy and I’m optimistic for the future.

How do you feel the program is preparing you for the job market?

My program has been wise in encouraging me to take control and define what the job market will mean for me. One important reminder has been not to let the scope of opportunities delimit itself to the relatively narrow range of my academic interests. There are certainly disadvantages to working in the uneasy middle ground between disciplines, but one of its key advantages lies in the ability to avoid being pigeonholed to one special skill set or way of thinking. 

Perhaps the best preparation, however, has consisted of repeated encouragements to ignore the fads about the digital humanities, ignore the stats about jobs in English, and define a project whose intellectual worth I don’t find myself questioning or doubting whenever I run into obstacles. No amount of networking or free pizza at career fairs makes up for the self-confidence of pursuing research that my advisers and I both know matters.

“Perhaps the best preparation has consisted of repeated encouragements to ignore the fads about the digital humanities, ignore the stats about jobs in English, and define a project whose intellectual worth I don’t find myself questioning or doubting whenever I run into obstacles. No amount of networking or free pizza at career fairs makes up for the self-confidence of pursuing research that my advisers and I both know matters.”