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All I Want Is the Truth: PhD Student Katelin Krieg

Victorian scholar sees common ground between art and science
September 1, 2016

"Typically, we think of science and art as providing access to different forms of knowledge," doctoral candidate Katelin Krieg observes: "one is empirical and the other imaginary, one is objective and the other is subjective." But the Victorian scholar sees a lot of common ground between scientific and literary works of that period, both in their metaphors and in the structures of their models. "The Victorians not only shared a preoccupation with what we know and how we know it, but shared strategies for accessing new knowledge and defining truth," asserts Krieg, who was awarded a Graduate School Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship for 2016-17 to finish her dissertation. She received an additional Graduate Summer Fellowship, through the U's Informatics Institute, for a project on epigrams, correlation, and scatterplots that aligns novelist George Meredith with statistics pioneers Karl Pearson and Francis Galton. When Krieg is not exploring the permeable borders between literature and science she can be found in Minneapolis parks pursuing rare and colorful creatures (no, not Pokemon). 

"Victorian scientists, artists, authors, and
critics were all preoccupied with truth,
and they produced similar answers to
those important questions: What is truth,
and how do we access it?" - Katelin Krieg

What was the genesis of your interest in your dissertation topic, "Thinking Like a Victorian: Metaphors and Models in Literature and Science 1830-1900"?

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I took a class on Victorian art and social criticism with my honors thesis advisor, Lucy Hartley. This class piqued my interest in the work of John Ruskin, a Victorian art critic who was preoccupied with making beauty a category anchored in truth instead of a particular set of physical attributes (i.e., a work of art cannot be beautiful unless it is true). I became interested in what "truth" meant to a Victorian audience: How was it defined? How was it negotiated and accessed? I got the opportunity to think about these questions in a larger and interdisciplinary context during my graduate coursework, particularly when I took a class on 19th-century philosophy of science with Alan Love. I realized that Victorian scientists, artists, authors, and critics were all preoccupied with truth and—even more surprising given the perceived antagonism between their disciplines—they produced similar answers to those important questions: What is truth, and how do we access it?

What work do you plan to accomplish on the dissertation during your fellowship year? Will you be traveling elsewhere during that time?

I am finishing up my third chapter (of four) this summer, so my fellowship year will be dedicated to finishing my final chapter and preparing for the job market. I am also going to use the fellowship funding and time off from teaching to complete some supplementary archival work during what I have been jokingly referring to as my “East Coast tour.” In particular, I’m planning to visit the Delaware Art Museum for their Pre-Raphaelite collection, the Beinecke Library at Yale to look at a manuscript copy of George Meredith’s The Egoist, and the Houghton Library at Harvard to work with the William James archive.

The Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship allows a year off from teaching responsibilities. But you've taught multiple classes during your studies here. What do you enjoy most about teaching, and how has being a teacher enhanced your scholarship?

The single thing I enjoy most about teaching is learning with my students. Some of the classes I’ve taught here (like Brit Lit I) have forced me to step outside my comfort zone and areas of expertise, but this has enabled me to approach material with fresh eyes and has given my classroom a sense of camaraderie: We are all in this together, and we each have something to bring to the table. Other classes, like Textual Analysis, have been opportunities for me to challenge my own and my students’ assumptions about what literary criticism can and should do. As instructors, we spend a lot of time training students to perform close readings, to craft cogent arguments, and to use evidence well, but classes like Textual Analysis also provide space to reflect on why these things matter, what body of knowledge we hope to create as literary scholars, and what the best strategies are for reaching these goals. Having conversations with students about disciplinary norms and knowledge goals in contemporary literary criticism has helped shape and refine the questions I am asking about the disciplinary norms and knowledge goals of the Victorian scientists, writers, and critics I research.

What has been your favorite discovery, living in Minnesota? 

I’m from Bay City, Michigan, which is about 150 miles north of Detroit. One thing I have really enjoyed about living in Minnesota is the fervid desire to be outside as much as possible during our (admittedly too short) summers. A few years ago, I was looking for a new activity that would get me outside and be friendly to a graduate student budget when I discovered a free birding class through the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Minneapolis. I’ve been hooked ever since. Birding is fascinating because it is reminiscent of the observational practices of Victorian naturalists (which has been a unique, hands-on way to think about them) and because it reveals nature’s “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful,” no matter the season.