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Finding an Edge in the Darkness: Jeffrey Squires

Award-winning doctoral student researches despair in the 17th century
December 18, 2017

Back of graduate student Jeffrey Squires looking out at ocean and islands

Back of graduate student Jeffrey Squires looking out at ocean and islands
Doctoral candidate Jeffrey Squires in the Seychelles (Mahé Island) overlooking the Indian Ocean

Before doctoral candidate Jeffrey Squires arrived in Minnesota to begin his English graduate studies, he was living in Doha, Qatar. "My immediate concern here was the weather," he admits. But the free ice skating rinks in Minneapolis parks enticed him outdoors, and, he says, "I became a decent beer-league hockey player." This winter, the team will have to do without him, as he's finishing up his dissertation out East, as the recipient of a 2017-18 Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, a highly competitive Graduate School award. Squires will be checking out Northeast archives, writing, and presenting his research at national conferences, while also being able to live with his wife, who recently accepted a tenure-track faculty position near New York City, and their daughters.

"Religious despair is a condition
[in the 17th century] where one
presumes his- or herself damned,
and is comparable to clinical
depression today."

What was the genesis of your interest in your dissertation topic, “The Exculpation of the Desperate: Comforting the Desperate in Early Modern England, 1580-1680”?

I’ve always been interested in how religion and illness were depicted in literature, but I started focusing on despair while researching Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene for Professor John Watkins’ Spenser and Milton course. Preliminary research led me to Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a lengthy treatise that culminates with a discussion of despair. Religious despair is a condition where one presumes his- or herself damned, sometimes eternally, and is comparable to clinical depression today. I was touched by how concerned Burton was for the desperate, and he concludes the section with a plea for patience and understanding, acknowledging that comforting these suffering individuals is difficult and that their condition is often fatal. From that point on, I was interested in how others sought to treat the desperate and how literary writers participated in that movement.


Did certain professors significantly nurture the project?

All the early modern English faculty have played an important role in my research, but the keystone to my research has always been my advisor, Professor Nabil Matar, with whom I originally came to the University to work. His expert guidance and continual support have helped identify shortcomings in my research, shore up weakness in my argument, and helped me remain focused on writing. I’ve lost track of how many drafts he’s read. . . .

I took courses with Dr. Watkins and Professor Katherine Scheil, both of whom were vital to the development of my project and are on my dissertation committee. Dr. Watkins' guidance was important to focusing my work and trimming unnecessary premises. Dr. Scheil helped situate me in the program, and her teaching created a supportive space for learning methodology and research expectations. As with the other faculty members, she provided excellent feedback and professional advice. Other early modern faculty members, including Professors Rebecca Krug and Shirley Garner (Emerita), have also provided me invaluable feedback and support in workshops and in my exams.

Outside the English department, I also benefited from feedback by Dr. Katharine Gerbner (History), who was important in reading early chapters and providing significant secondary sources during my exam stages.

Doctoral candidate Jeffrey Squires rock climbing

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?

I’ve greatly benefited from my experience teaching at the U, where I taught in Writing Studies, English, and Art History. For the English department, I was fortunate to teach several important classes, most of which were diverse in topic, student demographics, and course goals. Most of the students were dedicated and interested, but I still felt the English majors at the University stood out as well-rounded and eager to learn. I’ve always enjoyed talking with them, and welcomed their contributions to my teaching, research, and experience at the University. I’m glad several of them have gone on to graduate school themselves.

Researching can be isolating, and teaching always reminds me that we research for a reason, that our rhetorical ambitions have an audience.

If you are not from Minnesota, what has been your favorite discovery, living here?

I’m originally from outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Both my daughters were born in Minneapolis, and—taking advantage of the Graduate Health Plan provided by the U—we had an excellent experience with Minneapolis health care. This might not be a "discovery," but it certainly made my graduate experience much more positive. Having a supportive department and excellent healthcare allowed my wife and I both to pursue our professional aspirations without sacrificing our family plans.