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Mining the Gap: James Parente on Studying the Unstudied

July 12, 2017

Colorful map of northern Europe from 1689

Colorful map of northern Europe from 1689
Detail from: Broeck, A. van den, ca. 1689. "Germaniae Generalis Tabula Prae aliis maxime clarissima in lucem edita per Nicolaum Visscher cum Privilegio." Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, University of Southern Maine. http://www.oshermaps.org/map/11511.0046c.

As a professor of German, Scandinavian and Dutch literature, and Director of the Center for German and European Studies, Professor James A. Parente, Jr. spends a lot of time thinking about research that bridges topics across Europe and beyond. But while his work is undeniably focused on connections, Parente is also uniquely focused on “gaps.”

His research on premodern central and northern European literature has long been guided by the desire to delve into less-explored topics, “I like to go into places where there is basically no structure at all,” he says, “or texts that have been totally passed over, and then dig deep and see what’s really there.”

Professor James Parente in his office

Literature that Crosses Borders

One of those understudied areas brings a transnational perspective to literary history, essentially looking at ways that texts connect and move across linguistic and geographic boundaries. Parente investigates what happens when a text migrates to another culture, what changes result from that migration, and the reasons for its transformation.

Parente tracks a text from its source material through its initial publication and then through its subsequent editions and translations, noting how each is received by the various cultures and generations it visits. For the premodern material that Parente works with, that means pursuing various iterations of a text through the centuries—all the way to the version that you can call up on your smartphone.

Tracing the journeys of texts across boundaries and languages holds a special appeal for Parente. His interest in foreign languages and cultures is deeply rooted in his early experiences growing up surrounded by both Italian and English and the subsequent training he had in Latin and ancient Greek. Several modern languages followed, and his research regularly takes him across multiple medieval and modern languages. His early research was devoted to reviving the study of Renaissance Latin writing (Neo-Latin literature) especially in Central and Northern Europe, where it especially thrived, and the connections between Latin and the various European vernaculars remain a steady interest. Many of his favorite early modern writers, such as the Dutch poets Constantijn Huygens and Jacob Cats, were proficient in several ancient and modern languages, and their works can only be fully understood through their multilingualism.

Mapping Out the Research

One way that Parente studies a text’s trajectory is by mapping the complex geopolitical landscapes that the text crosses. The result is a less-than-tidy map, which he relishes.

He describes “wonderfully messy” maps that are “themselves things of beauty and intrigue,” telling complex stories.

“I was drawn particularly to geographic spaces that were really complicated and intricate to take apart,” he says. “The Holy Roman Empire ca. 1600 was often represented as a beautiful multicolored map of many ecclesiastical and secular principalities that appealed because of its complexity. I was fascinated by the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) because of the opportunity it promised to explore such cartographic chaos.”

Another of his current research interests, the historiography of Europe, looks at when scholars began writing about Europe as a place beyond a geographical description of the landscape.

Here, too, Parente has found a gap to study. While people from many different fields are tackling this topic—from historians and geographers to literary scholars and anthropologists—they do not frequently address the early modern period (1400-1700 CE), in which there was a blossoming of historical writing focusing on both local and continental places. Parente investigates the ways in which local interests were gradually assumed into broader conceptualizations of Europe and its self-appointed global mission.

Leading the Way

There is a different type of “gap” relevant to Parente’s research career—the 13 years that he spent in administration as an Associate Dean (Faculty and Research) and later as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, which kept him out of the classroom for many years. His research interests continued to evolve during that period, but his administrative work did not leave much spare time to pursue them.

When he stepped down as dean in 2013, he embraced the opportunity to pick up where he had left off and to discover new topics.

Today, Parente’s roles as teacher, researcher, and administrator all are all deeply interwoven, and he is committed to helping his students discover their own unique takes on history and scholarship. His advice to students seeking direction in their research? “Go where there’s an explicit gap and look at what’s going on there.”

From guiding graduate students to construct new research questions and shape their postdoctoral careers, to advising undergraduates about their post-baccalaureate job options, Parente continually seeks to close the gap between the University and the world beyond.