PhD Student Noor Asif: "public-facing writing is important because it democratizes literature and the study of literature"

December 4, 2023

To start us out, I would love to hear more about your research, Noor. How did you first come to studying literature at the graduate level, and what does your research currently focus on? 

I came to study English at the graduate level in a very roundabout sort of way. I double-majored in English and studio art in college, and after graduating, I worked at a museum for a year. Then I applied to do my MA in art history, because I thought I wanted to pursue a career as a curator. I realized during the MA that the training I had received in college as an English major wasn’t going to apply to art history. Art history was not for me; I am not a historian. English allows you to bring multiple theories together, multiple disciplines together. It’s very rigorous in the sense that you’re always staying close to the text—but it allows a lot of freedom and creativity. You can build an argument based on a constellation of ideas. After the MA, for which I had focused on modern and contemporary South Asian art, I was given the opportunity to do a 4-month fellowship in Lahore, Pakistan, to study Urdu – an incredible experience for which I continue to be so grateful.  During the fellowship, I applied to PhD programs but still wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue a PhD in English or in another discipline. So, in addition to a few English programs, I also applied to programs in cultural studies and women and gender studies – departments where I felt I would have the freedom to explore my ideas, which at the time revolved around cultural production, nationalism, diaspora, and queer theory. 

I got into Berkeley and accepted the offer, a decision I continue to feel positively about.  The English department here is unique in that you are expected to have a very rigorous training in the discipline itself – to be able to understand how one closely reads, how one thinks about literary criticism and literary history, etc. – but at the same time, there is a lot of freedom to think about interdisciplinarity, and to bring various concepts and theories and methods together.

I was wondering about some of the differences between art history and English, just because I don’t know as much about art history. Does art history have critical theory, or is that more unique to English departments? 

It varies across art history departments in different universities and even within an art history department at a single university. What I mean is, different faculty members within a department might have different ways of approaching art history. Some schools also have visual studies departments instead, and my understanding is that these departments are more explorative with regards to critical theory and less interested in historical questions. But generally speaking in art history there is unquestionably some sort of inheritance from critical theory, even if it might not always be explicit. For instance, I remember taking a seminar during my MA about how museums are sites of subject formation, an idea drawn from the work of Michel Foucault.  Psychoanalysis has also played a large role in the way we’ve come to reckon with works of art. There’s also a strain of art history that draws on the work of Karl Marx to think about the material conditions out of which  a work of art is produced. Art historians particularly interested in questions of nationhood and the global turn also build on the work of critical theorists concerned with forms of governance and worldliness. However, I think in English departments, and English at Berkeley, especially, the influence of critical theory is more evidently palpable in the ways in which we read, interpret, and situate texts. 

And this might be a bit too general of a question, but what is literary criticism, and what would you say is the function or value of literary criticism? To narrow this question a bit, I would also be interested in whether you have any preferred methodologies or approaches toward literary criticism, and if you could give us a short explanation of some of the most important critical concepts of your research.

What is literary criticism? [laughs] Well, what do you think it is?

Berkeley Arts & Humanities