“...I hope this work will have an impact on current disciplinary divides—both in research and teaching spaces.
College of Liberal Arts Assistant Professor Whitney Sperrazza, Ph.D., (English and Humanities, Computing, and Design) recently returned from England, where she researched poetry written by women around the time of Shakespeare in the context of the emerging study of anatomical science.
It was a period of history during which the delineations between disciplines were much less distinct than they are now. Poetry complemented scientific inquiry in ways that helped expand understanding and improve the accessibility of knowledge. Also, women were active participants in the development of scientific knowledge, even as scientific institutions and formal training remained exclusive to white, upper-class men.
Sperrazza’s research examines how disciplines successfully overlapped and complemented each other in the 1600’s, which can serve as a model for academia’s modern-day approach to bridging STEM and humanities studies.
To pursue her research project, “Anatomical Forms: The Science of the Body in Early Modern Women’s Poetry,” Sperrazza was awarded a major National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship, a highly competitive fellowship with only seven percent of all applicants being awarded.
She has also been awarded a Short-Term Research Fellowship from the Folger Shakespeare Library and a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society. Her book is slated to be published during the 2024-25 academic year, and she is attending several conferences and symposia in Spring 2024 to present her work. .
About Her Research
Q: What is the focus of your current research?
“My current research focuses on the intersecting histories of poetry and anatomical science, with particular interest in women writers. I situate my research in 16th- and 17th-century England, a time and place in which poetry was the dominant literary form and anatomical practice was increasingly central to developing knowledge about the body. My work asks: how were these fields in direct conversation with each other? What shared forms, methods, and ideas can we trace through the period’s poetic and scientific texts? My current, in-progress book (Anatomical Forms) traces how women poets in the period wielded their poetry as an anatomical tool to participate fully in the emerging science of the body.”
Q: What is innovative about your research?
“What makes my research especially innovative is my insistence that poetic form can function as a kind of scientific instrument. Much of the work on the histories of literature and science (and there is exceptional work in this field) focuses on content (for example, poets including references to dissection in their poetry). My research goes a step further to show how poets were also using formal tools (things like metaphor, line breaks, and poetic meter) to engage with science. Because the form of poetry is so central to the practice of writing poetry, that means these poets were not simply engaging with scientific ideas. They were also finding ways to intervene in the hands-on methods and practices of emerging anatomical science.”
Q: What is the overall importance of your research? How do you see this work impacting the field?
“My research models a new way to do interdisciplinary scholarly work in literature and science studies. Perhaps most important, though, is the impact I hope this work will have on current disciplinary divides–both in research and teaching spaces. As I excavate this nuanced history of women’s scientific work in poetry, I offer a longer, deeper narrative about the mutual influence of literary and scientific developments. I also contribute to efforts to recover and learn from the history of women’s work in STEM fields, a history we can then leverage to confront current, persistent gender gaps in STEM.”
Q: What are your most important publications?
I’ve published two articles in the past several years that are adapted from chapters of my current book project: “Knowing Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia” (Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 2019) and “Mary Sidney’s Postmortem Poetics” (Shakespeare Studies, 2021). I’ve also written several digital articles with a wider reach that are more directly tied to my teaching at RIT (“Before Lovelace” in Lady Science and “The Algorithm’s Needlework Origins” in The Sundial).