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Introducing Rachel Eisendrath, Assistant Professor of English

What is your specific area of research? What are you currently working on?
I specialize in sixteenth-century English poetry and prose. My research involves the history of poetic forms, aesthetics, and the intersection of literary and visual arts. Right now I’m working on a book based on my dissertation, “Renaissance Ekphrasis and the Objects of History.” This project looks at English, French, and Latin poetry of the Renaissance, analyzing elaborate literary descriptions of art objects against the background of the early modern rise of objectivity. I’m trying to understand how Renaissance empiricism comes into tension with imaginative aesthetic experience. On the one hand, there’s an aspiration toward detachment, and on the other, subjective immersion in the art object.
What are your other research/teaching interests? Any broader projects or initiatives you're involved with in your field?
My work is historically based in the Renaissance, but it is also deeply concerned with the highly problematic status of art and literature in our world now. I’m looking back at Renaissance poetry partly in order to understand how we got here—to a place where, as Adorno puts it, art has “become uncertain of itself right into its innermost fiber.” For me, the pursuit of such questions entails reading not only the literature of the Renaissance, but also studying more broadly in other fields. Aesthetic philosophy is especially important to my thinking.
What is most exciting to you about joining Barnard's faculty? What are you looking forward to most about being here?
The Barnard faculty is known for being rigorous, intellectually independent, and—no contradiction—friendly. They’re nationally-known scholars who are nurturing with their students, and highly collegial with one another. Also, during my first visit, when I sat down with a small group of students, I was impressed with how thoughtful and dynamic they were. I immediately wanted to be part of this community, which seemed intellectually adventurous, world-minded, and appealingly human.
What courses will you be teaching?
This year, I’m excited to be teaching a colloquium, “Order and Disorder in the Renaissance,” as well as “Critical Writing” and a course on the complete poems of Marlowe and Shakespeare, which are some of the most complex, knotty, and wonderfully over-the-top poems I know. The following year, I’m looking forward to giving a lecture course on the Elizabethan Renaissance. The sixteenth century is a period of enormous change, when fundamental aspects of our own modern world are taking shape, economically, politically, and religiously, and these currents express themselves verbally, in the tensions of the period’s poetry. In my classes, I want to explore with students what makes this literature so packed with life.
Outside of your academic life, any interests, hobbies, accomplishments of note?
I came to the study of Renaissance poetry in an unusual way, through studying to be a painter. I still spend a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum, where I have favorite rugs, paintings, tiles, and sculptures that I visit. Often I’ll come upon one object I especially connect with and go home thinking about it. This week, it was an early fifteenth-century tile from Islamic Spain that conveys an astonishing sense of light and atmosphere through the delicacy of the glaze; the flat pattern of leaves seems to emerge from and sink into a kind of mist, almost suggesting the artwork’s own unstable existence in time. Also, having grown up in cities, I love wandering around New York and seeing the people on the streets. My mind behaves better after I’ve taken it out for a walk!