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Sara Černe

PhD Candidate in English

Sara Černe

What I’ve learned is how important it is to stay flexible and follow new interests and the opportunities that do come up, because they often lead somewhere unexpected. ”

Sara Černe is a PhD candidate in the Department of English in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Her research traces the discourse of environmental justice in culturally diverse literature centered on the Mississippi River in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Sara is currently researching Indigenous art and activism in the Mississippi River Valley for a Humanities Without Walls grant. Previously, she served as a Franke Graduate Fellow at Northwestern’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and interned at the Chicago History Museum through the Northwestern Chicago Humanities Initiative.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My dissertation focuses on race and the environment in black, white, and Indigenous literature and environmental photography centered on the Mississippi River in the long twentieth century (after the golden age of Mark Twain, that is). My goal is to provide an updated and diversified cultural history of this mythologized space and to think creatively across racial, regional, and disciplinary lines, as well as about the relationship between environmental conditions, historical experience, and literary genre. Studying creative responses to the Mississippi, a now heavily industrialized space that physically enabled Native removal and the internal slave trade, but also acted as a connective highway and an escape route, reveals the sediments of human and environmental exploitation along the river’s banks and helps understand diverse strands of cultural memory.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
Two classes: the first was Jeffrey Coleman’s undergraduate course on Civil Rights Literature at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where I was a visiting student (I’m Slovenian and this was my first time in the US), and the second was Julia Stern’s graduate seminar on Civil War Literature at Northwestern (she is now my adviser). Those were the scholarly sources, but my personal interests in music, road trips, and Americana shaped my research questions as well.

What books are on your bedside table?
I’m currently reading Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century and Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife by Northwestern's Pamela Bannos. 

What inspires you?
A well-written scholarly book that is geared to a broader audience, such as Christopher Morris’s The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina and Liesl Olson’s Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis.

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I interned at the Chicago History Museum this summer through the Northwestern Chicago Humanities Initiative and have stayed on as a volunteer to continue learning about public programming, informal adult and K-12 education, and community-based event planning. I recently compiled a teacher gallery guide for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which asks critical questions about the items in the museum’s collection and encourages students to be skeptical about official narratives and seek out marginalized perspectives. This felt like a great way to bring my values and scholarly interests to a broader audience and foster meaningful conversation.

Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
Like most people, I have received my share of rejections. What I’ve learned is how important it is to stay flexible and follow new interests and the opportunities that do come up, because they often lead somewhere unexpected. As sixth-year students, my cohort and I are facing a difficult period of uncertainty, so it’s important to trust in our abilities, prepare mentally and practically for diverse career paths, and remember that sometimes the things we end up finding most fulfilling were not part of any plan at all. 

What are you most proud of in your career to date?
Teaching a freshman seminar as Kaplan Institute’s Franke Fellow. I called the class Muddy Waters: The Mississippi River in Literature and Culture. My favorite part was taking the students to the Willie Dixon Blues Foundation/Chess Records, where we listened to some of the hits that were recorded in that historic studio and could experience firsthand the cultural influence of the Mississippi Delta on Chicago via the Great Migration.

Published: February 11, 2020


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