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“Unprecedented”: A CALS Webinar Series

"Unprecedented" is a word employed frequently by media, government officials, and lay persons alike to describe the phenomena surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. Inspired by recent events and the rhetoric used to account for them, the "Unprecedented" series of 1-hour webinars will feature presentations and discussion by leading scholars, writers, and activists focused on better and less well known developments in American literature and culture (and American literary and cultural studies) that might be, and in some cases have been, described as "unprecedented."


Recent Webinars

Expecting the Unprecedented: Speculative Fiction and the Climate Events of the Future

Webinar 2: Friday, January 22, 12:00-1:00 PM

Zoom Screenshot of Jessica Kilmoff, Heather Houser, Stephanie LeMenager, and Claire Colebrook

Speculative fiction has recently marked a turn in American literature to imagine not just the past of "unprecedented" climate crises, but also their future. It has been well-established that speculative fiction can assist societies in imagining the future of climate crises. However, it remains to be discussed what the limits of these imaginative possibilities are. Further, what is gained and lost by referring to major climate events as "unprecedented"? Mindful of the limits of speculative fiction's potential to imagine the futures of climate change, this webinar focuses on how speculative fiction might nonetheless help make the "unprecedented" feel apprehensible for readers.

Panelists include:

  • Heather Houser, Associate Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin. Houser is the author of Ecosickness in Contemporary U. S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (Columbia UP, 2014) and Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data (Columbia UP, 2020).
  • Stephanie LeMenager, Moore Endowed Professor of English, University of Oregon. LeMenager is the author of Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (Oxford UP, 2014) and co-editor, with Shane Hall and Stephen Siperstein, of Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities (Routledge, 2016).
  • Claire Colebrook, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English, Philosophy, and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Penn State. Colebrook serves as co-editor, with Tom Cohen, of the book series Critical Climate Change for Open Humanities Press and has authored two volumes in the series, including The Death of the Posthuman (2014) and Sex After Life (2014).


  • Jessica Klimoff, Graduate Student, Department of English, Penn State

Please view the webinar here:

Sewing the Seeds of Activism in an Age of COVID: the "Auntie Sewing Squad"

Webinar 1: Friday, December 11, 12:00-1:00 PM

Antie Sewing Squad In March 2020, performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong initiated an effort with friends to sew masks for essential workers in response to the Federal Government's failure to provide adequate supplies of PPE. "The Auntie Sewing Squad" rapidly grew into a national team of mask-makers—mostly women of color—who sew masks for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, including women's shelters, Native American citizens living on reservations, undocumented workers, and poor communities of color. Comprised of college professors, actors, teachers, filmmakers, labor organizers and many others, the Auntie Sewing Squad proudly "trace the lineage of this sewing to our mothers and grandmothers, immigrant and refugee communities in America, and underpaid women of color garment workers globally." This webinar features several members of the Auntie Sewing Squad who will remark upon the group's genesis, its place in the history of activism by, and on behalf of, communities of color, and their contributions to We Go Down Sewing, a volume focused on the activities and significance of the Auntie Sewing Squad to be published by the University of California Press in 2021.

Panelists include:

  • Kristina Wong, Performance Artist, Comedian, and Founding Member of the Auntie Sewing Squad
  • Mai-Linh Hong, Assistant Professor of Literature, University of California, Merced
  • Grace Yoo, Professor of Asian American Studies, San Francisco State University


  • Tina Chen, Associate Professor of English and Asian American Studies, Penn State

Please view the webinar here:

Upcoming Webinars

Politics, Performance, and Pseudoscience

Webinar 3: Friday, February 19, 12:00-1:00 PM

For the first time in its publication history, The New England Journal of Medicine endorsed a candidate during the recent U.S. presidential election. While the journal's editorial was heralded as an unprecedented move, the politicization of science has always been a concerted point of inquiry in American health and medicine, not least of all during the nineteenth century. Drawing on the (bio)politics of science in our contemporary moment, this webinar takes a historical approach to explore how the politicization of science is intertwined with performance, plasticity, and pseudoism. Crucially, this webinar invites us to ask: What are the afterlives of these methods in current theories of health? Who are the usual "patients" of such techniques? And most importantly, how might literary analysis help us imagine different possibilities for the politics of science?

Panelists include:

  • Sari Altschuler, Associate Professor of English, Northeastern University, and author of The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States (Penn Press, 2018)
  • Christine (Xine) Yao, Lecturer, University College London, and author of Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America (under contract with Duke UP)
  • Christopher Willoughby, Visiting Fellow, Center for Humanities and Information, Penn State, and author of Masters of Health: Racial Science and Slavery in American Medical Schools (under contract with UNC Press)


  • Eunice Toh, Graduate Student, Departments of English and African American Studies, Penn State 

Please register in advance for the webinar here:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Getting Personal: American Women Poets and the Autobiographical Lyric

Webinar 4: Friday, March 19, 12:00-1:00 PM

When it was announced that Jewish-American poet Louise Gluck had been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature, Gluck became the first woman poet from the United States to win the prestigious honor. Using this “unprecedented” announcement as a launch point, this webinar features three women poets whose work, like Gluck’s own, has alternately been described as “confessional” and “personal.” The “confessional” school of poetry originated in the United States in the mid-twentieth-century, and important poets such as Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton have been associated with that school. Yet Gluck and her readers have argued that her lyrics are more than merely “confessional” in mode, though they are undeniably personal and autobiographical. Likewise, the three women poets serving on this webinar panel are renowned for their personal lyrics that are more than merely confessional. Each panelist will address the significance of Gluck’s being named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and share their approaches to the “confessional,” “personal,” and/or autobiographical school of poetry.

American Literary Studies Beyond the Brink

Webinar 5: Friday, April 16, 12:00-1:00 PM

The Chronicle Review introduced their recent collection “Endgame: Can literary studies survive?” with the bold statement, “The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it.” The sentiments here expressed seem far less bold and more obvious in the midst of the unfolding effects COVID-19 is having on employment and funding in academia generally and American literary studies in particular. Various interrelated forces could be and have been identified as having contributed to this moment, such as changes in university funding sources, privatization of research, externalization of revenue, the increasing debt burden for students, threats to academic freedom, the shifting demands of professionalization, and the decreasing public valuation of humanistic study. This webinar approaches the demise of the profession by considering again what it means to continue in this work now, as well as the whys and hows of studying American literature and culture at this moment. What shape might American literary and cultural studies take in order to contest developments that have left the discipline on the brink of collapse?