In our “Rethinking Romanticism” series, we invite scholars to propose changes necessary to disrupt the present norms of exclusion and structural racism. This “rethinking” entails an ongoing process of individual and collective reckoning and action: as Bigger 6 co-founder Manu Samriti Chander has urged, “Romanticism, in its present, institutional form, is thoroughly incompatible with anti-racism.” Created in 2017, the Bigger 6 Collective therefore builds “from” Romanticism rather than “within it.” We caught up with two co-founders of Bigger 6, Tina Iemma and Eugenia Zuroski, to ask them how the collective seeks to dismantle structural racism in Romantic studies.
Nikki Hessell, Victoria University of Wellington, Te Herenga Waka
Deanna Koretsky, Spelman College
Tricia Matthew, Montclair State University
Matt Sandler, Columbia University
Rebecca Schneider, Fort Lewis College
How and why was The Bigger 6 Collective formed?
Tina: The phrase “Bigger 6” began as a hashtag (#Bigger6), a way of marking work by and about historically marginalized people, those excluded from the Romantic canon and those excluded from the field of Romanticism. It asks us to look beyond the works and influence of the six major poets of the field: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and John Keats. “Marking” in the sense of making visible, calling attention to—the irony here is that many of those denied a seat at the proverbial table are “marked” in other ways, scrutinized because of their difference while systemically overlooked. “Bigger 6” was coined, then, to mark and to gather, to bring together disparate figures at the edges of a field founded, like all fields, on exclusion. It was coined to collect new literary figures and to work together in a collective writing community.
As noted in the September 6, 2018 workshop titled “How We Resist: Activist Methods for the Study of Romanticism (and beyond)” at the University of Colorado, Boulder, there has been a “recent rise in efforts to expand and challenge the ways scholars study and engage with eighteenth-nineteenth century literature.” It has a basis in the movements such as the V21 Collective, the #Bigger6 Collective and the first NASSR Race and Empire Caucus. These efforts have been brought to life by demands to engage in more public-facing, activist-focused and diverse scholarly work. In Dr. Manu Samriti Chander’s words, it is a call to “address the collective rather than just a coterie of our friends”—to resist urbane canonical comfort.
Gena: To Tina’s comments I will just add that it’s significant that Bigger 6 came together through a combination of organized efforts among the founding members and organic pooling and gathering of interest and energy using Twitter and other sites of intellectual and activist exchange. The work of “marking” that Tina notes at the outset of this conversation—it brings to my mind the way the academy has its own conventions of “marking,” which render certain kinds of knowledge, and certain kinds of people, more legible than others as sites of meaning and intellect. Collective efforts to reorganize the value of scholarly work must therefore unorganize those hierarchical and exclusionary systems of recognition. The intensity of energy on a site like Twitter, its capacity for messiness as well as assemblage, poses its own risks and frustrations. But it has also proven fruitful for this kind of mobilization, which requires a praxis that is equal parts unmaking and remaking. The hashtag is a particular kind of mark that remarks (on) something requiring attention in a way that doesn’t prescribe—that calls in a wave of collective thinking as a step toward a collective action.
How do you see The Bigger 6 Collective, specifically the move from coterie to collective, disrupting academic and institutional hegemony? In what ways have we acquiesced to academic, institutional or structural norms?
Tina: By focusing on an ethics of collaboration within emerging writing collectives, we can examine the depth at which we honor that commitment, or if we are merely giving lip service to the concepts of equity, inclusion and social justice. The work that lies with, among and between people in a collective is the kind of work that produces initiatives speaking to the goals a community wishes to see not only implemented but also supported.
There is beauty in the multiplicity of viewpoints; there is beauty in the wake of falsifying the one-true, straight narrative of a specific historical or literary period. A coterie—a small group of people with shared interests or tastes—risks being exclusive, self-preserving, limiting and detrimental. Coteries silence the voices of marginalized people.
Gena: Part of why we acquiesce to norms that reproduce harmful arrangements of power is that we acclimate to the emotional and affective economies of working in academia as members of marginalized knowledge communities. There are myriad forms of discomfort, anxiety, and anger that never get better, you just come to accept them as “part of the job.” My experience with Bigger 6 and other collective efforts to challenge white supremacy in academia has revealed to me how much critical knowledge is carried in those feelings. I feel the disruption of institutional hegemony in the way our collective efforts acknowledge the “bad feelings” as real and legitimate responses to unjust conditions, and in how they reveal forms of excitement and elation and joy that “the job” has never fostered.
From your perspective as co-founders, what are some important changes that need to happen in the field of Romanticism and the long 18th century? How does Bigger 6 hope to contribute, and what are some of the obstacles you have faced in the process?
Tina: The work of the collective must not be definitive and fixed but rather ongoing, recursive and welcoming to revision. It must be conditional in order to meet the needs of an ever-changing, ever-negotiated identified population. We must remember we are learning together. As seen in much of many of the works within the field of critical race theory, there is a beauty to the dangerous act of instability. When something, anything, is destabilized (in Derridean and Foucauldian of flux and fluidity, fullness in fissures), it requires a constant examination, constant assessing and constant defending. While certain aspects of emerging writing community collectives may be institutionalized or stabilized, the heart of these collectives lies in their ability to act in the periphery, in the margins, on the outskirts of higher education. Existing in this capacity allows collectives to morph, to meet the ever-changing needs of underrepresented populations, to intervene and, quite possibly, allow them to become transformative sites that enable the most revolutionary concepts to reside (even if only temporarily) or infiltrate the systems, like the system of higher education.
This is also where we are likely to be met with resistance. For all the potential rewards, there are risks. This work can be exhausting and even more so in the face of overt racism…but having the strength of the collective, the outlet of Twitter at your fingertips, helps me sustain the energy needed to do the work—to move words to action—to make social justice actionable. It is necessary to experience discomfort but it is more important to recognize where I need to be called out or in, where I need to listen and learn.
Gena: I asked myself a version of this question this morning and answered myself on Twitter this way: Are versions of “eighteenth-century studies” and “Romanticism studies” possible that center Black knowledges, Indigenous knowledges, and POC knowledges? I think it remains an open question; Bigger 6 and BIPOC18 are placeholders for a moment of collective assessment and imagination around the question. The answer depends largely on whether these fields remain viable sites of study and inquiry within completely overhauled critical frameworks that prioritize multiple bodies of BIPOC knowledge sustained in other areas, some academic (like critical race studies, ethnic studies, Black diaspora studies, Indigenous Studies) and many not. What is “eighteenth-century studies” from the perspective of Indigenous temporalities that are not organized by “centuries”? What is Romanticism without whiteness? It’s very possible that, for these fields to be transformed in the ways we’re calling for, we have to call them something else. But to reiterate Tina’s point, and this is a very important point that needs to be emphasized: Bigger 6 isn’t about either saving or scrapping a field so much as it is about committing to training ourselves in arts of epistemological and political transformation through dedicated knowledge practices. It’s about recognizing that academic work in general, if it is going to contribute to decolonization movements, has to take responsibility for cultivating that sharpness and nimbleness of thought that allows people to think at the edge of what is possible, that allows people to think non-violently with others, and that allows people to approach the future with hope rather than fear.
How has the collective enriched your work as teachers and researchers?
Tina: There is a reciprocal mentorship occurring amongst the members of the collective. “Reciprocal mentorship” is a term I am borrowing from a great chapter by Dr. Neisha-Anne Green and Dr. Frankie Condon, scholars in the field of writing studies, titled “Letters on Moving from Ally to Accomplice: Anti-racism and the Teaching of Writing” [see our reading list below]. My exposure to the scholars of @Bigger6Romantix has allowed me to collaborate with them at conferences, within my classroom, for publications and within the research I am conducting for my dissertation.
As a first-generation, white, cis-gendered, older, female graduate student [re]navigating institutional space and [re]composing identity, communities such as @Bigger6Romantix, @NASSRGrads, @V21Collective and @NextGEN_KUDOS supply light—or much needed breath and inspiration to figuring out some very important questions. Online access, via Zoom and Twitter, to communities of activist scholars seeking to subvert the normative hierarchy of higher education in both their composition and curricula is vital to the growth and trajectory of marginalized voices, voices that would otherwise be silenced due to financial restrictions, geographical distance and/or other limitations.
Gena: I’ll defer here to my answer above about feeling—this collective has absolutely reoriented me as a scholar in relation to my various feelings about, and in the midst of, “scholarly work.” It has also helped me see with clarity the kinds of reciprocal mentorship Tina mentioned, and how academia might be better organized to emphasize lateral relationships of knowledge exchange rather than hierarchical ones that favor the reproduction of power over the generation of knowledge.
How does the collective integrate activism with academic work?
Tina: This is a question I am currently spending a substantial amount of time with for my dissertation. I have been researching the various academic, civic, cultural and professional sites of the collective members through interviews, field observations, analysis of sample classroom syllabi, and other qualitative measures. Members of Bigger6 do the work collectively: they write collaboratively and often with or in support of newer voices; they speak into both the support and contentions they face when presenting papers at regional/national conferences or submitting manuscripts to university presses. They do not hide the emotional, physical and mental labor of attempting to expand a field of literature and criticism that has been narrowly focused for too long. They remain always aware of who they are accountable to.
Together they labor and approach one another with sincerity, with shared ambition and with a common goal can create and support a community of engaged citizens. As a group they face outward, shoulder-to-shoulder, in solidarity. This, paired with their awareness of how to use their privileges, positionalities and power to lift up marginalized voices, is not only refreshing for many earlier career scholars or graduate students to see, but also vital to the future of learning.
Gena: What Tina said! We work on the institution as well as in the institution.
There is so much great work in this area, but what are some examples of foundational texts for those looking to expand their understanding of Romanticism?
With Tina and Gena’s help, we’ve put together a short reading list. For more reading, see the following pages on their website:
The Bigger 6 Collective Website:
Writing by members of the collective:
Chander, Manu Samriti. Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century, Bucknell UP, 2017.
Diaby, Bakary. “Black Women and/in the Shadow of Romanticism,” European Romantic Review, vol. 30, no. 3 (2019), pp. 294-254.
Green, Neisha-Anne S. and Frankie Codon. “Letters on Moving from Ally to Accomplice: Anti- racism and the Teaching of Writing.” Diverse Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and Writing Across the Curriculum: IWAC at 25, edited by Lesley Erin Bartlett Sandra L. Tarabochia, Andrea R. Olinger, and Margaret J. Marshall, The WAC Clearinghouse; University Press of Colorado, 2020 pp. 277- 292, https://doi.org/10.37514/PER- B.2020.0360; https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/iwac2018/.
Hessell, Nikki. Romantic Literature and the Colonised World: Lessons from Indigenous Translations. MacMillan, 2018.
Matthew, Patricia A. “Jane Austen and the Abolitionist Turn.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 61, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 345-361.
Sandler, Matt. The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poets at the End of Slavery, Verso, 2020.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Duke UP, 2016.