A Necessary Intersection: How Science Needs Humanities w/ Anna Mae Duane

by Pascale Joachim, ’23

While preparing for my conversation with Professor Duane, I was most interested in discovering what she considered to be the common thread or narrative arc of her scholarship: her research background is in African American Literature, American Literature, Childhood Studies, and Disability Studies. These topics seemed widely varied and somewhat disconnected, but Professor Duane informed me that they all have one thing in common: care. “I’m really fascinated by what we owe each other and the metaphors we use to figure that out,” is how she put it.

Professor Duane has drawn connections between nineteenth-century pro-slavery arguments, the infantilization of the hospitalized and the disabled, and the consistent disregard for what children really need from adults and their educators. The metaphors used to talk about these things reinforce each other and have done so for centuries. “It’s coercion and stripping people of their rights disguised as love and care. It’s protection and care as an excuse for violence and prejudice.”

Professor Duane’s interest in these topics is rooted in her graduate school experiences. While taking an Early American Literature course, she was exposed to captivity narratives and texts related to the Salem Witch Trials. She noticed that in nearly everything she read, there was an obsession with children and the possibility that they could get hurt. Because of this fear, there was a common tendency for actors in these texts to resort to cruelty and bias against anyone who wasn’t a white man. “I thought it was so obvious, but no one was writing about it,” she tells me. “So that’s what I wrote my dissertation on.”

Professor Duane was recently awarded a grant from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) Dean’s Office to support her book that discusses how metaphors of slavery got adopted to service white supremacy. An example she shared with me and that she explores in her project is QAnon and “all the insane things they believe.” For instance, there’s a strong belief that white children are being stolen, trafficked, and used as slaves. She’s interested in how beliefs like this can permit extreme violence. Trends like these are disturbingly consistent because there hasn’t been an attempt to wrestle with how central these ideas are in American culture and how they manifest in other ways. Duane also pointed out what’s happening right now in Florida; they’ve outlawed an AP African American course and believe in policies like ‘Don’t Say Gay.’ “It’s this really toxic stew that’s offered to us as something that’s natural and obvious. A lot of my work is saying, ‘no, this really isn’t’.”

Professor Duane is also working on a project that explores the founding of Black-run nursing schools throughout the South in the early twentieth century. The idea came from a conference held in February 2022 titled ‘How Did We Get Here’, funded by the Academic Themes Grant provided by CLAS. In it, doctors and scholars discussed the need to reckon with the history of slavery and oppression to better understand public health. Duane believes that without this understanding, public health workers and patients are at a distinct disadvantage. As a humanities scholar, she noted that there’s sometimes a dismissal of a connection between her work and the sciences. Dr. Chisholm Straker was present during this conference and said something that challenges this: “I see history in the bodies of my patients everyday.” One goal of Duane’s project is to facilitate discussions about how we can think of care in a more dynamic way and how to reckon with a dark past that is living in the bodies of Americans right now.

Duane hopes her findings will be used in an undergraduate course she designed for Fall 2023 titled Race and the Scientific Imagination. She believes it’s important to not separate science from scientists; we are all shaped by the prejudices of our history, so it’s only logical that aspects of the scientific imagination are as well. One thing she hopes to bring to the class is that objective facts and definitions are legacies of conflicted conversations that are still in flux and soaked in bias. It’s only by becoming aware of how constructed a lot of scientific terms are that we can begin to reconstruct them.

To Duane, the most rewarding aspect of teaching this course as an English professor is interacting with students with plans of entering the medical field. She’s noticed how some of these students become conflicted about their career choice after learning about these complex legacies. Rather than sulk with them, she encourages them: “You’re the sort of doctor we need,” she’d say. “We need doctors that are troubled by this, willing to engage, and aware that this is part of what’s going on every time you enter a room full of patients. Don’t quit because it’s conflicted. Everything is.”

I found Professor Duane’s research and personal philosophies inspiring. Her work speaks to the interdisciplinary nature of English and the ways UConn facilitates research and valuable connections for faculty and students alike.

Learn more about Professor Duane’s projects here and check out her podcast The Children’s Table.