Jonathan Parsons is a PhD candidate in English at Memorial. His research focuses on protest and resistance in Newfoundland culture, specifically as reflected in literature. His secondary focus is in energy humanities, such as recent research on cultures of resistance and unconventional oil. Jon is active with a number of local social justice and environmental groups, and writes a regular column for The Independent NL.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
I am from Newfoundland, and was completing an MA at Brock University in Ontario – the opportunity to move home and study at Memorial was a dream, being close to my family and friends once again.
What drew you to study English orginally?
When I was young I was quite idealistic (perhaps I still am) and wanted to change the world. For a time I thought politics was the way to do that, but I became disillusioned with politics as it seemed merely reactive to great forces at work in the world. And so I thought that to change the world would mean to change the way people thought and felt and acted – to change their hearts. This brought me to poetry and other arts, which brought me to the study of literature.
Can you tell us a bit about your work on protest and resistance in Newfoundland?
I am interested in the way social movements, protest, and dissent are represented in literature and in public discourse, and in turn also the way that literary and other discourses shape the way we understand protest and resistance. Newfoundland has seen its share of flashpoints of political unrest, historically and in the present day: for example, the wave of rioting in St. John’s and other communities in the early 1930s is reflected in a number of books; as is labour unrest and major strikes; as is vigilantism and other forms of mob justice; as well as various other sorts of protest and dissent.
What sort of impact do you hope to have with your research?
It seems to me that our community – whether locally, nationally, or internationally – is under a great deal of pressure and there is a long list of crises and associated social unrest to reckon with. I feel that literature and other arts and humanities fields can offer significant contributions to the discussions of crises and their solutions. My research on cultures of resistance, I hope, is one of many possible avenue for scholarship in arts and humanities that may help us figure our way out of present predicaments, or at least to understand them better.
Who is your supervisor and how would you describe your relationship?
My project is co-supervised by Dr. Danine Farquharson and Dr. Fiona Polack, both of whom are wonderful and supportive and kind.
Have you attended any conferences/delivered any papers this year? Can you give details?
In the last year I attended two UArctic Extractive Industries conferences, one in Russian Siberia at North Eastern Federal University and the other here at Memorial, which included a field trip with the Labrador Institute to visit mines in Labrador West. Earlier this summer I represented Memorial at a conference called Future Humanities, hosted at McGill in Montreal, which was centered on the idea of re-imagining graduate programs in Canadian universities. I also recently presented at a series of talks called Improvising Spaces, organized by Memorial postdoctoral fellow Chris Tonelli, where I spoke about poetry and street demonstrations as forms of improv performance.
Can you comment on the need for public intellectuals and the public good?
It seems to me there is a great need for academics to also be public intellectuals. This is not to say that every academic needs to emulate Noam Chomsky or be some kind of political activist, but that when issues come up in the public sphere that are to do with an academic’s field that they could offer comment or help set the record straight. Moreover, I feel that academics should strive to disseminate their work in such a way that it is accessible to the general public, whether in columns in local media or through organizing activities or public lectures. I also think that this kind of activity should count for academic service.
This is a big question, but why do you think it is important to study the humanities? What sort of advice would you give to a first year arts student who is unsure of what to study?
It is important to study humanities because people need to know how to think for themselves and what it means to be human and how to do more than just take orders. The advice I would give undergrad students is to follow their hearts and study things they are interested in, and not just do what others might tell them is best in terms of pure utility.
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
I feel that I am extremely privileged to have the opportunity to do my research and to be granted the time and freedom to pursue those things that interest me. I enjoy being part of the university community and being involved in many different groups and activities. The English department also offers PhD students the opportunity to teach, which has been among the best things about studying at Memorial.
What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?
I hope to take up fulfilling work related to the kind of research and teaching I have been doing. I hope to also continue to be involved in my community through civil society organizations and to be a committed public intellectual.