Meet Professor Erik Mortenson
Meet Professor Erik Mortenson
Erik Mortenson is a senior lecturer at Wayne State University's Honors College in Detroit. He earned his master’s degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and completed a Ph.D. in English in 2004 from Wayne State University, then spent a year as a Fulbright Lecturer in Erlangen, Germany. Before coming back to Detroit, he was an Assistant Professor in the English and Comparative Literature Department at Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey.
Erik has published numerous journal articles and book chapters, as well as two books. Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence (Southern Illinois UP, 2011) and Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture (Southern Illinois UP, 2016), Erik's third book, Translating the Counterculture: The Reception of the Beats in Turkey (Southern Illinois UP), is forthcoming in 2018.
What were you doing when you applied to Wayne State for your Ph.D.?
When I had applied to Wayne, I had just finished a master's program at the University of Columbia, Missouri. I was looking for a different program because I was interested more in critical theory, and particularly working with the Beats. While my previous program had some of those things, they were the 19th-century department, focusing on writers like Mark Twain for example, and while that was fine, that wasn't what I was doing. I had a talk with an old professor of mine from San Diego, Michael Davidson, who mentioned Barrett Watten. I looked into the school and it looked good and I actually applied for the Rumble Fellowship and everything came together.
Did the M.A. at Missouri help you to make a decision about the Ph.D.? When did you know what direction you wanted to go in?
Well, it took a little while I think. I was interested in literature, but I left undergrad with some debt, as most people do, and so I went into the private sector and got a job and worked a couple of years. It wasn't as fulfilling as I'd hoped it would be. Then I applied to a bunch of schools, but I really didn't know what I was doing, to be honest. But I knew I wanted to leave California, and you know, as a Californian all my friends asked me, "why would you want to leave," but it was because I thought there's got to be more out there than this. So I applied and got funding at Missouri. I told myself, I'll spend a couple of years there and get the M.A., and it wasn't until after the first year or so I thought, this is something I want to do. The Beats had always been something I was interested in and while Missouri was filling a gap, I was able to take classes I hadn't taken and read authors I hadn't read. But in Missouri, I realized this was something I wanted to do, rather than working in an office somewhere.
Having that desire to leave California, what else, in particular, got you not just out of California but abroad?
Well, the Fulbright was the biggest thing. It was a great award, and I wanted to travel and had a little bit but not too much because of finances. So I wanted to spend some time outside the country, and especially get a sense of American literature and American culture outside America, to see it from a distance. So while the Fulbright allowed me to do that, then about halfway through the experience I realized although one year is quite a bit of time, it's not enough time to really get that glance, to get that outside perspective. It feels like it took 6 months to kind of just decompress from America. It was only towards the end of my time in Germany that I thought, "now I can sort of see what I can do here and see the differences." The job in Turkey came up, and it was a chance to design a department and design a unique curriculum, which I wouldn't really have here, and so I went for it.
Would you recommend that pathway to other Ph.D. or M.A. candidates? Not just the Fulbright but overall exploring global opportunities?
Yeah, I would highly recommend it, especially in today's climate, for several reasons: one is this push towards the global and transnational, so it makes sense to have some kind of experience in that way. To be clear you don't have to have that experience, but it's helpful to spend a couple of years somewhere else. But also what happens is usually you get more opportunities abroad because the structure is different. At least in my case, as I said, I was able to design a department and curriculum, and I was able to do things I wouldn't typically be able to do. Partly because those kinds of situations are also very flexible and new. Even friends I've talked to who went abroad had chances to do things they typically wouldn't be able to do here.
That said, after spending about 10 years in Turkey and a year in Germany, it is harder to reintegrate. So if you're thinking about staying, that's fine. But if you're thinking about using it as some sort of leverage or way of propelling you in the North American job market, looking back on it, you may be behooved to come back after no more than 3 years or so. Because as time goes on, you develop a network wherever you're at. So I have an extensive network in Turkey but because of the political climate, I can't use it. And while I have a network here because of grad school, I understand now had I been here the last five or six years I'd have a much larger network and so access to more opportunity.
Are Wayne Alumni particularly limited to Michigan? Is landing a position more about hustle or more about accolade and network?
I would say there are generational differences here. My job search is a bit different I think from younger people finishing the Ph.D. I think you should apply everywhere because you never know. I don't think you should limit yourself to the upper Midwest. You should apply to that job in New York, Florida, California, or wherever because you truly never know. In fact, my experience with fellow grad students is they are widely dispersed. At the same time, I think lots of folks at Wayne State are local. If you're local, you may want to stay local. I will say, the network is an important thing, especially in the beginning. I did not get a tenure track job right away. Most people didn't seem to do that. So what do you do? You want to get a visiting professorship, a lectureship, a one-year or three-year position. That's when it's helpful to know someone or have some way in, even to know those positions are available. In the short term, it definitely makes sense to lean on your network until you can get a tenure track position. The first thing to be looking for is the longest termed position possible.
How crucial was the dissertation in regards to finding a position, or was it primarily auxiliary accomplishments such as published papers, etc.?
I had published, and so that was definitely helpful. But the dissertation matters, particularly in the sense of coverage. Having sat on hiring committees for 10 years in Turkey, it matters because it depends on what position the university is looking to fill. A dissertation helps place a person, and it gives a key or clue into what someone was doing. Of course there are other things to supplement that, but fortunately or unfortunately, universities are looking to fill gaps, and the dissertation helps those who are hiring to see how they might place you. But of course, having an award or publishing helps. Otherwise, these aren't the kinds of things you can predict in terms of the market, so you want to do the best you can to put yourself in a position to be hired.
What got you into translating work?
I was always interested in languages, but I'd never been great with them. So I had studied several languages, but this is where again Turkey became a great opportunity. While my German is decent, there are enough Germans who speak English really well where it's really difficult to carve out a niche in that field. But there aren't many people working in the Turkish language, so there are opportunities to do translations and people are interested in Turkish for publication. So in part it was really fortuitous. I started learning the language the second week I was there and it's a really difficult language. At a certain point I thought, I don't want to do any more grammar. What am I doing this for? I'm doing it because I'm interested in the literature, in the writing, so translating became a way of practice. That became working with others on the translations and publishing. And that was a nice pay off that would have never happened here. I wouldn't have had the push to learn another language while in Detroit and then get to the level where I'd be doing translations. So that's another bonus to moving somewhere to work that you wouldn't expect.
I read your article about your experience leaving Turkey, which was insane [After the Coup: What it’s Like to Live through a Coup as an Academic, Smart Set].
Yeah, it definitely was insane. It's still insane!
One thing that struck me was your suggestion about having decided what some unpardonable actions on behalf of a government would be that you have to be mindful of, and if those things happen you have to remove yourself. So one question is, do you see the potential of those kinds of things happening here?
Yeah, I thought about that, especially with the Trump presidency. At what point do you say enough. That's a hard question. Turkey's a weird case because I was a foreigner. It's harder in your own country because you have to ask yourself, do you stick around and fight? But in Turkey it was odd because I didn't have a vote, I'm not engaged in the same way. At what point do you have to stand up and say I'm going a step further. I'm organizing some kind of resistance or I'm taking off. Part of that frustration is knowing it's hard for one person to make a difference, and what exactly do I do. But that's something I learned in Turkey. One of my colleagues said that to me. At a certain point you should think about it ahead of time because if you don't you just keep going, right?
What do you think the Beats have to offer us in these times? What did they offer you in terms of guidance or inspiration through these kinds of times?
The Beats I think help people think for themselves. What are you willing to take, where do you stand, what do you really want, and being honest with yourself. Being willing to express that. They're putting themselves out on paper, they're letting themselves "hang all the way out." For a lot of people, it's an inspiration to be who you really are, and I think in the process of doing that, when enough people do it, it's hard to make them stop. And what happens is someone eventually tells you to stop. This opposition sprouts up. That's what happened in Turkey and it may be happening here, this push back. The Beats offer this kind of model for that kind of individual resistance against the social norm that can become codified into a movement. Some of the Beats, like Ginsberg, were politically committed. That's the biggest critique: they were doing their own thing but not getting out there and making any concrete changes. But I think that the self-authorization aspect of their work is the biggest thing to take away for both Turkey and here--to validate peoples’ individual experience, and I shouldn't be forced to do or think how someone else says I should.
I was reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, and the way they influenced one another was phenomenal. Can you speak to the influential nature of peers as well as mentors like Dr. Watten and their hand in developing you into the academic you are today?
It's a huge aspect. The choice of advisor, of people you choose to work with, is the crux of everything. That's why I came to Wayne. I wanted to work with Barrett. Having done a Master's Thesis at Missouri, I learned about the process of choosing an advisor. There was a struggle for who would lead the thesis, and it didn't end how I really wanted. It taught me that you're really working with one person. So find someone who intellectually meshes and is stimulating and who knows the field. Coursework is important. Peers are important. But you're here to make something, and you need to be able to work with someone who is focused, who can open yourself up to yourself. Having someone who is deft at doing that is important.
Why the Honor's College?
I had worked here years ago actually before I left. In part it was convenience. But I wanted to come back to Detroit. But a friend of mine I'd been working on a collaborative novel with was here, and we were able to finish that manuscript. It's just been so helpful to come back to the place I had left, to process, get grounding, and reconnect with my network here.
You mentioned in your article Twitter was the place the coup really started. In your other work you talk so much about the Moment. Do you think Twitter is the place where a burgeoning movement is coming from? Not just journalistically, but artistically as well?
I actually try to address that question in the book I have coming out. What does that mean, what does this digital space mean? Someone had even recently produced a book of tweets. You're starting to see these kinds of things come out. Artistically, I'm not so sure. But it could be. But absolutely in Turkey especially when the mainstream news was no longer trustworthy. How do you get in contact with people directly without needing to go through some channels that might be controlled by someone else? And the Beats had the underground journal, The Distribution, Broadside Press, cheap pocket editions of books, and the Internet is an acceleration of that. Twitter might be a bit constrained because of the 140 characters, but still, it creates its own dynamic.
At the end of your article, you talked about the empathy you experienced, your experience of being a potential victim in Turkey and how it led you to empathize with the plight of those here at home. How much of that empathy do you think you can attribute to studying in the Humanities?
I think so. It's hard to say, it's the chicken and the egg. I think both are true, where I was drawn to that, but the literature also helped to stoke the flame as well. But this is a classic way to promote literature. It gives multiple perspectives. I think again going back to this idea of going abroad. But that's one of the major payoffs, to be a foreigner, to be different. It's a powerful thing. Especially as a white male, you kind of walk around America as the de facto person. Turkey: the language, culture, religion are all different. At the end of the piece, I realize I'm someone that can be singled out, who people might not like, because of whatever reason. And that moment was scary. Then you realize that's a position that a lot of Americans are in right now. And I didn't want to make it sound like now I know what everyone feels like. I don't. But just that moment where the helplessness and fear to turn to people for help is illuminating. And this is the Beats too. Even the drug-taking was to get yourself outside yourself, and that's what the travel was for me.
What's your advice for emerging creative work and theory, navigating both of those spaces and their relation to each other?
Try to get your own project on track first. The other things should be supplemental, they should be helpful, filters. But really what are you interested in, what do you care about, what issue is at stake for you. From there: what theorist, what school, what movement helps that make sense for you. Of course you can do it the other way as well, but for me it was I'm interested in the Beats, I'm interested in the moment, I'm interested in capturing immediacy, how do you live life in the present, the question of authenticity, and then from there it was finding who was talking about these things? What works. It was very much patchwork for my first book. Using existentialism in some places, phenomenology in others. Use what you need when you need it to make the points you want to make.
For people who are coming here, or who are here, what is a place they have to go, and a place they have to eat?
Wow. Well so many things have changed it's hard to say. But the first thing I'll say is to try to move into the city. Actually, live in Detroit. Rent has gone up, but still. If possible, get down here. For me, the DFT (Detroit Film Theatre) I think. Many a great time there, great films and great space. They'll have people give talks on the films; I saw Spike Lee give a talk there even. In terms of food. That's hard. The options have expanded so much. Well, my favorite bar is Jacoby's, down by the civic center. They used to give free peanuts. So if you're hungry, get a beer and eat peanuts. It's a nice, old kind of bar that I always enjoy. But just get around and move around here. There's no reason not to.
By Benjamin Earl Turner (M.A. candidate)