In this episode of “The Welcome Table,” literary journalism majors Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen interview Cole Morgan, a new assistant professor in UCI’s Department of English. He is an expert on African American literature, narrative form, and critical race theory.
Tatum Larsen (0:10–0:14): Hi, guys. Welcome to another episode of “The Welcome Table with Tatum —
Sydney Charles (0:14–0:15): and Sydney.”
Larsen (0:16–0:35) : Today we are joined with Professor Cole Morgan, who is a professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. He focuses on African American literature, narrative form and critical race theory. Thank you for joining us today. We’re very excited to talk to you.
Cole Morgan (0:35–0:37): Thank you for having me.
Charles (0:37–1:13): Of course. We’re going to do our usual show and tell and we’re going to go first this week. So, I brought my — I don’t know if, you can’t really see the front of it, this is my first journalism notepad. My mom got it for me my freshman year and I’m now a fourth year, so it’s been years and years later, but I still have this. I don’t even think I’ve used all the pages yet but it’s really memorable. I want to show it close because there are my initials right here. My mom got it for me. It’s very symbolic of my journey here at UCI and I’m really glad that I still have it.
Morgan (1:14–1:42): Mine also goes back to my first year of college. It’s a camera. It’s a film camera. This is a Nikon FE for any of your viewers who might be camera folks. Throughout college, I worked as a photographer for the college and was just very into learning more about film photography and more analog photography as well as digital.
Charles (1:43–1:47): Of course, we’re going to delve into all of that during this interview. Very excited.
Larsen (1:47–2:07): That kind of actually relates to our first question. You received a B.A. in Black studies and your Ph.D. in English, but your artistic medium is in photography. So we were just wondering how all of those coincide together within your current career?
Morgan (2:07–3:44): Sure. So if I’m sort of tracing that kind of arc, I did both English and Black studies in undergrad and found that the professors that I worked with, there were a lot of opportunities for me to find natural connections between both of my majors. And that kind of led logically to focusing on African American literature in grad school. Before you develop a dissertation or thesis topic in grad school, you’re kind of just covering the bases in terms of learning about your field and learning about some of the history of both the literature and the criticism in English as a field.
By the time it came to figure out a sort of project that I was pretty passionate about, it was really a kind of conversation with a couple of close colleagues of mine that impressed upon me the ways in which photography kind of naturally gathered a lot of the issues that I was interested in terms of representation and subjectivity, but also textuality and materiality. That informed the approach that I have to that intersection, in terms of an eye towards both what is clear through narrative forms or photographic forms, and then what’s also obscured or up for interpretation in either medium.
Charles (3:45–4:04): That’s really interesting. Those three fields — English, photography and literature, while they many of the qualities like you were explaining are intersectional, they are also vastly different. So we wanted to ask, how do you go about exploring each of these mediums in your research? What does that process look like?
Morgan (4:06–5:58): Yeah, yeah, I think that I tend to go from things that interest me or I let my interests lead me to particular work for a particular time periods or particular authors or artists. Then throughout the research process, you are kind of engaging with what other scholars or other people have said about these works. For me personally, I often find that there’s a moment of disagreement or sometimes rarely a moment of kind of perfectly aligned agreement. Then I think it’s almost a matter of weighing or parceling out in the literature that I’m reading about, this literature about this artwork. What are the intuitions that might need further scrutiny? What are some of the assumptions that we make about how a photograph is worth a thousand words? Or what are some of the commonly held beliefs about the value of portraiture as a tool for self-expression? I think that when things are going well for me, I find a way to articulate what my reservations might be about some of those assumptions and then another time, some sort of struggling against a common consensus that I might be compelled by, but then I think that just, as I’m sure you’re familiar with writing papers, you’re stringing together how you might navigate a field of secondary sources. Yes, that’s kind of like a 30,000 thousand foot view of how I go about my research.
Charles (6:00–6:08): That’s amazing. You said a little about time periods. What time period or periods do you find yourself gravitating towards most often?
Morgan (6:15–6:55): In my present project, I go from the middle of the 19th century, so the first authors that I’m working with are Harry Jenkins and Frederick Douglass. I go from about the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century, ending with James Baldwin. So it’s kind of an arc that I’m working through in terms of my argument that I wouldn’t say does much historicization, so much of the same documenting or uncovering long lost archives, so much as kind of attending to certain problems and certain questions raised in the work of those writers.
Charles (6:58–7:01): Got it. Baldwin is a favorite of ours, so that why we’re like *happy face*.
Larsen (7:05–7:26): Speaking of developments within the field of photography and also media, with our world vastly changing and becoming more technologically savvy, we were just wondering, what are some of the challenges that come within your field with all of these advancements? Are there any pullbacks to all of the developments that we’re making?
Morgan (7:28–9:37): That’s an interesting question because I’m kind of hearing two levels. So one would be, what are some problems that scholars are taking on as subjects of their work and of their research? And then what are some problems that scholars are faced with or that might inhibit their work or their living? I think that in a lot of ways that those two are, of course, intertwined. I guess in one sense, the sort of ubiquity of social media and the power that imagery has as the sort of constitutive part of social media. The way that imagery and images, whether they’re still or moving, virtually synthesized is posing untold productive problems for research. What do we make of a world that is as dominated as it is by images? What do we make if some of those intuitions about the link between subjectivity and, say portraiture, holds true? What do we make of the preponderance of a portrait once it’s out of our hands, so to speak? I think that particularly with social media and digital imagery, that link becomes kind of like an obvious point at which to put a little pressure. How long you can go with the argument that my ability to disseminate my likeness means very much for me in terms of holding onto or asserting my power in a public arena seems to be challenged by the virality of social media images.
Charles (9:38–10:00): We wanted to talk a little bit about a recent kind of controversy in the media industry. The Simone Biles incident with photography, we wanted to ask, do you feel like that is a reoccurring problem in the photo world; Black people being represented inaccurately?
Morgan (10:01–12:40): I think that’s a great question. I think it’s also a fascinating thought experiment to think through, and this is another way that I approach a lot of the problems that I take up in my work. I feel as though, and I don’t know if I followed the Simone Biles photoshoot thing very long. I don’t know that Twitter allows me to follow these things very long before something else pops up. But, one of the first places I go is to sort of start to ask what are our investments in this conversation? I think that especially with that incident, I think it pretty quickly became evident that a matter of personal taste or personal aesthetic preference for what a portrait of a notable figure in a prominent publication ought to look like is quickly overtaken by conversations about material access to the ability to have one’s photo taken, the ability to take a photo for an institution like Vogue is a publication and careers of all of those involved, right? And so it kind of quickly became a conversation about Anne Leibovitz’s body of work. It became a question about the representation of Simone Biles’ body. It became a question about the representation of Black women’s bodies, Black athletes’ bodies. As these conversations bubble up and expand outwards, part of what interests me most is the relation that those conversations about wider, systematic, historical, more ambiguous problems, the relation that those questions, the conversations bear to the questions that we started with: Do I like this portrait? Does this portrait do something for me? That relationship and how far those conversations get are endlessly fascinating, because of the way that they kind of balance individuality and the sense of community or just the struggle to locate ourselves within society.
Larsen (12:42–12:59): There’s often another layer to something that seems as simple as just taking a picture. There’s an extra connotation to it. And with that in mind, we wanted to ask you, with your experience as a person of color, how has that affected your own personal creative lens?
Morgan (13:07–15:17): My personal creative lens. So I would say, partly, I feel as though I’ve been on quite the hiatus in terms of making artwork just through grad school. It’s kind of a lot of the research and writing and thinking and conversing with people side of things. If anything, reflecting on my experience of actually having a camera in my hands and producing artwork. But I would say it probably influenced my artwork in subtle but important ways. So working as a photographer in undergrad, I worked for the college, I worked for the version of my college’s alumni magazine, and so that entails taking photographs at all sorts of sporting events and lectures and banquet dinners and formal portraits. And so really kind of getting a cross section of the campus. And I think as with any sort of public facing publication, there are questions that I think somebody, a scholar of me, might pick out and say that, “Oh, it’s interesting that Cole chose to represent these sorts of figures in and amongst the college. It’s interesting that these that these spaces or these types of images find expression in the magazine when a person of color is behind the lens.” I don’t know that I’ve done that kind of study for my own artistic output, but certainly in the way that I think about artistic work and this question for other figures, I’m sure that it would hold true for me. Yeah, I should really go back and look at the work that I produced.
Larsen (15:18-15:20): Yeah, send it to us!
Charles (15:22–15:32): Yeah, we would really love that. We want to know a little bit more about you as well, so flash back to your time at Brown, after you received your degree, how did you end up at UCI?
Morgan (15:33–16:12): I applied to jobs and I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview here. I visited earlier this year and gave a research presentation, presented a little bit of my research. And the department and I, I think, took a liking to one other. There are fabulous scholars here both in the English department and throughout the university. After that, it was a very short decision, but it’s been a thread of excitement throughout this crazy, brutal year.
Charles (16:13–16:23): Did anything in particular draw you into the university? You said we have amazing scholars. Did anything else draw you in?
Morgan (16:25–17:22): The opportunity to work at a school of this size. It’s much bigger than Brown, it’s much bigger than my liberal arts 1,800 student undergraduate institution. And so the opportunity to work at a larger institution, a public institution and an institution with programs like your African American studies program and your visual studies program. Also I’m sort of interested in the critical theory that spans across departments. All of that made UCI an extremely exciting prospect to join. Two years ago, if you had asked me if I’d be on the West Coast, I don’t know if that would’ve been clear to me. That was also something that I’ve been looking forward to all year is making the move out there.
Larsen (17:23–17:25): How are you enjoying the weather so far?
Morgan (17:26–17:28): It’s been interesting since I got here.
Charles (17:30–17:34): It has been very, very hot.
Morgan (17:39–17:41): No, I love it so far.
Larsen (17:44–17:58): We see that you ask questions about how history, memory, and space and also language constitute narrative form, and we’re really interested in that dichotomy. Can you explain that a little bit further?
Morgan (17:59–20:15): I think that it goes back to for me to the question between objectivity and subjectivity or between an intuitive sense of things and the sort of sedimentation that comes with remembering or recalling or researching the past. In a lot of my work, I’m often thinking about the difference between the way that something appears and when I say something, I’m intentionally being capacious in terms of a photograph which can be, I think, taken in pretty immediately in one sense or a three hundred page novel, which can sort of be dense and it kind of takes a while to sit with and think about or at least process. All the processes, all the ways in which you think back to that photograph or think back on that work of fiction or work of non-fiction, really the dichotomy to the extent that I think of one would be between how we experience a sort of an everyday moment and how we experience the past or how we talk about the past. And it’s in that talking about that I think interesting questions come up in terms of how we communicate to others what happened or what catches our attention about a given photograph or what’s important in a given moment. And it’s interesting to me because inevitably there will be differences and divergences between my experience of the situation and your experience of the situation. So much can happen in the space of that difference. I think that you also get a sense of what’s at stake or what is consequential, especially when we might be reflecting on a given moment for the express purpose of coming together and building solidarity or forming community. So those are some of the sort of grandest themes running through my work and the work that I’d like to do.
Charles (20:19–20:29): With this field of study, these themes you’re talking about, was this something that was well-founded, or did you feel the need to carve out a space for something that needed more attention?
Morgan (20:34–22:42): I would say much more the former. African American literary studies certainly was around long before I got here. So part of my research was just trying to take in as much of that field as I could and find the space for myself within it. Not even a space that is necessarily unique or that I was carving out so much as just part of the field that I found myself interested in or drawn to. And that, I think, has to do with research around trauma and memory and history and the way that those things make their way into literature. Also, subjectivity and individual experience has always been a hobbyhorse for me. Then I think that to the extent that there’s a carving out in the field, I think that has more to do with how I find my way into the materials that I take up. I don’t know if I would say that I found many scholars who were wrong or who were certainly doing harmful work at all, so much as there was room to say something about the collection of texts and the collection of questions that I had. And so to the extent that’s a prescriptive path. I think it’s helpful to think critically about the questions of how am I finding myself in this field? How am I finding myself in this research? What are the questions that I’m interested in or that I think we could all do with asking? To the extent that I’ve done any of that, that’s how I would describe myself, carving out a space or path.
Larsen (22:42–22:57): With all this room that you have now to discover your field and research, where would you like to go with your research? Do you have a dream destination? Does there need to be one? What are your thoughts on that?
Morgan (23:00–24:26): That’s a very generous question. Thank you. I’m very excited to learn more about UCI, my colleagues here, and the students here. I’m excited to teach and develop a few courses under my belt. It’s always been an exciting prospect to me to develop my own ideas in conversations with others. Both horizontally in terms of colleagues, but also in terms of teaching and working with students. So I’m thinking of the teaching portion. Then I think in terms of research, thinking a little deeper about the dissertation that I’ve been working on for the last few years is something that I’m really looking forward to and thinking about those questions, again in conversation with folks here at UCI, something I’m looking forward to. Then I think in the sort of what feels like very far future, when we are all grey, would be a project that actually incorporates actual photography, me producing photography and finding some way to incorporate that into what is right now still a predominantly a critical literary critic project.
Larsen (24:26–24:28): Sounds amazing.
Charles (24:28–24:36): Thank you for sharing that with us and thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with us, come on “The Welcome Table.” We’re so excited to have you at UCI.
Morgan (24:36–24:55): Thank you for the invitation and it’s great to be here. Thank you guys for taking the time. It’s such an easy process, so thank you for doing the work as well. I would say that I will see you guys on campus, but I don’t know if that’s gonna happen.
Charles (24:55–24:57): We will try to do virtually.
Morgan (24:57–24:59): Yeah, yeah.
Larsen(25:03–25:05): Well, that was super inspirational.
Charles (25:05–25:08): Very much so I enjoyed that a lot.
Larsen(25:08–25:16): Thank you guys all for watching this episode of “The Welcome Table.” And thank you again to Professor Cole Morgan. This has been Tatum —
Charles (25:16–25:17): And Sydney.
Larsen (25:17–25:19): And we will catch you guys next week.
Watch all episodes of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum” here.