Three Spinners

An Interview with Alexandra Van Doren (MAPH ’13), CEO of Three Spinners

Alexandra van Doren (MAPH ‘13) is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Co-Founder/CEO of Three Spinners Inc., a new non-profit which works to provide food, clothing, and shelter for Syrian refugees admitted into the US. 

Alexandra kindly agreed to answer the mentors’ questions about the work Three Spinners does, her Ph.D. program in Comp. Lit., her time in MAPH and her advice to current MAPHers. You can read her responses below, and find contact information for Three Spinners at the end of the article!

Could you tell us a little about the non-profit that you recently founded, Three Spinners, and the work that it does?

In January 2016, my colleagues and I co-founded Three Spinners Inc., a charitable organization based out of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, with the purpose of advocating for human rights that are being violated amidst the chaos ravaging Syria on an unprecedented level.  Our organization provides not only the very basic needs of food and shelter, but fosters and facilitates educational opportunities such as English language instruction and job training.  Generous members of the Champaign-Urbana community are opening their doors to refugees accepted into the US and offering their homes to incoming families and individuals.  Basically, if you supply the space, we will provide the rest.  Drawing from a multitude of resources in our community and charitable monetary donations, we are creating a network of support for those in desperate need of safety.  By hosting a series of ongoing food, clothing, and item drives and working in conjunction with local businesses, restaurants, non-profit organizations, etc., we are establishing Champaign-Urbana as a self-sustaining community with the resources to provide for refugees in need.

Our foundational principles are simple: we believe that no individual should ever be persecuted on the basis of religion, race, or gender; no child should ever be subjected to violence or hunger; and no man or woman should be denied their basic human rights to food, shelter, safety, and education.  While our housing process is non-discriminatory, our first priority is families with children.


What drew you to further graduate studies in Comp Lit, and what kind of academic projects and questions are you currently working on at the University of Illinois?

 My time at the University of Chicago was ultimately what both challenged and reinforced my decision to pursue further graduate studies in Comparative Literature.  As everyone reading this well knows, the UChicago MAPH program is rigorous to say the least.  I came to Chicago from a relatively small liberal arts school in Los Angeles, so being thrown into the belly of the research beast really made me consider moving away from a career in academia.  While I loved my courses and advisors at UChicago, I wasn’t quite convinced an even more research-intensive PhD program was the right choice for me.  After I graduated from the MAPH program in 2013, I moved to Poland for a number of months to pursue some language training and independent writing projects I had begun in one of my poetry classes at UChicago.  I ended up meeting a librarian/archivist from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Lublin who ended up being a great resource since I had been considering museum work pertinent to the Holocaust.  The more we discussed career goals and trajectories, the more I found myself talking about my MAPH thesis project and related research I wanted to conduct in the future.  Whether it was museum work or a position in the professoriate I was after, it was clear to me after that conversation that my scholarship really thrived in an academic environment, not to mention if I wanted a shot at working in Holocaust archives, it would be a long shot without a PhD and three or four languages under my belt.  After my time abroad, I came back to the states, filled out my PhD applications, and eventually moved out to the cornfields in Champaign.

As a PhD student, it’s rare to be able to talk about the projects you are working on without any funding on the line, so forgive me if I’m a little over-eager to share some of my current research endeavors.  I work in Polish, Spanish, German, and American literatures and languages, but predominantly on Polish poetry.  My dissertation, entitled “‘Where foot knocks against/the unburied bones of kin’: Topographies of Memory in Mass Graves in Poland and Spain,” identifies and refashions a critical point of convergence between Poland and Spain’s national histories under the umbrella of Holocaust and Memory Studies.  My current research has landed me at an intersection between the poetry of witness that began to surface in the immediate wake of the Holocaust in Poland and more recent depictions of Franco’s mass executions in documentary and photography from modern-day Spain.  Immediately following the end of WWII and the collapse of the concentrationary universe on Polish soil, survivors began the Sisyphean task of reassembling the history of a people intended for annihilation.  Witnesses sifted through the rubble of Babel to reconstruct a language that could speak of Auschwitz, ovens, mass graves, and the mechanized murder that had ravaged the Jewish population of Europe, producing volumes of poetry that were initially met with opposition by the general populace or, at best, apathy.  Less than a decade before the Second World War in Poland, Spain faced its own internal crisis, “La Guerra” (the Spanish Civil War), with the institutionalized massacre of Republicans at the hands of the Nationalists/Rebels under Franco.  Perpetrators were mindful of the evidence of these summary executions, often concealing the corpses of victims in mass graves in both remote forest-laden areas and also in cities and towns in which the shootings took place.  Only within the last decade has the weight of “La Guerra” on the fabric of Spain’s topography become a topic ripe for inquiry with the recent excavations of these mass graves, but the process of distinguishing propaganda from scholarship has grown increasingly difficult to navigate.  The resistance to literary and visual depictions of memory in Poland and Spain poses a multitude of questions at the crux of my research, questions that revolve around the representations of the physical and metaphorical body in mass graves and the sociological, historical, and political implications of their documentation and/or exhumation.


How did your experience MAPH impact upon your career choices, both in graduate school and the non-profit sector?

As I mentioned before, my experience in MAPH helped me evaluate the right career path for me.  As far as the impact the program has had on my graduate studies, in retrospect I feel like I walked away from MAPH with a really solid foothold in critical theory that helped build the foundation for a lot of my PhD research.  Additionally, the research methodologies employed in our preceptor meetings and in the classroom set me up for success at another R-1 institution.  MAPH was my introduction to what real literary scholars and historians looked like and it gave me the tools to climb the ladder that I hope will lead me into those ranks in the coming years.

In terms of the program’s impact on my career choice in the non-profit sector, I have always been involved in community service organizations and activities and there was no shortage of them at UChicago.  There were always opportunities to get involved in Chicago communities that really benefited from local non-profit efforts and contributions, which helped keep my feet on the ground throughout the MAPH program.  I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but when you’re in the throes of your thesis, you sometimes forget to look up from your books and remember there’s a world outside the brick and ivy and the community service opportunities at UChicago gave me a productive outlet, especially since my research material topics are so heavy.

What does your role at Three Spinners look like on a day-to-day basis?

At the moment, it’s a lot of hurry up and wait.  I spent a lot of time over this last winter break brainstorming ways to provide some sort of rescue and relief effort to aid in the Syrian refugee crisis, and eventually resolved to starting with a community food drive.  After pitching the idea to a colleague in the Comp Lit Department, she and her husband jumped on board and after we saw the amount of interest expressed by fellow students and local businesses, we realized that we could do something much bigger.  We registered our organization with the Secretary of State the next day, submitted all of our paperwork to the Attorney General and IRS, and launched our website just a few weeks later.  Right now I’m really focusing on community outreach and strategizing/logistics.  A lot of state representatives in the U.S. have expressed their unwillingness to shelter refugees, so we’re working on creating a self-sustaining community independent of government funding that can support a community of refugees. The last few weeks have been a lot of phone calls, emails, and office visits to businesses and individuals that have volunteered to host food barrels, run item/clothes drop-off centers, provide housing, host fundraisers, etc.  Once we have the final approval from the Attorney General, it’s all plug and play.  The day I get that letter in the mail, we’re delivering food barrels to our volunteers and accepting, sorting, and storing material donations so that we can get a better estimate of how many refugees we can support for up to one year.  The sooner we have the resources in order, the sooner we can reach out to the Department of State and get families in need to a supportive and safe environment.

How have you integrated your academic, political and creative interests into your career?  How would you suggest that current students think about this for their future?

Honestly, I’m still figuring out how all of these things weave into the career tapestry I want to create, but that’s part of the graduate school journey.  The beauty of working in Comparative Literature is that there’s no limit to the kinds of literature, film, and information I have access to.  I read a few English translations of Tadeusz Różewicz’s poetry years ago and decided I was going to learn Polish.  Now I work on Polish poetry.  This last year I couldn’t read most of the Nazi documents I was investigating for a research project and needed translation programs just to get by.  Now I’m learning German.  While my career choices have been in flux for several years, the constants have remained: I enjoy research and historical investigation, I embrace crossing linguistic borders as a polyglot, I am deeply invested in advocating for human rights, and I can’t live without poetry.  None of these things fit neatly into a career package, so you have to write your own job description.  Working in academia as a student and teacher as well as branching out into the non-profit sector allows me to create the career I think would most contribute to the world instead of molding myself into a prepackaged one.  That is my advice for students that have not yet found a path that calls out to them or that are struggling to tailor themselves to the job market’s expectations.  Of course you have to be realistic about your prospects, but don’t carve your edges to fit into a ready-made puzzle.  If you haven’t found your niche, build your puzzle around the pieces you already have.

What advice would you give to current MAPHers interested in working in or founding a non-profit, or to those interested in a hybrid career?

You don’t need much to start a non-profit, so don’t hesitate.  Anyone pursuing that field of work, presumably, already has admirable intentions since we all know no one is going to strike it rich in non-profit work.  That’s not why we’re in this.  We’re in it to make a difference and to repair pieces of the world that perhaps we didn’t break, but need healing nonetheless. Three Spinners Inc. started out as a maybe-I’ll-start-a-food-drive-or-something kind of idea that, after a conversation with a friend over tea, became something that will change hundreds (hopefully eventually thousands) of lives.  Start building your network of resources now; you’re in the best place you could possibly be in at a university.  There is such a diversity of talents, skills, expertise, etc. among students and professors.  You can literally find at least one person in any given classroom that speaks a different language, grew up in another country, is pursuing a degree in law/medicine/education, etc.  Truly, all you need is an idea (and the ability to run without sleep for a while), and you can get your project’s wheels off the ground.  There are never too many warriors for social justice.

You can read more about Three Spinners via their website here, visit them on Facebook here or subscribe to their Newsletter here. Below are the contact details for the Three Spinners team – don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to learn more!

Alexandra van Doren

Meagan Smith

Timothy King



MAPH Talent Show 2016

“Hide not your talents, they for use were made, what’s a sundial in the shade?”                     ―Benjamin Franklin

MAPH’s very own Talent Show is this Friday at 3pm in Classics 110! Normally noted as the “best event” of the year, the Talent Show is your opportunity to show off those hidden, err, talents! You can sign up in the MAPH office. There will be beer, wine, soda, pizza and fun in plentiful supply.

Not sure which talent to showcase? Check out these videos for inspiration:

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Works in Progress & How to Give a Talk Talk

Each year, MAPH hosts a Works in Progress Conference where a select number of students present on their ongoing thesis work and get the opportunity to answer questions and obtain feedback from their peers.  The How to Give a Talk Talk works well as a precursor to the Works in Progress Conference and also provides some insight into how exactly academics come to share their work with a larger audience. These annual and well-beloved MAPH event celebrates the newbackcollaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the MAPH thesis. Past presenters have presented on topics ranging from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison to the American funeral industry to the logic of choice to the ideas of courtly love present in the poems of Edmund Spenser. You can read about last year’s presenters  here.

This year’s conference will begin at 12pm on Friday, February 26th in Harper 140. There will be two panels of four presenters each, with a short break in-between. Presenters will have 8-10 minutes to talk about their topics, with a Q&A after each panel. Afterwards we’ll all head over to the Smart Museum and have some drinks to celebrate the spirit of MAPH intellectualism and collegiality, and to keep the conversation going.

If you’re interested in presenting, please email a very brief description of your thesis topic to by 12pm on Friday, February 12th. The mentors, in concert with the rest of the MAPH faculty and staff, will choose 8 presenters from the submitted materials. Here are some guidelines for your submissions:

Don’t labor too hard over the description. It should be a short paragraph, probably 5 sentences max. We aren’t expecting your thesis work to be super specific or developed at this point. Just give us a topic and an interesting question or two, and we’ll go from there.

11035610_939174466107490_9095511440115763583_nHow to Give a Talk Talk

The How to Give a Talk Talk is the event to attend to both prepare for the WIP conference and to  get a sense of what it’s like to present at a conference. Several preceptors will share their tips, experiences and general know-how about presenting and attending conferences. This year’s talk will be held on Friday February 19th at 1:00pm. I had a class last year in which we had to present 20 minute conference papers and found this talk very helpful. Plus, Hauske has a special presentation not to be missed!

If you have any questions about WIP or the Talk Talk, feel free to reach out!

All the best,

The Mentors


Managing Winter Quarter Stress Part Two: Wellness

Investing your time in relaxing activities and involving yourself in the greater Chicago community are both things that you can do to greatly improve your outlook and overall winter-quarter experience. Below you’ll find a quick list of activities that are a must try for combating winter stress.

Wellness & Relaxation
Drop in on one of these events once, twice or weekly.

Tea & Pipes – Wednesday at 4:30-5 pm (but tea is served as early as 4!)

Let your brain turn off for a half hour and relax to the sound of gentle, relaxing pipe music. Then, refreshed and well caffeinated, return to the library to finish studying, guilt-free. Most people, myself included, would spend the same amount of time mindlessly browsing the internet.
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Managing Winter Quarter Stress Part One: The Second Annual Maphle Raffle

It’s no surprise that winter quarter can be stressful. There’s a lot going on and a lot to have to keep tabs on: class assignments, thesis progress, social events, etc. Despite this, there are many ways to ease the tension and anxiety that comes with having such a heavy workload. It may surprise you to learn that one of the best ways to cope with winter-quarter stress is to do more. Getting out of Hyde Park, investing your time relaxing activities and exploring the city are all things that can greatly improve both your outlook and overall winter-quarter experience.

As such, we are very excited to announce that the Annual Maphle Raffle will take place next Friday, January 29th at Social Hour!

Disclaimer: May be tepid

Disclaimer: May be tepid

This is how the Maphle Raffle works:

  • Between now and lunchtime next Friday, bring us a ticket, stub, receipt, souvenir, photo etc. from any location in the city outside of Hyde Park, and we will put said ticket (or your name) into our top hat.
  • On Friday the 29th, the mentors will draw two names out of the hat and name the winners of two fantastic prizes (to be announced at the drawing.)

Escape from Hyde Park and explore the city despite the arctic temperatures, with a double incentive of both fun and prizes. So please, go and have fun, provide us with an evidential token, and enter to win big!

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Alumni Interview with Seth Perlow

Seth Perlow, MAPH ’06, will be returning to UChicago to present his paper, “Making Strangers with Friends: Frank O’Hara and the Telephone,” at the Poetry and Poetics Workshop. The workshop will be held on Monday, January 25th in Rosenwald 405, 4:30 – 6PM. Having obtained his PhD from Cornell in 2013, Seth is now an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Oklahoma.

Seth kindly agreed to answer some questions we, the Mentors, asked him about his work, the paper he will be presenting, his MAPH experience, and his path from MAPH to where he is now.

How has MAPH impacted your career choices?  What has your career trajectory been like since graduating and how did your experience in MAPH affect this?

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Like many students beginning MAPH, I hoped afterwards to pursue a PhD and an academic career. A year of experience in graduate school leads some MAPHers to rethink this plan, but I was not dissuaded and applied to several PhD programs in English the autumn after graduating. When I began the MAPH program, I knew my undergraduate work had not fully prepared me to be a competitive applicant to top doctoral programs, so the MAPH experience for me involved not only learning a great deal intellectually but also learning what it means to be a graduate student and how to succeed in those early professional steps. Along with support from the UChicago faculty I got to know, the MAPH directors and preceptors were extraordinarily helpful as I began to develop applications to doctoral programs; several continued to consult with me and wrote recommendation letters after I had graduated and moved away. After MAPH, I enjoyed one belated “gap year,” during which I worked as a copyeditor in New York, completed graduate school applications, and then moved to Paris for six months to learn a little French. I then enrolled in the PhD program in English at Cornell University. When I began doctoral work, I found that MAPH had prepared me to succeed in graduate study by helping me develop advanced research skills, scholarly discipline, and most importantly the sense of intellectual community that keeps me engaged with research. Since finishing at Cornell in 2013, I have worked as an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma State University, as the NEH Postdoctoral Fellow in Poetics at Emory University, and now as an assistant professor of English at the University of Oklahoma.

What kind of academic projects and questions are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a book manuscript titled The Poem Electric: Technologies of Uncritical Thinking in American Poetry, which identifies a lineage of experimental writers who use electronics to distinguish poetic thought from rationalism. Most scholars studying the relation between literature and technology understand electronics as “information technologies,” instruments for logical, data-oriented tasks, but anyone who has used a computer knows electronics just as often leave us disoriented, confused, inspired, or excited—mental states not typically associated with cool, rational thinking. Writers in The Poem Electric use electronics to pursue and sustain these less orderly mental states, which they view as poetically valuable in one way or another. Of course, there is a long tradition of valuing poetry for its uncritical character, its difference from rationalism; this tradition goes back at least to the romantic poets and arguably much farther. So one question motivating this study is to ask what happens when a literary genre so often valued for its difference from critical thinking begins to circulate through a family of technologies predominantly understood as logic-engines, rational machines. To answer, this project looks at writing by a wide range of poets and scholars, from Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein to Frank O’Hara, Susan Howe, and Jackson Mac Low.

What does your role at the University of Oklahoma look like on a day-to-day basis?

At the University of Oklahoma, I teach graduate and undergraduate seminars in American literature, poetry and poetics, and new media studies. As a tenure-track faculty member, I also spend time developing my own research and undertaking service for the department, the university, and the profession.

What drew you to further graduate studies in poetry and poetics?

I became interested in poetry during middle school. Perhaps at my own peril, I took seriously the parental truism that I could do whatever I wanted with my career, so I decided to work with poetry professionally long before I had a realistic idea what doing so would entail. Both my expectations and my priorities have changed a lot since then, but I’m still finding new kinds of inspiration and intellectual challenge in poetry and its criticism.

How have you integrated your academic and creative interests into your career?  How would you suggest that current students think about this for their future?

Only after completing my PhD and having the incredible good fortune to find a tenure-track job has it become clear to me just what a wide variety of humanities-related career paths are out there. This is something I’ve learned in part from my own students and in part from my peers in graduate school who did not continue to pursue academic careers. Among these many possibilities, I’m very lucky to have a job that directly involves teaching and writing about the literature that interests me most; it’s a wonderful kind of work. No doubt current MAPH students are aware that tenure-track professorships in the humanities become rarer every year and that the employment conditions for non-tenure-track instructors, even at the best universities, can be very unpleasant. I am therefore tempted to offer the standard admonition against pursuing an academic career in the humanities, but I received that warning plenty of times myself and did not heed it. Instead, here are three thoughts for those considering a similar career path. First, if you hope to find a tenure-track position, you will have to be not only smart and industrious but also very lucky. There are so many applications for such jobs that a certain amount of randomness inevitably shapes the outcome; trying to accept this fact may spare you some anguish as you complete your PhD. Second, if you would not be willing to relocate to any conceivable part of the US, or perhaps abroad, then you probably should not pursue a PhD in the humanities. Applying for tenure-track positions only in certain areas is a great way not to get a tenure-track job. Third and most importantly, if you decide to pursue a PhD in the humanities, try to develop a “plan B,” a career you’d find interesting that would not involve teaching college. Many great students graduating from the best PhD programs cannot find suitable academic employment, and when my own professional future was less certain I envied those who already had some idea what they’d enjoy doing instead.

Could you tell us a little about the paper you’ll be presenting at the Poetry and Poetics workshop, “Making Strangers with Friends: Frank O’Hara and the Telephone”?

This paper is an excerpt from the third chapter of The Poem Electric. Each chapter of the project focuses on a particular mode of uncritical thinking that poets use electronics to pursue. This chapter discusses anonymity. It argues that the poet Frank O’Hara counterposes the telephone with his techniques of poetic address—that is, his poetry’s calls to friends or to an anonymous “you”—in order to explore how anonymity and disconnection shape social experiences. Many scholars today criticize how electronics mediate our social lives, isolating us behind our screens even as they connect us, but in the 1960s O’Hara understood the social effects of electronics quite differently.

Distinquished Faulty Lecture

MAPH Distinguished Faculty Lecture: Janice Misurell-Mitchell & W.J.T. Mitchell

We are excited to announce that this quarter’s distinguished faculty lecture will be “Image, Sound, Text: From Theory tScreen Shot 2016-01-15 at 10.26.26 AMo Performance” by Janice Misurell-Mitchell and W.J.T. Mitchell. The lecture will take place at 4pm on Tuesday, January 19th in Classics 110, and will be followed by a reception.

Janice Misurell-Mitchell is a composer, lecturer, flutist and vocal artist, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has been a featured composer at Art Chicago, the University of North Carolina – Greensboro New Music Festival, the International Alliance for Women in Music Congress in Beijing, the Voices of Dissent series at the Bowling Green College of Musical Arts, the Randspiele Festival in Berlin. For many years she was a Co-Artistic Director and performer with CUBE Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. Her most recent CD, Vanishing Points, music for solo, duo, quartet was chosen by Peter Margasak of The Chicago Reader as one of the top five new music recordings in “Our Favorite Music of 2013”.

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 10.26.50 AMW.J.T. Mitchell teaches in both the English and the Art History departments at the University of Chicago. He also edits the interdisciplinary journal, Critical Inquiry, a quarterly devoted to critical theory in the arts and human sciences. He works particularly on the history and theories of media, visual art, and literature, from the eighteenth century to the present. His work explores the relations of visual and verbal representations in the culture and iconology (the study of images across the media). At the University of Chicago this quarter, he is teaching a class entitled “Aesthetics of Media: Image, Music, Text.”

All MAPH students are encouraged to attend this exciting, one-of-a-kind event. We hope to see you there!


MLK Events & Other Happenings

Happy second week! Now that we’re well and truly into the swing of winter quarter, we’re lucky enough to have a break from classes next Monday for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (Fun Fact: his birthday is actually on Friday. MLK shares his birthday with Danish footballer Nicolai Jørgensen and Latvian basketball player Aija Putniņa, whereas January 18, of course, is the birthday of 16th-century Italian-English composer Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder.)

Anyway, if you feel like doing something fun and productive with your day off, then you’ve come to the right blog post! The university has loads of events this weekend, from a ceremony in the chapel to a huge variety of great service events. The links below should help you to plan an excitingly elongated wintry weekend.

Today, Monday 11th at 6 p.m in the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the university will hold its annual MLK Commemoration Celebration. Van Jones, CNN Contributor and Author, will offer MLK2016.web_.900x400.x2.05the keynote address.  The program also features a conversation with special guest Nikki Giovanni, Poet and Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech University, and Theaster Gates, Professor in the Department of Visual Arts and the College and Director of Arts + Public Life. Find out more about this event here!

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