Thomas W. Howard
Department of Literature
Thomas is a PhD candidate in American literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He specializes in nineteenth-century American literature, and is particularly interested in American pragmatism, cognitive literary studies, and science studies.. His dissertation, “Pragmatic Ambiguities: Aphoristic Thinking in the American Nineteenth Century,” follows a stream of thought among nineteenth-century nonfiction authors, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William James, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who use aphoristic language to engage readers in a continuous process of interpretation.
Thomas is currently on a Fulbright research grant in Germany. He is being hosted by the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, part of Freie Universität Berlin.
- Ph.D. English and American Literature, Washington University in St. Louis (in progress)
- Dissertation: "Pragmatic Ambiguities: Aphoristic Thinking in the American Nineteenth Century"
- M.A. English Literature, Michigan State University, May 2015
- Thesis: "'I Was a Creature of Environment': Jamesian Habit in Jack London's The Iron Heel"
- B.A. English and Biblical Studies, summa cum laude, Welch College, May 2012
AWARDS, GRANTS, & FELLOWSHIPS
- Fulbright Research Grant, Germany (hosted by JFK Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin), 2020-2021
- Cornelison English Prize, 1st Place, Washington University in St. Louis, 2020
- University Summer Course Grant, Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (German Academic Exchange Service), 2019
- Somers Excellence in Teaching Award, Michigan State University, 2015
- Summer Support Fellowship, Michigan State University, 2014
- Best Graduate Essay Award, Michigan College English Association, 2012
- Picirilli-Outlaw Koine Greek Award, Welch College, 2011
- WashU Graduate Student Senate
- Co-President, 2019-2020
- Department Senator, 2018-2019
- Legislative Concerns Committee, 2018-2019
- WashU Professional and Graduate Student Coordinating Committee, 2019-2020
- WashU Graduate Professional Council, 2018-2020
- WashU Graduate School of Arts & Science Graduate Council, 2018-2020
- Executive Board Member, MSU College of Arts & Letters Alumni Association, 2014-2016
- MSU Council of Graduate Students
- Department Representative, 2014-2015
- University Committee on Curriculum, 2014-2015
- Chair, University Student Commission, City of East Lansing, 2014-2015
- Executive Board Member, MSU Association of English Graduate Students, 2014-2015
Davenport University, Department of English & Communications
- Composition (Fall 2016, Fall 2015)
- Advanced Composition (Winter 2017, Fall 2016, Winter 2016, Fall 2015)
- Professional Writing (Fall 2016, Summer 2016)
Spring Arbor University, Department of English
- College Writing (Fall 2016)
Michigan State University, Department of English (Teaching Assistant)
- Michigan: The Life and Times of Where You Are (Winter 2015)
- “Race” and “Culture” in U.S. Literature and Film (Fall 2014)
- Popular Culture in Global Perspective (Winter 2014)
- The Literature and Culture of Sports (Fall 2013)
Washington University in St. Louis, Department of English (Teaching Assistant)
- Writing 1: Technology & Selfhood (Instructor of Record, Fall 2020)
- Morality and Markets (Spring 2020)
- Making it New: Emerson and the American Renaissance, 1836-1860 (Fall 2019)
St. Louis Community College, Department of English
- College Composition I (Fall 2019)
- College Composition II (Spring 2020, Fall 2019)
Jackson College, Prison Education Initiative (all courses taught in state prisons)
- Writing Experience I (Fall 2016, Summer 2016, Fall 2015)
- Cultural Connections (Summer 2017, Winter 2017, Fall 2016)
- Poetry and Drama (Winter 2017, Winter 2016)
- Technical & Business Communication (Summer 2017)
- World Literature (Summer 2017)
Jackson College, Department of Liberal Arts
- Introduction to College Writing (Fall 2016, Winter 2016)
- Writing Experience I (Fall 2016, Winter 2016)
- Writing Experience II (Summer 2017, Winter 2016, Fall 2015)
- Cultural Connections (Winter 2017)
Speculative Tree Thinking
In his book How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013), Eduardo Kohn argues that trees, and many other nonhuman entities, create thought processes similar to humans. He makes his case based on semiotics, stating that all beings can create, interpret, and represent signs. He does not claim that trees use language, but rather that trees participate in a sensitivity toward the world that enables them to respond to sensations—to make decisions based on their environment. This is the type of “forest thinking” that Richard Powers considers in The Overstory (2018), where the dendrologist Patricia Westerford says, “A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. . . . Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.” This resembles what N. Katherine Hayles calls “unconscious cognition,” the neurological processes distinct from higher-order logical reasoning. The decisions that trees make, albeit unconsciously, still resemble an act of cognition through the intertwining network of roots, branches, and all forms of organic life dependent on the forest.
I take the stance that forest unconscious cognition is not distinctly other than human cognition, but instead both exist on a spectrum. By better understanding how trees think, humans can better engage with other cognitive processes than merely those of logical, rationalistic thinking. That is, the Enlightenment ideal of “man thinking” masks other less rational, but no less valuable, forms of thought. I argue that through “thinking with plants,” to use T. Hugh Crawford’s term, we can better understand the ways that our own cognition is like forest thinking, a type of thinking that engages with what Isabelle Stengers calls “the ragged edge of nature.” Combining these influences, I argue for “speculative forest thinking,” which is thinking that solves problems and makes decisions more like a tree’s roots rather than through logical deduction. This is the type of thinking, for example, that Henry David Thoreau describes in Walden (1854), particularly when thinking like a plant radicle. Such thinking is not uniquely human or uniquely plantlike, but rather it exists ambiguously between the two on the spectrum of cognition.
The Divided Brain
In her introduction to Thinking with Whitehead (2011), Isabelle Stengers explains that the French word expérience translates both into experience and experiment, thus expanding “experiment” to mean “an experience that implies an active, open, and demanding attention.” Such attention is not only focused, but it is also flexible. It pursues not merely what is predicable, but also what is possible. This type of experimentation is speculative, both in Whitehead’s sense in Science and the Modern World (1925) and in Donna Haraway’s multifarious acronym “SF.”
This discussion in the philosophy of science has not fully considered the role of brain structure in this experimenting process. Iain McGilchrist, in his newly reissued book The Master and His Emissary (2nd edition, 2019), argues that the left and right hemispheres of the brain contain their own worldviews—the left is more narrow and focused, the right is more open and flexible. He eschews the clichés of being “right-brained” or “left-brained,” and instead argues that both ways of seeing the world are necessary. In Stengers’s construction, experimental attention is active, open, and demanding because the entire brain participates; the “slow” science she praises in Another Science Is Possible (2018) is one that uses the whole brain.
I examine McGilchrist’s text, along with other brain imaging and split-brain research, in light of recent research in the philosophy of science. While McGilchrist provides a convincing narrative for how the two hemispheres interact, I push further into the margins. That is, I argue that experimental attention, in Stengers’s sense, fluctuates not only between the two hemispheres’ way of thinking, but also to the margins of the brain—what William James calls “consciousness beyond the margin.”
- "Thoreau's Radicle Empiricism: Arboreal Encounters and Speculative Forest Thinking," Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, vol. 25, no. 2 (2021): forthcoming.
- “Thinking Like a Tree: Human Cognition and Speculative Forest Thinking,” European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture and Environment, Granada, Spain, November 2021.
- “Thoreau’s Arboreal Encounters: A Transatlantic Re-Vision,” British Association for American Studies, virtual due to COVID-19, April 7-11, 2021.
- “Thoreau’s Radicle Empiricism: Arboreal Encounters and the Posthuman Forest,” European Society for Literature, Science & the Arts, Bergen, Norway, March 4-5.
- “‘These Brainless, Stationary Trunks Are Protecting Each Other’: Speculative Forest Thinking in the Anthropocene,” European Society for Literature, Science & the Arts, Katowice, Poland, June 17-20, 2020.
- “‘Experience Is Forever in Motion’: The Divided Brain and Experimental Thinking,” Society for Literature, Science & the Arts, Irvine, CA, November 7-9, 2019.
- “Crossing the Border between Reason and Intoxication: William James on Nitrous Oxide,” Crossing the Borders of Creation and Critique Conference, St. Louis, MO, March 1, 2019.
- “Literature as ‘Out of Mind’ Experience,” Society for Literature, Science & the Arts, Toronto, Canada, November 15-18, 2018.
- “‘Creatures of Habit’: The Role of Habits in Short Story Character Creation,” American Literature Association Symposium, Savannah, GA, October 20-22, 2016.
- “‘A Collective Murmur Goes Up from Us’: Vicarious Trauma as Motivation in The Handmaid’s Tale,” American Literature Association, Boston, MA, May 20-24, 2015.
- “William James Visits Roderick Usher: Literature as Translation of American Psychology,” Midwest Conference on Christianity and Literature, Wheaton, IL, March 20-21, 2014.
- “‘Give Me My Leg!’: The Point of Tension in O’Connor’s ‘Good Country People,’” Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, Louisville, KY, February 21-23, 2013.
- “‘The World Will Burn Green’: Survival of Morality in Grendel,” Michigan College English Association, Grand Rapids, MI, October 26, 2012.
- “Supporting Learning on the Inside: Library Services for Jackson College Students in Prison,” National Conference on Higher Education in Prison, Nashville, TN, November 3-6, 2016.