Friday, October 20, 2017

Interview: Dr. Phillip Serrato, leading Professor on Gothic and Horror in Children's Literature at SDSU

Shortly after the round table discussion in early October, NCSCL's Graduate Assistants, Andrea Kade and Chris Deming, spoke with Professor Serrato about the recent panel event and how the children's literature program evolved over the years. We learn how an intellectual restlessness motivates his evolving research interests and discover what "strange things" are taking place in his classroom. 



Position: Associate Professor & Undergraduate Director, San Diego State University
Places of Education: University of California, Riverside (BA, MA, Ph.D.)
Teaching Experience: Fullerton College and San Diego State University

Andrea: You recently participated in a round table discussion with other SDSU children’s literature professors. Can you tell us how you and your colleagues influence each other’s perspectives? Is there any moment during the discussion that stood out in your mind?

Professor Serrato: I think our children’s lit faculty inspire each other in many ways. When we find out or realize the different, innovative approaches everyone is taking, it’s invigorating, or at least it is for me. It makes me want to be a better scholar and a better teacher, and it energizes my excitement for our children’s literature program overall. Panel discussions like the one held last week make me want to explore the new territories that I see my colleagues delving into. It also underscores just how brilliant my colleagues are, which leaves me feeling like I have a lot of catching up to do! One of the highlights of that roundtable discussion was its demonstration of our children’s literature program as a multifaceted one distinguished by an array of interests that include childhood studies, queer YA, gothic and horror, and aesthetics. I’m hoping the audience at the panel walked away with a sense of the vibrancy of our program as well as a sense of the vibrancy of children’s literature as a field of study. 

During the conversation I got to thinking again—and I say again because it’s an idea I’ve brought up with classes at different points—about the difference between children’s literature and literature for children. The phrase “children’s literature,” is generally taken to suggest a specific audience…indeed, the organization of a literature around a particular audience. But when Dr. [Joseph] Thomas began talking about aesthetics—the recognizable tropes and features by which one can identify children’s literature—it got me thinking about the ways in which one can disarticulate concerns about audience. Talking about children’s literature as a genre can be separate from discussing literature for children, which by virtue of the preposition “for” entails a particular audience. This opens the door to treating children’s literature as any other type of literature.

Andrea: How has the children’s literature program changed over your tenure here at SDSU?

Professor Serrato: I’ve been here for 12 years and in that time it has changed quite a bit. Alida Allison, June Cummins, Jerry Griswold, and Carole Scott all welcomed me into this program but have retired. Personally, I miss them dearly. As a program we miss their specializations in areas like international children’s literature, classic American children’s literature, Jewish-American children’s literature, and picture book theory. We haven’t been able to fully restock our faculty roster—note to SDSU: we need more English & Comparative Literature faculty!—but we have been able to bring in Dr. Joseph Thomas and most recently Dr. Angel Matos. We’ve thus managed to gain expertise in areas like children’s poetry, fan fiction, and queer YA.. Our program has been transformed but the vibrancy remains. Indeed, one of the nice things about our children’s literature program—which in all honesty is emblematic of the English & Comparative Literature department at SDSU--is what I like to call the “intellectual restlessness” of my colleagues. Our faculty is moving into different fields and different directions all the time. This is why our department is constantly producing new and exciting forms of scholarship and offering new types of courses.

Chris: You mentioned at the panel that you had shelved a research project on Chicano masculinity and moved into a completely different area. Describe to us what brought about this sudden change and what your new project is about? Did it stem from the sort of “intellectual restlessness” that you mention before?

Professor Serrato: Well, I wrote my dissertation on masculinity in Chicanx literature, film, and performance. The usual route one follows when publishing one’s first book is to expand and revise the dissertation. But by the time I filed my dissertation, I was already moving on to other projects and into other areas. When I first came to SDSU most of the research work I was doing and which I continued to do was in Chicanx children’s lit. Over the past 5 or so years, I’ve been increasingly veering toward gothic and horror studies—a research interest that I’ve harbored since my undergraduate days. For years, though, I had been holding myself to the expectation that I would turn the dissertation into my first book. One day a year or so ago I was talking with my friend and colleague, Dr. Michael Borgstrom, about the masculinity project and I must have been talking about it in very lukewarm terms because he simply asked/told me, “Why are you working on that when your intellectual energy right now is in gothic?” This was tremendously liberating because I had been illicitly asking myself the same question! In that moment I committed myself to the book on children’s gothic, which I had actually already begun plotting, and I haven’t looked back. At the moment, I am thoroughly enjoying the research and writing that I am doing.

Andrea: It must feel good to be given a second validation, that it’s okay to let go of something you’ve spent so much time on to pursue an area that you are really passionate about.

Professor Serrato: There was definitely a guilt built into the shelving of the masculinity project. On the one hand I already had a lot of material completed in the form of the dissertation and the revision work I had already undertaken. On the other hand, masculinity in Chicanx literature and film is an important subject to address. But perhaps because of intellectual restlessness I was already moving onto something else. Gothic and horror are intrinsically fun and fascinating. To be able to focus on this as a scholar and teacher is an exhilarating next move for me to make in my career, and I’m grateful that in this department I have the opportunity to do so.

Chris: You’ve discussed in the past that you were an astrophysics major before switching over to English and literature. What aspects of literature drew you into switching majors? Do you pull any of your scientific background into your research today?

Professor Serrato: For me, there is not much disparity between astrophysics and literature. Initially, what drew me to astrophysics is the same thing that draws me to literature. Both provide an opportunity to have profoundly beautiful and philosophically powerful aesthetic experiences. In astrophysics, you’re exploring the cosmos and in literature it’s prose and poetry and imagery and ideas. When I initially declared astrophysics as my undergraduate major, it was a result of my high school not presenting the humanities as a viable career option. But I knew I loved literature. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I read my sophomore year in high school, showed me that literature can be affectively stirring as well as critically powerful. I struggled between my childhood love for astronomy and my interest in literature, but as I always tell students, “the rest of your life is a long time, so you better make sure you like it.” When I give that advice, it emanates from my own experience. Making the switch was the best thing I ever did.

Now, in literary studies we are always pulling from different disciplines, like psychology and sociology. Calculus and physics just happen to be other fields from which I draw when studying or teaching literature. It is worth noting that scientific language is built into literary analysis in a lot of ways anyway, like when we talk about narrative trajectory or polyvalence. Sometimes I just might go a little bit further conceptualizing things vis-à-vis calculus or physics.

Andrea: This semester you are teaching an undergraduate course, Stranger Things. Can you tell us more about this course?

Professor Serrato: (breaking into a grin) It has been a fun, exhilarating course! The students I have are brilliant and an absolute joy. I hope they know how much I admire and appreciate them. They are coming up with these great ideas that hadn’t even occurred to me and this is making the show even more interesting and meaningful. I keep telling them, “I don’t know about you, but I’m learning a lot!” I don’t know if a professor is supposed to say something like that, but it’s the truth. Collaboratively we’ve managed to come up with great insights into the show by bringing to bear upon it multiple approaches.  We’ve talked about the gothic literary tradition, the queer child, the archaic mother, the bourgeois family. Being able to explore the show through the lens of diverse aesthetic, critical, and theoretical methodologies has allowed us to realize a complexity and significance to the show that people might not ordinarily attribute to a television series.

One of the most interesting aspects of this show is how it’s reminiscent of gothic fiction. A lot of early gothic is set in some kind of remote past yet reflects contemporaneous issues. With Stranger Things we have a 21st century TV show set in the 80s, which I guess for young people is a remote past, but speaking to our contemporary moment. We are thus looking at Stranger Things not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a text that speaks to current issues like surveillance culture and the modern family. In short, it is interesting how the show turns to the past to speak to the present.

Andrea: And you are including in the course season two of Stranger Things even though it won’t come out until the end of October. Do you expect any challenges from not having access to the material ahead of time?

Professor Serrato: We are having a viewing party on October 27th when we will all watch the first episode of the new season together and thus begin the work of figuring out, together, what we are going to do with it. Going into the semester I had sketched out a lot of themes and ideas that I wanted to touch upon for the first season, which I had already seen multiple times. But going into season two, I have no idea what to expect or what I’ll be teaching. It’s really going to be an exercise in “let’s make it up as we go along.” But I am optimistic that it is going to go well on the basis of the ambition and sophistication with which these students have approached the first half of the semester. We will see how themes from the first season are extended and what new themes and issues arise. At the very least, on the basis of the trailers that we’ve seen, season two looks promising.

Chris: Seems like a really unique opportunity for them, especially since the gothic is all about the unknown and now you are confronting the unknown in the form of an unreleased season of brand new episodes.

Professor Serrato: That’s actually a really good way to put it.  In the process what will hopefully get modeled is the fact that literary analysis and textual studies are not about the acquisition of pre-developed knowledge and insight. It’s about generating readings of texts as we encounter them. With season two we will be in the position of collaboratively seeing what we can do with a text—actually, a series of episodes—that we are all encountering for the first time. I’ve lucked out because one couldn’t ask for a better group of students with whom to attempt this type of a teaching/learning approach.

Andrea: As a teacher, scholar and parent, can you provide any advice for those in a similar position, or for students who struggle to balance work, school, and social/family life? Any obstacles you have had to personally overcome?

Professor Serrato: One always has a multitude of obligations that one is trying to tend to and an assortment of goals and ambitions that one wants to pursue, so one always tries to strike some kind of balance. Ultimately, you never figure out how to strike that balance, and the best you can hope for is doing the best you can—as cliché as that sounds. If one can establish a routine, as precarious as routines always are, I think that is your best shot at trying to meet your different responsibilities.

For me this means making time to advance my research, complete class prep, take care of undergraduate director duties, take my younger son to and from school, help both sons with homework, take care of domestic chores like dishes and the yard, and overall just be responsible to my students, my colleagues, and my family. All the while, I try to get in a run or a bike ride because being a literature professor and researcher is not a healthy lifestyle owing to the amount of time we have to simply sit down and read and write. For me certain things are non-negotiable, like family movie time and pizza night. I’m also adamant that as devoted as I am to my work as a professor and researcher and ECL colleague, my family never feels second to my work. Years ago when I was a graduate student I remember reading some scholarly monograph in which the author concluded his acknowledgments thanking his children whose “lasting impression of their father,” he said, “would be of him hunched over his computer.” When I read that I just thought, “No.”

Whatever one’s situation, one has to try to organize one’s time according to the priorities that one sets for oneself. I haven’t exactly figured out how to do this…I just keep trying on a daily basis. Every day, though, I am grateful for the opportunities I have and for the people around me and I try to be as helpful and productive as I can.

Chris: Are there any books you’d recommend to those who are interested in the fields you study or for any other reason?

Professor Serrato: With regard to children’s gothic, Anna Jackson recently edited a collection titled New Directions in Children’s Gothic: Debatable Lands. It’s a good start for getting a sense of the type of scholarship that is going on in the field. Also, anything by Chloe Buckley, who has what sounds like a fascinating book on children’s gothic coming out November 30. For horror studies right now I’m really into the work of Xavier Aldana Reyes. And as regards Chicanx children’s literature the work of U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, especially his verse novels Downtown Boy and Cinnamon Girl, and the poetry collections of the late Francisco Alarcón I always find dazzling and recommend to people. For “fun” I’m really into Semiotext(e)’s Interventions series. And I’m trying to wrestle with flarf poetry in the form of the aptly titled Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf, which is something Dr. Thomas made me aware of. The pleasure of these titles is that they push me to think in more expansive, more unfamiliar ways, which I guess appeals to that intellectual restlessness I keep mentioning.

Has literature always been your passion, too? Contact Dr. Phillip Serrato at if you're interested in switching majors or to ask questions on how to obtain an undergraduate degree in English at SDSU. For more insight into Professor Serrato's research interests, check out the list below for selected publications. 

“A Portrait of the Artist as a Muchachito: Juan Felipe Herrera’s Downtown Boy as a Poetic Springboard into Critical Masculinity Studies.” Voices of Resistance: Essays on Chican@ Children's Literature. Ed. Larissa Mercado-López, Laura Alamillo, and Cristina Herrera. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. (in press)

“‘These are troublesome, confusing times’: Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak as Post-9/11 Gothic.” New Directions in Children's Gothic: Debatable Lands. Ed. Anna Jackson. New York: Routledge, 2017.

“You’ve Come a Long Way, Booger Breath: Juni Cortez Grows Up in the Spy Kids Films.” Critical Approaches to the Films of Robert Rodriguez. Ed. Frederick Luis Aldama. Austin: U of Texas P, 2015.

“Postmodern Guacamole: Lifting the Lid on El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.” Latinos and Narrative Media: Participation and Portrayal. Ed. Frederick Luis Aldama. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

“Ready or Not: Antonio Márez y Luna Is Thrown into the World of Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima.” Critical Insights: Coming of Age. Ed. Kent Baxter. Ipswich, MA: Salem P, 2012.

“Transforming Boys, Transforming Masculinity, Transforming Culture: Masculinity Anew in Latino and Latina Children’s Literature.” Understanding the Disenfranchisement of Latino Males: Contemporary Perspectives on Cultural and Structural Factors. Ed. Pedro Noguera, Aida Hurtado and Edward Fergus. New York: Routledge, 2011. 

“‘What Are Young People to Think?’: The Subject of Immigration and the Immigrant Subject in Francisco Jiménez’s The Circuit.” The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature. Ed. Julia Mickenberg and Lynne Vallone. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

“Promise and Peril: The Gendered Implications of Pat Mora’s Pablo’s Tree and Ana Castillo’s My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove.” Children’s Literature 38 (2010).

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