Rosemary Erickson Johnsen
A British literature scholar and the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, Dr. Rosemary Erickson Johnsen was the perfect recruit to co-design a Humanities course where Governors State University (GSU) student veterans could articulate their war experiences.
“I understand the need for and the value of programs like this. My father did two tours in Vietnam, and he does not talk about it. End of discussion. So what begins to converge is what I know about it personally and my academic and teaching background,” said Johnsen, who co-wrote the Dialogues on the Experience of War grant. In conjunction with Dr. Andrae Marak, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Johnsen has brought a unique opportunity to students at GSU.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) selected the GSU project—one of 15 nationally—and is providing $100,000 funding for the eight-week course, War, Trauma, and the Humanities, this fall. The grant will also cover the cost to train five student veterans who will be embedded in the classroom, drawing on their own experiences to lead group discussions on poetry, films, memoirs, oral histories—even soldiers’ letters during a unit that focuses on women in combat. An end-of-semester town hall meeting and spring roundtable discussion are part of the inaugural project Johnsen is team-teaching with Marak.
The humanities—the study of the human experience through literature, art, music, and other cultural expressions—have long been used as a means of understanding and expressing feelings about war. From Homer’s reflections on the Trojan War to Warsan Shire's poetic portrayal of today's refugees, people have long used the arts as an outlet for the complex feelings brought about by war.
“The Iliad and Odyssey are about war and what happens after. It’s a way to capture the human experience that is unrivaled," said Johnsen, pointing also to the graphic imagery of World War I depicted by British soldiers Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg.
“Their work contributes to our understanding of what it was like and develops empathy,’’ Johnsen said.
Johnsen has published extensively on the inter-war period between World War I and World War II in Great Britain, and her piece on the practice of “gaslighting” was recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a scholar primarily of crime fiction, though, with a particular interest in "contemporary representations of urban spaces and the increasingly complex border between the genre and literary fiction."
Johnsen also has expertise in women's literature and is affiliated faculty with the GSU Gender and Sexuality Studies program. A third-generation Michigan State University graduate, Johnsen earned her Ph.D. there and has been teaching, researching, and serving at GSU since 2006. In 2015, she won the prestigious Faculty Excellence Award for her work in all three areas.
GSU Newsroom: Why is the War, Trauma, and the Humanities course important for GSU students?
Johnsen: Our demographic is ideally suited to contribute to this and to benefit from it. Many of the students here are older and coming back or starting later. I see our veterans as an intensive subset of the students here. They are committed to education, and they've had life experience.
This course is important, internally at GSU, because it provides an opportunity for students to contribute to a better understanding and dialogue on campus. That’s a clear benefit to GSU. Also, this is a prestigious grant and external recognition that there are good things going on here.
GSU Newsroom: How does literary study in higher education help interpret today’s political climate?
Johnsen: The humanities have been devalued in higher education. This is a mistake on so many levels. These students learn valuable skills—critical thinking, analysis of text and context, and oral/written communication—that prepare them for jobs now and in the future. People who engage the humanities not only encounter some of the great thinking of the past, they develop greater empathy and improve their communication skills through close study of literature. There's been a lot of research done on reading and its effects on the human brain that supports these claims.
GSU Newsroom: What conclusion do you come to in your gaslighting piece?
Johnsen: What we've seen in the last year or so is a crisis of people not being able to understand when they are being bamboozled. People skilled in literary study are better placed to sort through misinformation, fake news, and the misrepresentation of implications. For example, the subject of my dissertation, Patrick Hamilton, wrote Gaslight in 1938, the same year Time Magazine named Hitler "Man of the Year." From Hamilton's play we get the term "gaslighting," which is regrettably relevant these days. Looking closer at the original text helps us better understand what gaslighting is and how to resist it. Literary study offers tools for attentive reading; dealing with unreliable narrators in novels turns out to be good preparation for sniffing out misdirection in statements by public figures.
GSU Newsroom: In your opinion, how did the GSU Faculty Excellence Award influence the NEH grant process?
Johnsen: It’s encouraging. I’m truly grateful to my colleagues for recognizing my work through the Faculty Excellence Award.