Researcher of the Month
English major (Teacher Preparation program), Japanese Studies minor; Class of 2019
Research Mentor: Dr. Douglas Pfeiffer,
Alexandra Rivera, a student in the combined BA/MA English Teacher preparation program, is majoring in
English with a minor in Japanese Studies. She is currently working on an honors thesis
Literary Fraudulence in Allegory and Fanfiction through Dante’s Divine Comedy” under the direction of Prof. Douglas Pfeiffer (
English Department), and is a participant in the English Honors Program as well as the URECA summer
program. In addition to her aspirations to be a Dante Scholar, Alexandra also hopes
to spend a few years in Japan through the Japanese Exchange Teacher program upon completing
her master’s degree and teacher certification; and later on plans to pursue a graduate
degree in English.
Alexandra first discovered a passion for reading Dante in 8th grade – but is happy to be at the point now to be able to explore this passion in depth: “ I knew that I wanted to do more with it but I didn’t know what. Now, I’m finally at the level where I think I can.” She gained a strong foundation in Dantean studies by taking HUI 235: Love and Tragedy in the Middle Ages (with Prof. Peter Caravetta) in the spring semester of freshman year; and just recently was one of two undergraduates given permission to take Prof. Pfeiffer’s doctoral seminar course, EGL 605, on Problems in Genre and Convention: The Epic, a course which has greatly enhanced her preparation to do a senior thesis. Asked about the prospect of writing a 30 to 40-page senior thesis (which she will be completing by spring 2019), Alexandra reflects: “ I think that writing a thesis, especially in the humanities, gives you an opportunity to express: ‘I love this and I’m passionate about it and this is why it matters. I’m going to show you why it matters!’ It’s a really empowering moment!"
At SB, Alexandra serves as an officer for Alpha Nu Zeta, the English Honor Society; and is a member of the English Honors Program’s Student Advisory Board. One year ago, she was selected for the Women’s Leadership Council which matches high potential women undergraduates with top women leaders affiliated with Stony Brook University. Through her affiliation with the Women’s Leadership Council, Alexandra was given the valuable opportunity to participate in a part-time summer internship this summer at Folio Literary Management. Alexandra graduated from Commack High School (2015) and is an avid reader and language learner (having already made great strides in Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and beginning Mandarin). Below are excerpts from her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. Tell me about
your research project, and how you became involved.
Alexandra. I’m doing my research on Dante—specifically his Divine Comedy. My aim is to cast a new light on imitation in epic poetry by looking at Dante’s Divine Comedy through the lens of modern fanfiction. I’ve been exploring the possibilities of extending the notion of epic continuity or lineage in ancient texts to modern “copying” of intellectual property in fanfiction.
I began by paying close attention to instances of authorial insecurity in Dante – moments in which the author questions his own originality: for example, Dante the Pilgrim’s encounter with Geryon, the monster of Fraud (Can XVII). And I began asking: How is this any different from fan fiction today? Why is it different? And that let me to examine moments of authorial doubts in fanfiction texts such as Twilight, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, and Sylvain Reynard’s Gabriel’s Inferno, where you can tell that the authors are copying a certain element from a previous source text.
Karen. When or how did you first discover Dante?
I can’t remember exactly what made me pick up that book of all books, but I do remember reading Dante in 8 th grade on my own, and doing a book presentation on it… and becoming captivated by the text even though I didn’t understand everything I was reading…. Then, when I came to SB, I actually took my first Dante-specific class through Prof. Caravetta’s HUI 235: Love and Tragedy in the Middle Ages. And it just enlightened my whole experience of what I had read previously on my own. … I didn’t take that Dante class until spring of 2016. And all through high school I didn’t really touch it. But it was always in the back of my mind. I knew that I wanted to do more with it but I didn’t know what. Now, I’m finally at the level where I think I can.
I chose to work on Dante for my senior thesis project--that was a given. And this past semester, I took my first graduate-level course with my thesis advisor, Prof. Douglas Pfeiffer on Problems in Genre and Convention: The Epic. We read Homer, Virgil and Dante. It was an amazing class, and I realized all the connections I had been missing because I hadn’t previously read these other amazing epics in this literary tradition. It was an altering experience in terms of the research. I learned a lot from the graduate students, and I also got a chance to write and do a presentation on Dante. My paper was on Dante the pilgrim (the character going through the text) and Dante the poet. Are they the same? Do they come to a point later on where become the same person? I did a whole exploration just into that. It was a really great exercise to sort out in my head how I see them and how I interpret them as characters, and it has really helped me prepare for my current project.
So for your honors thesis project, what are you expected to produce?
Next spring I have to submit 30-40 pages for my thesis.
Even though you are in the early stages of the project, can you explain to me what
for you is the value of doing a thesis?
I think’s an amazing experience just to understand how the research process in academia works—to understand the process by looking into books that scholars have written, to find out what dissertations are being written, and to discuss with colleagues these materials in depth. I think that writing a thesis, especially in the humanities, gives you an opportunity to express: “I love this and I’m passionate about it and this is why it matters. I’m going to show you why it matters!” It’s a really empowering moment! Theoretically, it should be the most enjoyable thing you do—as long as you let it be driven by your passions and enjoy it, instead of stressing over how much work it is to write. When you let yourself enjoy it, amazing things can happen. I think it’s a phenomenal process!
How difficult is it to keep your focus and not be overwhelmed by all the critical
literature already out there?
My advisor has been very helpful. He has been giving me a lot of tips that make it so much easier than if I were doing it on my own. We came up with a reading list before the semester ended. That way, I can pace myself this summer with what I’m reading. I’m mostly focusing on source texts right now.
And I take a lot of notes. Usually I’ll read through a canto and I’ll write my own annotations, and then look at the academic notes and see how everything connects. I try to identify: Is there an idea here? Is there something that will make my point? When I do find something to latch onto ... that’s my favorite part of the process. I like finding the connections, even if it’s a stretch. The further stretch it is, the more I enjoy it. And then I go back to consulting with my advisor by drafting a paragraph or two to flesh out the idea—to see if I’m on the right track or not.
Do you have any advice regarding the thesis process?
Start early! I actually asked Professor Pfeiffer to be my advisor a year ago. And I’m still not technically “starting” the process until the coming fall. For me, participating in URECA has also been very helpful. I plan to have 75% of the thesis done by the end of the summer. It is going to make my thesis that much stronger when it comes time to draft, edit and revise it because I’ve already spent the majority of the summer putting work into it. I do intend to come out of URECA having the majority of it completed!
This summer also gave me the opportunity to not have to worry about financials or anything else. I finally have the chance to hole up in the stacks and just do my research—just do what I love. It’s my passion. I’m glad that I have the means to do it. And to get a leg up on the process.
Sounds like you have really found your niche in the honors program here.
I have to admit the English Honors program is one of my favorite things about Stony Brook. I tell the director, Prof. Robert Kaplan, all the time that I never intended to join it… but that I am so glad that I did it and that I was recommended and nominated to do it. There is no experience like it!
Who nominated you?
Prof. Bente Videbaek—back when I took my first English class, English 204 (Spring 2016). At the time, I had doubts as to whether I would even make it as an English major, but she encouraged me and gave me that confidence that I can do this and that I’m going to excel in it. I pushed myself. And it has been the most rewarding experience.
I understand you also participate in the Women in Leadership Council.
Yes, I just became a member this past summer... And that too is one of the most phenomenal opportunities that this campus offers! The mentor I got matched up is amazing. She has really helped me to branch out in areas that I didn’t consider before. She recommended me for an internship at Folio Literary management, a publishing agency. I’m doing that part-time this summer, and it has been such a learning experience for me. Being part of the Women’s Leadership Council has helped me to realize the realities of the job market and how to navigate and prosper in it. What they do for young women on this campus is spectacular. I’m really honored to be a part of it.
Did you come to SB with the goal of being an English major? What are your future plans?
Yes. I am continuing with the Teacher Prep program. I’m going to student teach the fall after my senior year. I’m also in the BA-MA program which gives me one extra year to finish all my master’s work, including a thesis. When that’s done, I am looking into the Japanese Exchange Teacher Program (JET). I think I would like to do that for 1-2 years and then apply to graduate programs . Teaching is what I see myself doing—whether at the secondary school level or college level. I want to give back all the knowledge that I’ve learned.
One last question. Do you anticipate staying with Dante for your master’s thesis?