Student Spotlight: Emily Coccia

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Emily Coccia

How did you decide on the topic of your research?

I started working with my research topic during my Literary History I course with Mimi Yiu. While reading Beowulf, I kept thinking about the similarities between Grendel and Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. While the two works were written during very different historical moments, both include a “monster” whose villainy seems to have been transmitted through the matrilineal line. Both characters seem condemned through overly close connections to their mothers without a father figure to mitigate that influence. Obviously these readings work well within a psychoanalytic critical tradition, but I was more interested in their implications from a critical feminist perspective. Over the semesters, this developed into an interest in the depictions of sons of absent male fathers, the historical evolution of obstetric theory, and theoretical explorations of motherhood. Eventually, finding the term “memetic fertility” in Valerie Rohy’s queer theory essay, “On Homosexual Reproduction” finally provided me with the term for the concept of women’s threating ideological influence that I had been fixating on in so many of my essays. From this point, it was just a matter of picking which Shakespeare texts to use, so I decided to draw from one comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to show what happens when the threat is subsumed, and two tragedies, Macbeth and Coriolanus, to consider the differences between wife and genetic mother.

How did you become involved in research?

I first became involved in research through the Carroll Fellows Initiative. During the Forum, all students undertake a two-semester independent research project. I investigated how the implementation of Eating Disorders Awareness Week programming on university campus affected rates of eating disorders, including formal diagnoses and self-reported diagnoses and behaviors, among 18-24 year old female students.

What was your favorite part about the research process?

As nerdy as this might sound, I’ve loved getting to throw myself into some of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I had already done quite a bit of work with Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but this was my first chance to engage in critical scholarship with Coriolanus in a meaningful way.

What was the most challenging part of the research process?

The most challenging part has been making sure that I’m not missing an existing work on the topic. Especially with an author as extensively studied as Shakespeare, I’m constantly running back to Lau to check out a new book or searching MLA and JSTOR with a new combination of subject terms to make sure that I haven’t missed an author who might have already written about my topic. It’s probably a bit of paranoia (and definitely a form of procrastination), but it’s been challenging nonetheless.

What was the most unexpected part of the research process?

I think I’ve been most surprised by the importance of attitude and other people on my productivity. When my to-do list just reads, “Write thesis,” it’s almost impossible to get into a productive mindset, but surrounding myself with people who are either writing theses themselves or are willing to do work next to me just to keep me accountable (and off Facebook) has been an immense help. Smaller research projects always seemed more doable, especially because they had shorter timelines, but writing a thesis has taught me how important it is to find manageable goals along the way, even if it’s just a day to proofread something I already wrote.

How was Georgetown able to support you during the research process?

I’ve had absolutely wonderful faculty mentors in the English department. From my official advisor, Professor Kaplan, who has read and critiqued too many drafts to count, to my numerous unofficial mentors who have helped by talking to me during office hours and sending me helpful readings, I could not have gotten where I am without their help.

The Georgetown University Undergraduate Research Symposium, and the university as a whole, is committed to fostering interdisciplinary, intellectual dialogue. What is one experience that you have had at Georgetown that reflects this commitment?

While I’ve certainly seen professors encourage these sorts of conversations in the classroom, I have been most impressed by the sort of attitude that this environment has inspired in students. As a member of Philodemic Society, I’ve seen students from across the disciplines come together every Thursday night to bring their own intellectual perspective to the resolution up for debate. I’m consistently impressed by the members of the Society and the passion that we all have for what we study. While the night’s individual topic often lends itself more easily to certain disciplines, I’ve been impressed by watching students introduce paradigms from fields like history, economics, and international relations into philosophical and even literary debates.

Describe your research in one sentence.

I’m exploring Shakespeare’s depictions of three powerful female characters—Volumnia, Lady Macbeth, and Titania—exerting (or threatening to exert, in Titania’s case) memetic fertility, or ideological influence, over the men in their lives and how that could be seen as both working within and subverting existing paradigms for controlling women in early modern England.

What is your advice for other undergraduates who are interested in pursuing research at Georgetown?

While this advice is hard to remember in the moment, don’t get discouraged by dead ends. When it looks like someone has already written the essay you wanted to write or done the lab that you designed, try to recognize it a jumping off point where you can build on existing research either by taking it a step further or complicating a conclusion.

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