Don’t Be an Isolated Genius: An Interview with Patrick Timmis (Ph.D., August 2021)


Patrick Timmis is graduating in August with his Ph.D. in English (defended in May), and he obtained the Graduate Certificate in Interdisciplinary Medieval and Renaissance Studies. His dissertation, “Performing the Protestant State: Preaching and Playing from Marprelate to Milton,” was directed by Professor Sarah Beckwith. Starting in the fall, Dr. Timmis will be a visiting assistant professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

You’ve just defended your dissertation a month ago. What is your dissertation about?

My dissertation is essentially a study of live performance culture in London from 1589 to the 1640s. The two major venues for live performance were the public theaters and the pulpits. A number of outdoor pulpits functioned a lot like outdoor theaters. They had similar audience capacity, and preachers had to have similar skills in rhetoric that actors had. Both had to be able to hold an audience. In an older version of theatrical scholarship, the focus tended to be on the pulpit’s criticism of the theaters, especially Puritan rejections of the theaters. The focus was not just on what’s happening onstage, but also what’s going on in the audience. Fights were breaking out, people were soliciting prostitutes—things like that. In more recent scholarship, there has been an interest in both the religious commitments of playwrights as well as the political commitments of preachers. But this scholarship has tended to regard the religious and political identities of the period as fairly static and monolithic. My dissertation shows, on the contrary, that Protestant identity in the 16th and early 17th centuries was volatile, and this volatility is bound up with the leading playwrights and preachers of the period.

How did you get interested in this topic?

When I applied to Duke, I had a sense that I wanted to do something with the interplay of literature and theology. But something that I discovered at Duke—because I simply hadn’t done much of this—was that I love reading history and thinking historically about literature. I came to really appreciate reading literary texts on their own terms, and to be more reflective about the differences between the historical moment in which a text is produced and the historical moment from which I myself read a text. I came into Duke thinking I would write a dissertation on Geoffrey Chaucer. But in my free time during my coursework, I read a lot about 17th-century English church history and Reformation history. One day it just hit me: I spend all of my free time learning about the 17th century, so why am I trying to do a late medieval dissertation? Around this time, I also took Sarah Beckwith’s course on tragedy and David Aers’s course on Milton. Those classes were my favorites at Duke; they made it clear that I wanted to focus on the early modern period.

How has writing a dissertation changed you?

I learned that it was possible to pursue a passion project that was also pragmatic. I learned to write and rewrite, trying to get it right, while also maintaining realism about the fact that what I am doing is not something just in my head. The dissertation does not have to be all or nothing, or a perfectly conceived book by the time it’s defended. It can be five essays around a theme you love that help you understand that theme better and prepare you for a job.

There was a period when I was very cynical about the dissertating process. I thought, “What am I even doing? No one will ever read this. There’s no impact on the real world.” I found that not to be true. You can be practical.

You successfully navigated the job market, landing a visiting assistant professorship at Hillsdale College during what was by all accounts an incredibly difficult year. What advice would you give to someone getting ready to go on the market this upcoming year?

First of all, I would advise participating in Maria Wisdom’s job market coaching group [Dr. Wisdom is Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement for the Humanities]. She advised us that 2020 was the year not to be shy, the year to really leverage any connections we had. So I was not shy. I emailed people at a number of different English departments in the country that I thought might be good fits and might have an opening. About thirty percent of them emailed me back. Several of them read and commented on my CV, and I formed a warm acquaintance in a couple instances. This sort of work was familiar to me. I did this when I was applying to graduate school. One thing I was struck by then and again this year is that there are a lot of good people in our profession. Sometimes I think we forget that because we tend to focus on frustrating aspects of the bureaucracy. But there are wonderful teachers at universities, and they love to help as much as they can.

I think job applicants can sometimes get locked into the notion that we get jobs through this rigorous, formal processes. I don’t know if that’s true. Quite often what seems to tip the scale are personal relationships. This networking resulted in my getting a job offer at Hillsdale College.

The job market looks entirely different to someone who’s getting ready to enter it than for somebody who is just starting graduate school. What advice do you have for someone just starting out and is worried about job prospects?

Take every opportunity that you can to teach during graduate school. At Duke, that’s difficult, and you have to think outside the box. I had done a lot of online high school teaching, and Hillsdale is interested in starting an online program for high school education. Throughout my time at Duke, I thought I was teaching online high school just to pay the bills. But in fact, it ended up being a decisive part of my CV. I once thought that high school teaching is not applicable to the college job market. But when seeking advice from the DGS of UVA’s English department, I asked whether I should try to teach community college instead of high school. He said, “Teaching is teaching.” He emphasized that teaching a novel to high school seniors is every bit as applicable to teaching a book to a nineteen-year-old freshman in college.

The other thing I would advise is to start thinking about publishing earlier in your time as a graduate student. When I was starting out, there was a mentality that you should not try and publish anything until you are nearly done with the dissertation, and this first piece should be perfect and in some very prestigious journal—Speculum or Shakespeare Quarterly or PMLA. That’s just not true. I think this is often bound with an unhealthy idea about the dissertation—namely, that it must be perfect, that it must be something that you will stand by for the rest of your life. I was able to shake free of this notion thanks to the advice of one of my committee members, David Aers. Early on he told me, “Remember that your dissertation is not your life’s work. It’s what you do so you can start your life’s work.”

We cannot write well in a vacuum. When I was applying for graduate school, I had no one to give me good feedback on my writing sample. My advisor had moved back to England and was off email. So I thought if I sent it to a journal, then maybe I’d get a review. I did—and I got a review that was really helpful for rewriting the article. What struck me about the whole thing was that submitting to journals was very easy to do. I emailed a paper to some people, and then they emailed me back about it. I wasn’t inconveniencing them. It’s what editors do. Don’t wait until your piece is perfect to send it out.

What advice would you give to someone who is just entering graduate school as a medievalist or early modernist at Duke?

Find friends. The Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies is really great. Go to CMRS events. That’s one great way to build community. Six years is a long time. That’s a significant portion of your life. And there’s no guarantee of a job at the end. You have to find ways to be able to say that this is a well-spent portion of your life regardless of the outcome, and I think that’s in community. If graduate school ends up taking you away from your commitments to your communities, that’s not a good use of six years. You cannot be an isolated genius.