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Miami English professor wins MLA's William Riley Parker Prize


written by Vicki Prichard, College of Arts and Science

Tobias Menely
Tobias Menely
Tobias Menely, assistant professor of English at Miami University, has won the William Riley Parker Prize from the Modern Language Association of America (MLA) for an outstanding article, "The Present Obfuscation': Cowper's Task and the Time of Climate Change," published in PMLA, the association's journal of literary scholarship.

“I think the MLA was recognizing not only my essay but also the larger importance of scholars in the humanities addressing phenomena that have, too often, been left to the purview of scientists,” Menely said. “Climate, for example, can no longer be said to be, simply, a natural condition, an object of study for atmospheric chemists; it is a matter of economics, of politics, of ideology, and of representation.”

The selection committee citation for Menely’s winning article reads:

Tobias Menely’s complex essay, “’The Present Obfuscation’: Cowper’s Task and the Time of Climate Change,” sheds new light on present concerns about climate change through its evocative reading of William Cowper’s Task. The essay details how an unexplained fog in 1783, produced by a volcano in Iceland, induced poetic meditation on the disjointed nature of weather and time, and it challenges us to reconsider climatology as it relates to modern time, anthropocentric time, and the “periodicity that endows time with duration.” In the process, it gently upends Walter Benjamin’s hallowed modernist formulations of time and aura. Menely’s study of the weather in relation to secular time, history, and disenchantment is a subtle close reading of Cowper that offers surprising insights on imperialism, urbanization, the slave trade, and even greenhouses."

“The goal of the essay, and of the larger project from which it comes, is to try to understand why anthropogenic climate change is so difficult for us to apprehend,” Menely said. “How can we live through this catastrophe, this profound alteration in the geophysical conditions of life, without taking action or even really noticing it? What is it about our experience of the passing of time, in modernity, that makes temporality of climate, and of climate change, so opaque?”

Menely received his doctorate from Indiana University and his bachelor’s of arts from Beloit College. He has published essays in the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Eighteenth-Century Life, Mosaic, and Symploke. He has two manuscripts in progress titled “The Community of Creatures: Sensibility, Sovereignty, and the Voice of the Animal” and “The Climatological Unconscious.”

The MLA, with 30,000 members in 100 countries, works to strengthen the study and teaching of languages and literature. Founded in 1883, it provides opportunities for members to share their scholarly findings and teaching experiences with colleagues and discuss trends in the academy. The MLA’s oldest award, the prize for outstanding article in PMLA, was first presented in 1964. In 1968 the prize was named in memory of former editor of the journal and executive secretary of the association, William Riley Parker.


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