Humanities Faculty Scholarship Recognized

In April 2010, the outgoing Robert Ryan Professor of the Humanities, Michael Trotti, associate professor of history, presented the results of his research project in a public lecture to the campus community titled "An Obituary for the Era of Lynching: Racial Violence in the Postbellum South Reconsidered."

The lecture represented the first fruits of Trotti's three-year research project on legal and extralegal violence in the South after the Civil War, a project he conducted during his tenure as Ryan Professor. The professorship was made possible by a generous bequest from IC professor emeritus Robert Ryan. It is awarded every three years on a competitive basis to eligible humanities faculty in the Departments of Art History, English, History, Modern Languages and Literatures, Philosophy and Religion, Speech Communication, and Writing. The stipend and reduced teaching time are intended to support a specific scholarly, pedagogical, or curricular project proposed by the applicant.

"It has truly been an honor to serve as the Ryan professor," Trotti says. The professorship has provided him with time to focus on his research, which examines lynching in a broader context of legal execution and racial murder. The idea for the project evolved out of the last chapter of his book, The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

For Trotti, research on this topic was a real process of discovery. He found that he had to reinterpret much of the scholarship on this subject. "It is a very different thing than historians understood it to be. And the questions I ask continue to evolve. When I began this project, I conceived of it being a smaller project. The deeper I go, the more interesting the questions become. The project has become much more meaningful and broader." The time, the funding, and the support he received as the Robert Ryan Professor of the Humanities made a huge difference in driving the project forward. According to Professor Trotti, "Having the funding and the time over the last three years has been especially important. As the project unfolded, I was able to go research each piece of it. That process was like finding the center." Trotti made 10 different trips to the Library of Congress and reviewed 1,200 articles on capital punishment in the course of his research. "Because the court records were limited, the richest understanding came from looking at papers," he says.

The first of several articles based on this research, "The Scaffold’s Revival," is forthcoming in the Journal of Social History. His next article will focus on developing a new context for understanding racial violence in the South. Eventually he hopes that this project will evolve into a full-length book.

Trotti says that the journey he traveled in pursuing this research topic is one he shares actively with his students as he guides them through their own research efforts. "I show my students my first and second drafts. I show them what came out in print. Nobody approaches a project and finds that the first words you wrote are the final ones. Things change. The ideas and the writing evolve. I can speak to my students from my own experience with regard to that process."

Hugh Egan, professor in the English department, has been named the new Robert Ryan Professor of the Humanities.