College of Arts and Sciences, USF

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Dr. Tova Cooper Talks About Her Book, “The Autobiography of Citizenship: Assimilation and Resistance in US Education”

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tova Cooper, in her sixth year as an assistant professor with the English department at USF, is a prime example of the ways in which literature and other fields of study go hand in hand. Her book, “The Autobiography of Citizenship: Assimilation and Resistance in U.S. Education,” combines her love of literature, history, and education to explore the types of education programs imposed upon America’s melting pot during the early 20th century. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Cooper, whose research in the topic began in 2001, to discuss the writing and publication of “Autobiography,” as well as what we will be seeing from her in the future.

What was your inspiration for the book as a whole?
When I was at UC Irvine, I wrote a paper on Octavia Butler’s novel “Kindred” from a Hegelian perspective, and afterwards, one of the professors brought up some interesting questions that I hadn’t thought about. We got into a conversation about history, and she recommended a book that discussed Native Americans' history with the U.S. government. I came across a discussion about boarding schools that Native American children had been forcibly brought to in order to become Americanized, and I became obsessed with the topic. I started reading memoirs and autobiographies of the students, and my research expanded into a comparative analysis of citizen education programs and narratives by both students and teachers who were associated with the schools. My work became very historical, really, as a conversation that I had in passing with this professor.

Obviously you’ve done a lot of research for the book. Did you bring a lot of prior knowledge with you, or did it take a lot of specific research?
I didn’t really know anything beforehand. The first chapter is like 100 pages because I was so fascinated with everything I was learning that I was putting it into the chapter. I would give my adviser a copy, and he would tell me the chapters were too long, but then he would send questions that required acquiring more information and knowledge. I would follow the path of different critics, and then I got really interested in doing archival research. I looked at the W.E.B. DuBois papers that were on a microfilm, and then I went to the Library of Congress, which was really exciting because I found letters and questionnaires that had been written by former boarding school students. I got really enamored with the idea of archival research because when you’re going to archives, you come across these little pieces of historical documentation that offer insight into people, history and literature.

What is the most surprising or interesting thing that you came across in your research that you think really added to your book?
First, Emma Goldman has always been a hero of mine. I wanted to write about her in my book, even though at the time I didn’t think she had anything to do with citizenship education. It turns out, though, that she actually founded an anarchist school that saw itself as an alternative to these mainstream citizenship education programs that I was writing about. I found all this archival material about this anarchist school and evidence of her involvement with it that she doesn’t mention in her autobiography.

Also, when you’re writing a book, it’s really important to tie together all the different chapters. That was difficult because I was writing about Eastern European immigrants, African immigrants and Native Americans. Surprisingly, I found more links and connections within their writing, particularly in the way that the authors were drawing on what I call “extra-national sources of inspiration” for the way that they were critiquing mainstream U.S. society. There was just a lot of interface between what they were saying.

What was your writing process like?
My writing process involves reading, reading, reading. When I finish a book or an article, I’ll take a page of notes just to remind myself later what it said and how I think I might use it. After I do that, I sit down to write the chapter. Also, I’ll spend days and days writing and rewriting the first two paragraphs of the chapter over and over again, and I think there must be some logic to it, because all of a sudden I just go. I write pretty fast once I’m there, but I often spend a week writing and rewriting the first few paragraphs.

What was your experience working with an editor?
I knew I wanted to publish the book in the American Literature Initiative series because I really like the other books from that series, so they were the first people I contacted. I just sent a chapter and a proposal and they were really interested. After I sent the whole manuscript, they sent it out to readers and I got two sets of really amazing commentaries, and I really transformed the book based on them. I sent it back and we were almost good to go, except one member of the board of directors thought I might want to look at a list of 15 books that were more in his specialization. I had a deadline, and if it wasn’t published by a certain date, it would have to go into the publishing production for the following academic year. In two weeks I read the books and incorporated them into mine. Then they accepted it, and after that I had some minor copyediting-type things to do, but it was smooth sailing.

Where do you see yourself going from here in terms of both teaching and writing?
I’ve been enjoying this time having more energy to putting into my teaching. I’ve also been working on an essay, which looks at what we can derive from thinking about the Aspergian or autistic way of seeing the world. Aside from that, I’d really like to get back to working on my novel I started a couple of years ago called “Underwater Subdivision,” which is a mix between a realist novel about bleak Tampa suburban life and a sci-fi novel that has an autistic protagonist. I’d written about 100 pages before I had to stop, so I’m hoping to get back to that.

Rachel Kelleher is a senior Literary Studies major, and she is interning this spring with the Associate Chair for the English department and ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830. She can be reached at


Filed under:Arts and Sciences English    
Author:Rachel Kelleher