First Franciscan University student to be featured at major conference


At a conference of professional American scholars in early November, senior Joseph Zahn, a Humanities and Catholic Culture (HCC) and philosophy major, presented a research paper comparing scenes in Dante and Shakespeare, something no student at Franciscan University has ever done before.

Franciscan English professor Benjamin Alexander, who holds a doctorate in literature and political philosophy, supervised Zahn’s research project. According to Alexander, the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) Conference is a professional gathering of English and humanities professors throughout the Atlantic seaboard.

Zahn presented his paper at the conference’s Undergraduate Student Forum, in which the paper, entitled “‘Inferno’ and ‘Julius Caesar’: Bewilderment and Betrayal,” explores a scene in Dante’s “Inferno” in which Dante meets his former Latin tutor in Hell, placed there because according to Zahn and Alexander’s interpretation, the tutor “sexually abused students of his tutoring.”

In his paper, Zahn notes Dante’s shock at “seeing his former teacher in the depths of hell” might come from “those sodomistic tendencies (being) directed towards Dante … in the scene of encounter.”

Alexander views Zahn’s presentation as “a significant achievement because a Franciscan student participated on a panel with students from major state institutions,” which is unusual because, Alexander said, the Modern Language Association (MLA) has become more politically correct over the last decade or so.

Zahn presented his paper at a session on traditional literature, which, according to Alexander, usually hasn’t been featured at the conference because the MLA has been focusing on more trendy literary theories. Zahn said that he was glad to be “able to provide a Catholic perspective (on literature) in a very liberal (and progressive) environment.”

To use his own words, Zahn’s goal was “showing what a liberal education (really is) supposed to be,” building off of his background in both Franciscan’s HCC and philosophy programs.

Both Zahn and Alexander felt that simply presenting the paper was what mattered the most, rather than how people reacted to it, due to the MLA being “the epicenter of academic liberalism,” according to Alexander.

Alexander said that, all in all, he is “encouraged that the MLA is making room for students lecturing on more traditional works” over the last few years at this particular meeting.

To give his paper publicity on campus, Zahn presented it, as a practice run, to Alexander’s Epic and the Person course. Alexander said the students in that class “were very interested,” and one even “wanted to go down (to Jacksonville) and support (Zahn).”

Alexander did say that he hopes other students from the MLA conference will be able to give a lecture to a class on campus. The SAMLA Conference is held every November, usually in Atlanta, Jacksonville, or Charlotte.

As of Dec. 1, Zahn has had the opportunity to submit his paper to be published. However, this process of publication is even more selective than the SAMLA’s conference paper selection, since, according to Zahn, “only one undergraduate paper is published.”

Post-graduation, Zahn has a goal to teach in a higher education environment, whether that environment is secular or Catholic, he said. He hopes to complete an interdisciplinary Catholic program as well, a program akin to Franciscan’s HCC program.

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