Faculty Profile: Devin Byker

“One thing I hope to teach students is that our assumptions about the past can erase important histories, identities, and stories—it’s a kind of confirmation bias that can end up reinforcing historical stereotypes.”

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As a first-year faculty member of English here at the College of Charleston, Dr. Devin Byker has wasted no time before getting his hands dirty and jumping in with both (literary) feet.

But before teaching courses like Introduction to Academic Writing, British Literature before 1800, Shakespeare, Literature and Consent in Renaissance England, and—coming this Fall—Queer Shakespeare, Dr. Byker became interested in the study of literature and Shakespeare in his own undergraduate and graduate studies.

“The first English class I took,” he says, “was a World Literature course, and I remember becoming totally entranced by Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and V. S. Naipaul. After I took a January-term course on Jane Austen film adaptations, there was no looking back!”

But it wasn’t until later, in his graduate studies at Boston University, that Shakespeare became a part of Dr. Byker’s life: “I was taking a lot of drama courses and felt drawn to the questions posed by theater and performances studies. In general I feel really at home in the genre of drama—the way it is pared down to a very condensed form of dialogue that can be shaped by many different speakers, how it demands a gathered audience, the way it is embodied and lived in. The field of Shakespeare studies in particular fosters a huge range of flexible and experimental inquiry that I find really inspiring and consistently expands my own intellectual horizons.”

Soon after graduating, his horizons were expanded to the College of Charleston. “My first-ever trip to Charleston,” he says, “was my campus interview at CofC. On that visit, I quickly became obsessed with the school, the campus, and the English department! I was immediately smitten with the beautiful campus and loved getting to know the vibrant community of faculty and students in the English department.” 

And now that he’s here, Dr. Byker is driven by the values and lessons he feels are important to instill in his students. Through discussion and in classrooms, he hopes to throw-on-its-head the old ideas of literature.

“I think it’s common for students to have a bit of a wary reaction to older literature, and I always hope to challenge their assumptions about the Renaissance in one way or another. One thing I hope to teach students is that our assumptions about the past can erase important histories, identities, and stories—it’s a kind of confirmation bias that can end up reinforcing historical stereotypes. Many students expect the Renaissance to be completely sexually repressed and dominated by men, so I try to draw attention to a range of the period’s female authors as well as its diverse and often startling depictions of sex and desire.

I love the vacillation between alienation and recognition that happens when we study the past.

The way we experience historical literature and culture can so often come down to an affective relation, how distant or familiar it ‘feels’ to us, but this sense becomes increasingly unstable and vertigo-like when we begin to study it in depth—I think this opens up a productive space for questions about both early modern culture as well as our own.”

 

Even outside of the classroom, Dr. Byker is always working on projects, like “a book about the way Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe’s drama depicts how we experience the world when we’re dying. A number of Renaissance writers contributed to a sophisticated tradition of writing guides to dying well that were known as the ars moriendi, or the art of dying. Many of these works are surprisingly hopeful and creative about the ways dying can be a comfortable, even inspiring, experience. 

I am also interested in Renaissance understandings of consent, and I’ve learned a lot more about this topic with my students in my Literature and Consent course this spring. It’s a topic I’m eager to keep writing about!”

And when he doesn’t have his head in a book, he loves eating Mexican food and hanging out at Charleston beaches. I’m currently on a mission to eat at every Mexican restaurant in greater Charleston. I also love that Charleston is so close to beaches—my husband and I have become especially partial toward Sullivan’s Island. Otherwise, I am an avid watcher of TV and consider it my calling to absorb everything from prestige drama to reality TV! 

Whether in Shakespeare or Southern Charm, both on and off campus, Dr. Devin Byker is always captivated by drama.