Introducing: Professor Joseph Loewenstein
“I don’t want to hog the graduate students—I like working with undergraduates.” Loewenstein said about working with students in his Spenser Lab, a part of the HDW. “I try to get them when they’re freshmen and sophomores because then they learn the ropes, and, by the time they’re juniors, they’re explaining how to do stuff to the graduate students.”
That’s one of the things Loewenstein loves most about working at Washington University. Loewenstein began teaching here in 1981 and has enjoyed working with undergraduates ever since.
“Right now, I’m having a terrific amount of fun working with students on the Spenser Project,” Loewenstein said. “And in general, it’s been very satisfying working with undergraduates.”
Loewenstein grew up as one of three children in Charleston, W.Va. He attended Wesleyan University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in theater. He went on to get his master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University, then spent a year studying Renaissance intellectual history at the Warburg Institute in London, and finally obtained his Ph.D. in English at Yale University in 1982.
Loewenstein didn’t always want to pursue English; he was first interested in drama. He acted in both high school and collegiate plays.
“I was pretty terrible,” Lowenstein laughed. He hasn’t altogether abandoned acting these days; the Wash. U. faculty occasionally puts on dramatic readings, in which he has participated.
“I used to kill time in high school reading plays,” Loewenstein remarked. “I think that’s what held my interest in literary study.”
Loewenstein first entertained the idea of becoming a professor during his junior year of college.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, but I was having such a good time in college that I thought it would be good to keep at it.”
So he kept at it and came to Wash. U. in 1981, where he met his wife, Professor Lynne Tatlock, at a reception for new faculty members.
“I was late for a meeting and the only seat in the room was next to her,” Loewenstein said. “We started talking after the meeting.”
Since joining the Wash. U. faculty, Loewenstein has been part of a committee that spearheaded the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, began the FOCUS Writers as Readers program and started his Spenser Lab through the Humanities Digital Workshop.
According to English department chair Professor Vincent Sherry, what makes Loewenstein such a great professor is his dedication to his students. “[It’s his] unflagging dedication. I think they know that he cares that they get it. He’s able to hold enthusiasm for subjects that to others would remain obscure,” Sherry said.
As a colleague, he excels as well. “He’s a tremendous resource for his early modern colleagues, and for undergraduate life,” fellow English professor, Steve Zwicker, added. “And beyond the English Department he is involved with a number of University projects.”
One of those projects is The Collected Works of Edmund Spenser and includes his Spenser Lab in the HDW. In 1998, Loewenstein got a call from his friend and colleague David Miller, which initiated his work on Spenser and led to his HDW. Miller asked Loewenstein what he thought a Spenser edition would look like for the 21st century, and Loewenstein responded that it would be both a digital and a print edition.
“I had no digital skills whatsoever,” Loewenstein recalled. “I just sort of knew what you would want to do.”
Miller and his friend Patrick Cheney, a professor at Penn State University, were already working on a new edition of “The Collected Works of Edmund Spenser” for Oxford. They wanted Loewenstein’s help.
“They didn’t really know the technical side of editing—neither did I. But they thought I did,” Lowenstein said.
He had first studied Spenser when he was in graduate school at Yale with Professor Bart Giamatti (the father of actor Paul Giamatti and former commissioner of major league baseball). After that class, Loewenstein wrote a few articles on Spenser. But it wasn’t until working on the edition that he really became invested in the poet.
When it is complete, the collected works will include a multi-volume scholarly print edition, a large digital version of the entire archive with open access, and a single volume student edition that is, according to Loewenstein, “something that a poor, downtrodden undergraduate can stick in her backpack and tear its seams.”
For the collected works, Loewenstein does a lot of the editing and organizing. He compares multiple editions of Spenser’s works and decides which variations may have been intentional, and which may have been typos. He and his colleagues compare these variations and choose which ones they want to include in the edition they’re working on. Then, they work on commentary, introductions, and all other supplementary work that will go into the edition.
“When I started, I really had no conspicuous computer skills,” Loewenstein said. “And I knew that the digital side was beyond me, so I started lobbying to get more and more help from the University.”
There hadn’t been many digital projects in the humanities before Loewenstein began his research, and he didn’t have a lot of personal help. An undergraduate student, Laura Young, asked Loewenstein if he knew of any professors in need of a research assistant. This invariably led Loewenstein in 2004 to teach his normally offered Spenser course in two ways— one regular course and one that was titled, The Spenser Lab and consisted of an additional lab that worked on the edition as part of the HDW.
“Basically, it has students in the humanities working in the way students in the sciences work.” Loewenstein described how in a science lab professors might ensure students have the basics, but then they rely on those with more experience in the lab to explain things to newer students. This is exactly what happens in his Spenser Lab
In terms of when you can expect to see “The Collected Works of Edmund Spenser” in print, or in its digital version, Loewenstein can’t promise it’ll be done tomorrow.
“My goal is that it should be finished before I die,” Loewenstein laughed, “give or take a couple years.”