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Exceeding the Traditional Bounds of Literary Analysis: Faculty feature with Crystal Rudds

By Alyssa Quinn


Crystal Rudds

Crystal Rudds

In the summer of 2009, Crystal Rudds took an internship with the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. She was stationed in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Rowhouses, a public housing project that was facing demolition. That summer, she stood alongside tenants to protest the demolition of the development. It was an experience that would shape the rest of her academic career.

“The residents and staff of Cabrini completely changed my understanding of housing and public welfare,” she says. “They changed the way that I read canonical texts like ‘Invisible Man’ and ‘The Women of Brewster Place.’ And they have inspired me to ally with residents who need affordable housing however I can.”

Now an assistant professor of English, Rudds studies representations of public housing in literature. What picture of public housing do these texts paint? What stereotypes do they evoke or dispel? These are the driving questions behind her work. But her methods far exceed the traditional bounds of literary analysis.

Rudd’s current study, titled “Stories of Home: Black Men in Public Housing,” blends literary analysis with sociological data. She has been interviewing Black male residents of public housing in Chicago, Brooklyn and, hopefully soon, Miami. She asks them about their experiences, about how they define home, domesticity, and what it meant to grow up in public housing. Then she shows them a passage of literature or a film clip about public housing, after which they discuss it, and how its representations do or don’t align with the interviewee’s experiences.

The project is partially funded by the University of Utah’s Research Incentive Seed Grant Program. This program funds innovative, data-driven research that moves in a new research direction, and Rudds’ study certainly qualifies. Her interdisciplinary approach reconceptualizes the relationship between texts and the worlds they represent. She laughingly recounts an anecdote from her time in graduate school, when she proposed to conduct interviews as part of her dissertation in English lit. “I had someone on my committee who was like, ‘Why do you need to talk to people?’” Her committee member’s incredulous response is indicative of a prevailing attitude in English departments across the country: the texts and the texts alone ought to be enough.

But Rudds wasn’t satisfied with this approach. “Literature has such an intwined relationship with sociology, especially how sociology captures inner-city spaces,” she says.

Rudds attributes her interest in interdisciplinary work to her late arrival to the field of English. Her bachelor’s degree was in communication, with minors in French and theater. She also had a brief background in journalism. “I’ve always been attracted to stories in different forms,” she says. “So, when I got into grad school and started engaging with this topic, it felt at the time that the fiction was not enough, the literary text was not enough. In studying some of the sociological texts about famous areas like Chicago and New York, I realized that there was such a gap in the story in terms of the perspectives of Black men, especially when it didn’t involve stories about criminalization or interactions with police.”

Speaking directly to Black men was a way to rectify this gap in the literature, to invite their voices into the conversation. “I felt like there are some experiences and some settings that, depending on our positionality, we’re really not close to. I did not grow up in public housing, and I didn’t feel grounded enough, since I’m not an actual sociologist or ethnographer, to speak or write about a setting and a landscape that I myself was not a part of.”

Studying how residents of public housing interact with literary representations of public housing is an entirely new way to conceive of literary studies, one which highlights the living nature of the text, and its complex interaction with the worlds in which it circulates. For Rudds, the disciplines of English and sociology are not that distinct. “They both study conditions and the history of individuals and groups,” she says. “So, for me the lines are extremely blurred. I’m often trying to figure out, ‘Wait, wait, what am I doing?’”

As for the participants’ responses to the literary passages, they vary widely. She describes one participant who was hit unexpectedly hard by a particular passage, and who needed to take a moment to process all the memories it called up. Some participants see their lives and their homes reflected in the passages, while others push back on the author’s portrayal.

In addition to their discussion, Rudds asks participants to share photos from their time growing up in public housing. She’s interested in how these photographs depict Black life in a way that isn’t exclusively negative. “There’s such a history of photographs of the inner city, or of kitchenettes where Black folks lived, that are a part of telling the story of pathology, and urban grime and all of those negative stories. So, I’m looking at these photographs for what they illuminate about how people engage in worldmaking and placemaking.”

Ultimately, this is what Rudds’ work is about: deepening people’s ideas about what public housing means. Before interning at Cabrini-Green, Rudds’ primary information about public housing, like most Americans’, came from mainstream media imagery that too often depicted it as a place of crime, dirt, deviancy and neglect. “When I interned in Cabrini it changed my scholarship. It changed my way of looking at the world,” she says. “It became this seed for helping me understand how critical housing is for all of our justice struggles. If people don’t have a stable sense of home, then every other area of their life is impaired.”

She says she’s not trying to tell an idyllic story about public housing. “But these places,” she says. “They exist, and they should exist. There should be space for everyone. There should be a complexity about how we understand these places.”

Through Rudds’ groundbreaking work, that complexity is making itself known.


Jana Cunningham, University of Utah College of Humanities | 801-213-0866

Published March 23, 2023

Last Updated: 3/23/23