Lisle, Illinois~ Zubair Amir was "Frank-ly" quite surprised when he received word about his application for a prestigious grant to study at a renowned overseas university.
"I knew that I would be competing with many strong applications from faculty at other institutions, so I was very surprised and pleased when I learned that I had received the award," Amir said.
Amir, an assistant professor of Language and Literature at Benedictine University, was recently selected as just the second recipient of a Scholar-in-Residence Award at Oxford University co-sponsored by the Association for Core Texts and Courses and the Oxford Study Abroad Program (ACTC-OSAP).
He will spend eight-to-10 weeks this summer researching and studying a vast collection of manuscripts, journals, letters and other materials associated with Mary Shelley, author of the iconic "Frankenstein," and her family that are held at the Bodleian Library at Oxford.
Shelley's 1818 novel "Frankenstein" is studied widely on college campuses because of the ethical and philosophical questions it raises, such as the ethics of reproduction, the responsibilities of parenting, the need to balance scientific progress against its potential dangers, and how individuals must reconcile their own needs and desires with their obligations to their fellow man.
"Most students associate 'Frankenstein' with a green Boris Karloff, but when they read the novel, they're often startled to discover how much it differs from their expectations," Amir said.
"Not only is Mary Shelley's creature intelligent and highly articulate, but the story itself deals with a much wider range of complex philosophical and ethical questions than students anticipate based on their experiences with 'Frankenstein's' pop culture manifestations," he added.
One of the aims of Amir's project is to demonstrate how works like "Frankenstein" can develop critical thinking skills in students, skills that will help them regardless of their ultimate career path.
"One of the things I find most interesting about 'Frankenstein' is the way in which it is actually about critical thinking," he said. "This is a novel in which we repeatedly see the characters assembling evidence about the situations in which they find themselves and attempting to analyze and draw conclusions about the significance of that information. More often than not, the characters fall short, but that's part of the point. The novel is deeply interested in depicting how we should and shouldn't approach thinking about complex issues."
Amir also believes that core texts like "Frankenstein" can be used to foster a return to civilized discourse in an era dominated by political attack ads and disparaging Facebook posts.
"In some ways, we can read 'Frankenstein' as revolving around a protracted argument between Victor Frankenstein and his creation, with both digging in their heels and refusing to hear what the other is saying," Amir said. "And yet, the novel doesn't allow readers to simply endorse either character's viewpoint.
"We see the shades of gray in the story," he added. "It's a powerful reminder that we need to be willing to budge in our opinions when we talk, precisely because our perspective on things can never be complete or fully accurate."
Amir earned a bachelor of arts degree from St. Mary's College in Maryland and a master's degree at Cornell University. He earned a Ph.D. from Cornell University and has been teaching at Benedictine University since 2006.
Benedictine University is an independent Roman Catholic institution located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago. Founded in 1887, Benedictine provides 56 undergraduate majors, 16 graduate and four doctorate programs. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ranked Benedictine University as the seventh fastest-growing campus among private nonprofit master’s universities, and Forbes magazine named Benedictine among the top 20 percent of America’s colleges for 2011. Benedictine University’s Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain’s Chicago Business as the fourth largest in the Chicago area in 2011.