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Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Clara Lewis

person sitting on a tree stump

By Emily Polk

A deep sense of compassion, boundless intellectual curiosity, and an unflinching willingness to explore some of the graver sides of humanity have defined Clara Lewis’s career and perhaps most especially her current research.

When she is not teaching in PWR, consulting as a Writing Specialist for the History Department or tutoring in Hume, Clara is working on a pioneering new book on the subject of neonaticide in the United States and its adjudication. Neonaticide is the killing of a newborn baby in the first twenty-four hours of life.

“We’re one of the only countries that doesn’t have separate laws governing its punishment, which leads to extreme sentencing disparities,” Clara said. “Beyond the legal aspect, I am interested in the role of shame, social isolation, and cultural norms in motivating this form of tragic maternal violence.”

She first decided to pursue the project while she was teaching an advanced PWR course, Self & Science for the Notation in Science Communication. She was interested in changing her own writing practice—experimenting with more narrative nonfiction.

“The subject of neonaticide is largely understudied and misrepresented,” Clara notes. “My aim with this book is to bridge the gap between how researchers’ understand neonaticide and public depictions of ‘monster moms.’ There’s a huge gap between the research literature and the public image of the problem,” she says. “I am interested in using narrative nonfiction as a medium to traverse that divide.”

Clara, who has a social science background in critical criminology, acknowledges that this project is the biggest challenge emotionally and professionally that she has ever taken on.

“I’ve worked in critical criminology for years, but now I am more immersed in the realities of our prison system,” she says. “I hope to create an empathetic, even-handed portrayal of the social and cultural circumstances within which these tragedies occur, but for now I am slogging through the investigative process, hoping to become a better writer in time to give the subject and the people who have shared their stores with me the book they deserve. I am putting a lot of pressure on myself, hoping it prompts growth.”

Her effort has already impacted her teaching in PWR. Clara’s recent PWR courses include “Identity, Difference, and Harm: The Rhetoric of Hate Crime” and “Crime, Media, and Law: Critical Approaches to Violence.” In both her teaching and her research Clara seeks to challenge others to investigate how violence is represented in a range of political, legislative and cultural contexts.

“I use my research and writing practice to inform my teaching and vice versa, to keep me alive and innovative,” she says. “Specifically, I am struggling now with what feels like an impossible chapter re-write. I know what the chapter needs, the feedback is clear, but I don’t yet know how to do what needs to be done. That’s hugely frustrating, but certainly clues me in. Thinking of my struggle as a space to take field notes for my students helps me get myself out of the way and stay focused on the work itself.”

Her students often also serve as a source of inspiration.

“Seeing their growth and resilience and grace and good humor, I know how much they can and will grow in a mere ten weeks, which isn’t a comfortable or seamless process and it makes me optimistic that I too can keep growing as a writer,” Clara says. “They have given me the gift of confidence to take on new challenges.”

These challenges involve not only taking on an emotionally challenging and highly sensitive project but also include finding the time to complete it.

“This aspect is a nightmare,” she says. In the past, Clara noted that she’d been able to cluster writing projects over the summer, while picking away at little pieces during the year. But her current project brings a different kind of urgency as the central case she is focusing on is still being adjudicated.

“People are sharing the most private, difficult aspects of their life experience with me,” Clara says. “There’s a huge responsibility in that. Plus, I could have to drop everything at any time to be involved with the case.”

Clara expects to be working on this project for the next couple of years. Her previous book, Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crime, appears in Rutgers University Press series on Critical Issues in Crime and Society.

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