What do the history of energy, Sundays, and a rhetorical analysis of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography have in common? The answer is resounding — award-winning written words. The Mu of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa awarded two faculty members in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences the 2021 Albert Lee Sturm Award for Faculty Excellence. The chapter also recognized a student in the college with the John D. Wilson Essay Contest Award for excellence in undergraduate writing. 

Cara Daggett

Energy is more than a force, a physics equation, a science term.

“‘Energy’ has so many meanings,” said Cara Daggett, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science. “It is a science and a metaphor, and it appears in philosophy, religion, and New-Age mysticism. Those poetic, philosophical sides to energy preexisted its importation into physics, and they are still there. Through the science of energy, those ideas all get collapsed into cultures of industrial work.”

For Daggett, the historical and current connotations of energy science or thermodynamics encompass how energy affects the modern Western cultural view of work. In her Sturm-award–winning book, “The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work,” she explores the history of energy as a scientific term and how the emergence of thermodynamics in the 19th century influenced the way people think about efficiency and industrialization and by extension the meaning and value of work. 

“Although energy has a connotation as a timeless and natural fact, it only appears as a scientific term relatively recently, in the nineteenth century,” she said. “This book reminds us that energy is not actually a thing. Energy is a way of understanding change in the world.”

In the Industrial Age, Daggett said, people began using the science of energy in the political realm, as a way to govern workers. Today, ethics enters the conversation about fuel often in the context of climate change and how humanity will deal with its effects. True and just sustainable transitions require a deeper rethinking of how humanity values work and energy.

“It’s about valuing energy the most when it does work,” she said. “This value we place on productivity, efficiency, and always doing more work gets imported as a natural fact, when there are other ways we could think about and value both energy and work.”

She said energy, fuel, and work became one holistic, political concept in the 1970s, with the onset of the U.S. Department of Energy. But it was in the mid-19th century that the laws of thermodynamics were recognized.

“Much of the interest lay in why steam engines were so inefficient,” she said. “And this was because they didn’t really understand how heat produced motion. So, the science of energy came out of those very industrial interests in making things work more efficiently.”

Thomas Gardner

And then there is the energy Thomas Gardner, an Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, tapped into to write “Sundays.” Everyday life fuels the creativity in this Sturm-Award-winning book of lyric essays. Its inspiration came from a range of sources, from walking in the rain to trouble with his retina. The latter experience provided a stolen metaphor, which found its way into his book.  

“My doctor said the state of my retina was like a boat tied up with a rope to a dock with a storm coming in, and when the waves move the boat, it pulls the rope,” Gardner said. “He told me my nerves were like the boat being pulled by that rope. So, I put it in the book. Then it opened up a series of spiritual questions or ideas about what things pull at us — your daughter having a miscarriage pulls at your heart, or pulling out ideas from something someone said during a conversation.”

“Sundays” tells the story of Gardner and his wife, Laura, along with the events that transpired in 2016 to 2017. In it, his spiritual questions and longings emerge. He did not realize they would until after he had written the first half of the book, which centered on the people around him. The second half became more personal.

“I went through a series of health issues — those problems with my eyes, pneumonia, and knee surgery,” he said. “And then I went through some sort of spiritual crisis, so the second half of the book takes what I was seeing in other people and finds it in myself. I had no idea I was going in that direction, but it feels much more personal toward the end, and I ended up saying some things I never thought I would say.”

Gardner said career-wise, he is basically a literary critic, but he has always self-identified as a poet. Although his first books were more academic, in 2014 he wrote 52 paragraphs. Those became “Poverty Creek Journal,” his first book of lyric essays, which also won a Sturm Award. And so, he thought, why not do another book in a similar style?

“With ‘Sundays,’ I thought I’d make it a little harder,” he said. “For 52 Sundays in a row, I’d write about something that happened and try to make it coherent. And that was intense. Sometimes at 4 or 5 p.m., I wouldn’t know what I’d find to use. But that kind of drove the book. And then it built its own momentum.

“Things I’d done in the third or fourth entry came back on the 20th because I could keep the entire book in mind each Sunday. I would either review it or remember it. I improvised it, but it also had a structure in the sense that I was only taking material from a particular point in time.”

Even though Gardner is in his 40th year at the university and this is his second creative Sturm Award, he found the honor to be unexpected.

“After a while you don’t even allow yourself to think about whether you have a chance,” he said. “You just submit and go on. So yes, I was surprised and honored.”

Madeline Eberhardt

The awards took another writer by surprise. For Madeline Eberhardt, a junior majoring in English, a few months had passed since she had entered her essay, “The Fallacies of Freedom,” in the John D. Wilson Essay Contest sponsored by the Mu of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and she assumed she hadn’t won.

Despite that, she said, she was proud of her effort.

“I did a rhetorical analysis of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography,” she said. “I explored the juxtaposition between being physically and mentally free from slavery. So, at the end of his autobiography, slavery had ended per se, but metaphorical constraints lingered. I used context from the book about how you can be free. No one’s holding you, no one’s owning you, but the opportunities aren’t there and that is like being enslaved.”

She chose to do the analysis on Douglass for a class assignment because she found his work to be so personal. Karen Swenson, the associate professor in the Department of English who taught the class, suggested she submit the essay to the competition. 

To complete the class assignment, she had to have her paper peer reviewed. Her peers did not restrain from offering a range of suggestions. But she had already entered the competition. Eberhardt just assumed she would not have a chance at winning, especially after the peer review, but she could not have been more wrong. 

While recuperating from leg surgery in the spring, Eberhardt remembered sitting outside to get some fresh air. Upon checking her email, she discovered she had won the essay contest.

“There’s nothing like getting something you never thought you would get,” she said, “and just feeling the love around you from every other Hokie just squeezing you with compliments and hugging you with kind words. That’s important and one way Virginia Tech shines — people believe in you. I think it’s important to believe in yourself and listen to others when they believe in you, because they’ve got your back, even when you don’t have confidence. That’s the most important thing I’ve taken from this whole experience.” 

Virginia Tech’s Mu of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa received its charter in 1977. Albert Sturm, a professor of political science, was its founding president. The Sturm Awards honor his memory, as well as faculty excellence in research and in the creative arts. The John D. Wilson Essay Contest, which recognizes student excellence, is named after John Wilson, the university’s executive vice president for academic affairs and provost from 1975 to 1982.

Written by Leslie King

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