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Ralph Savarese

Department Chair of English

Professor Savarese has been on the faculty at Grinnell for 15 years. He is currently chair of the English department.

He is probably best known for his book Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption (Other Press 2007), which Newsweek called a "real life love story and an urgent manifesto for the rights of people with neurological disabilities." It won the Independent Publishers Gold Medal in the category of health/medicine/nutrition, and a chapter was selected as a "Notable Essay" in Best American Essays 2004. The book was featured on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360” and NPR's "The Diane Rehm Show.” He is also the co-editor of three collections: Papa PhD: Men in the Academy Write about Fatherhood (Rutgers University Press 2010), a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly entitled "Autism and the Concept of Neurodiversity" (2010), and a special issue of Seneca Review entitled "The Lyrical Body” (2010).

Recently, Professor Savarese’s scholarly work has focused on reconciling two sub-fields in the discipline of English: disability studies and cognitive approaches to literature. In January 2014, Narrative published an extended conversation with Lisa Zunshine, Bush-Holbrook Professor of English at the University of Kentucky, titled “The Critic as Neurocosmopolite: What Cognitive Approaches to Literature Can Learn from Disability Studies.” Developing the concept of “neurocosmopolitanism,” Savarese argues not just for an openness to neurological difference but, rather, a denaturalization, even a dethronement, of privileged neurotypicality. If we ever hope to understand what a different brain can do, we must be at home, he says, with all manner of neurologies.

In 2012-2013 he received a Mellon-funded Humanities Writ Large Fellowship, which allowed him to join the Neurohumanities Research Group at Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences. During the fall of 2012, he co-taught a course for undergraduates called "Flaubert's Brain," and during the spring of 2013 he co-taught a course for fourth-year psychiatry residents called "The Language of Trauma." While in Durham, he was invited to give one of the Brain Institute’s four community lectures: “Poetic Potential in Autism: Neurodiversity’s Boon.” In the fall of 2014 he returned to Duke as a visiting professor in the English department, where he taught a course on 19th-century realism and an interdisciplinary seminar called “Neuro-lit.”

Professor Savarese’s new book, See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-good English Professor, is under contract at Duke University Press and should be out in late 2017. For years the scientific literature on autism has spoken of impairments in language, imagination, and social understanding. As a result, it was simply assumed that fiction would be incomprehensible to autistic readers. His book challenges this notion. As it explores the neuroscience of literary reading and writing, it presents a very different portrait of autism, one that has begun to emerge, even in scientific circles, in the last decade. This portrait relies on the concept of neurodiversity, and it emphasizes the productive potential of autistic difference. His collaborators, from across the spectrum, include DJ Savarese with whom he discusses (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Tito Mukhopadhyay (Moby Dick), Jamie Burke (Ceremony), Dora Raymaker (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and Elesia Ashkenazy (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter). In the epilogue he discusses two short stories with Temple Grandin. Part memoir, part neuro-ethnography, and part literary criticism, See It Feelingly testifies to the beauty and insight of autistic reading.

An ardent proponent of the concept of neurodiversity, he can be seen in two documentaries about the neurodiversity movement: Finding Amanda and Loving Lampposts: Living Autistic. A documentary about his son, DJ, who is Oberlin College's first nonspeaking student with autism, won a large grant from Independent Television Services (ITVS), the programming arm of PBS, and should be aired in late 2017. For his work on neuropoetics, Professor Savarese has been awarded both a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend and a Mellon Humanities Writ Large Fellowship. His 2003 essay "Nervous Wrecks and Ginger-nuts: Bartleby at a Standstill" won the Herman Melville Society's Hennig Cohen Prize for an "outstanding contribution to Melville scholarship." His 2008 essay "The Lobes of Autobiography: Poetry & Autism" was one of two finalists for the Donald Murray Prize for the best published essay on writing from the National Council for the Teachers of English, and it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His recent essay, “River of Words Raft of Our Conjoined Neurologies,” received “Notable Essay” distinction in Best American Essays 2013.

His scholarly work has appeared in American Literature, American Disasters; Disability Studies Quarterly; The Ethics of Neurodiversity; Foundations of Disability Studies; Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience; the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies; Inflexions; Keywords in Disability Studies; Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies; Narrative; the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies; Politics and Culture; Prose Studies; Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities; Rethinking Empathy through Literature; and Secret Sharers: Melville, Conrad, and Narratives of the Real. His poems, creative nonfiction, and translations have appeared, among other places, in American Poetry Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, For New Orleans and Other Poems, Fourth Genre, Graham House Review, Modern Poetry In Translation, New England Review, the New York Times, The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann, Ploughshares, Poetry International, The Poker, Rattle, Segue, Seneca Review, Sewanee Review, Southern Humanities Review, Southern Poetry Review, Southwest Review, Stone Canoe, and Verse Virtual. And his opinion pieces have appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Austin American Statesman, the Baltimore Sun, the Cincinnati Post, the Dallas Morning News, the Des Moines Register, the Gainesville Sun, the Houston Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the LA Times, the Louisville Courier Journal, and the Tallahassee Democrat.

He teaches American literature, creative writing (poetry and nonfiction), and disability studies at Grinnell. He believes passionately in the liberal arts and loves to work with dedicated and ambitious students. While at Grinnell, some of his creative writing students have distinguished themselves by publishing work that they wrote for his classes in Seneca Review, Salon.com, and Plain China: A National Anthology of the Best Undergraduate Writing. A few years ago, a student won the annual Norton Writer’s Prize for an essay composed in the Craft of Creative Nonfiction.

Campus Phone: 

(641) 269-3109

faculty info column 1

On-Campus Address: 

Mears Cottage 203
Grinnell, IA 50112
United States

Courses Taught: 

Craft of Creative Nonfiction; Studies in American Prose II 


“Book Review”: How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art; Mindful Aesthetics: Literature and the Science of Mind; Stories and Minds: Cognitive Approaches to Literary Narrative. American Literature 88.1 (2016.)

“Foreword.” Autism in a Decentered World. New York: Routledge (2016).

“Afterword.” Plankton Dreams: What I Learned in Special Ed. Tito Mukhopadhyay. London: Open Humanities Press (2015).

“Cognition” entry. Keywords in Disability Studies. Eds. Adams, Reiss, and Serlin. New York: NYU Press (2015).

“Nor Yet a Dream of War.” Verse Virtual (2015). Reprint.

“I Object: Autism, Empathy and the Trope of Personification.” In Rethinking Empathy through Literature. Eds. Sue J. Kim and Meghan Marie Hammond. Routledge (2014).

"What Some Autistics Can Teach Us about Poetry: A Neurocosmopolitan Approach." In Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies. Ed. Lisa Zunshine. Oxford University Press (2015).

“The Critic as Neurocosmopolite: What Cognitive Approaches to Literature Can Learn from Disability Studies: Lisa Zunshine in Conversation with Ralph James Savarese.” Narrative 22.1 (2014)

“On Listening to a Report of American Conduct in Iraq.” Stone Canoe (2014).

"Towards a Postcolonial Neurology: Autism, Tito Mukhopadhyay, and a New Geo-poetics of the Body." Foundations of Disability Studies. Eds. Matthew Wappett and Katrina Arndt. Palgrave (2013). Reprint.

"I Might Be Famous." In Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. Ed. Joy Castro. University of Nebraska Press (2013).

"Neurocosmopolitan Melville," Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 15.2 (2013).

"Jostled by Difference," Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 15.2 (2013).

"Easy Breathing Forever." In Stuck in the Middle with You: Parenting in Three Genders. Interview with Jennifer Finney Boylan. Crown Publishers (2013).

"Moving the Field: The Sensorimotor Perspective on Autism." Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 7.6 (2013).

"From Neurodiversity to Neurocosmopolitanism: Beyond Mere Acceptance and Inclusion." In Ethics and Neurodiversity. Eds. Alexandra Perry and C.D. Herrera. Cambridge Scholars Press (2013).

"The Exile of Not Exactly." In The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann. Ed. Andre Naffis-Sahely. CB Editions (2012).

"Literate Lungs: One Autist's Journey as a Reader." With Emily Thornton Savarese. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities37.2 (2012).

"Gobs & Gobs of Metaphor: Dynamic Relation and a Classical Autist's Typed Massage." Inflexions 5 (2012).

"Myself on High." Ploughshares 38.2-3 (2012).

"River of Words, Raft of Our Conjoined Neurologies." Fourth Genre 14.1 (2012).

"The Justice and My Father." Seneca Review 41. 2 (2011).

Primary Academic Interest: 

American Literature
creative writing
Disability Studies

Academic Interests: 

Neuroscience, Autism Studies, Translation, the Lyric Essay

Department Chair: