Meet The University of Alabama’s Outstanding Dissertation Recipient

Nicholas Helms
Dr. Nicholas Helms

An old king wishes to leave his kingdom to his three daughters whom he loves dearly, yet his generous wish leads to the death of his entire family.  This dark and twisted tragedy centers on  manipulation and power struggles, but what else can we expect from the Bard?

Dr. Nicholas Helms, an instructor at The University of Alabama, first found his passion for Shakespeare after studying the carefully crafted plot of King Lear.

“I felt like they were such deep and honest portrayals of problems with being human. In different ways, all of Shakespeare’s tragedies ask really hard questions without providing easy answers. What’s it like to be a Hamlet? A Macbeth?  An Othello? A Lady Macbeth?  What’s it like to be Ophelia?” Helms ponders.

Helms’ interest in Shakespearean tragedies led him to the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies. His dissertation explores Shakespeare and the theory of mindreading, which looks at how a characters misread one another’s words and actions and how they react to their faulty interpretations of others’ motivations.  After successfully competing against graduate students across the university, Helms received The University of Alabama’s Outstanding Dissertation Award for 2015-2016.

“I keep forgetting and remembering that I received this award and feeling really overjoyed and grateful,” Helms reflects. “I’m really happy that I am a part of such a great academic community here at UA, and that happens every time someone congratulates me about the award. I’m happy the project is done and the award is just icing on the cake,” Helms says.

The full title of Helms’ dissertation is “To Essay the Mind: Shakespearean Character and Theories of Mindreading.”  Helms incorporated the two theories of mindreading from the cognitive sciences, inference and imagination, into his study.

Bridging the divide between the humanities and the sciences was not always easy.

Helms explains that a major component of his research involved what he calls “building bridges between disciplines.  It’s in digging deep enough into the philosophy and into the neuroscience behind that philosophy to not only understand that conversation through some of those terms, but then to adapt it to a literary studies conversation.  It’s really hard to summarize an ongoing philosophical debate, but I try to bring people up to speed in ways that allow me to deploy terms from philosophy to Shakespeare productively.”

Helms also discusses how he adapted the language of cognitive sciences to the literary world.  Helms says, “For example, there are two main theories on how people mind read. I boiled those theories down to the ideas of ‘inference’ and ‘imagination.’ These terms would sound like gobbledy-gook if I use their philosophical terms, but inference and imagination make sense to readers.  I am trying to adapt cognitive science to my own purposes. Moving from jargon to recognizable terms in English has taken a while.”

Helms’ dissertation director was Professor Sharon O’Dair, the director of the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies.  During an interview, she commented on what it was like to work with Dr. Helms:

“Nic’s project is innovative, cutting-edge, and exciting, so that made it really fun to work with him.  All students work at their own paces and have their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of composition; Nic’s strengths are his dedication and ability to produce writing in a timely fashion. He takes direction really well.  I’m sure I was occasionally very critical, but it led to a wonderful result. His ability to take criticism and use it constructively is a great quality in a writer and teacher. We all learn how to do this stuff slowly and continuously, so it bodes well for him as a professional,” O’Dair said.

In addition to teaching and writing, Dr. Helms also heads the group Shakespearean drama group “Improbable Fictions.”

Helms talked about his passion for leading and directing.  “I’ve always had a creative impulse— writing, acting, song-writing—I really enjoy running and directing Improbable Fictions productions. These plays allow me to be creative and to work with other creative people.  As much as I love having an idea for a production and seeing it work out, I love giving people a positive opportunity to act and interact with Shakespeare even more,” Helms says. No doubt Helms will be producing these same positive opportunities in his teaching and scholarship for years to come. Bravo, Dr. Helms!