Professor Monica Cure on Postcards, Fulbright Research and Traveling the Globe

Sep. 25, 2014 By Jenna Bartlo

Professor Monica Cure may be an aficionado of postcards, but her credentials go past connoisseur or collector. As one that has traveled the globe to conduct research in postcard archives and study them as a form of a communication, Cure is an expert on the early form of communication, which could be considered the Twitter of its day.

Prior to her focus on postcards, Cure returned to her birthplace of Romania on a Fulbright research grant to translate three Romanian poets who resisted the communist regime through poetry. It’s her own Fulbright experience and passion for experiential learning that made her the perfect fit to step into the role of Fulbright adviser at Biola last year.

Cure is an assistant professor in the Torrey Honors Institute and specializes in late 19th/early 20th British and American literature. Her dissertation on the invention of the postcard as a new form of communication technology and its representation in the turn-of-the-century novel allowed her to explore her interests in popular culture and media, travel, art history, visual and material culture, and postcolonial studies.

Here, she tells us more about her research, time in Romania and her experience staying in a monastery in Provence, France this past summer.  

How did you discover your dissertation topic on the invention of the postcard?

In graduate school I took a class that presented different theories of photography since its invention in the mid-19th century. One hypothesis was that the invention of photography led to a fundamental change in how people saw the world. It first made me think about how technology tends to erase its own invention and then made me curious about how much technology actually changes the way we live our lives and how much it exposes unchanging human desires. The postcard was invented several decades later and was the first popular (because relatively inexpensive) means of circulating photographic images. I wondered what effect the ability to inscribe one’s thoughts onto a photograph had on the people and societies using them.

What intrigues you most about postcards?

I’ve loved postcards ever since I began traveling on my own at 18. I was fascinated by all the potential ways text and image could interact on a postcard. Besides sending them to friends as a way to share my experiences, I also began buying postcards for myself and writing journal entries on the back of them that were somehow related to the image on the front. Sometimes this entry could even be about how I didn’t get to see a particular monument, or how I wished I could have seen it at night.

As I began doing research for my dissertation into what people in the 19th century thought of postcards and how they used them, I discovered a multitude of attitudes and techniques. Early postcard users traded postcards with collectors in other countries, wrote messages to their loved ones in code, and sent postcards as a series whose images created a story. Linking all of these different ways was a desire to go beyond what words could say, but also a recognition of our dependence on them.

How is communication via a postcard similar and different to various modes of communication today?

The postcard at the turn of the twentieth century is similar to various forms of social media today. The limited amount of writing space and the fact that it could be viewed by anyone who came across it reminds me of Twitter. The captioning of an image from a place you visited (for self-aggrandizement at times) makes it like Instagram. As postcards were used for everything from sharing political beliefs, to letting friends know you weren’t feeling well, it resembles Facebook. Moreover, through being postmarked and sent through the mail, it allowed you to be part of clearly recognizable networks: local, national, and international.

One of its main differences is its materiality. I think that’s why, along with letters, we think of postcards as an almost nostalgic form of communication. We still love holding postcards in our hands, especially when they’ve come from far away, but we would never use them to communicate timely information.

Before working towards your Ph.D., you spent time in Romania. What is your connection with Romania?

I grew up in a Romanian-American Baptist community in Detroit where all the church services were held in Romanian. What I loved about it was how close-knit all the families were. I heard stories on a regular basis about the community’s forerunners who were willing to risk their lives for their faith. I also loved the in-depth Bible studies that were commonplace. I’m convinced that these Bible studies starting at a young age played a major role in my love of literature and decision to study it. However, I came to see how the community tended to cultivate insularity, especially during my time in Romania, since churches there were more engaged in the wider culture. I learned about the dangers of being inwardly focused and resistant to change, even for good reasons. God had to teach me all over again what was most essential in our relationship: His grace. It led to a deep desire to find out how to translate it for others, no matter how different they might seem. 

What were you studying in Romania?

My Fulbright research grant allowed me to return to my roots in Romania in several ways. I was born in Romania, but my family and I left during communism when I was only two in order to pursue religious freedom. My paternal grandfather was a Baptist pastor who had been imprisoned for his faith, so we knew persecution close up. My project when I returned to Romania focused on translating three Romanian poets who resisted the communist regime through their poetry. Of the three, one, Ana Blandiana, was still alive. After the revolution, she started the Civic Alliance Foundation that was committed, among other goals, to the memory of dissidents. I got to meet her at the organization’s headquarters in Bucharest and as we chatted, I told her about my grandfather. She asked me to wait one moment and stepped out of the room. When she returned, she shocked me by giving me a copy of my grandfather’s prison entrance sheet as it was among the records the organization had saved from being destroyed after the revolution.

You are now Biola’s Fulbright advisor. How did that happen and what has it been like so far.

I became Biola’s Fulbright adviser last year when intercultural studies professor Kitty Purgason passed the baton to me after sharing the position during the fall. It was great to be able to learn from her experience. I’m passionate about this role because right out of college, I received a Fulbright grant to Romania that changed my life. Much of what I’ve been trying to do so far has been to raise more awareness about what the Fulbright program is and why students should apply. It’s a prestigious fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government that gives students the opportunity to study and teach in over 155 countries in order to promote mutual cultural understanding. Recipients get to meet people and do things they couldn’t even have dreamed of otherwise. I also think the Fulbright dovetails well with Biola’s university-wide vision of having a stronger global presence.

You spent time in Europe this past summer. Tell us about that.

Experiential learning continues to be a key component of my own intellectual and spiritual development. This summer, I spent three weeks wandering through France with family and friends, stumbling across festivals and speaking no English. One of the highlights was spending a couple days on a silent retreat at a medieval monastery in Provence where the monks grow lavender. It renewed my interest in travel literature and prompted me to think about what pilgrimage has meant to people through different centuries.

Visiting a monastery also made me think more deeply about the way we order our days (especially since I am more flexible about how I can order my days during the summer). I decided to try praying for others for a half an hour every day. It was such a simple thing to try but it yielded such great results. I think that learning from books and learning from experience should always go together.

You’re currently melding learning from books and learning from experience through participating in Biola’s community based learning program — the Faculty Fellows Engaging Community program. What does that look like for you as a professor?

Torrey is committed to taking learning beyond the classroom and we’ve been trying to find better and better ways to do that. That’s why I was so pleased to be part of the Faculty Fellows Engaging Community program (FFEC) that was launched last year. The program provides training and resources to help faculty create an academic service learning component to one of their classes, which often looks like students working with a local community organization. Through serving at the organization, they can hone skills and concepts introduced in the classroom as well as have their beliefs challenged and connect with people who are different from them. There are things students learn through this kind of experience that they can’t learn any other way. I’m excited to help Torrey continue to develop this aspect of our curriculum and advise the new cohort of the FFEC program.

You mentioned Torrey is committed to taking learning beyond the classroom. Is that partially what drew you to teach in Torrey?

What drew me to Biola was the Torrey Honors Institute. It’s one of the most innovative models of education that I’ve encountered. I love so many things about it: its interdisciplinary curriculum, focus on reading primary texts well, Socratic method of teaching, holistic mentoring, and especially its commitment to learning conversationally in community. One of the perks, as well as the challenges, of teaching in a program like Torrey is getting to teach outside of a narrow area of expertise. I’ve enjoyed teaching my favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, and I’ve also really enjoyed teaching texts that were completely unknown to me, like the writings of the fifth century theologian, Pseudo-Dionysius.

One of the reasons why Torrey was a great fit for me is because I’ve always been fascinated by how differently people read things. My bicultural background has helped make me aware of how easy it is to overlook our own blind spots. We take our own cultures for granted and often ignore ways of thinking that are unfamiliar to us. Class sessions for me are about creating an environment where students learn how to articulate their views and take the views of others seriously. Though most of our curriculum is made up of classic Western texts, getting students to wonder what the text is really saying, without assuming they know, is a step in the right direction. Considering the implications of those ideas, especially today, is the next step.

Read Cure's Los Angeles Times article, "Tweeting by mail: The Postcard's stormy birth."

Read Cure's The Scriptorium Daily blog post on her trip this past summer, "Praying for You: A Summer Experiment."

Written by Jenna Bartlo, media relations specialist. For more information, contact Jenna at 562.777.4061 or jenna.l.bartlo@biola.edu.

Comments

  • Emanuel Ceausu Sep. 26, 2014 at 4:38 PM

    Great article, gotta love those romanian people :)

  • Donna Newman Oct. 26, 2014 at 4:21 AM

    Professor Cure, you will be a beautiful extension of the remarkable teachers my daughter Emma has enjoyed and been challenged by at her Scottsdale Prep Academy high school. Loved your innovative analogy of postcards to modern social media -- communication today is as vital as years back, just has a contemporary delivery system. :)

  • Broderick Oct. 25, 2016 at 11:37 PM

    Major thanks for the article.Thanks Again. Cool.

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