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JJ Butts

Faculty Chair, Department Chair of English and Professor of English


I enjoy teaching a wide variety of courses in American literature, culture, and film in the English department, including courses in ethnic American and African American literature. I am also the Director of Interdisciplinary Studies. My approach to literature and culture is interdisciplinary, and my classes and research draw on insights from anthropology, history, geography, urban studies and political philosophy in addition to literary history and theory. 

Raised in Southern Appalachia, I have long been fascinated by the way that inequity is written into our natural and built environment. I have published articles on depictions of public housing in New Deal guidebooks, on urban collective novels, on Ralph Ellison’s reconfiguration of liberal citizenship, and on African American documentary texts in the 1940s. My book project Dark Mirror: The New Deal and Black Literary Countermodernity highlights narratives of pluralism and modernization in New Deal Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) documentary texts and the literary responses to these narratives by African American writers. I am currently working on a project exploring FWP studies of African American culture, many of which were unpublished. 

Outside my teaching and scholarly activities, I enjoy spending time with my family, hiking and biking, exploring the vibrant cultural resources in Des Moines and playing a number of stringed instruments. 


  • B.A. English and Anthropology Appalachian State University, 1995
  • M.A. English Syracuse University, 1999
  • Ph.D. English, Syracuse University, 2006