Miriam suggested a while back that each of us might do a post, in these early days, introducing ourselves and our particular interests in the field. I will therefore get the ball rolling with my own little scholarly biography.
Long ago, I was a biochemist, of sorts. As a high school student at Shawnee Mission Northwest, a public high school in Shawnee, Kansas, I was extremely lucky to have a number of excellent teachers in various departments, but my favorite class was Advanced Biology. My teacher helped me get a job sterilizing beakers and mixing reagents for a biochemistry lab at KU Med Center, which I heartily enjoyed (and which paid somewhat better than slinging coffee). After a few months, the professor of the lab decided they would train me as a technician. I got my own projects, presented my results in lab meetings, and learned what it was to be a biochemist. With topnotch training, the guarantee of warm recommendation letters, and a lifetime of excellent contacts in the field, I went off to college at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Eventually, for reasons far too bizarre to recount in full, I realized that it was the problem-solving aspect of biochemistry that I loved more than the day-to-day work itself. I liked the community of the lab, the way we’d discuss possible solutions and suggest new methods, and I learned that I had been extraordinarily lucky to have that environment at KU Med. My other major was English, to which I added a Spanish major and a Political Science minor. Much of my coursework was in film, creative writing, and postcolonial studies, with a keen interest in political violence. Like most undergraduate English majors, I didn’t take any eighteenth-century content. I was a “now” kind of girl, interested in “now” kinds of problems. It was a fine experience, so I stayed on to get my M.A.
My first M.A. course was an eighteenth-century novel class that fit into my schedule, had many of my friends in it, and was taught by Chris Flint, about whom I’d heard good things. I was not prepared for how deeply affecting the material would be. I remember reading Tom Jones with pure glee, and Clarissa eviscerated me. Tristram Shandy was a revelation. I had read many good books in good classes before, but these were so moving that I was embarrassed at my own emotional reactions. I began to be able, for the first time in my life, to feel my way through books in addition to thinking through them. The biochemist in me, who constantly shouts, “But why?” made me pursue narratology and the history of rhetoric in search of answers.
In the fall of 2003, I moved to New York City to join the Ph.D. program in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. It’s been a period of extremely fast development for me as a scholar, having come in just barely beginning to understand what drew me to language and literature as a career, and to the eighteenth as a field. It’s been great to study in a vigorously interdisciplinary setting among professors and students who eagerly discuss our own work and that of our contemporaries. I’ve particularly felt challenged to broaden my approach to the eighteenth by thinking outside the era, especially in the direction of the late Renaissance, and to deepen my understanding by thinking beyond national and language boundaries, into philosophy, religion, and history, and through several critical and theoretical lenses.
With my fellow GC students, I’ve had the chance to host several events and grad conferences that attempt to create new communities of scholars, putting academics into conversations we wouldn’t find ourselves in otherwise, exchanging useful information across the usual boundaries. (This blog is, perhaps, an extension of this compulsion to create new kinds of communities.) I’ve also been honored to receive a research fellowship doing outreach and study in the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room, a private collection of late-sixteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century materials housed in the Mina Rees Library. Since the collection represents a huge array of history, theater, music, culture, politics, law, literature, philosophy, science, travel, and geography, it has helped me to expand my scholarly horizons further than I’d ever imagined.
I also get much of my enthusiasm for the period from teaching. While teaching Composition and Intro to Lit at CWRU, NYC College of Technology, and Hunter College, I managed to sneak some C18 content into every course, and found my students expressing much of the (almost dismayingly) visceral response I once got (and still get) from the material. In the fall, as I mentioned below, I’ll be teaching the second part of a Brit Lit survey required for English majors at Queens College. The nightmare problem I described, of having only a day for the eighteenth, was often my dilemma in writing-intensive courses, and I look forward to luxuriating in several weeks of C18 talk with my students.
It is probably a terrible cliché to talk about classrooms as laboratories in literary studies, but I am often reminded, especially while teaching, of the wonderful meetings we had in that biochem lab ten years ago. We start from points of confusion or unease, we try out possible solutions or useful descriptions, and eventually we hit upon a new direction for thought that may or may not be rejected later. Often, we find some kind of consensus of method, if only for a day or two, that produces a new understanding of the text. And, as my labmates used to say, you don’t have to publish all your results. Some just make you a better researcher.
At some point, as we get more into our work, I will explain my dissertation work, but that’s another post for another day. Since Miriam suggested pictures, and I promised baby photos, here’s me at age four, already displaying the peculiarly stern hunched serenity of the future scholar. Ah, 1983!
Well, hopefully now I’ve swept away any fear of being the first to do embarrassing self-revelatory stuff. Maybe this provides some insight into how I came to do this, rather than something else, and whence some of my affinities arise. Who’s next?