Did you have a favorite class or text in college? What made it your favorite?
My favorite class was my freshman Honors English course, which focused on close reading. Made me see why it’s worth spending time on texts. I still remember some of the readings of poems. Incredibly compelling and intense; the teacher of that course became a life-long friend. My other favorite was my first course in analytic philosophy (as opposed to traditional philosophy). Reading Quine made me feel like the top of my head was blowing off.
What would you have liked to tell the 20-year-old version of yourself about college?
Don’t be pre-med! I wasted a number of courses my freshman year preparing for something I wasn’t really suited to do. Should have known better, since I was great at beginning science courses, and got worse as the courses got more demanding.
Did you go straight to graduate school after college? If not, what was the most interesting thing you did in the interim?
I went straight on, and did nothing interesting in between—except taking intensive French and German that summer. Did nothing but study.
What made you decide to specialize in your current subfield in English?
Very good question! I think that I felt that it allowed me to bring together two kinds of things that I love: close reading and intellectual history. The texts seemed wonderfully knotty and verbally interesting, and also packed with ideas. And I found that teaching Shakespeare struck me as the most fun one could have with one’s clothes on.
What is the most intriguing or quirky idea that you have learned from your recent research?
Montaigne thought that it was foolish to repent of anything you have done that came out of your character. I’m still chewing on this.
What is your favorite work of literature to teach to undergraduates?
Very hard to say. Hamlet, some of Herbert’s lyrics, and some poems by Frost and Stevens would be contenders.
What do you like best about teaching college students at the University of Chicago?
The students!—their combination of responsiveness and audacity.