FAQ: Deborah Nelson

Did you have a favorite class or text in college? What made it your favorite?

My favorite class was probably a junior seminar called Lyric Poetry.  It was my favorite for all the usual reasons—great professor, great classmates, great material.  

What would you have liked to tell the 20-year-old version of yourself about college?

It makes sense to follow the sequence in which courses are offered.

Did you go straight to graduate school after college? If not, what was the most interesting thing you did in the interim?

No, I worked for a few years in advertising in New York, then taught English at Fudan University in Shanghai, then waited tables for a year to save money for graduate school.  The most interesting thing I did was star in a three-hour made for television movie while I was teaching in China.

What made you decide to specialize in your current subfield in English?

It was an accident.  No one studied late-20th-century literature in a systematic way when I was in graduate school, but my dissertation led me there and there was no turning back.  

What is the most intriguing or quirky idea that you have learned from your recent research?

Simone Weil's distinction between human rights and obligations.  She argued that rights always required someone to recognize them and that obligations—to basic conditions of flourishing—were non-negotiable. 

What is your favorite work of literature to teach to undergraduates?

Really whatever I last taught.  But one thing I consistently love teaching in Theresa Cha's amazing experimental poem/autobiography “Dictee.”

What do you like best about teaching college students at the University of Chicago?

That's easy.  Because of their independence of mind and their curiosity, discussion is an intellectual adventure for me as well as for them.