Did you have a favorite class or text in college? What made it your favorite?
Favorite text in college: Grace Paley short stories, Blake poems, Wharton's House of Mirth.
Favorite English class: one was Religion and Literature—a required course that I avoided for as long as possible, but found it expanded my sense of what religious content could be, and how literature could engage religion and religious themes. Another was a series of lectures on Marxism and literary theory offered by Terry Eagleton.
What would you have liked to tell the 20-year-old version of yourself about college?
Take more risks in course selection; try something outside your comfort zone. Don't close down possibilities too soon.
Did you go straight to graduate school after college? If not, what was the most interesting thing you did in the interim?
I worked at a non-profit with a sex-ed sociologist. We administered questionnaires about birth control to high-school students in order to assess the effectiveness of school-based health clinics. My boss was certain that 15- and 16- and 17-year-old students would blithely offer up all sorts of private information about sexual behavior in a rational and detailed manner. Not.
What made you decide to specialize in your current subfield in English?
What fascinates you at twenty doesn't always stay with you into your later adult life. However, I remain as fascinated now as I did then with the attempt by Victorian novelists to encapsulate a dynamic, variegated social world into a narrative and all while at the same time attempting to render live and affecting the inner lives of individuals. I also find the Victorians' fascination with and consternation about ethics and the ethical life to be both irritating and immensely moving, and often all at the same time.
What is the most intriguing or quirky idea that you have learned from your recent research?
That Victorians even while engaged in numerous wars, conflicts and skirmishes all over the world during the nineteenth century consider themselves to be living in a world rendered peaceful by liberal economics.
What is your favorite work of literature to teach to undergraduates?
That is tough. Blake's poems are tremendously productive to teach. Students respond well to the visual and verbal melding on display and love the radical social/personal philosophy at work in them. I love to teach texts that seem bland or banal, but with further investigation raise questions of real pertinence. I find this to be true with Anthony Trollope's The Warden. Anything by Dickens is a joy to teach, but I've often found odd the preference for Great Expectations as a set text at the high school level and college level. A book about regret, failed expectations, shame and settling outlined in an often self-excoriating narrative is truly a book for older adults. Oliver Twist—more about the astonishing malleability and vulnerability of youth—is a much better fit for young adults. And fun too.
What do you like best about teaching college students at the University of Chicago?
They are smart, but so are lots of students. They are hard-working, but so are lots of students. What I most like about U of C students? They are game. In one of my undergraduate classes, I ask them to think and write in brand-new ways about what otherwise seem very familiar and old-fashioned categories—character, setting, realist detail. For students so used to academic mastery, they are taking real risks with the writing and research they must do in that class. But they just plunge in. And so many of the essays are far more creative and thoughtful than I could have imagined.