Undergraduate Research in English 438: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers

Written by Rachael Isom, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

What if Jane Eyre had decided to live in sin with Mr. Rochester? Would Frankenstein’s Creature have been less destructive if his maker had been a woman? What if Sir Thomas Bertram had satisfied Fanny Price’s curiosity about the slave trade by taking her to his sugar plantations in Antigua? These are some of the questions posed by students in English 438, Nineteenth-Century Women Writers. During the Spring 2014 semester, I had the privilege of working with these students as a graduate research consultant for Professor Jeanne Moskal. The readings and assignments for this course encouraged students to engage critically and creatively with the nineteenth-century “novel of vocation” as represented by four key texts: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Valperga, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The two major written assignments for this course were a targeted research essay and a creative essay, each allowing students to choose topics of interest.

For the targeted research essay, students were to summarize and respond to either a critical interpretation of Mansfield Park or a historical essay. In conferencing with students, I was impressed by their deep engagements with these sources. Undaunted by scholarly critiques of Austen’s work or essays on subjects removed from their own twenty-first century experiences, these students confidently approached complex issues and contributed their own voices to conversations that could be intimidating even to graduate students. Their work demonstrated nuanced readings of secondary texts and fresh perspectives on Mansfield Park. One student, for instance, analyzed a landmark essay on Mansfield Park and pursued a gap in its argument by using her own knowledge of Austen’s novel. Other students tied aspects of the Romantic period to current events or social customs, creating more tangible connections and thereby making the texts relevant to their own lived experiences.

In the creative assignment, I was fascinated by the students’ investment in the project and the interesting ways they rethought and rewrote passages from the course’s key texts. Many students composed imitations altering single elements of original passages to address latent religious, economic, and gender issues. One student chose to consider Jane Eyre alongside James Frey’s recent book A Million Little Pieces as fictionalized autobiographies. By drawing attention to Jane Eyre’s subtitle and placing the novel in context with a controversial book from our own culture and time, the student was able to effectively demonstrate how genre labels inform readers’ approaches and reactions to texts.

As students constructed these projects, I was able to conference with them individually, but I also had a chance to interact with them as a class. Early in the semester, Professor Moskal allowed me to deliver a guest lecture on my own research interests and lead a discussion of a topic associated with Mansfield Park. Professor Moskal encouraged me to talk openly about my own experiences as a way to initiate undergraduates, many of whom expressed interest in further study, into the realm of graduate-level research in literature. As I approached this talk, I realized that, although I had often discussed my academic history informally and presented conference papers on my interests, I had never related to a group of students the larger body of my research in the context of my own entrance into the field. The experience proved extremely rewarding: I was able to step back from the immediate projects I have been pursuing and reflect on my larger trajectory and goals as a scholar. I was also challenged by students’ perspectives on the topic we discussed in Mansfield Park, and I received constructive and encouraging feedback from them after my guest talk.

In working with Professor Moskal and her wonderful undergraduates, I was able to witness the cultivation of interest and the fruits of active engagement with a set of texts within my own sphere of interest. The students interacted with landmark texts through innovative scholarly and creative projects, and I was able to learn from the new perspectives they brought to discussions and assignments.

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