I base my teaching on two related principles: hospitality and discovery. I’m the host of my classroom and my subject, so it’s important to me to invite students in in a way that makes them feel welcome, included, and equipped to make the space and material their own—which means they’re learning to be good hosts toward each other and the people they study, as well. All this gets us ready for finding out something new. I set out each semester setting my students up to be surprised, as well as my being surprised as well. What don’t we know yet? What haven’t we considered? What happens when the text or concept “out there” interacts with the people “in here”? What histories are we sharing in by doing this exploration, and where are we adding to the contours of what’s known and possible in our world? These are very big ideals, and they can carry a lot of content and work while leaving us room to breathe and enjoy what we’re doing.
One of the reasons I wanted to teach at a place like Lafayette is the range of courses I get to teach. I trained as an early American literary historian, but I’m always learning and trying out new things in and out of the classroom. I teach courses in sea literature, nature writing, spiritual writing, history of the book, literary history, as well as 18th- and 19th-century American and British literature, especially poetry and literature related to the U.S. Civil War.
Going into a course, I work to construct ways for students to gain a sense of belonging and expertise. I also want this to involve encountering something they haven’t seen before: a different kind of text from an earlier era, an author from a different social or cultural perspective, a methodology based in working with rare books and manuscripts, a theoretical framework that pieces the world together in a fresh way. To make this happen, I build diverse reading lists, make the conditions for a space of lively discussion (including some productive silence), and create hands-on activities that get our bodies moving, that bring us into literal contact with things through field trips and special collections visits. I tend to go “meta” in a lot of my courses, meaning I lean into why questions: Why do we think this way? Why do we study the things we do? Why does this matter? Why do we matter? I bring students into these questions in the humility of someone who’s looking for answers and wants them to join me in the search. Students tend to leave my courses with new skills, a favorite text or two, a new friend or two, and a new set of questions that they want to keep asking. College is many things to me, but one of them is a gift, and as a professor I receive my students and our studies as gifts, with the hope that the things my students leave with will be good gifts to them, too. Because good gifts keep going out into the world; they don’t stop with the recipients.
I’ve always been fascinated by history, and I love finding out about people and stories that we’ve largely forgotten about, or never really known. Studying early America from a literary standpoint proved to be a perfect way to do this work; it’s a field that historians have studied for as long as America was named on a map, but literary scholars are still fairly recent arrivals—immigrants, you might say. As I’ve developed interests in book history and environmental studies, it’s allowed me to keep tracing and telling stories that have been left, or pushed, out of the center of our culture, even when it involves something as famous as Moby-Dick or the Declaration of Independence. For my students, studying early America has become increasingly vital to their understanding of how we got where we have as a society, what our relationship to the past is, and what our possibilities might be. To study writings by enslaved or recently freed people, to look at a time when novels were still largely experimental artworks, to trace interactions between literary forms in Native American, South Asian, and Anglo-American contexts—this kind of literary study rarely fails to surprise and set us thinking about what we may have missed before.
My Research Interests
My research revolves around questions in the history of reading. Some of this looks like traditional literary study: How do certain forms of poetry develop over time, and what do people think of them over that evolution? Some looks like book history: Why were certain books made the way they were, and what did people actually do with them—and how can we tell? Related to this, I’ve been studying the loan records of a local Easton library from the early 19th century to explore what real, identifiable people in the area around the College were reading in the decades surrounding the founding of Lafayette, looking for patterns across genres, periods, and the demographics of the library users; this is work that uses a lot of spreadsheets, data visualization, and other methods that might at first seem surprising in an English department, but that bring a range of fields together in exciting ways.
In my book history work in particular, I fell in love very quickly with how I was able to experience what I was studying: I can pick up a book, turn it over, leaf through it, pick up clues to its history and its design and manufacture, and I can put my hands where other humans (and possibly other creatures) did, often centuries before. People talk about the “magic” of introducing students to special collections, and I’ve got to say that the magic doesn’t wear off very quickly!
Lafayette has supported my work through library acquisitions and travel grants, through collaboration with digital librarians, and above all through encouraging its rich tradition of student-faculty mentorship. Through the EXCEL Scholars program, through independent studies and senior thesis projects, I have greatly enjoyed getting to take students further into the world of knowledge-creation as it’s professionally done than we would have room to do in a course. Working sometimes with individual students, and sometimes with teams of them, I’ve found the chance to involve my students in my research has been one of the best parts of my job as a Lafayette professor.
Awards and Honors
Jones Faculty Lecture Award, Lafayette College (2014)
NEH Postdoctoral Fellow, Library Company of Philadelphia (2016)*
ACLS Burkhardt Fellow, American Antiquarian Society (2016-17)*
*Note: I was the only recipient from a liberal arts college of both fellowships that year.
My Personal Interests/Community Work
I’ve just concluded my third year on the board of the Easton Book Festival, my second as the board president. I’ve loved getting to work with others in the area to bring celebrations of authors and books to our community, and to build ties between Lafayette and people and organizations across Easton. I’m also an elder at College Hill Presbyterian Church and a volunteer teacher at my children’s homeschool cooperative.