Spring ’16 Graduate Courses: Talking to Dr. Chan, “Victorian Literature and Culture: Bad Girls and Patriarchal Proprieties” ––Jessie Serfilippi

Advisement Day and the time to sign-up for spring semester courses is upon us. You may be looking at your choices and wondering which one is best for you. I sat down with Dr. Chan in her office and asked her a few questions about the graduate level literature course she’ll be teaching this spring.

What initially drew you to Victorian Literature as a main area of interest?

That’s a great question! I think it’s such a rich period for reading, history, and culture. The Victorian novel was so huge that you could live in that world for a very long time and I really liked that. When I got to graduate school it was a choice I had to make to do Victorian lit or to pursue Asian American lit, and I went with Victorian lit, even though it may not have been the most instinctive choice for everybody. Everybody who was in the administration at my grad school thought I was going into Asian American Lit, and while I enjoy it tremendously, Victorian literature had so much going on for it. It’s one of the information ages in British history. They’re also so much like us and so much unlike us, which is what I find so appealing.

What can you tell me about the course?

I wanted to vary the representation of females, which is one of the reasons why I decided Mary Barton might be a good way to balance out the more privileged females that we see, say in Middlemarch, Lady Audley’s Secret, or the African queen figure in She. I wanted to be sure that we had a decent mix of females represented rather than the usual kinds of white, British, middle/upper-middle class female. It’s not easy, but it’s a way to balance out Middlemarch. In fact, Daisy Miller, which is American, may be one of the stories, but I haven’t quite settled on it. Henry James is kind of funny that way; he’s sort of British and American at the same time.

Have you ever taught a combined undergrad and grad class before?

No, I haven’t ever done it before, but the undergrads at the upper levels have a blog, to make up their fourth credit. So they have more short writing where they will be evaluated and have their writing critiqued along the way. The grad students will be producing the longer paper at the end. I’m not sure that I have the grad students doing too many short papers at this point, but we will have a lot of workshopping.

When it comes to the grad students, in the past what I’ve asked them to do, besides reading and writing, is to present questions at a certain point for discussion and also to make a bibliographic presentation by looking at the criticism for the last ten years on a certain novel or aspect of the novel. This will be useful for the grad students because they’ll be producing a literary research paper and this will help with finding the research.

The other course this spring centers around Melville and Moby Dick. Some students will be deciding between the two literature courses and they might want to know why we should read Middlemarch?

You know what’s funny is Brian Sweeney and I didn’t think of it as an either/or situation. We thought of it as Moby Dick and Middlemarch. That’s how we conceived of this. In fact, we kind of laughed about this at first, then we thought, why not? Masters students are here to get breadth in their reading. Compared to Moby Dick, Middlemarch is interesting not just for the female figures, and the female author who created them, but we have people who are desirous to improve their world in one way or another, or to find order in the world.

Middlemarch is an older version of the Victorian world, probably not even Victorian, probably pre-1832. It’s a rather nostalgic kind of work by George Eliot looking back to the life she had in the midlands, in the countryside, and how these people were really eager to accomplish something. It will be up to the reader to see whether or not they did–– I’m not giving anything away. I think that in the effort to accomplish something on the parts of both males and females you go through a lot of emotional turmoil, and I think that’s what Middlemarch is kind of showing us. It’s a kind of psychological novel, and at the heart of Middlemarch there grows a kind of mystery, so there’s a little bit of detective work that’s involved.

What would you say to a student who wants to sign-up for your class, but is hesitant because they haven’t read much Victorian literature before?

If all you’ve read is one work, then you’d do well to open up to the variety that is actually truly available in Victorian lit. You know, I have a post-it here on my wall, and it says 50,000 novels were published in the Victorian Period. I thought that number was so significant that I put it on my wall. So you know, someone who is not well-versed in the Victorian Period might actually enjoy it. I tried to pick things that are appealing for different reasons.

Interested in learning more about the books you may be reading in this course? Check out the potential reading list here: Middlemarch by George Eliot, Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Branddon, She by H. Rider Haggard, Daisy Miller by Henry James, and Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

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