On a brisk afternoon in early December, Jessie Serfilippi, a graduate assistant in the English program, sat down at Tierra Coffee Roasters with the newest member of the Saint Rose English Department faculty, Dr. Marshelle Woodward. They discussed her love of books, her foray into literary studies, and the classes she’ll be teaching this spring.
How are you liking Albany so far?
I’m really enjoying Albany. I think what I actually like the most about Albany is how close it is to so many other places. I have friends who live in Binghamton and Hartford, Boston, and NYC, so it’s like this great hub to travel and see other parts of New England. Coming from the South, I’m getting to see a lot of places that I’ve read about and heard about my whole life but never seen.
I also like the diversity of the city. You can find lots of quirky little coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall little bars and restaurants.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Kentucky. I spent the first 22 years of my life there. I went to college at a liberal arts school called Georgetown College, which is near the University of Kentucky in the Lexington area. While I was there I got to study abroad at Oxford through a program the school had. I studied Old English poetry there for a semester.
It was really important to me to find a school to teach at that reminded me of my own undergrad because it was such an important experience in my own life.
How did you come to study English?
When I went to college I thought I was going to be a double major in history and political science, which were two different departments at my school. I thought I would be a lawyer. In my first semester I took an honors composition course and we read Hamlet. I wrote this very involved research paper that led me to things written by King James and other 17th century writers, and it was so interesting and stimulating. I realized I needed to be an English major.
That summer I would go to the bookstore after work. I was reading The Phantom Tollbooth there and thinking about how much fun it would be to teach classes forever, just read books and talk about them. I went home and emailed my professor and said I want to do what you do.
I originally thought I wanted to study children’s literature, which was at the time an emerging field, but there weren’t a lot of programs. It was growing, but during the financial crisis all of those programs were cut back. So, relatedly, I decided to specialize in something else and maybe teach children’s literature on the side if I get a chance. I chose Renaissance literature and, particularly, 17th century poetry and prose. The period just clicked with me. I was fascinated by the medical science of the period, and the sort of correspondences that people saw in the cosmos. I loved Milton, I loved Paradise Lost, his great epic poem, so that’s what led me there. I also tended to write the best papers in those classes.
What classes are you teaching next spring?
I’m teaching ENG-105 and my thematic focus is going to be Local Horror Stories & Urban Legends. I sort of transition from horror, to urban legends, to detective stories, because the class is all about learning to write academic research. I like to think about how we investigate the unknown and move from the supernatural to the natural world. I’m excited about that one. I’m teaching ENG-230, Early British, and I taught that this semester. It’s on the theme making knowledge in Early Modern England. We look at all the different forms of knowledge and how literature was seen as a sort of technology for knowing the world. I’m also teaching ENG-240, which is on Metaphysical Poetry. I’m very excited about that one. That’s a new class.
What do you expect from your students?
I expect curiosity, dedication, and a degree of resilience. I teach difficult literature. I expect my students to be sort of able to dwell in that difficulty, trusting that we’re going to find some kind of understanding on the other end. I expect them to be okay with difficulty and with the process of working through complex texts together.
What book makes you excited to teach?
Paradise Lost makes me really excited to teach because the poetry is sublime and Satan is an amazing character. I get excited to introduce my students to that text and remember what it was like to read it for the first time.
What are some of your favorite books, food, and movies?
My favorite Shakespeare play is King Lear. For fun I like to read fantasy novels, like books by Patrick Rothfuss and Lev Grossman. I love the essays of Michel de Montaigne and Thomas Brown.
My favorite food is Southern-style food, biscuits and gravy.
I love Mad Men, and most recently I’ve been watching Jessica Jones and Master of None.
When you’re not teaching, you’d rather be…
Probably in Toronto where my husband teaches. And I’d also rather be watching Netflix with my cats.