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English Works: The Professor's Path

English alum Stephanie Weiner makes her way by asking the interesting questions
January 21, 2019

For Stephanie Weiner (BA 1993), Professor of English at Wesleyan University, the best part of working in academia is teaching. "At the end of a day centered on interacting with students—teaching, advising, meeting about papers, events for majors, what-have-you—I feel energized," she says, "as though I still have full batteries, and nothing has been depleted.

"But I also enjoy research and writing," continues Weiner (pictured at the top of Mount Snowdon in Wales, the site of a famous scene in Wordsworth's Prelude). "I get to learn more all the time, and to follow whatever path opens up from the questions I am asking."

She has published numerous articles and two books: Clare's Lyric: John Clare and Three Modern Poets (Oxford UP, 2014) and Republican Politics and English Poetry, 1789-1874 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). For the project on early 19th-century nature poet John Clare and 20th-century writers such as John Ashbery, her questions had to do with the poetic markers of realism: How do poets (versus novelists and painters) convince readers that they have actually observed the world and its inhabitants?

"At the U, I learned how
not to be intimidated by
any text, no matter how
daunting it initially seems."
         — Stephanie Weiner

Her current research project concerns "English-to-English translation": movements across time and from specialized jargons and regional dialects such as Scots to standard English. "All these translations seem to me forays into and out of a 'sister tongue,'" she describes, "a language that is not-quite-foreign but also not-quite-native. How did these forays shape the language of poetry in the 19th century and beyond?"

It was at the U that she learned how to ask an interesting question, Weiner says. "I got a tremendous education in the English department. I learned how not to be intimidated by any text, no matter how daunting it initially seems. I learned how to study poetry, which is my specialty now. My British and American literature courses gave me a sense of the big sweep from Chaucer forward, of the stories of continuity and change that run through our literary traditions in English.

"I especially remember Professor Andrew Elfenbein’s 'The Victorian Age' and 'Byron and Keats,' Professor Toni McNaron’s course on Milton, my two courses on Shakespeare, a course simply called 'Poetry,' and the introduction to writing in the major. That was the first time I read Willa Cather—I remember discovering The Professor’s House like it was yesterday," she relates. "But I’m most grateful for the whole unity of my coursework, which prepared me very well for graduate school, for my work now, and for a life of reading and talking about books."

Weiner knows well the lure of her occupation for some undergraduates: she never planned on getting a PhD in literature, but "the more courses I took, the more courses I wanted to take!" She entered Stanford University's doctoral program the year she graduated from the U. Still, as a result of today's very tight job market in the academic humanities, she advises current undergraduates interested in academic careers to delay graduate study. "I realize that for many graduating students there is no job immediately after graduation that’s as enjoyable and interesting as being in school," she says. "But once you get out in the world, all sorts of opportunities begin to open up. Talented and hard-working people find that they can thrive and see their abilities and efforts rewarded in many lines of work."

No one needs to delay a life of reading and talking about books. Ever the energized professor, Weiner has written you a recommendation (or six):

  • Too few Americans know John Clare's amazing poems about bird nests, animals, soul-searing sadness, and joy in careful observation of the world. I recommend a tiny book of his poems called Careless Rambles, which has lovely illustrations, as well as the Carcanet collection of his Northborough Sonnets, where the editors have left his poems unpunctuated and full of strange and fascinating words.
  • I teach a course in adventure fiction, so I’ve just been reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Arnold Bennett’s The Grand Babylon Hotel. Both are fantastic. Grand Babylon Hotel has a spunky heroine, unusual for adventure stories of the time. While you’re at it, P.G. Wodehouse’s Piccadilly Jim does too and will make you laugh out loud.
  • For academic books, Elizabeth Helsinger’s Poetry and the Thought of Song in Nineteenth-Century Britain is marvelous and accessible. And lately I seem to mention Wolfgang Iser’s The Act of Reading all the time—somehow it illuminates everything!