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A Quickened Mind: From Fanfiction to Milton

A PhD candidate's award-winning research benefits his teaching (and vice versa)
November 1, 2017

Grad student Asa Olson with former student Mubarek Nebi

Grad student Asa Olson with former student Mubarek Nebi
PhD student Asa Olson (right) with former student Mubarek Nebi at Nebi's poster presentation for the U's Multicultural Student Research Opportunity Program

Last spring, doctoral candidate Asa Olson won a 2017-18 Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, a Graduate School award that allows him two semesters to focus on revising and finishing his dissertation, without the usual graduate student teaching responsibilities. Since then, he's been honored twice for his teaching, first with a Minnesota Students Association and Council of Graduate Students Award for Excellence in Teaching, and, this fall, with a 2017 Department of English Graduate Student Teaching Award. One of his successful teaching tools, as he relates below, is asking students to critique his own writing: "No one is immune to mistakes," he says, and circling the teacher's in red pen encourages students to view revision as part of the process for writers at all levels. (He'll get back to the classroom soon—we're counting on it.)

"When I was 12, I read a
series by J. K. Applegate called
Animorphs, which features
young adults who transform into
animals. I grew fascinated with
the idea of metamorphosis."

What was the genesis of your interest in your dissertation topic, “Elegy and Metamorphosis: Forms of Selfhood in Early Modern England”?

I grew up on a farm in northwestern Wisconsin, where my closest neighbor was a mile away, and we might receive three TV channels on a clear day. Books were my entertainment. When I was 12 or so, I read a series by J. K. Applegate called Animorphs, which features teenagers who transform into animals. I grew fascinated with the idea of metamorphosis. I role-played through an Animorphs “choose-your-own-adventure” novel. I even tried my hand at fanfiction. A little more than a decade later, I began reading about classical texts in early modern education and became interested in what English youths such as Shakespeare read at that age. I discovered that elegy, a Roman genre of poetry, was similarly formative. Teachers taught it because it appealed to students, and when I started reading early modern imitations of elegy (which one could call fanfiction), I realized that these poets were role-playing and fashioning their subjectivity, much as I had done at that age. In Animorphs, the ability to metamorphose echoed the biological and psychological transformations of these early teens. I wanted to investigate what fascinated students about elegy as they went through similar transformations.

Did certain professors significantly nurture the project?

I spent nearly my entire undergraduate career learning Latin from Professor Jim McKeown at UW-Madison. He always kept students interested in the lessons with humorous tidbits about Roman and Greek culture. His most frequent source was Ovid, one of the Roman elegists. Even now, when I read through Ovid’s Amores, I use Professor McKeown's published commentaries. Here at the U, Professor John Watkins (English) and Professor Nita Krevans (Classical and Near Eastern Studies) have remarkable abilities to work with texts in a variety of contexts and languages, and this project has benefited significantly from their flexibility, care, and expansive knowledge.

What work do you plan to accomplish on the dissertation during your fellowship year?

I am currently finishing my final chapter about John Milton’s neo-Latin elegies. I have already done some travel for this chapter, including a trip to the University of Texas at Austin, where I examined the manuscript for one of Milton’s early elegies. Later this year, I plan to workshop my argument at a conference. Then I will begin revising the dissertation for defense!

What do you enjoy most about teaching, and how has being a teacher enhanced your scholarship?

Each semester, I like to bring in a major classical work that influenced one of our texts. I want students to think about how and why the author adapted this text, but I also want them to think about the authors as readers. These texts combine to create a mirror for my students, reflecting how they look upon early modern authors just as those writers looked on the classics. I also enjoy bringing my own writing, old or new, into the classroom for writing instruction. As a class, we collectively critique it, which is surprisingly fun. On one hand, this critique makes me more relatable to my students. Writing is a process of editing and revision for everyone. On the other hand, the critique is an opportunity to discuss what research in literary studies and other fields looks like. Of course, this activity also benefits me. I am always trying to improve my writing, and my students help me do that with their insightful feedback.

If you are not from Minnesota, what has been your favorite discovery, living here?

There is a fierce competition between my home state, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Even so, I have plenty to say about Minnesota’s many hidden gems. The bicycle trails all around Minneapolis and Saint Paul are great for both commuting and recreation—and, along the way, there are plenty of great craft breweries. The Twin Cities are also home to the renowned Guthrie Theatre, as well as so many small but great acting companies (special shout-out to the Classical Actors Ensemble, my favorite group in the area). What I brag about most is how much green space there is. Rather than a concrete sprawl, you find gardens and parks. The green space really boosts your mood, and the University of Minnesota is a uniquely beautiful campus as a result, all year round!