On the first day of Dr. King’s “Jane Austen Today” class, I read over the syllabus and did a double-take. Sitting on the page next to a list of Austen’s novels and some articles by Austen scholars, sat the movie Clueless under a “Required Viewing” header. As in, Alicia Silverstone, “as if!” Clueless. I was psyched. I’ve dreamed of a remote-control closet my entire life. When we came to our discussion of Austen’s Emma and subsequently, the discussion of Clueless as an adaptation of the novel, it didn’t disappoint. We had a graduate-level conversation about the merits of the movie and the relationship between Cher and Emma. It was probably one of the weirdest and coolest seminar discussions I’ve had in my graduate career.
The facilitator of this conversation was Dr. Amy King, a British literature scholar with a particular interest in the 19th century. She also has an interest in the history of science and is currently working on a book manuscript entitled “Reverent Form: Natural History, the Theology of Nature, and the Novel in Britain, 1789-1865.” Dr. King is also working on an essay on Darwin and 19th century natural science for the Oxford Handbook of Victorian Culture. Due to scheduling difficulties, we conducted our interview over email. I asked her what advice she’d give to graduate students just beginning their careers and she said, “however idealistic it may sound, is to remember what particular joy of interest drove you to graduate school. That jolt of aesthetic pleasure, or the pleasure in immersion in a new idea or concept-remember this as a touchstone as you form your project.” This might be tough to hold on to in the face of hundreds of pages of reading, but it’s something we should all remind ourselves of. We’re all here because we love it, In choosing a field, Dr. King also advises a trust-your-gut kind of approach. She says “choose carefully a field – not because what you determine on will help or hinder your job prospects (though that may be the case)’ but because you should be engaged by the larger scholarly field you’ve entered.” This seems like exactly the kinds of words of wisdom we need at this point in the semester, with seminar papers looming and everyone talking about the terrible job market. When I started at St. John’s I thought I would write a certain kind of dissertation, take a certain kind of path, in order to make myself more marketable down the line. Then I thought about actually reading, researching and studying that topic for the rest of my career and I realized I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t work all these years on a project my heart really wasn’t in. We’re lucky enough to work in fields that are flexible, that let us make our own paths of study, that let us watch Clueless in a scholarly way. We’d be crazy not to take advantage.
I asked Dr. King to recall the best piece of advice she’d ever gotten as a graduate student or young professor and she said it “was to ‘be fresh’ and to not be afraid to take a stand.” She also said “a mentor of mine once said to me this: don’t be afraid to ask what might seem like stupid questions. My own current book came out of letting myself ask a (very simplistic) question about the 19th century novel, but one I’ve always wondered about: why are these novels so long? And my first book came out of letting myself ask why the readerly experience of the courtship plot seemed as if there was no sexual intimacy (when none seems to appear). So oddly, I seem to be saying ‘ask stupid questions of your texts, of your research questions.’ I believe they’re the ones we want answered by scholarship.”
Thanks, Dr. King!