2007 Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching: Sandra MacphersonBy Josh Schonwald
Sandra Macpherson, Assistant Professor in English Language & Literature and the College, is a literary historian who specializes in a period of English literature that she jokingly refers to as “the black hole.” It is the era of Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding—the period between John Milton and Jane Austen.
Eighteenth-century English literature attracts comparatively less interest than modern or early-modern literatures. It also is a period that many students of English literature approach like cough syrup: begrudgingly.
For Macpherson, nothing is more satisfying than “the convert.” In the Macpherson sense, converting means transforming a student with no predisposition or interest in 18th-century English literature into a scholar of 18th-century English literature.
Right now, she said proudly, she is on 14 dissertation committees and five of her 18th-century literature students are preparing to go on the market. This is especially important, she said, when you are in a field with very few colleagues. Until recently, she was the only faculty member in her department specializing in this particular era. “It’s incredibly gratifying to see interest in this period.”
Macpherson, who has taught at Chicago since 1999, said she does not vary her teaching approaching from undergraduate to graduate students, but one of the keys to her approach is the conceptual core.
All of her seminars have abstract titles, such as “Sentiment and Social Planning,” “Thinking and Acting in the Long Eighteenth Century,” “Pornography: History, Theory, Text,” “On Beauty and Being Just in the Eighteenth-Century” and “The Vitalist Moment.” Each of these courses has a tightly constructed syllabus, aimed at provoking theoretical and literary questions.
In “Pornography: History, Theory, Text,” she seeks to examine theories of gender and agency during the Enlightenment; in “Sentiment and Social Planning,” the course examines tensions between the literature of sentimentalism and utilitarianism; and in “The Vitalist Moment” she asks metaphysical questions about a body of literary texts that tie being to motion or motility.
Her syllabi begin with philosophical and theoretical texts because, she said, “I want to rethink the stories we tell about literary history and the history of ideas. Once we reach the literary texts, students are prepared to ask: How do these texts challenge familiar theories of the Enlightenment?”
Other keys to Macpherson’s pedagogy are the one-page response and some risk-taking on her part.
Every week, whether the class is reading Hume or Richardson, she requires students to write a short, one-to-two page response, a reaction to something they have read. “It’s very open, it’s very informal. It’s just an exercise. Writing forces them to organize their insights in advance. And it seems to help move the conversation forward.”
The riskier part of Macpherson’s teaching comes when she moves outside of her own scholarly comfort zone. An intellectual historian, she feels comfortable teaching Locke and Hobbes, but less so with Hume. “Teaching Hume or Kant is a challenge,” she said. “I don’t really have the technical expertise.” Yet, she does so, approaching the text like a literary scholar. “That’s what we do, close reading. And that’s how I justify moving beyond my area of expertise.”
Teaching a graduate seminar as something less than an expert has pedagogical consequences, Macpherson said. She becomes more of a participant in the seminar rather than its director. This, she said, makes an important point to her students: “It’s OK to fumble with the text. It’s OK to be intrigued and mystified. You don’t have to come into a class with all the answers, all the expertise.”
Macpherson has just completed her first book, Harm’s Way: Tragic Responsibility and the Novel Form. The book, she said “addresses the centrality of accident and injury to the realist novel by shifting attention away from contract as the paradigm of modern belonging, toward forms of strict liability that make obligation something we do not choose and cannot escape.”
She also is continuing to work on Pornotopianism, a history of 18th- and 19th-century pornography that explores the pornographic origins of the feminist critique of pornography.
“It’s a great honor to win this award,” said Macpherson. “But the greater honor is getting to teach these graduate students. They’re smart, interesting and motivated,” she said. “My own work wouldn’t be what it is without them.”