By Ellie Parker, Features Editor
Ellie Parker: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Professor Peters: I was an English major at the University of Notre Dame. After graduating, I decided to go into book publishing, and I did that for a few years. Then I realized that I didn’t want to spend my life on the business side of writing. It was fun and I saw a trajectory for myself, but I didn’t feel like the people in publishing were a good model for me. As much as I liked it, it didn’t feel like me. So, I went and taught high school for a few years and then I went and earned my Ph.D. and then I started working as a college professor.
EP: Did you ever imagine going into teaching?
PP: As a kid I didn’t play house; I played school. At first, I really thought I wanted to find a way to support myself as a writer, but doing just that wasn’t the right fit for me. I need to do some type of service for other people. I like to feel like there was a direct in-the-moment connection between me and others, so teaching felt good. I liked teaching high school, but that wasn’t the right fit either. I may not be structured enough as a teacher, and you absolutely have to be really structured when you teach high school. More importantly, I longed to study and teach literature more deeply–something I could do as an English professor at the college level.
EP: What brought you to Stern specifically?
PP: Actually, it was pretty random. I was getting my Ph.D. at The Graduate Center about three blocks away, and they were looking for faculty. I was working at a CUNY school at the time and wanted to be closer to The Graduate Center while finishing my Ph.D. I came here, taught a class, and loved it. The SCW students were engaged and thoughtful and smart. It felt like a fit.
EP: I recently purchased your memoir, Household. Can you discuss other works you’ve written?
PP: I wrote and published an essay in 2013 on my father and a house he designed. From there, I decided to expand it into a book. It was originally published in a literary journal. It was the book I wrote to get tenure, an unusual book because it is a memoir but includes literary analysis. Some readers like the hybridity. Others find it challenging. There are those who want a pure memoir and are bothered by the fact that it has a lot of writers like William Dean Howells and Henry James and Willa Cather. And then there are other readers who wanted it to be more academic and less personal. I’m happy with it because it reflects my interests and my skills. I see is as belonging to a pretty unique genre, a weaving of personal experience with the stories and novels that have shaped my life. The book is also about an abiding interest of mine–place and how we construct homes for ourselves. It begins with the story of the house where I grew up and the story of my architect father who designed that house and from here I follow my story of home to New York City and upstate New York.
EP: Are you still writing?
PP: I am. I have actually been working for the last few years on something that has been really exciting but is very difficult for me. It started off as more of an academic book, but recently it seems to be turning into a novel. Fiction is new territory for me, and I can’t lie: it has been hard. I’m not sure it will succeed. But I’m always telling my writing students that the way we learn anything is to feel a bit like a failure along the way. I have been working on it for a couple of years, and I’m hoping that this year it will come together, find a shape.
EP: You were saying that you consider Stern students especially smart and thoughtful. What has been your experience at Stern versus the other schools at which you’ve taught?
PP: There is a real kindness to Stern students. I don’t know if it is your religious upbringing, but I have never taught at an institution where students thank me after class. I also think there is an unusual respect for older people at Stern. When I first started teaching here, I was young and my relationship to my students felt very easy. As I got older, I worried I’d lose that. But I don’t feel any lack of connection with my students today. I wonder if that would be the same somewhere else. And it’s fun to do close reading with Stern students. They take great pleasure in arguing about the wording of a sentence. Maybe it’s because they are partly trained in this kind of reading. This past week, I’ve had students arguing over a paragraph in a Willa Cather story, the meaning of Lot’s Wife in the Bible, and the ending of Henry James’s Daisy Miller. And they really seem to be having fun doing this.
EP: What are your overall thoughts on Stern’s English department and how has it evolved over the years?
PP: The Stern English department is exceptional. Our chair, Professor Shires, is an esteemed scholar of Victorian literature and has worked passionately over the years to make sure our English major stays strong and stays relevant. We’re so lucky to have her. Joy Ladin is truly a public intellectual. She’s also a beautiful poet. Professor Nachumi has written widely and engagingly on Jane Austin and other 18th century writers. Professor Miller is renowned for his work on the poet Walt Whitman. And Professor O’Malley, although relatively new in the department, has already published a terrific book, edited two collections, and made a name for himself in the Ford Madox Ford and Virginia Woolf academic circles. For a small college and a small English department, we have big talent. And it’s not just their research that stands out. I am always impressed by how committed they all are to teaching. I’ve often wished I could take the classes offered by the others in the department. I’m proud to be part of such a group.
EP: Were you surprised by anything coming to teach at a Jewish school?
PP: There are certain subjects I feel I need to be careful discussing, but I don’t want to feel like I’m editing myself. I want to teach the same way I’d teach anywhere.
EP: How do you go about choosing your curriculum?
PP: I change it all the time because I am easily bored. I have almost never taught the same group of works in the same class. And I love to create new courses. I’m working on developing a course now for next semester on the theme of female friendship. It’s a course inspired by my interest in the work of Elena Ferrante and a re-reading this past summer of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula.
EP: Being here for fifteen years, how have you seen Stern students change?
PP: There are some years when students seem more progressive and there are other years where it feels as if students are going in a different direction. I do see the effect of the smartphone, no question. I should say I see that effect on myself as well. It’s more difficult to take on longer prose works. Students are a bit more distracted. But usually, it doesn’t take that long for them to get back into this kind of in-depth, careful reading. I found this to be true last year reading longer novels like Sister Carrie and House of Mirth in a lit course I taught. We just had to get over the initial resistance and get back in the practice of that kind of reading.
EP: Any advice for an aspiring writer or English major?
PP: Professor Shires and I organized a humanities panel last year, and it was really important to me. While I understand that your generation has a lot of anxiety surrounding careers, I honestly believe that a humanities degree is a great degree for any profession. It gives you the foundation and skills you want when you go out into the world. You can learn specific skills in the workplace. Humanities offers so much that will matter later on–close reading, critical thinking, a practice in empathy, an understanding of your own historical context. I will admit to someone looking to earn a humanities degree that it’s not the same as some degrees where you get out of college and know exactly what steps to take, what path lies before you. You have to deal with some uncertainty. At the same time, this can be a positive. Today, there’s more and more flexibility, more changing of careers, more creativity in how we think about work. I can’t help but think that a degree in the humanities may fit this kind of job better than something that is highly specialized.
Photo: Ann Peters