Interview with Professor Felicity Nussbaum

The Graduate Student Caucus is excited to announce a new blog mini-series, featuring interviews with faculty members in the field discussing advances in eighteenth-century studies, the state of the profession, and advice for current grad students.

In this first installment of our series, Michael Nicholson, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Toronto’s Jackman Humanities Institute, interviews Felicity Nussbaum, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Interview with Professor Felicity Nussbaum:

I’ve been asked to answer lots of questions that relate to graduate students in eighteenth-century studies, and I’m happy to do so. Teaching and mentoring grad students has been my greatest joy over the many decades of my career. I could write reams about all the questions that were given to me, but I’ll just choose a few among them. Here goes—

1. What critical transformations have reshaped the field of eighteenth-century studies over the course of my career?

The feminist movement of the 1970s was essential to the direction of my interests and my research. Gloria Steinem early talked about the “click” when a woman recognized inequality based on sex, and those clicks were loud and frequent when I began my career. I had no women professors in graduate school, and the professor in my bibliography class scoffed at my wanting to work on Elizabeth Elstob, a brilliant scholar and linguist, for a class project. My first book was on satires against women in eighteenth-century British literature, and several of the reviewers questioned whether there was, in fact, any such tradition. But the women’s movement also meant that I was fortunate enough to be mentored by a series of senior male professors who wanted to increase the numbers of women in the profession and who offered me valuable advice.

Another important transformation was the “theory” revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. Laura Brown and I collected a group of essays, The New Eighteenth Century, which chided scholars in our field who were unwilling to entertain approaches other than a staid traditional historicism. We encouraged experiments in feminist criticism, historical materialism, new historicism, and post-structuralism, for example. That volume was controversial but, as a number of people have told me, it enabled a fresh conversation about the way we think about what we do and authorized some younger scholars to pursue new avenues.

2. What advice do you have for graduate students who are transitioning into the role of assistant professor?

The transition is often more difficult than one anticipates. You are no longer part of a graduate school community, and you are usually in an unfamiliar place where everything is new, from the code needed to use the Xerox machine to finding a dentist. I tell grad students that the first year is about teaching, connecting with faculty in your department and elsewhere, and allowing your dissertation to lie fallow. Plan to use the summer following the first year to publish another article, or perhaps two, and to apply for short-term fellowships for the following year. Visiting rare book libraries is a great way to meet other scholars, and to gather exciting ideas. Also, merely writing the proposals helps develop your project. In your third year, apply for long-term fellowships so that you can tackle the revisions to your dissertation and get the manuscript to the press in the fifth year. Of course, life intervenes, and you may not be able to do all this in a timely manner—but do your best. Hopefully you will be exempt from committee work your first year, but do offer to participate in service your second year.

3. What scholarly writing methods/strategies have served you well over the course of your career?

When I began my career, I thought I might write only the occasional article. In the first summer I visited Yale University (the Boswell factory), was introduced to Professor William K. Wimsatt, and fell in love with archival work. My dissertation had been on James Boswell, and I wanted to read the manuscript of The Life of Johnson, where I was surprised to find revisions regarding Johnson’s temper that spurred my first article.

I discovered that writing was actually therapeutic for me, and I still find it so. As I think of ideas I would like to pursue, I jot notes in files to be consulted later. In terms of actual writing practice—I write for long uninterrupted stretches. But when my children were young, I broke the writing into small chunks. What can I accomplish in two hours? In three? In four? I always make notes to myself about what I want to work on when I return to the essay or chapter. And I review what I wrote before moving on. Sometimes it is such a mess that the revisions consume the whole day!

4. Could you describe your approach to mentoring graduate students? What are some important attributes that graduate students should look for when choosing a faculty mentor?

It’s hard to put my approach in a nutshell, but mentoring graduate students means, at the very least, being available to them on a predictable basis, and offering advice at every juncture. Most graduate students are highly self-directed, and I think of my role as stimulating their interests and encouraging the development of paths less traveled. Especially critical are the times in graduate careers when one prepares for exams and chooses a dissertation topic. I have found it is important to encourage students to keep moving along and, if they seem intimidated by the next step, to try to demystify it so that it seems possible to achieve, or to make a call to a colleague who might help. I ask the students who are working with me to let me vet their applications, letters, and abstracts. I make clear that they are very welcome to disregard any advice I give.

5. What advice do you have on selecting dissertation topics? What advice do you have for graduate students on writing a dissertation prospectus?

A dissertation project extends for at least two years and often for five or six years beyond. Obviously, that’s a long time! I encourage grad students to build on their earlier work but especially to follow their passions. Read widely in the books and articles that are hot off the press. Often a topic in another field will give you an idea as to what to pursue on an eighteenth-century topic. And sometimes a topic that seems dull or unimportant at first mention will blossom during subsequent discussions into a compelling idea. Don’t just follow the latest trend. By the time your dissertation is a book, the topic will probably seem passé.

6. What classes have you most enjoyed teaching? How has your teaching evolved over the course of your career? 

This is a hard question to answer, because I have enjoyed every graduate class I have taught. I have been fortunate to teach a graduate seminar every year since coming to UCLA (and many before that), and usually the topic is related to my own research. For example, “Garrick and the Blues[stockings],” “Boswell, Johnson, and Thrale,” “Tragedy in Novel and Drama,” “Racial Thinking in Eighteenth-Century Literature,” etc. My courses always involve primary texts, literary criticism, theoretical readings, and oral reports on related topics as well as a seminar paper. My method has probably not evolved very much, except in that I try to stay very current with recent scholarship.

7. What advice on securing competitive research grants do you have for graduate students?

Perseverance. Just keep trying. Ask your mentors to read your grant proposals and make suggestions well before sending them out. Use the proposal to tell a story. Getting grants has to do with writing clear, coherent proposals that are accessible to readers outside the field. If you are seeking grants at a library or institution, do your homework about their strengths and their collections. Frankly, getting grants also depends on who is on the committee, so keep trying, even with the same grant agency, because the constitution of the committees often changes each year.

8. What advice do you have on attending conferences and giving conference papers?

The tendency now among grad students is to attend quite a few conferences and give lots of papers, but this inevitably interrupts their progress-to-degree. I recommend no more than two conferences a year, but I do think that it is a good idea to go to one international conference before graduating. Prepare thoroughly for giving a paper, preferably practicing with a group of fellow students or faculty. How you answer the questions matters as much as the quality of the paper you give. At the conference, attend as many sessions as you can, and don’t hesitate to speak up if you have a comment or question. Attend the social gatherings, and use the conference as a professionalization experience.

9. What advice do you have for graduate students interviewing on the academic job market (either at MLA or via Skype)?

Again, my advice is to practice, practice, practice. Each kind of interview (phone, Skype, personal, campus) is different, and each requires practice for that specific kind of experience. So don’t hesitate to ask others to help you prep for each one of these. Talk to those who have been successful on the job market. Thoroughly familiarize yourself with the websites of the departments where you are interviewing. Think of questions to ask them, and let them know you are interested in the answers. And don’t turn down a job you haven’t been offered!

10. How have the parameters of eighteenth-century literary history and periodization changed over the course of your career?

The eighteenth century used to be divided into “The Age of….” Dryden, Swift, Pope, and Johnson. It has subsequently burgeoned forth with the expansion of attention to women’s writing (especially the novel), to the literary history of slavery and empire across the globe, and with renewed attention to the long-neglected drama of the period. It has become longer, wider, and deeper, a development I welcome! Those scholars in adjacent periods sometimes worry that we are encroaching on their territory, but with the humanities continuing to be under attack, we can, I think build on each other’s strengths and forge new knowledge as we re-imagine the divisions and the connections between literary periods.

11. What are your current research interests? What are you working on at present, and what do you want to work on next?

I’ve just finished a paper on London-Irish actresses, another on the novelist Phebe Gibbes, and still another on representations of Indian ayahs. I’ve written a series of essays on Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, an infinitely interesting woman, and a book may evolve from those essays. In addition, I continue to work on essays regarding literary conjunctions of abolition and Orientalism in the period.

My final bit of advice to graduate students at all points in their careers is to ask for whatever you need, whether it is information, advice, a computer, a research fund, a raise, or time off. My motto has always been, “Why not? All they can say is ‘no,’ and they might just say ‘yes’!”


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