Interview with Dr. Stephanie Hershinow, Author of ‘Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel’

Many thanks to Dr. Stephanie Hershinow for taking the time to interview with us! She is an Assistant Professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York; she specializes in eighteenth-century British literature, the history of the novel, experimental literature, and literary theory. Her book, Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel, has just been published with Johns Hopkins University Press.


Born Yesterday is 40% off with free shipping through 7/15 with the code HHOL. To purchase, follow this link. If you’re reading this after 7/15, don’t fear; keep reading for the 20% discount code. 

How did you become interested in eighteenth-century studies?

SH: Very late! I thought of myself as a modernist throughout college and even did an MA in Modern Literature and Culture at the University of York in the UK. I avoided the eighteenth century at every turn. (Writing this, I realize I also grew up basically in Colonial Williamsburg, so it may be more accurate to say that the eighteenth century was too present for me, just a given.) In college, I refused to take a class with a fantastic professor because he encouraged students to read Clarissa over the summer. (Who would possibly want to do that? Oh, it turns out…me.) And York has a fantastic eighteenth-century studies program—even stronger now. It was really the novel that brought me to the eighteenth century. My favorite classes in college were a history and theory of the novel class and a class on theories of representation; both introduced me to the weirdness of the early novel. This is when I got my now-bundled-together-with-several-rubberbands copy of Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel. (Watt is wrong about everything, but that book is still amazing.) I also took a few classes in political theory in college, and eighteenth-century thought loomed large. When I decided to pursue a Ph.D., I had what I now think of as a pretty key breakthrough: I needed to work on what was confusing for me, not necessarily what I loved reading. My love for the eighteenth century has grown, but it became my field of study because it raised tough questions for me. At Hopkins, I worked with Frances Ferguson, whose way of thinking and writing electrified me. Though her most influential work is arguably as a Romanticist, her work in eighteenth-century studies is audacious and bracing. It’s still very much a model for me.

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

SH: When I showed up as a prospective student at the graduate school I ended up attending, one of the professors said to me “Ah, you’re the formalist, so you probably won’t be working with me.” I had no idea what he meant! Was I the formalist? What was a formalist? I thought of myself as pretty laid back! Part of my bewilderment can be chalked up to my considerable naivete (I’m a first-generation college student), but I do think conversations (and knock-down-drag-out-fights) about formalism and its discontents—conversations about method in general—have multiplied in the time since I’ve been in this field. I tend to think this is healthy, and I have an abiding interest in critical/disciplinary history that leads me into the fray from time to time. A couple of years ago, I took part in a roundtable at ASECS organized by Eugenia Zuroski and Kasia Bartozynska about the V21 collective in Victorian studies and how the energy behind that initiative might catalyze developments in our field as well. It was a somewhat heated discussion! But I think one point of agreement was that V21 has enabled some exciting new fora for (especially early-career) scholars to share new ideas and work. (I was just musing with some colleagues that we should put together a reading group series á la V21 for eighteenth-century studies.)

Apart from those areas, I think the field has benefitted from deep, hard, committed advocacy work centering empire, enslavement, disability, sexuality, and other subfields that elevate marginalized statuses and persons. (Jason spoke about this so eloquently in his interview that I have little to add but my enthusiastic seconding.) That work has been ongoing, and it certainly started well before I showed up on the scene, but I hope it’s starting to come to fruition and that my colleagues working centrally in those areas are being more and more supported, valued, read, and cited.

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

SH: First, be gentle with yourself. The job market is brutal, and you likely had a long road to where you find yourself now. Be sure to prioritize what keeps you healthy and confident. (When I started my job, I half-joked with a friend that this might mean the gym or therapy or watching Scandal, depending on your needs.) Find senior colleagues you trust, not only in your department. And develop relationships in the field outside of your institution. I’m the only faculty member in my field in my department, so I’ve been really lucky to find a community of scholars in my city. When I showed up in New York (a city I never in a million years thought I’d live in), I was intimidated by the sheer scale of the city and unused to an institutional culture where everyone just scattered at the end of the work day. I found my grounding in an eighteenth-century studies talk series hosted at Columbia, which, to my relief, was welcoming, smart, and fun. I now co-chair that series with Kathleen Lubey, and I’m eager to return the favor by maintaining that hospitable environment. If you know me, you know I’m also an unabashed defender of academic social media. Twitter can be a hellscape, but it’s also been really wonderful for me as an early career researcher and new faculty member. My closest friends in New York are still people I reached out to from Twitter, begging them to be friends with me in real life.

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

SH: I’m not a write every day person, though I’ve always longed to be. (This is especially true now that I have a toddler. I’ll decide to squeeze in some writing time after he goes to bed only to end up snoring at 8pm.) Only recently have I started to cut myself some slack for not meeting what are, let’s face it, often arbitrary measures of productivity. I think the most important thing is finding what works for you and using that knowledge to set reasonable goals for yourself. I also write short (ahem, “economically”), so word counts aren’t usually that useful for me. I know I’m doing okay when I’m liking my sentences (however few). To get there, I often find that I have to read good writing—not necessarily in my field, not even necessarily academic writing. While it’s important to notice when your reading is getting in the way of your writing (are you just putting things off by reading “one more article”?), I do believe in getting the rhythms of good prose ringing in my head.


While a lot of writing advice doesn’t work for me, I perversely love reading it, and I’m a big fan of style guides. I can’t recommend Eric Hayot’s Elements of Academic Style enough, and I’m looking forward to checking out the new edition of Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. (The first edition is outstanding.) In general, my best advice is to share work earlier than you think you should. As I tell my students often: trust the process. To that end, cultivate friends and colleagues who will read your work (and make sure you reciprocate!), then think about who gives the best advice at which stage (the one who helps you gather your thoughts, the one who will give you tough criticism, the one who will say “just submit it already!”, the one who will help you parse reports from anonymous readers).

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

SH: I don’t have graduate students of my own (and it’s worth remembering that most academic jobs out there—even the elusive t-t ones—do not entail graduate teaching). However, I’ve been lucky to get to know some brilliant graduate students in our field, especially those at the CUNY Grad Center. I hope they feel supported by me. I think they’re brilliant! I think my most important role there is to be frank about my own experiences so that they can measure just how helpful my advice even is for them. Coming into academia as a first-gen college student, so much was just bewildering to me, so I’ve always valued people who will pull back the curtain.

When it comes to choosing a mentor, I’ve had success with looking for scholars who think or write the way you’d like to think or write, even if your research interests diverge somewhat. This may be a result of my cattywompus intellectual trajectory or the fact that I attended a famously tiny Ph.D. program (where it was expected that you’d take the majority of your courses outside of your area of study), but I’m pretty committed to trans-period, trans-historical thinking. Of course, not every program supports this kind of faculty guidance, but you can seek those relationships out extracurricularly as well.

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

SH: As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s important to cultivate your curiosity so that you can follow the questions that nag you, even if you’re not sure where they lead. My dissertation (now my book) arose out of a dissatisfaction with the way eighteenth-century character tended to be written about, and I wasn’t really sure where the project was going for quite some time. One of the (many!) unfortunate consequences of the current jobs crisis in academia is that graduate students feel all the more pressure to concretize their ideas very early. While this pressure is real, try to maintain an openness to change. Let the ideas pull you in new directions.

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

SH: I teach at a public, urban, commuter school that’s part of a big university system. (Shout out to the City University of New York, which mainstreamed accessible education for all! More of that, please.) I also teach at a college within that system that’s best known as a business school. This means I really teach a variety of courses, from first-year writing to upper-division seminars. I genuinely love it all. We have a required world literature course that lets me indulge my closet generalist sensibilities. I love teaching the British Literature survey—as a c18 person, I end up teaching both halves. Lately, though, I’ve been teaching some upper-division courses designed to feed my thinking about a possible next book. One is a law and literature course that I’ll teach this upcoming fall. We’ll go from Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (about our current migration crisis).

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

SH: Attending panels is just as often more exciting and fulfilling than sharing work, so be sure to build that time in. At first, just go to anything that might interest you. In time, you might understand that some kinds of panels are asking questions in a way that doesn’t quite rhyme with your approach, and you can adjust your conference schedule accordingly. Conferences are a great place to find those friends who will read your work and with whom you can create new possibilities for the field, so be open to a work hard/play hard approach.

Write your paper before you get to the conference! (Do as I say, not as I sometimes do.) Try to find the balance between presenting new work (you want to be open to advice and suggestions) without presenting something so unformed that your audience can’t engage.

Lastly: Keep to time. Keep to time. Keep to time.

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

My first book just came out this month! So I’m in an exciting but, frankly, kind of scary place where I’m feeling out the next project. I have a couple of stand-alone essays coming out: one in a special issue of EC:TI edited by Kathy Lubey and Rebecca Tierney-Hines on the topic of “The Novel as Theory” (basically catnip for me) and another in an edited collection called The New Samuel Richardson, edited by James A. Smith and Rebecca Ann Barr. It’s been fun to work out contained ideas that aren’t (for now, at least) a part of something bigger. The next book is starting to look like it’s about eighteenth-century ways of conceiving of personhood and impersonality (legally, philosophically, aesthetically). Most people in the eighteenth century weren’t (legally) persons, so why is fiction so drawn to these non- or sub- or im-persons? I have no idea! But I’m going to try to figure it out.



Thank you, Stephanie, for this great advice! Some additional links and information:
Monograph: Born Yesterday and if you purchase this book on the JHUP site, you can get a 20% discount with the code HTWN!
Twitter: @S_Insley_H

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