GONE ARE THE DAYS when students had to research literature by locating rare books or, as Associate Professor of English Helga Duncan remembers, “making a mess of microfiche tapes.” With online resources now available, Duncan is preparing to teach students how to use new technology to find old texts. SAM talks to Duncan about this course and more, including a gruesome Shakespearean play that inspired her research, traveling the world as a flight attendant, and stopping for cheesecake and milk with her oma and opa.
MOST SIGNIFICANT “AHA” MOMENT OF TEACHING CAREER: Not so much a moment as an ongoing series of classroom conversations that have had a considerable effect on my research and teaching. My current book project was shaped by dialogue with students about Shakespeare’s relatively unknown tragedy Titus Andronicus. A gruesome play, much of its action centers on sites and rituals of burial – a state funeral at a Roman tomb, a murder at a murky forest pit, and the female protagonist’s womb becomes a grave of sorts when she is tricked into consuming her children’s remains baked into a pie. I said it’s grisly, didn’t I? Students have reacted with great interest and critical intelligence to this shocking piece of theater and its profanation of burial places. Readings and rereadings of the play in the company of some excellent student critics inspired me to write a book on representations of sacred space in early modern literature.
I USE TECHNOLOGY TO TEACH EARLY ENGLISH LITERATURE BY: At Stonehill, we have access to a wonderful resource, Early English books Online (EEBO), a website that puts at our fingertips books printed in English between 1476 and 1700. Ten years ago, we would have had to travel to rare books libraries, or work with microfiche; I recall with a shudder all those hours in graduate school, huddled in a corner making a mess of microfiche tapes. Now thousands of texts are available on the communication devices of our choice. Next spring, I’m scheduled to teach a research-intensive course with librarian Patricia McPherson that will make the study of rare books on EEBO a key objective.
IF I HADN’T BECOME A PROFESSOR, I MIGHT HAVE BECOME: Before I went back to earn my Ph.D. in English literature, I was, among other things, a flight attendant for Lufthansa—a great job for someone wanting to get paid for traveling the world. But no matter how much I enjoyed sightseeing in Paris, Tokyo and Johannesburg or lounging in beaches in Hawaii or Corfu, I’ve always wanted to be an academic.
SOMETHING EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SHAKESPEARE: The theater of Shakespeare’s age existed on the margins of society, in close proximity to leper hospitals, brothels, bear-baiting venues and execution sites. Actors risked being arrested as “vagabonds” because playing frequently involved traveling to country seats of aristocratic patrons or provincial towns in times of plague, when London’s outdoor theaters were closed to avoid the spread of disease. Despite censorship and suppression of the theater, Shakespeare made good money in this socially and politically suspect line of work. He managed to buy a handsome house in Stratford, acquire a family crest, and style himself a “gentleman.”
GROWING UP IN BAVARIA, GERMANY, I OFTEN: Hiked with my grandparents. I grew up in a town at the northern edge of the Alps, and one of my favorite things was trekking through the countryside with my oma and opa (grandma and grandpa). We didn’t exactly scale tall mountains; we took leisurely strolls. Most importantly, we always stopped for tasty treats—cheesecake and a glass of milk.
FAVORITE CHRACTER IN LITERATURE: My first impulse would be to say Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. She wears pants and a sword really well, is a connoisseur of poetry, and marries her man while he thinks she’s a guy.
IN MY SPARE TIME, I LIKE TO: Ride my bicycle. In an average year, my husband and I ride about 3,000 miles.
For more of Duncan’s interview, visit www.stonehillalumnimagazine.org.