Humanities Regained: English Professor Shannon Russell
Shannon Russell is Associate Professor of English Literature and Chair of the Department of English Language and Literature at JCU. She specializes in eighteenth and nineteenth-century fiction with interests in gender, class, and race, scientific discourse, Victorian technologies, and visual representations in the nineteenth century periodical press. She is Canadian with a B.A. from the University of Western Ontario, an M.A. from Dalhousie University, and a D.Phil from Oxford University where she also held a two-year Post-doctoral Research Fellowship.
What is your teaching philosophy?
There are many ways to make students think, which is the aim of any teacher. I use a variety of methods from Socratic to peer learning, and I like to mix it up depending on who I have in front of me, but it is very much an exchange of ideas between myself and my students. I think the most important thing to convey in teaching is your enthusiasm for your subject as it can become infectious and can spark curiosity in those who might be resistant. I want my students to be prepared to risk a shift from whatever comfortable ideas they might hold, and to enjoy that shift. Our world is very interesting as are the people in it, and I work hard to use literature to reveal this to students and to keep myself open to their ideas and what we can learn together.
What is the advantage of studying literature in this day and age?
Imagination is arguably what distinguishes humans from other animals. And the study of literature is the study of imagination in time. I happen to believe, along with the late great American writer, James Salter, that books carry civilizations on their backs. So, books have much to teach us about ourselves in the past, present, and future. We currently face enormous challenges as occupiers of this planet and we need to figure out ways to survive and flourish together. Fundamentally, the study of literature develops critical capacities which can help us read our world and communicate our ideas about it. How can we understand fake news, if we lack the ability to interpret what that is? How can we sift and judge information if we haven’t been trained to read properly? How can we make good choices in our personal and professional lives, if we don’t know how to look closely and interpret carefully? A literature degree develops those abilities and reinforces our capacity to imagine what it is to walk in other people’s shoes. It allows us to develop those creative thinking skills that can make us the inventors of good solutions to everyday problems, and possibly, better futures.
What are five books that every person should read in their life and why?
Whatever book changes you or gives you a new appreciation for something is an important book, so selection is often a question of who you are and where you are in your life. One of the fascinating things about books is that they are living things that change in time as we change as readers of them. If you want to read about bad choices and bad faith, I think no book is more moving the Dickens’s Great Expectations. I love all of Jane Austen’s novels, and never tire of re-reading them particularly because they make me laugh, but I can tell you that when I first read Dickens and Austen I thought they had nothing to tell me. Luckily, I found my way back to them in time, when I was ready to enjoy them. In general, I tend to like books that make me look at human nature with new eyes, but I also appreciate form in writing, and literature that reveals how beautifully structured it is, the more you look at it. In that way, reading requires the patience and eyes to see beauty, just as all art does. I also like the fact that books allow us to travel in time and space, as we can hear the voices of the past and experience the consciousness of other people who have long ceased to exist. What other medium speaks to us in quite that way?
As a Victorianist, I am often reading nineteenth-century novels, and part of their appeal is both how alien and how familiar that age seems to me. Victorians were wrestling with some of the same issues that are preoccupying us at the moment – like gender, race conflict, class issues, excitement and anxiety about technology and new media, the power of money and the consequences of greed, violence, disenfranchisement and displacement, the limits of democracy and choice, evolutions in science and religion, machines replacing humans, damage to the environment, worries about whether modernity means progress or decline. Victorians were as concerned about these things as we are, and their responses can often teach us to pause and reflect on our own choices. I suppose I would recommend any book that teases you into thought or that makes you feel something intensely. Whatever it is, it should be pleasurable.
In recent years there’s been an increasing pressure on students to pick whichever major has the highest employment rate (normally in the STEM/Business field). What does this mean for the humanities going forward? Is this change in perspective a result of the financial crisis or a shift in how liberal arts are perceived?
I understand the pressure students feel to do something “useful” that they assume will get them a job, but liberal arts education is useful and will, I predict, become more and more highly prized in the future. The same anxieties about the usefulness of majoring in subjects like literature were around when I was a student and I have never been unemployed. I don’t get too worried about reports that humanities are under threat, as we simply can’t and won’t survive without them. Fundamentally, I think the best advice in life is to follow what you love and what interests you. That may be STEM subjects, business, or it may be English literature, creative writing, or other arts and humanities subjects. If you have a real interest in something and work hard to do well in it, the jobs will come. Besides, if everyone is racing to study what they are told will get them work, chances are they will disappear into a faceless pack, and there will likely be too many competitors for the same positions anyway. But if you follow your passion, you really can’t lose.
The study of literature is not only one of the most fascinating subjects to pursue as an undergraduate, it also is one of the most practical degree programs. The skills our students possess are highly valued in the workplace, though culturally we often don’t recognize or emphasize that enough. The ability to “read” situations well and communicate effectively in life and work are what are developed through the humanities. These skills are rarer than we think, so students of literature should recognize that they have considerable advantages when applying for jobs. When I was doing my doctorate at Oxford University, literature students were perpetually headhunted by management consultant companies looking for what we had been trained to do. That wasn’t a field I was interested in pursuing myself, but it, along with many other professions that value careful thinkers and good communicators, are open to students of literature, so they should feel confident about choosing it as their major if it is their passion, as it was for me.
Are there any other projects you are working on you would like to share? What are your future projects?
I have just signed a contract to write a book on Charles Dickens and the freed American slave, Frederick Douglass. Both men were colossal cultural figures in their time and I want to explore the many ways in which they exerted important imaginative influences on each other. This is an idea that has been bubbling away in the background of my thoughts for a very long time, so I am excited to spend this next year working on it. It is a challenging project in many ways, not least because it involves engaging with Dickens’s evolving attitudes to race and slavery, as well as his complicated views on women.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and we are going to be celebrating that at John Cabot with events and a global read-a-thon of the novel next Halloween, as partners of an NEH-funding initiative called Frankenreads. This summer we are also co-hosting, with the University of Rome “Roma Tre,” the international INCS (Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies) conference on Measure and Excess, which will bring over 250 nineteenth-century scholars to Rome to participate.
Our department is also in the process of developing a digital humanities project called WROME (Writing Rome). That will involve the creation of a research resource and website which charts the incredible importance of Italy to the imaginations of foreign writers. It is a particular mission of mine in the classroom, whether we are studying Anglo-Saxon literature, Renaissance sonnets, or modern stories and novels, to reveal just how central Italy is to the development of literatures in English, so the WROME Project will help to highlight that influence.
What is your advice for a student who wants to pursue an English major?
If you love it, then do it. I have never regretted my choice to study literature and find it an endlessly fascinating way to try to understand what being human is all about.