Retiring Professors Profile

We celebrate retiring Professors Margaret Ferguson, W. Jack Hicks, Richard A. Levin, and Evan Watkins with a series of interviews about their time at UC Davis.

 

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Professor Margaret Ferguson

 

-What brought you to the field of English literature?

I was an avid reader of books about horses as a child; and I had several very good English teachers in my public school education in Delaware, Ohio.  I took some interesting and challenging courses in English as a college student at Cornell, where I majored in the history of art and loved travelling abroad and learning languages.  I ended up doing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, focusing on French, Italian, and English literature, when I went to graduate school.  It was only as a young faculty member teaching multiple sections of Yale University’s introductory course for English majors (analyzing poetry by authors Chaucer through Wallace Stevens—no women poets on that syllabus) that I began to get anything like a serious education in English literature.  Reading texts by English and American women to supplement—and counter—the education I had received in my graduate program, I had a chance to teach my first course as a “college seminar”—a program reserved for courses that didn’t fit into departmental curricula—as a feminist study of works by women. In the years since I taught that course—which drew on an anthology of works by English and American women edited by my mother, Mary Anne Ferguson—I have continued my education through teaching new courses and through reading books that my students and colleagues recommend.

 

-What is one of your favorite works to teach, and why?

I love teaching a short story called “The Black Lady.”  It’s by the seventeenth century English writer Aphra Behn and I enjoy seeing my students—both undergraduates and graduate students—become intrigued by the ways in which the story comically critiques the convention of the “marriage plot,” while also questioning early modern ideas about the social categories of “race,” gender, and status. This short story, like Milton’s Paradise Lost and Behn’s own more-famous novel Oroonoko, makes fascinating experiments with the device of an “unreliable narrator,” one who uses parenthetical asides to communicate intimately with the reader.

 

-What is one of your best memories from teaching at UC Davis?

I vividly remember a class in 126 Voorhies where one of my students, Akira Olivia Kunamoto, had arranged a screening of a remarkable film she was working on for her honors thesis.  Made by African-American filmmaker Barry Jenkins, the independent film called Medicine for Melancholy probes the phenomenon of gentrification in San Francisco.  I hadn’t seen the film before—indeed no one in the room had except for Akira—and I remember how exciting it was to talk after the screening about the film’s techniques and its ideological implications.  Many of my best memories of teaching at UC Davis involve my students teaching me something new, and this happens not only in the honors seminars I’ve been privileged to teach but also in large lecture courses such as the one I’m currently teaching on John Milton’s poetry.

 

-In our current age, what do you think makes the work of an English department important?

This is a big question!  One part of an answer, for me, is that English departments even in large Research I universities continue to provide students with important intellectual and emotional opportunities; these involve rising to the challenge of formulating—and communicating-- complex ideas arising from literary representations of how humans and other sentient creatures, in various societies, past and present, live, think, feel, and act in changing environments.  While it’s important that English departments teach certain skills of critical analysis, slow reading, and precise communication in an era of “fast” communication via (for instance) Tweets, it’s even more important (I think) that English departments work to provide spaces for reflection for both students and faculty.

 


 

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Professor W. Jack Hicks (interview with Nicole Kenley)

 

-What kind of teacher and mentor is Professor Hicks?

Jack is a wonderful mentor. He was instrumental in bringing me to Davis in the first place, lobbying for extra funding on my behalf. He worked very closely with me to develop my dissertation, even scheduling weekly meetings to help keep me on track. He encouraged me to pursue a slightly unconventional dissertation project while still helping me keep one eye on the job market. I can't overstate his dedication to my project and my success. In the classroom, his teaching style was boisterous and unorthodox. He excelled at making unexpected connections between popular culture and literary texts to engage his students. After class, there would frequently be a crowd of students waiting to talk with him just to continue the conversation.

 

-Did he introduce you to any works or authors or ideas that have stuck with you over the years?

Jack has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of detective fiction, and he introduced me to a wide range of authors, often before they were broadly recognized. John Burdett, Henry Chang, and a then-little-known Swede named Stieg Larsson...all were introduced to me by Jack. I'm still not quite sure how he manages to stay so on top of so many different authors from across the globe!

 

-What is your favorite memory of him?

I have so many memories that it's hard to pick just one! Sitting in Jack's office just chewing the fat was one of my favorite parts of graduate school. From baseball to The Wire, we had great conversations about everything under the sun. Another favorite memory is when Jack took me out to brunch to build me up for an impending job interview. It was such a considerate thing to do, and it meant a lot to me that he took that kind of time.

 


 

 

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Professor Richard A. Levin

 

-What brought you to the field of English literature?

I took as a college freshman an introduction to literature class which was built around analysis of literature–close reading, interpretation and debate in the classroom, the writing of critical essays. Our reading was in English literature written over several centuries. The depth and precision of this reading posed a challenge that seemed to me different and more significant than any other I had encountered or would encounter. As I moved from one English literature class to another, each work was enriched by other English classes I had taken or was taking.   These experiences are what “brought me to the field of English literature.”

 

-What is one of your favorite works to teach, and why?

My favorite work to teach is “Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” followed closely by Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Though each one of Shakespeare’s sonnets can be studied in isolation from the others, as a collection the “Sonnets” tease the reader with hints that all 154 sonnets constitute a unified work related in some way to Shakespeare’s life as he chose to represent it. I have taught upper division seminars whose sole subject was the “Sonnets.” Our explorations were fascinating. Almost as rewarding were classes devoted largely to “Paradise Lost,” a work which stirs up emotions and debate about fundamental issues. The “Sonnets” and “Paradise Lost” are in two different traditions–one secular and popular, the other religious and erudite. Each work, in its own way, displays poetic power to which the students responded.

 

-What is one of your best memories from teaching at UC Davis?

I started teaching at Davis in 1974; I retired last year; I am teaching a course now. Throughout, I have experienced this teaching as a privilege and a thrill. My students at Davis respond to the richness and challenge of great literature; they embark on journeys I never expect them to undertake. My “best memories” are of the many classes I have taught no larger than moderate size (about 30). In these classes, the exchange of ideas and debate were the setting for unanticipated discoveries.

 

-In our current age, what do you think makes the work of an English department important?

The basic function of a literature department is to teach literacy and the higher literacy–by the latter I mean reading and writing skills that make possible the study of a range of complex subject matters. Of course, literature departments are important in too many ways to list.

 


 

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Professor Evan Watkins

 

-What brought you to the field of English literature?

I sort of drifted into being an English major. I was always very interested in reading novels/poems and all that, but I was interested in lots of things. Unfortunately, when I started as an undergrad back in the 14th century, at a not particularly stellar state university in the Midwest (U of Kansas), most disciplines seemed very very narrow in focus. At one point early on I thought I might be an Economics major, but I assumed that meant first of all working through the sometimes almost contradictory texts that had shaped the history of the field—Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Marshall, Keynes, etc etc. Definitely not what I got, 2000 or so classroom versions of things such as why kinked demand curves and the like might explain a then current Wall Street take on the futures market. Ditto with Sociology, where the faculty seemed far more intrigued with deciphering Talcott Parsons’ scribbled lecture notes than with teaching Marx, Weber, Durkheim, etc. English in contrast seemed more open and inclusive. Nobody really seemed to mind my wandering around a lot. E.g. so long as I could fold my understanding of Durkheim’s Suicide into a paper on Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, that was ok. And I often got some really smart and useful comments from my profs about all this “extra” stuff I was reading.

 

-What is one of your favorite works to teach, and why?

-What is one of your best memories from teaching at UC Davis?

I can put these together (“favorite works” and “best memories” from UCD) around the same set of things. Over all the years I’ve hung around, I’ve enjoyed teaching everything from Dante and Chaucer to contemporary media culture. But in some ways it was the grind stuff theory requirements at UCD I’ve liked the most. Because of what students did with the material. At the beginning of term everyone would walk into class terrified/bored/sick—whatever—at facing The Requirement, and then by the end of the term you’d see students confidently able to explain just what kind of “material apparatus” was at work in Dove’s ostensibly post-feminist You Tube series of “beauty makeovers” or able to explain the kind of “discursive proliferation” that would develop into North Carolina’s bathroom gender fixation, etc etc etc. And I always found that transformation just amazingly wonderful to watch.

 

-In our current age, what do you think makes the work of an English department important?

Hmm, trying to find an appropriately bland enough euphemism here---let’s just say that in “today’s political climate” I think it would benefit our world immensely if many many many more people could learn the entire range of skills and knowledges I see all my English colleagues teaching in every class.