Intentional Risks

— Melissa K. Downes

Kate DiVito, Hannah Simons McCorkle, and Taryn Pieper with their poster of their Jane Austen fan fiction conference

Kate DiVito, Hannah Simons McCorkle, and Taryn Pieper with a poster about their Jane Austen fan fiction conference presentation

I don’t think of myself as a risk-taker. However, all our recent Hand in Hand discussions of risk-taking and pedagogy resonate powerfully for me. Over the last few years, I’ve been purposely seeking new teaching challenges or embracing those challenges when they arrive, serendipitously, on my doorstep. Let me give you an example.

I’m the daughter of an early Austen scholar (my mother wrote her master’s thesis on Austen’s satire in the early 50s) and for the most part I take my Austen neat. While I have always been fascinated by retellings — with people reshaping and remaking what had been someone else’s tale — I had little familiarity with Austen fan fiction or fan fiction in general before embarking on the project I describe below. Perhaps the old Georgette Heyer novels my mother would read after bouts of final grading might count as Austen fan fiction, but that was about it. But Jane Austen has a strong fan base (sometimes they’re called Janeites) and many of them write: there are online communities (as well as sections of larger fan-fiction communities) devoted to Austen fan fictions — sequels and retellings that attempt to, among other things, fill perceived gaps in the novels, imagine a life after (or an afterlife) for characters, or recast Austen plots in other times or places. There are also published novels, from Jo Baker’s impressive Longbourn (a text that tells the story of Pride and Prejudice’s Bennet household from its servants’ perspectives) to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Novels have portrayed Lizzy Bennet as a detective, and one series has Austen herself as the sleuth. Such texts are inspired by, pay homage to, parody, and/or profit from Austen, her works, and her popularity.

“Jane Austen: Fiction, Film, and Fans” served as the undergraduate senior seminar for our English majors in Fall 2014. I crafted the course to focus both on literature and scholarship I know well — Austen’s body of work (and scholarly responses to that work) and on literature and scholarship I was only beginning to learn about: popular retellings/revisions of Austen’s texts (and life) and scholarly work focused on these texts and trends.

I also tried something new in terms of English undergraduate research. English professors engage in a basic version of undergraduate research all the time as they design assignments that ask their students to do individual or group research projects or papers for courses. The Jane Austen Fan Fiction Group Project I designed for the course was (initially) an example of such research: I developed an assignment in which students chose from a selection of Austen fan fictions and then divided into small groups in order to research, interpret, discuss, and then present as a group to the larger class on those chosen fan-fiction texts. Then I saw a call for papers on Jane Austen fan fiction for a regional conference I’ve attended before, where I’d been impressed by both the research and the friendliness of the scholars who regularly attend, and the plan for a more unusual form of English undergraduate research was born.

Sometimes, it is important for professors to push beyond their comfort zones, past even what they know and profess best, and to take risks. I’m very confident in my teaching: I’ve loved teaching since the first day I stepped into a classroom to teach (whether one considers that first day to be when a nine-year-old me taught my father’s college students about children’s rights and ageism or one starts with the first Gen. Ed. literature class I taught in graduate school). But I’ve also gotten better as a teacher — more aware of a multitude of issues, more thoughtful, and more willing to admit (and change) when I screw up. Taking risks from a position of confidence feels less risky: one merely steps from a place of power and asks, okay, what’s next? What can I do better?

At the same time, after twenty years of teaching, I may have gotten too comfy, too satisfied, and, sometimes, instead of being good, I might be only good enough. But I’m a good enough teacher to know that good enough is not good enough. So, again, it has been a time to take intentional risks.

Lizz and Taryn at EC/ASECS.

Lizz Murr and Taryn Pieper at Winterthur

One of the ways to take new risks and explore new challenges is through high-impact practices like undergraduate research: so, as I was planning portions of my Fall 2014 senior seminar, I felt compelled to expand my own and my students’ experience of Austen studies and push undergraduate research in English beyond the boundaries of the classroom…and the University. In response to Sue Howard’s call for papers for the EC/ASECS conference (East-Central American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies), I sent a proposal outlining two possibilities, hoping that—if funding came through and students were interested—I would bring undergraduates to present at this non-undergraduate conference.

Thankfully, my proposal was accepted, funding came through, and four great students stepped up. While students were not required to go to the conference as part of their grade for the Jane Austen Fan Fiction Group Project, presentation at the conference was an option for those who were interested. With funding help from my dean (for me) and Undergraduate Research Travel Grants aiding my students, Kate DiVito, Lizz Murr, Taryn Pieper, and Hannah Simons McCorkle presented together (with some introductory comments by me) at this professional, academic (non-undergraduate) conference on what they had learned about fan fiction, Janeites, Austen and her novels, and both her culture and our own culture by engaging in this project.

We had a (mostly intellectual) blast. The EC/ASECS 2014 conference took place in Delaware, at the University of Delaware in Newark, but with the opening events and reception at Winterthur. At Winterthur my students got to:

    • Go on an extended guided tour of the du Pont mansion.
    • Visit the decorative arts library and its fine rare-book collection, from which the librarians had pulled many eighteenth-century items; we actually got to see an original Repton estate-improvement book, with the before-and-after overlay. A student in our class had given his presentation on estate improvement, Mansfield Park, and those books only a few weeks before.
Downton Abbey exhibit.

A part of the Downton Abbey exhibit.

  • Happily wander the Winterthur Museum, which is focused on American decorative arts. The exhibits included (at the time) a special showing of Downton Abbey costumes.
  • Witness (and act in) impromptu performances. Even that first evening, these Clarion University students showed their quality: the emcee “volunteered” my four students, who nobly read obscure (and slightly ribald) eighteenth-century literature with panache.
  • Be introduced to several scholars whose books and articles they had been reading over the last few weeks; I loved getting to see those scholars listen, fascinated, to my students’ opinions on Austen and the fan-fiction phenomenon and to watch my students’ faces as they realized who I had introduced them to!

At our presentation the next day, we had a crowded room full of professors, independent scholars, and graduate students. In my experience, ASECS sessions (regional and national) are almost always lively, but I have seldom seen such a warm and engaged response to a panel. Good undergraduate research introduced into the somewhat closed circle of professional conferences may well benefit advanced scholars, as well as engaging the undergraduates and enhancing their skills.

My students and I also attended a range of other sessions, though we only attended one where we were all together. That session had a great presentation on journalists’ changing representations of Mrs. Jordan, the longtime mistress of William IV. Mrs. Jordan was sometimes known as Little Pickle, and I’m now the proud owner of a pickle Christmas ornament because of it, a gift from my four students.

But at a conference filled with warm, wonderful, and illuminating moments, two other key incidents stick out (other than my students’ poised and thoughtful presentation on Austen and Austen fan fiction): we got to see a marvelous play by the University’s professional acting troupe; they performed original Shakespeare scenes and eighteenth-century revisions (retellings) of Shakespeare. I can think of no better way of driving home for my students the point that what we choose to retell and how we retell it has as much to say about our own culture and time as it does about the original texts and authors, whether that author is Austen or Shakespeare. Finally, I spent much of my time at the conference fielding compliments for my students, sometimes from people who hadn’t even been in the room when they presented.

Sometimes, it is good to take risks.


Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th-century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

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