President's Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Graduate Student
Laura James, English
Dissertation Title: "The Power of Filth": Dirt, Waste, and Gender in Modern Fiction, 1890-1945
Can you tell us, in general terms, about your research?
My research focuses on the relationship between hygiene modernization and the cultural construction of gender in early-twentieth-century British literature. In this period, new technologies for dealing with physical dirt and waste emerged, such as bathrooms and the flushing toilet, and new attitudes arose concerning pollution and trash. The new technologies for and attitudes toward managing dirt and waste affected women in particular, as they were encouraged to take charge of domestic plumbing, monitor atmospheric pollution, and use new cleaning technologies. My research both examines how novels and cultural archives from around 1890-1945 document these infrastructural developments and analyzes how writers also use the novel form as a space to challenge or subvert these cultural norms about filth, gender, and technology.
What excites you about your work?
What I most appreciate about my research is that I can connect it to contemporary issues, including gender, technology, and the environment. For instance, concerns about the effects of pollution and trash on the environment are not new; writers like Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence were, in the 1920s and 1930s, increasingly concerned about how landfills (newly developed at the turn of the nineteenth century) and the burning of coal were slowly destroying the British countryside and affecting the health of individuals. I’m also interested, too, in the fact that my research analyzes that which is often invisible to us in the contemporary Western world—our plumbing, toilets, bathrooms—and I am always intrigued to uncover the often surprising histories embedded in the systems and technologies we take for granted.
What advice would you offer to new teachers finding their voice in the classroom?
I had no teaching experience before I began the Ph.D., so I was understandably daunted about designing and teaching my own classes. But, what I have found most useful—and what my students seem to respond to—is to be myself in the classroom and to have a personality when I’m teaching. Creating an informal and friendly atmosphere, making jokes, and talking about recent TV shows, films, and cultural events helps put students at ease and prompts them to open up during our class discussions. Sometimes, when you’re nervous and stood in front of a class full of students, it can be hard not to become a machine, sticking rigidly to the notes you have prepared. But, as I have become more experienced, I’ve noticed that the more at ease I am in the classroom and the more willing I am to open up our conversations, the more productive our class discussions, the more freely students feel able to speak, to ask questions, to challenge each other’s ideas about complex ideas. So, it might be a cliché, but relax and be yourself!