Faculty Profiles

Karen Waldron

Professor of 19th and 20th Century American Literature, Minority, Cultural and Feminist Theory

Karen Waldron

Professor of 19th and 20th Century American Literature, Minority, Cultural and Feminist Theory

Where did you go to school?
B.A. Hampshire College, 1974
M.A. University of Massachusetts, Boston, 1988
M.A. Brandeis University, 1993
Ph.D. English and American Literature, Brandeis University, 1994

What do you teach?
Literature, Writing, American Studies, Feminist and Minority Theory -- but especially Literature, broadly conceived. My degrees are in American and English Literature, and I have a fascination with the 19th Century.

Karen WaldronWhy do you teach at COA?
When I interviewed for the position at COA, in a snowstorm, I left thrilled by the students (we'd had conversations about consciousness; they asked me all sorts of questions about ideas; and their energy was palpable) and sad because I really, really wanted the job. It seemed a long shot: I had small children and a working spouse, but when the call came there was no question.

I love the students -- they really make it all worthwhile -- and the atmosphere of collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and problem-solving. The community tests me on a regular basis in ways I want to be tested, and I have to sprint to keep up with the students. But for a hopelessly interdisciplinary, curious learner who cares about the world, this teaching situation is heaven. Even with the exhaustion.

How long have you been part of the COA community? What has changed?
Fifteen years -- in some ways much has changed, in some ways not much at all. One big change in a small college is a shift in faculty; another is the perennial graduation of students. Since we really get to know each other, faculty members who were once part of the intellectual community in a way remain, even when they have departed. It doesn't happen often, fortunately. But students do move on -- that is their job. We are proud of them and we miss them.

Other changes: our campus is more spread out, with some new buildings and facilities; we have an organic farm; we have a lot of international students; and many of our students travel abroad independently as part of their education.

But, most of all, the world has changed. Students have cell phones. Everyone uses the internet for research. World politics and economics have shifted. There are new wars, new disasters, more terrorism. The current mantra for political correctness is "sustainable." What we do remains essential and current, but the problems take new shapes, and the resources to address them do as well.

What new course would you like to design?
I am currently working on what might be a second phase of a course I already teach, City/Country: American Literary Landscapes 1860-1920. I couldn't bear to give up any of the literature, but have been studying place for years now; I am working on new interdisciplinary approaches and tools for conceptualizing place and literary landscape that have relevance to multiple areas of study. Another course I muse on would take the concept of the city/country relation and apply it to other time periods and cultures. I might also use Thomas Pynchon to tackle post-postmodernism -- Early Women's Novels! The Fascination with Detection (think Roberto Bolano, Umberto Eco, Jorge Louis Borges)! Basically, it's hard for me to not design new courses.

Which project thrills you most to assign and witness?
That is a difficult question. On the one hand, I get a thrill out of simply assigning response papers, and watching students grow in analytical confidence and insight over the course of a term. On the other, papers that go through revision because the student really wants to express him or herself mean a great deal to me. Most of the final projects I assign depend on topics students choose -- those are really fun to nurture and see develop.

What does COA stand for?
C - Collaborative
O - Organized
A - Academics

Share an epiphany you've had that has made you a better teacher/learner/person.
The most significant one is probably the simplest: the realization that without grades (in my own college experience) I worked harder, stretched my mind farther, and learned more than with them. I try to help students find the passions within themselves for learning that will nurture their lives and personhood. Content is easily acquired, once you have the motivation and tools. Finding my own beloved content was a journey; I like to help others on their journeys and have learned to trust those journeys and their integrity.

If your students were fruit, you'd have a class full of ...
apples -- my favorite -- but all different kinds and colors!

What is the most significant challenge the current generation of college students faces?
The high cost of college education, and the fear the big numbers create. Being anxious about costs can easily make you race through to be done rather than learn all you can.

Tell us about your favorite tree on campus.
The Copper Beech in front of Turrets. It seems a wise tree, with all that gnarly bark; having students up in it makes the campus seem complete.

Where are your roots?
In the ground! In gardening. And in New England soils. In Amherst, Massachusetts, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Newtonville, Massachusetts and on this island.

What can you say about life on an island in Maine?
We're isolated in comparison to what you'd experience in a city, but there is a tight community. We share the weather knowingly. We see each other in the grocery store. We meet at the YMCA or on the carriage roads and trails of Acadia National Park. The island is magical in all seasons, and much richer in culture than one might think. I have had my city years, but I need green around me. I can travel to the city when I need its resources. Appreciating the outside makes living on MDI much more of a joy. But appreciating the people helps, too.

In which media do you most enjoy working? Why?
Words -- they flow out of me, sometimes articulate and sometimes not; but I think in words. That being said, the literary word is my favorite. Turning the language we use prosaically into something beautiful, making black marks on a page transport a reader, or provide an image, or make someone cry. Language is the way I see the power of art.

Where do you like to do your work?
In my office, after hours, when it's quiet -- or early in the morning, or on weekends. There are a few colleagues who tend to be there at the same time, so it's a community of sorts. I also like to work in my home office space and frequently read on the couch. Libraries are a special treat.

Beyond teaching at COA, which projects or passions energize you?
Gardening, being outdoors, hiking, and being healthy -- but also reading on the couch. My family.

Which books do you keep on your desk, in your pocket, on your nightstand?
The list is epic, the piles enormous.

If you have a vehicle, does it have bumper stickers? What do they say?
I am bumper sticker-less at present.

What can't you live without?
Books and love.

What brings you joy?
Realizations -- mine or others'. The sudden startling beauty of a bird. Soaring language, simple language, powerful language. Growing things.

Describe your ideal academic moment.
People in conversation, finding themselves articulating something to each other that takes both farther than they were before. The Yes of learning and meeting. Sharing in my colleagues’ joy by listening to their intellects at work and learning something.

What role should rebellion or revolution play in contemporary societies?
All should be willing to rebel, especially against the simply staid; but all should also realize the costs of rebellion. Make it creative. Make it transformative. Conceptualize world peace and love the world into being.

Which rule, theory, assumption most needs dismantling?
Binary competition for power. Conspicuous consumption as a good. Enormous and corporate institutionality for its own sake.

What does 'green' mean to you?
It means there is yet another word that has been co-opted, another word we should critically examine. But, in my heart, it also means trying to make the precious planet we live on survive -- with all its species and peoples, in peace and health and fertility. It means maintaining the capacity for living things to grow.

What's the craziest, loveliest idea you've had/heard as of late?
Gardening under snow.

What does a bird mean to you?
Beauty, flight, freedom, fragility, survival, song.

What questions should the young ask their elders?
What do you wish you didn't have to learn the hard way?

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