Take 5: English professor and women's studies professor Margaret Homans

Take 5 offers a brief introduction to Yale faculty members in a Q&A format. The featured faculty member selects 5 out of 10 questions to answer. Any opinions shared are not necessarily those of YaleNews.
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(Photo by Michael Marsland; illustration by Michael Helfenbein)

Take 5 offers a brief introduction to Yale faculty members in a Q&A format. The featured faculty member selects 5 out of 10 questions to answer. Any opinions shared are not necessarily those of YaleNews.

In her teaching and research on Victorian, modern, and contemporary literature, Margaret Homans has explored various questions about gender: Is it, as she writes on her faculty profile page, “the core or essence of any human subject, or is gender mutable and socially and culturally constituted?” A professor of English and of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, she focuses her work on women writers who explore questions of gender, sexuality, power, and identity. Most recently she has examined narratives about adoption, and the questions these raise in the contexts of race, ethnicity, nationality, and class as well as gender and sexuality. She is a 1974 graduate of Yale College and earned her Ph.D. at the university in 1978.

What scholarly/research project are you working on now?

Having just published my book about adoption narratives, I am now working on three articles prompted by teaching my WGSS and English classes: an essay on how “Jane Eyre” and other 19th-century autobiographical narratives influenced 19th-century feminism; an essay on the idea of diversity, for a new gender studies journal based in Belgium; and an essay on the parallels between transnational adoption and contemporary transgenderism. I think of these as belated term papers for my fall term course, “Feminist and Queer Theory.” In the longer term, I am working on a project about World War I, gender, and sexuality.

What important lesson(s) have you learned from your students?

There is no such thing as grade inflation. Yale students are awesome and they get smarter every year. I think, too, that we teachers of literature have become better writing teachers over the last decade, thanks in large part to the superb work of the Writing Center.

What is your most treasured classroom memory — either as a student or a teacher?

As a student: the day, part way through my freshman year at Yale, when the teacher — the late Thomas Weiskel, only a few years older than us students — walked into the classroom asking, what does it mean that Wordsworth says, in “Tintern Abbey,” “the picture OF the mind revives again,” not, “the picture IN the mind”? Retracing his steps after five years, Wordsworth both celebrates and laments his discovery that the memory he has been treasuring is not of this beloved place itself, but rather of his mind in its powerful capacity to form a picture. In one moment, this extraordinary teacher unfolded everything that initially made me want to become an English professor: the economy and honesty of poetry; the fascinating tug and pull in romantic poetry and in Wordsworth in specific between the life of the mind and the life of nature; and the power of close reading that can uncover so much meaning in one preposition. His way of asking the question while walking into the room, too, conveyed his sense of urgency about discussing poetry: though the class would be two hours long, there was not a moment to lose.

As a teacher: the discovery that I could give to students something that I didn’t even know I was yearning for as an undergraduate in the early 1970s: a feminist education that questions norms of gender and sexuality in literature and culture, starting with the norms of canon formation that governed my own education.

What do you do for fun?

Most entertaining for me is watching my two amazing daughters grow up into interesting, accomplished, and happy people. I have also assigned myself the pleasant task of visiting a new island every year: one year it was an island in Long Island Sound that I kayaked to; last year it was the Faroe Islands in the north Atlantic.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

The inner courtyard of Sterling Library that’s to the right as you go in, especially when the crocuses come up in the spring. It’s like walking into a medieval tapestry.

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