A standout of scholarship

Jen Hill is awarded an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship

6/1/2009 | By: John Trent  |

On the face of it, Jen Hill’s next research project appears to be more than a little daunting.

Consider: For the next year, as part of a prestigious fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Hill will attempt to connect time and space in the 19th century, as well as the notion of how weather and climate underpin ideas about national identity, imperialism, politics and culture.

“It’s kind of a crazy project,” Hill said, with one of her trademark laughs, the kind of twinkling, infectious laugh that makes it clear she finds joy in the company of others. “ACLS is interested in interdisciplinary work, and mine’s pretty wide-ranging and interdisciplinary.”

If there is a humanities scholar who is capable of tying together all of these seemingly disparate subjects, an English professor who has the rare ability to find important intellectual connections when others might only find theory-dousing cul-de-sacs, it is probably Hill.

In addition to producing an already well-received book', 2008’s “White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth Century British Imagination,” (singled out by one reviewer for its fresh context, “Hill is one of the first to study the arctic in relation to the British Empire”) Hill has a well-deserved reputation as one of the University’s finest classroom teachers. In 2007, she earned the Tibbitts Award, presented to the campus’ finest teacher. In addition, in 2002, she was named winner of the College of Liberal Arts’ Alan Bible Teaching Award.

And in April, she learned that she was recipient of an ACLS fellowship, becoming one of only a handful of scholars (out of hundreds who apply) in the U.S. who will spend the next academic year working on what the ACLS describes as “long-term, unusually ambitious scholarly enterprise.” The $75,000 award will allow Hill and her young daughter (who will be starting first grade in the fall) to move to Chicago. There, Hill will utilize Chicago’s famed Newberry Library for her project.

Hill’s longtime English Department colleague, Stacy Burton, is certain that Hill will be up to the challenge.

“In both her teaching and research, Jen has high expectations and doesn’t settle for easy answers,” Burton said. “She shows students how exciting and life-altering intellectual work can be. I was thrilled to hear that the ACLS recognized Jen’s current research with this prestigious fellowship. This is invaluable and timely support for a compelling project.”

Added College of Liberal Arts Dean Heather Hardy, who noted she has been impressed with Hill’s abilities almost from the day Hardy became dean in 2005: “I’m extremely proud of Professor Hill’s success in winning this highly competitive fellowship that will facilitate her cutting-edge research. I consider myself very fortunate to be in a position to work with the many distinguished faculty members, like Professor Hill, who comprise the College of Liberal Arts. Awards such as this and other national grants and awards in teaching, research and artistry that our faculty have received in the few years I’ve been here attest to the high quality of our faculty. “

Since her arrival on campus in 2000, the 44-year-old Hill has demonstrated that she clearly performs at a high level. She believes all three aspects of her job – teaching, researching, writing – are interconnected.

“You always want to convey some interesting ideas in the classroom, ideas that people don’t necessarily think go together,” she said. “When I spend time with archival sources and sort of bring them together in different ways, it helps not only my writing and research, but my teaching as well. They do seem to go together really well.”

She admitted that she didn’t know what the odds were of actually earning the ACLS fellowship. At the minimum, she approached the process as if she were on a “roadmap” for her own teaching and scholarship. It was during her sabbatical year in 2007-2008 where the idea really took hold. The application process, she said, helped sharpen the arguments to the point that the entire exercise truly was about the process and not so much the end result. “The process itself is very helpful,” she said of conceptualizing and articulating the project in a way that fit the fellowship’s requirement that projects be “unusually ambitious. “ “To get the award is icing on the cake.”

“You never think you’re going to win one of these things, so why do you apply at all?” she added. “Well, you apply because there is a slight chance you might win one. You say, ‘If I win the lottery, and if time and money were no object, what things would I want to study for my project … and why?’ And it’s the ‘why’ that’s going to feed the argument that’s going to articulate the project.”

Was she surprised she earned the fellowship?

“It’s like going to Gold Ranch and you buy a lottery ticket,” she said, smiling. “You don’t think you’re going to win when you buy a lottery ticket when you’re filling up with gas, right? It’s fun to daydream about.

“Whenever you are thinking about a grant or a fellowship, the daydreaming can be useful. You think, ‘Yeah, this is a good argument. There are ways that these ideas come together in unexpected ways that interest me.’”

In conversation with Hill, it is apparent that she does more than simply daydream.  When she talks, the language is always fun and lively, full of analogies and meaningful metaphor.  It is one of the reasons why her classes in Core Humanities, in Romantic and Victorian literature, are so successful.

“I tend to think fairly in analogies,” she said. “And I also tend to put myself in the position of the student, always asking myself, ‘Why does this matter?’ When you’re teaching 19th century Victorian literature, it’s all there, all of the important meanings and great writing … but sometimes the language obscures what is there on the surface. It can seem so archaic and distant, so maybe you tell your class, ‘Well, the two main characters, they’re really just trying to ask each other out on a date.” And then the class is like, “Oh? Really? That definitely makes sense.’

“Then it all seems to open up in that way.”

Hill tries to be topical, tying the 19th century Victorians of Dickens, Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to the lives of the typical university student.  It can be hard, she admitted, for someone who reads so voluminously and who is more a product of the 20th century cultural touchstones, to keep up with today’s ever-changing information landscape.

“I don’t watch much TV,” she said, with a laugh. “Which of course makes popular culture analogies in the classroom impossible. If I compare something to an ABBA lyric, or remind them of an old Elvis Costello song, my students are like … ‘Who?’”

Still, Hill’s calling cards in the classroom – dexterous comparisons, rock-solid knowledge of subject matter, passion for people, and a pretty decent sense of humor – seem to work well. They also inform and characterize her writing and research.

She says she considers her scholarship to be as much a creative endeavor as anything, though it entails intense archival research and mass reading of Victorian-era reportage, thought and literature.

“I always think of literary scholarship as creative work,” she said. “It’s not creative writing in the sense that you make it up as you would fiction, but it’s creative in that you see different arguments, implicit and explicit, in pieces of literature or newspapers and you show people how they come together.

“To do that, you have to be creative, because you have to be able to see how they come together.”

Her most recent work, “White Horizon,” is an exploration of the importance of the Arctic to British 19th-century understandings of masculine identity, the nation and the Britons’ rapidly expanding empire of the time. She argues that the British imagined the great white North to be an immaculate space of sorts, a vast white canvas on which their nation’s imperialistic urge played out to triumph and, unfortunately, tragedy.

Hill’s research and writing brings life to this far-away, seldom-chronicled aspect of 19th-century Victorian life. Among other things, she introduces the reader to the fascinating story of Sir John Franklin, whom Hill describes in her writing as “a brief footnote as a nineteenth century explorer who commanded an ill-fated expedition in search of the Northwest Passage.”

Franklin, a classic adventurer, was given the order in 1844 to find the Northwest Passage. He and 130 men set off in search of the Arctic’s version of shipping’s El Dorado, and, other than a last communication from Greenland, were never heard from again.

While many believed Franklin’s disappearance to be a disastrous byproduct of Victorian hubris – Hill notes that Franklin took silver tea servings and wore the blue cotton wool of the British Navy rather than the more Arctic-test sealskin anoraks – Hill argues there are subtleties and important metaphor that, like the Victorians themselves, actually defy conventional generalizations.

“The Arctic was a test limit for ideas the Romantics and Victorians had about themselves,” Hill said, “a place where they experimented and made legible forms of identity and their attendant anxieties.”

It is this great mystery of metaphor – digging beneath the surface of metaphorical language, and excavating any hidden or overlooked meaning to better understand a people and how they viewed themselves  –  that motivates Hill’s work.

“Often in literary studies, and I did this with the Arctic book, I’m really interested in looking at things that people before have thought of as metaphorical and sort of dismissed as … only being a metaphor,” she said.  “I’m not dismissing metaphor, but what is interesting to me is finding out if there is a material history to this metaphor. It’s really fun to see connections that maybe people have not made.”

The Victorians are, in many ways, one of the most fertile test cases of all.

“We tend to think that the Victorians weren’t very complex, that they were too uptight, they were single-minded, they were earnest, un-ironic,” she said. “Popular culture presents them to us in that way. But when you dig around and go back and familiarize yourself with their lives, it was an incredibly exciting … an incredibly scary … and an incredibly complicated time to be alive.

“People struggled with big questions and big problems. Political problems. Questions of faith. Questions of science. And I think that’s how reading and looking at the 19th century can be really helpful to us today. The Victorians were grappling with very modern problems.”

She expects to more fully explore these questions while in Chicago over the next year.

“For this project, it’s going to be fun,” she said. “A lot of people have looked at geography and climate in this sort of cold, rational way: hot, mad, torrid … opposing binaries, I guess. I’m interested in mixing it up a little bit, and trying to think through the relationships between time and space in the 19th century.”

She will leave for Chicago in August, in time for her daughter, Ella Cantera, to enroll in public school by September. Her husband, Larry Cantera, a financial advisor, has clients in Chicago and should be able to visit his family with some degree of regularity until the fellowship ends in June 2010.

In describing her teaching philosophy, Hill mentions that the subject matter in Core Humanities is “the kind of stuff that I hope is exportable to the students’ lives once the class is over.” The same thing is probably true of her fellowship.

Hill’s hope is to export new knowledge learned in one of the nation’s finest research libraries in Chicago back to her classroom in Reno.

“I know I’m going to miss teaching,” she said. “You have these really interesting students, who work hard, who are smart and who take you in all these different directions. But I know I’m going to be thinking different things when I come back, and my classes will reflect that.”


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