English professor engages life in literature, the Arctic

2/6/2009 | By: Skyler Dillon  |

"Beautiful. Bleak. Very, very compelling."

Jen Hill described the subject of her new book, White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth Century British Imagination (available from SUNY press for $19.75), with these words. The associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno added that the work helps the reader understand "how a perceived empty geography at the edge of the world is unexpectedly central to British perceptions of themselves and their empire in cosmopolitan London."

The seemingly narrow topic emerged out of the scholar's dissertation, "Unspotted Snow: Arctic Space, Gender, and Nation in the Victorian Imaginary," and has been the focus of six years of research and study for Hill.

"Research in the humanities is slow work sometimes because you're often pulling together texts and methodologies in a way that people never have before," Hill said. "The book deals with geography, gender, literature and more. It takes a while to pull all of that together."

Her interest in the Arctic generated from the explorer Sir John Franklin, who disappeared mysteriously with his men on his third mission to the Arctic in the search for a Northwest Passage. White Horizon discusses the effect the story and Arctic exploration in general had on works by 19th century British authors including Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, and R.M. Ballantyne.

"As you see the question of exploration in everything from plays to art to literature to dinner parties, you find that this thing that seems very peripheral might strangely be central to British national identities," she said. "[Arctic exploration] is very similar to the space race during the Cold War in the way that it involved the nation's sense of masculinity and science and international competition."

Hill's research involved work at the British Museum as well as the Derbyshire County Council Archives in England and benefited from funding by a junior research fellowship grant from the University of Nevada, Reno. "Being a faculty member at the University made the book happen," she said. "It's an exciting place to work: we have great students, great staff, and a vital, interesting English department."

Hill, who joined the University faculty in 2000, originally pursued her English doctorate so she would be able to teach. She believed her work in the classroom could help her students connect more closely with their life experiences.

"Critical reading and writing skills help people engage in life in a more active way...and what could be better than helping students achieve what they want to achieve?" she said of her classes.

Hill draws on her British literature research interests in her University classes. She teaches the Victorian Period and Women in Literature as well as courses with a broader subject area like Writing About Literature and Core Humanities offerings. Her work as a professor has earned her both the College of Liberal Arts/College of Science's Alan Bible Award and the university-wide Donald Tibbitts Award for outstanding teaching. Hill's students are some of the biggest fans of her writing.

"It's an academic work, not a pleasure read," she said, "but I've had past students come up and ask me to sign the book. I've been very touched and pleased with the reaction."

Although Hill says she has more ideas for research than she can possibly handle, she is currently working on a book about Victorian world geography and climate in the 19th century.


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