English Professor Sarah D’Stair answered some interview questions about her professional work, inspirations, and hobbies. Check them out below!
Where did you go to school for your undergrad/PhD program? What were some of your experiences there?
I received my B.A. and M.A. from San Jose State University in California, and I’m currently finishing out my Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I’m not quite finished with my dissertation yet, but I’m getting there! I plan to complete the degree this Spring.
When I started my graduate work at UMass, I already had a successful career in textbook publishing, and had also owned my own publishing services business for many years. I got my M.A. through a tuition assistance program my company offered, so it took some time to get the degree while I worked full time. Once I decided to pursue a Ph.D., I moved from California to Massachusetts to start a whole new life path. Graduate school was an exciting change from the corporate world, and it was also the place where I fell in love with teaching. I remember the first class I taught at UMass – it was also during my first New England winter. On the first truly cold day, I walked in to class bundled and shivering, wanting nothing more than my space heater from home, unable to stop the feeling that hypothermia would descend upon me at any moment. I think my students could see the horror in my eyes, could read my mind asking itself, “What have I gotten myself into!?” Immediately, they let out a collective chuckle. They assured me, almost in unison, “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.” We all had a big laugh, and I haven’t wanted to leave the classroom since.
My experiences at UMass have been both inspiring and challenging. I’ve been able to work with so many outstanding and caring professors who have pushed me to excel, both in my own intellectual pursuits and in my interactions with students. My professors not only taught me the value of rigorous academic engagement, but also the joy of complexity, the beauty of an idea spun in a hundred directions, the satisfaction in taking a thought to its furthest logical conclusion. What I remember most from my coursework are the endless discussions I would have with my colleagues, conversations that would continue after class in the coffee shop downtown, and then into the evening over dinner. I’ve met wonderfully talented writers and scholars there, many of whom have become lifelong friends and kindred spirits.
What inspired you to study English and more specifically critical theory?
A certain picture hangs on my grandmother’s refrigerator – it’s been there for, oh, maybe 30 years or so. It’s a bit faded, the edges upturned. It’s of me as a little girl, about 7 or 8, long blond hair in a ponytail, the bright sun lighting the day. My grandmother had placed an old claw-foot tub in her back yard to be used as a kind of planting bed for flowers. (Yes, I know it’s strange.) In the picture, I am sitting atop the dirt packed into that old tub, book in hand, just reading the day away. I don’t remember that specific picture being taken, but it so perfectly captures my memory of being a kid. Always a book in hand. Always sneaking away to read it.
I answer with a description of this picture simply because when I try to think of an answer to the question, “What inspired you to study English?,” I honestly don’t have an answer. The answer is in that picture. It’s just what I’ve always loved, always desired, always found myself most happy within. There was never any question of studying anything else, at least if I wanted to have any kind of a fulfilling life. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to spend my life so far in pursuit of literature and the arts. It’s truly the best life I can imagine.
As for critical theory – well, that was a late addition to my list of loves. The graduate program at UMass is quite theory-heavy. We had to read a ton of theory, in all different fields. At first, it was hard. I kind of hated it, and thought it separated me from the novels and poetry I wanted to explore. But over time, I realized how much more thoughtful I was becoming as a scholar and as a citizen, how much I began to understand my own perceptive limitations based on identity constructs I take for granted, and I began to see how much more about the novels and poetry I was able to discover because I had a solid theoretical foundation to draw from. As a person who loves ideas, the complexity of thought and the vibrant intellectual debates that are embedded within theoretical texts became a source of endless fun for me.
Are there any other academic fields that interest you?
Oh yes, all of them. Except perhaps computer science. I’m not a fan of computers, really. But other than that, I wish I could get a degree in everything! Sometimes I wonder, how would my ideas about, say, Thomas Hardy change if I also was a theoretical physicist? What a thrilling thing to think about! Or, how would my understanding of Gertrude Stein’s language change if I was also an expert in Calculus? Sometimes I want to beg my mathematical friends to teach me, just as an experiment, but then I remember that I’m practically number-illiterate, and I get too bashful to ask.
What are some of your favorite past-times?
I love to watch movies – all kinds of movies, from classic horror to French New Wave to the latest indie productions. I also love to sing – I’ve been singing with the Lancaster Symphony Chorus for several years. I love hanging around with my kids, who are super cool and pretty punk rock. I love walking, and in fact am kind of fascinated with philosophies that consider walking as a political act. I am also the proverbial cat-lady, and likely spend way too much time preening over my two kitties. I’m a huge Star Trek: The Next Generation nerd, and am strangely compelled by truly boring British TV shows from the 1970s and 80s. I also really love reading the minutes of local government meetings. I’m not sure why. I think the minutia fascinates me.
What do you like to write about (creatively or professionally)?
My professional writing explores queer women writers from the early twentieth century, mostly in terms of how we might use their work to find more equitable ways to live together on the planet one hundred years later, now as we’re navigating (poorly) the early twenty-first century. I look at their work via intersections in queer theory, animal studies, and ecocriticism, using these theoretical modes to illustrate how their fiction might offer new ways of thinking about how we all – human and nonhuman animals alike – construct our shared cultures and histories together.
If you were stuck on an island and found three books buried in the sand, what would you want them to be?
This question. Oh, this question! It’s impossible to answer, but I will try. One of them is easy. I have always said, since I was very young, that if I could only have one book it would be the Norton Anthology of English Literature. You’d have some medieval mystery plays, some Shakespearean drama, some Romantic poetry, some Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in there, tons and tons of poetry. It’d be a wonderland. As for the second book, I think it’d be, as corny as it sounds, a novel my husband wrote called Lucy Jinx. It’s very, very long – about 1800 pages – and I find so much of myself in Lucy’s paranoia and blind romanticism, and in her overwhelming joy in words and ideas. I feel that work would keep me busy for ages. And for the third, maybe a good Patricia Highsmith thriller, like Found in the Street or The Price of Salt. My imagination goes wild with those books, so I’m thinking that on a deserted island they could be a terrific way to pass the time.