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Faculty Profile: Professor Sarah D’Stair

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.

Professor D’Stair

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?

Central Valley by Sarah D’Stair

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?

Sarah was one of the writers of the narrative video series Honey Halo

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.

Faculty Profile: Dr. Emily Baldys

Dr. Emily Baldys is the new English department hire! Read through her interview to find out what she loves about literature, what she enjoys teaching and writing about, and what the study of English means to her.

What brought you to literature and specifically your focus on disability studies?

I’ve always been a reader. When I was a kid, I used to get in trouble at school for reading during lessons, and then when I went home I would get in trouble for reading at the dinner table. I find joy and life and challenge in exploring the imaginative worlds that authors create, and so it seemed natural to me to find a career that would allow me to continue to read and learn about literature and to help others to do the same. I first encountered disability studies as a senior in college, and I was totally intrigued. A few years later, in graduate school, I had the opportunity to take a disability studies seminar, and things just clicked. I came to understand disability studies as a powerful lens for investigating literature’s treatment of crucial concepts such as difference, otherness, and the body. At the same time, I realized that literary depictions of bodily difference have helped to shape attitudes that still influence our cultural understanding and treatment of people with disabilities, and so there is an important ethical component to studying them.

What is your favorite “era” of literature and why?

I love studying literature of the Victorian era. It was a time when society was coming to grips with being “modern,” and I find it fascinating to watch authors grapple with issues like rapidly-advancing technology, urbanization, and industrialization—issues that still obsess our contemporary world. The novel, my favorite genre, was in its ascendancy in the Victorian era, and so as a scholar of this era I get to study some of the great classic novels by Dickens, the Brontës, George Eliot, and others.  Finally, I like studying the Victorian era because it was a time that saw the consolidation of so many concepts—like gender roles, disability, domesticity, social class, and colonialism—that still shape how we think about identity and our place in society.

What are you coming to teach at Millersville? Are you hoping to teach specific classes or create some of your own?

In addition to composition courses, I will teach the early and later English literature surveys, as well as some upper-level courses that offer a deeper dive into Romantic, Victorian, and post-1914 British literature. I’d also love to teach courses on the English novel, and I have some ideas for new courses on disability in literature, disability theory, and the “New Women” (first-wave feminists of the late nineteenth century).

Where did you go to school for your undergrad and PhD program? What were some of your experiences there?

I earned my B.A. in English from Bryn Mawr College and my M.A. and Ph.D. (also in English) from Penn State.  I loved the supportive, close-knit, and academically rigorous environment at Bryn Mawr; I also played soccer there and served as fiction editor for the literary magazine. At Penn State, I had the opportunity to work with some amazing scholars in the fields of disability studies, Romantic literature, and Victorian literature. I learned and grew so much at PSU, and I also made some dear friends there, including my husband Darrell, who is a fantastic teacher, scholar, travel partner, and kitty papa.

Are you looking forward to working at a larger university than the school you previously worked at? What kind of opportunities will a larger department bring?

While working in a small college can be quite cozy, I’m looking forward to working at a larger university and in a larger department at Millersville. A larger university provides more opportunities for dynamic campus life, and I hope to become involved in such events as the disability film series and Millersville Disability Pride day. Also, working within a larger department will allow me to specialize a bit more so that I’m teaching more of the literature courses that relate to my research areas.

Are you looking forward to living in Pennsylvania?

I am most definitely looking forward to living in Pennsylvania again! As you can probably tell from reading about my education, PA is my home state, and I’m excited to return. I grew up in central Pennsylvania (Williamsport) and still have family there, so it will be lovely to be closer to them. I’m also looking forward to getting to know the Lancaster area. It’s a beautiful part of the state, but apart from a couple of soccer games in college, I haven’t spent much time there yet. I’m looking forward to exploring the beautiful Millersville campus, checking out the Central Market and bookstores in downtown Lancaster, and finding a restaurant that serves a decent cheesesteak. There are many things I like about Ohio (where I’ve lived for the past seven years), but I must admit that their cheesesteaks are just not up to par.

Emily and her husband, Darrell, at Loch Ness in Scotland
Emily and her husband, Darrell, at Loch Ness in Scotland

What are some of your favorite past-times?

Unsurprisingly, I love to read, and I’m rarely happier than when I’m reading a good book with a cat on my lap. I also love cats, and when I’m not spoiling Penny and Percy, our two rescue kitties, I enjoy volunteering at the local animal shelter. My husband and I also love to travel together. We have a pushpin map to keep track of the places we’ve been (like France, Puerto Rico, the UK, and Bulgaria) and a LONG list of places we’d still like to go (too many to name). When I’m at home, I have a soft spot for the goofy spectacle that is minor league baseball, so I’m thrilled to be moving to a town that has a team; I can’t wait to check out the Barnstormers! Finally, I’m a relatively recent convert to world of fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, so I’m looking forward to exploring the gaming community in Lancaster.

What do you enjoy writing about?

I enjoy researching and writing about depictions of disability in literature, especially insofar as these depictions illuminate the conceptual intersections between disability and other ideological constructs such as gender, domesticity, and social class. My dissertation traces the ways in which mid-nineteenth-century novels engage with scientific and medical discourses like phrenology and lunacy reform. I’ve also published articles on the rehabilitation of “idiocy” in Wuthering Heights and on the normalizing of disabled protagonists in contemporary popular romance novels. My next article project will examine eugenic strands in fin-de-siècle and modernist feminism and their implications for evolving conceptions of bodily difference

What does it mean to study English?

I think the study of English provides us with a means to critical literacy in an information-saturated world. Through analysis of our own and others’ writing practices, we can attain an analytical perspective about the messages with which we are constantly bombarded in everyday life, and, by extension, about the cultures in which we live.  Further, when we find our way into the world of a two-hundred-year-old novel or hundred-year-old poem, when we forge connections with the characters or the emotions that these texts relate, it helps us to become better citizens. These connections can inspire us to relate our personal experiences and responses to broader social histories that demonstrate the power of language and narrative.  I truly believe these kinds of connections are ethically imperative in today’s world, and that empathic, reflective readers form more constructive, more culturally competent members of our communities.

Title Image: Photo of Emily on the moors above the Bronte parsonage in Haworth, England