Faculty Spotlight: Catherine Nickerson

Callaway Memorial Center. | Photo by Jason Oh
Callaway Memorial Center, home of the English Department. | Photo by Jason Oh

English Professor Catherine Nickerson grew up in Boston and went to Yale for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees.

After receiving her PhD in American Studies from Yale in 1991, she moved to Atlanta in 1992.

EW: What do you research and why do you research it?

CN: My main research has been in crime fiction, detective fiction, and I am really interested in it because it seems like a really significant way that we, both authors and readers, talk about and think about where dangers are in society. Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? Who are the people who are likely to hurt you? Who are the people that are likely to save you? Detective stories are kind of a construction around those issues. Around issues of good and evil at a really basic sense. The way detective fiction talks about it is really interesting to me because it sets up this idea that there is stuff going on we don’t really understand. Sometimes the most obvious kind of eruption of that is a crime. The classic structure of a detective story is that you find a dead body. And the detectives come in and they have to figure out who did it and why they did it. But along the way, generally, they not only solve that crime, they also discover a whole bunch of other stuff that may or may not be related to the crime, a whole bunch of other secrets. I mean that’s how a Law and Order episode works, right? Is that they start investigating the husband of the woman who has been killed and they find out he’s been cheating on her, has a drug habit and has been embezzling money from his company. All of those or none of those might be relevant to actually solving the murder. It may turn out he didn’t do it at all. It sets up a kind of a world in which there are people who keep a lot of secrets. There a lot things going on that we don’t understand. There are a lot of connections between ordinary people and big structures like businesses, like politics, like institutions. So that part of it I think is what really interests me. I started my first project, which was my dissertation in graduate school because I was interested in the depiction of violence in American Literature. I was preparing for my exams. PhD students have to take these big exams called the orals, and one of my fields was violence in American Literature. One part of that was detective fiction so I was researching that stuff and discovered, just in the footnotes of others books, that there were a bunch of women who were writing detective fiction in the United States in this period between when Poe publishes his stories in the 1840s and before Sherlock Holmes’s stories get really popular just after the turn into the twentieth century. The standard history said that was a period when the detective novel lay fallow in America, that there was nothing going on in the United States in terms of detective writing. It turns out that there were a bunch of women writing and they were really popular, really good and really well known. I remember thinking as I was finding this in the old card catalog in the Yale university library, finding that Yale had a lot of these books on the shelf and thinking “Someone should do a dissertation on this” and then 30 seconds later going “Oh, I guess that’s me” And that was kind of how I found my topic.

EW:What has caused you to grow into the researcher and professor you’ve become?

CN: It was doing my senior project [as an undergraduate]. I mean, the seeds must have been there before that, but as undergrad I was an American Studies major and I did a lot with literature, but I’m really interested in interconnections of history and literature in American culture. So, I was an American studies major and we weren’t required to do a thesis for that major, but I really wanted to and so my thesis was on African American women writers. I so enjoyed the process of doing something new that no one had done before, reading the background stuff and coming up with my own ideas. I enjoyed it so much that that was when I realized I wanted to go to grad school. Before that, because I come from a family of teachers, I was like “Anything, anything but becoming a teacher.” I really thought that wasn’t what I wanted to do, but doing my honors thesis really is what turned me on to it.

EW: What inspires you to teach now?

CN: First of all, it’s just a lot of fun. At a basic level, the highpoint of my week, of my day is the hour or two I spend in class, three hours in the case of a graduate seminar. But the 75 minutes twice a week, three times a week with students. I really look forward to it, it’s a lot of fun to me. I really enjoy the energy. I really enjoy being surprised. I don’t lecture all that much, I do little mini-tangents and disquisitions, but mostly I want to set up an atmosphere where students have interesting things to say because I just really enjoy a good conversation and with Emory students that’s really pretty easy to make happen. So that’s the self-indulgent part, I just really enjoy it. I think I just am someone who constitutionally feels like life matters in helping other people, and teaching is a helping profession. The time I spend with student papers I’m not trying to just say “You’re wrong” or “This isn’t good enough” I’m trying to say “This could be better. Here’s a place where maybe your errors in grammar or just a weak sort of expression is getting in the way of your ideas really shining.” I think it’s just enjoying the subject matter, enjoying conversation with people, and also just feeling like the meaning in life is what happens between people and for me, that has a lot to do with helping people.

EW: What is it that inspired you to create the Harry Potter class?

CN: I first taught it spring of 2012. I discovered the books as a mom, reading them to my kids, and I also kind of discovered the intensity of the fan culture around the books. It hit me that this was the generation that grew up with the books and grew up with the experience of, at least many of them, coming out one by one, of having to wait for a book. Being able to talk about their childhood or talk about the chronology of their life in terms of the books. The summer before I taught that class was the last of the Harry Potter movies coming out so it seemed like it was the end of something. It turns out it’s not. It turns out [J.K] Rowling is much more generous than that and is adding bits and things and there’s still more new stuff coming out to talk about like the black Hermione, the various plays that she is doing and the new sequels, which is all fantastic as far as I’m concerned. But at the time it felt like this was a time to reflect on what this phenomenon was in terms of this of this really intense experience of a story that people have had.

EW: What does the Harry Potter class entail?

CN: We read all of the books and I make each student when they apply to the class, promise that they will actually reread the books, which usually isn’t difficult to make people do. Generally there’s 14 weeks and there’s seven books so you can kind of imagine how that plays out. We spend two weeks on the longer books, and one week on the shorter ones, the first three. We also do supplemental articles. There is actually a large number of scholarly pieces on the Harry Potter books and so we read essays and articles. This is the really great part of teaching this class, students know more about the books than many people writing about the books. Many people writing about the books are people of my generation. I think of the adults who have come to books as adults as kind of muggles in this world, of really not understanding everything that’s going on in the books. Not just because they are old, but because they didn’t experience them as children for the first time. What I’m really excited about this semester is that a new book has come out. A project that I kind of daydreamed of, but never had the whatever to put into action. It’s an anthology of essays by people of your generation. The generation of current college students, edited by their professor who taught the class and gathered up essays by them and students all over the country. So it’s whole collection of essays about the books, many many aspects about the books written by exactly the kind of people that are excited about it. So we’re reading almost all of that book and then some other pieces that I’ve gathered from various other places. Students are free to talk about the films. We do talk about a couple of the films. Probably Prisoner of Azkaban the most because the first two movies  are very literal presentations of the content of the book and it’s only with the Prisoner of Azkaban that you can see some more interesting stuff going on cinematically. Using the medium of cinema to think about what’s a way a film could help us understand this world rather than just being almost like a play, a straight-on, head-on “let’s take scenes from the book and put them into the film.” We don’t do as much with the films because of time, but certainly students write really interesting essays about the films and that’s totally open.

EW: Do you think Harry Potter will be a great piece of literature now and in the future?

CN: We were just reading a piece this week for class where the author, writing in 2002, says in a sense “I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s a classic.” And I certainly think that the Harry Potter books will be read 50 years from now, 100 years from now. There will be other exciting phenomenon that will come along, especially because the publishing world is really eager for another Harry Potter series, but I think these books have a depth, a range, and an integrity that means even when people have forgotten about all the marketing stuff that went with the books— the wands, the Halloween costumes, and the Botts Every Flavor Beans replicas. When all that stuff is gone the books still have their integrity and will endure.

EW: How do you think your family and your life at home has influenced your teaching and your life here?

CN: My kids are now 16 and 13 and certainly being a mom of a teenager has made me really understand how difficult certain aspects of learning are for some students. It has nothing do with students being stupid or not trying. For example, sometimes teachers, say, in an English class, make a really big deal about things like getting up in front of the class and reciting a poem which you can certainly see why it’s connected and why it would be a worthwhile project, but on the other hand for some people that is just like death, to have to stand up in front of a class and recite. It is so upsetting that they spend two days, three days before worrying about it. Maybe even coming down with psychosomatic illnesses in response. Or just being too freaked out with a migraine or an anxiety attack to even go to school. Even if they are at school, they’re so upset by this that they miss out the whole day before leading up to the class where they have to get up and present. It’s just not worth it. It’s just not worth it to make that such a big deal. I think I’ve just becoming more understanding of that. For instance I no longer require group projects. Kind of coming out of that same ethos of just that it’s a great idea, but when people hate it, they really hate it. So you can build it in as an option. One of things you can do in this class is get together with some of the people in the class and do a presentation, but not required by everybody. So it’s just brought home to me the idea that you want to give people different ways to show what they’ve learned if that’s important to you or just to engage with the material.

EW: Why do you have the Harry Potter figurines scattered about your office and how did you acquire them?

CN: I have them because I’m a big old Harry Potter fan. Like anybody else, I like the action figures. Obviously it’s done with a little bit of irony, I’ve posed them in certain ways. Some are from my students. A student a couple years ago noticed I didn’t have a Ron and she found one for me. I deliberately put the most upsetting ones back here so that students flip out seeing a dementor at them, I mean it seems like a bad thing to do. People in here are usually not in the best mood to begin with. So I decided to put the dementors back there and I get to look at it. My kids have given me some for various birthdays and Christmas.

EW: How has your time at Emory affected you?

CN: Well I’ve been here since 1992. It was my first job out of graduate school. So it’s kind of like all my growth, from beginning professor to now, has happened here so I can’t even say how much is Emory and how much is just growing up and growing into middle age. Besides the students, because the students are a very intense part of my time at Emory, but I’ve also worked with some people since 1992. So I have these rather long term relationships with other faculty members and relatively short term ones with students. Generally it’s one semester, and then I don’t see them again ever. Emory has just attracted really fantastic people and Emory has taught me to stick to my beliefs, stick to the things I care a lot about. I have colleagues at other universities who are like “Oh, I would love to teach a course on Harry Potter, but they would laugh at me. I wouldn’t dare do it.” I think Emory got enough of a sense of, I see it as a little bit of a Southern thing of understanding the offbeat a little bit, the stuff that’s not totally mainstream. I remember talking to some colleagues before I first proposed this class saying “If you think this is a really stupid idea, tell me now before this goes into the course catalog. If you think this is a bad idea it’s going to be a disaster, I’m going to look like a fool, it’s going to bring negative publicity to our program” and they were all like “No, no. Do it, Do it.” I think that’s probably how Emory has affected me. Just in realizing that you can do things that you feel instinctively, because of who you are, are going to work and even if people don’t totally understand why you’re doing it they’ll kind of back your play.

EW: What brought you to Emory?

CN: Emory was where the job was so that was why I came. I was intrigued by the South. I really love southern literature and I was really intrigued by southern culture. And I believe, as a premise, that you should live outside of your home region for at least some portion of your adult life just to get a different perspective on things. I came here with that kind of sense of adventure, this is something really new and it has been and obviously very congenial because I’ve stayed.

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