Q&A with history professor Leslie Butler

by Kylee Sibilia | 1/3/18 5:37pm


Leslie Butler is a professor in the history department who recently undertook a year-long writing fellowship funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Butler used this time to work on her current book, which explores the political role of women in the 19th century. Butler will return to teaching classes in American cultural and intellectual history this winter in addition to continuing work on her book.

What has your teaching experience at Dartmouth been like so far?

LB: It’s been wonderful. It’s been a privilege to have a job like this. I don’t think there’s a term or even a week that goes by that I don’t think that. It’s great to be at a place where the students are obviously so intelligent, curious and motivated, but at also an institution that has such resources to dedicate to students. It’s a pretty amazing privilege to have and also to teach courses that relate to my work. I don’t take that for granted at all — how the teaching and resources fuel each other.

What work was involved with your fellowship and how did you decide to embark on it?

LB: I got a year-long fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s unrestricted, so you can do whatever you want with it. I stayed in Hanover because I have three children and live here. The fellowship was specifically to write the book that I’m working on, which is called “Democracy and the Woman’s Question in Nineteenth Century America.” It was an interesting time to be thinking about democracy, certainly, since I started the fellowship right after the election of President Donald Trump. It’s hard to get fellowships that allow you to stay put and not travel somewhere. If you don’t mind traveling, there are a lot more options, but since I do have children at home, that’s not an option for me. So there are only a couple places you can apply for, and it’s essentially a very time intensive lottery. I was just extremely grateful that I got it.

Is it common for humanities professors from Dartmouth to receive grants like yours?

LB: The NEH year-long fellowship does have a funding rate of seven percent, so they’re really competitive, but Dartmouth professors have a lot of success with the NEH. Even in the history department alone, there are several professors who have had it recently. It’s not common, but it’s certainly something that Dartmouth professors are very competitive at getting.

What was it like being present on campus working but not teaching classes?

LB: It was very strange because I didn’t work on campus for the most part, since I have a really nice study at home. I began the fellowship in January 2017, and I broke three bones in my arm in the first week of January, I was basically housebound for two weeks. Even after that, I mostly worked at home, although I would go to campus in the evenings sometimes to use the library and books in my office. I’d work at night when nobody was around in Carson Hall, but it was strange because you can quickly lose touch with the student body. The year before, I taught a senior seminar, and I was only teaching seniors, so I basically have never taught the current freshman, sophomore and almost all of the junior classes. I can walk around campus and be anonymous among the student body, which is not a sensation I’ve had since I first arrived on campus in 2003. It’s kind of fun, it’s kind of interesting and it’ll go away very quickly I know. But that’s been a funny experience, that I can walk through the library and not run into students.

Will you continue to work on your book this year as you return to teaching classes?

LB: I think that I’ve gotten to a place with the draft where I can be both working and teaching. That’s my goal, and it’s always easier said than done. Especially when you teach two classes, it’s really hard to get writing in, but I’m hoping to dedicate at least some part of every week to writing. I’ve drafted every chapter but the middle one. I’m still figuring out what the middle chapter is doing in this book, and the drafted chapters also need lots of revision, as they tend to always do. I am hoping not to set it aside, but to keep it sort of front and center in my life for this current year. And it’s great because I’m teaching my “Debating Democracy in the Nineteenth Century” seminar this winter, so it’s directly related to my research, which is really helpful. I’m also teaching a course on gender and power in the spring, which is also directly relevant to the book. As Dartmouth always says, with the teacher-scholar model, the teaching fuels the research, and the research fuels the teaching.

Do you think this fellowship will impact the way you teach when you return to classes this term?

LB: There is the sort of trite saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I think I am really excited to be back in the classroom. There was a refreshing aspect to it, sort of like when you’re on a treadmill, and you get off and get on a different machine — it’s like that where I’m sort of looking forward to getting back in. I don’t know if it’ll change fundamentally, but I feel certainly refreshed and eager and excited. I think that always happens, and faculty are always turning through, with leave time, and even the way the D-Plan works. We’re on a term, and we’re off a term, and the nine-week terms are a grind, so you do feel like you need to recover sometimes from them. Being off makes you want to get back into it. I definitely am very excited to get back into it because I feel like I have a lot of teaching energy stored up.

What did you learn from this experience?

LB: Time flies. It went a lot quicker than I thought it would for sure. I pretty radically rethought aspects of a book I thought I knew the shape of, and you can only do that if you have time. I was able to read books that I just haven’t had time to read. One thing that I did that was really fun was read a lot of 19th century novels, since my work relates to the 19th century. Even though they originally didn’t seem obviously connected to my research, they ended up being connected to my research in really interesting ways. Henry James, Anthony Trollope — it was really fun to see all of these resonances and get to work them into chapters. That’s something I never would have been able to do without time, since 19th century novels are so long. That just kind of opened my eyes to how pervasive those questions of democracy and the just constitution of authority in a family were. Way outside of sort of classic realms of intellectual history, like political debates and philosophy, I’ve found material really everywhere — religious sermons, novels, newspapers, just all over the place.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.