Q&A with English professor Melissa Zeiger
English professor Melissa Zeiger arrived at the College just after finishing graduate school. Thirty-four years later, she continues to teach English and has also moved into the Jewish studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies departments. Rather than teaching classes this quarter, Zeiger is researching and writing her book on garden poetry and has been traveling in Europe this fall speaking on the topic.
What brought you to teaching, and specifically teaching in the departments you are in?
MZ: English was always my passion. I read obsessively as a kid, and I went to graduate school and I wasn’t sure about it right away. I wasn’t sure I liked it, but then I had my first chance to teach, and I enjoyed it so much and it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. I’ve come to enjoy teaching college students more over time. Sometimes they would seem like annoying junior siblings, but now I just love the energy.
What do you focus on within each discipline?
MZ: Poetry. I also teach a course on immigrant literature, but I usually include poetry in every class that I teach. I just did a course in the spring on my new project, which is gardens and garden literature, which was really delightful. I’ve learned something about Dartmouth, which is that it’s good idea to make up courses that seem a little weird, because you get such offbeat interesting students that way. I also really enjoy teaching the surveys of modern poetry and 20th century literature. I love teaching in women and gender studies — it’s been a kind of second home for me from the beginning, and I like the sense that the WGSS faculty share values and we work on common projects.
Through your research and teaching experiences, what overlap, if any, have you found in the English, Jewish studies, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies departments?
MZ: I teach Jewish women’s literature, and I think an interesting thing about poetry is that sub-groups, instead of having less access to tradition, actually have more tradition. If you’re a female, Jewish poet writing in English, for example, you have access to the whole anglophone tradition of literature, but you also have access to a tradition of women’s literature and a tradition of Jewish literature. I’m really interested in the persistence of an invisible past in writing. And for poets who are in some way outside the mainstream, that past can feel prohibitive, but on the other hand, it can act as a resource. For instance, I’m really interested in the way African-American writers take up the sonnet, which is perhaps the most dead-white-male of all literary traditions, and remake it for their own purposes.
Have your focus or areas of interests shifted over time?
MZ: Yes and no. My first book was on the poems that lament an individual’s death elegy. I decided I wanted to get away from death and illness, so my current project is about the politics of gardens and the way that they express the ideology of a specific moment and specific person. I thought I was getting completely away from death, but, of course, I wasn’t. In a way, gardens are sedimented death. If it weren’t for things dying, there would be no soil.
Have you found yourself needing to adjust your teaching methods or focus over time based on student need or interest?
MZ: I’ll tell you, it’s been really great. When I first got here, Dartmouth was more of a party school. In the mid-’90s, we got a new admissions director who changed the school in four years by getting more intellectually serious students, and it’s been much more fun teaching ever since then. I’ve found that I’ve had to do less persuading students to be interested and more developing their own interests.
You have conducted some research in the role of female characters and experiences in literature — for example, your work on the presence of breast cancer in romance novels. In your view, how has the #MeToo and other such female-dominated movements left an impact in literature?
MZ: It turns out once you start studying romance, romance is about everything. What I’m interested in is partly the way that those romances — that are still pretty conventional socially — have taken on board changes in feminism, changes in the culture. I’m happy to say rape is no longer a form of foreplay in romance novels. Your hair would stand on end reading some of the early ones. Now some of the women articulate feminist ideas, though they may not call them that. It’s a bit middle of the road, but it’s definitely changed.
How do you see this continuing or shifting in the coming months and years?
MZ: I’m worried. We’ve seen such a violent backlash to the #MeToo movement on the national stage. I know that a lot of us are going to keep working to make things more just. I don’t know how it will affect the publishing world or universities. Universities are very much affected by what goes on that the national level. I have my shoulder to the wheel, but I can’t really predict.
What direction do you foresee your research or teaching taking on in the future?
MZ: I think I’m going to keep thinking about gardens, because there is so much material on them. I went to a couple of conferences this fall, and the range of topics within it is so interesting, and I want to keep learning more and more about it. It’s come into new focus and prominence since the development of eco-critical approaches to literature. I’m very concerned with those issues and the garden work fits into that. The final poet in my book will be W.S. Merwin, and part of his work once he moved to Hawaii is reclaiming the native patch of Hawaiian forest around him because it was overgrown with imports. His poems are about the decline of the planet, the decline of his own aging body. That kind of work is very interesting to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.