Before the annual Empty Bowls this May, your local Miscellany editors had the chance to participate in another time-honored tradition: the Paired Professor Profile (PPP), bringing together two of our very own English professors and asking them the deep, hard-hitting questions we’ve all been waiting for — like, what would Nancy Cho put on her Spotify playlist? What is Susan Jaret Mckinstry’s deepest fear? The wait is over, dear reader: Nancy and Susan kindly deigned to sit down with us and put up with our eager, sometimes desultory questioning. We had an undeniable and foolproof plan: ask about favorites.
It was a gray and cloudy day, but luckily the humidity didn’t deter our professors from making their way over to the Sayles-Hill lounge. After receiving necessary validation that we are “never boring,” we began our line of questioning. A little bird told us that they once taught a course together?
“It was Critical Methods,” Nancy answered, which they taught “a million years ago, when there were huge numbers of English majors. We team-taught methods, and the cap was 40. So imagine a room with many rows of students, and I think when we taught it we had over 30? 34-ish? 38-ish? So imagine that.” We could hardly picture it.
“We couldn’t teach in Laird because there weren’t any rooms big enough,” Susan added. Imagine taking an English class in the CMC. We gasped! Little did we know, the connection goes much deeper.
“We both got our PhDs from the University of Michigan,” Nancy told us. “We actually had one advisor in common.”
“We have lots of secret connections,” Susan added, but the two then quickly ‘no commented’ their way out of further probing. Foiled again!
While we tried to picture this mythical entity known as the 30-person-strong ENGL 295, Nancy and Susan gave us a better picture of their classroom dynamic. Good cop/Bad cop? With Susan first at bat (topical Rottblatt reference), she proposed that “when it’s questions, Nancy is bad cop because she asks the hard questions and I’m good cop because I’m constantly turning my questions back around!” In what would soon become a repeat offense, the two used this simple question as another opportunity to compliment the other, with Nancy responding, “I feel like Susan is bad cop when someone is saying something kind of sideways and Susan is really good at getting them back on track. That’s not bad cop, that’s like skill cop!”
“That’s just teaching!” Susan retorted, but Nancy had already decided—
“—Cop with skills!”
When it comes to Methods texts, both are ready to shake things up.
“Sometimes after a while, you just can’t think about it anymore, and that’s not good for methods,” Nancy insisted. “When you’re teaching methods, You have to be alive to the questions or else things are going to go flat.” When pressed for a specific work that she’d cut, she admitted— “just because I’ve taught it way, way too many times, I’m ready to give The Awakening a rest…The Dead is good too. Frankly, they’re both annoying,” she said, throwing herself back a bit deeper into the massive meeting-room arm chair.
Susan laughed, adding “I wouldn’t teach [The Awakening] again, actually at this point. I’m thinking I’m done,” before shifting the question into the ever-shifting world of Methods itself. “The course has changed in really interesting ways,” she offered, “which is that those theories used to be so new, basically. And the question was, well, what’s going to come next and at this point, what’s come next is so evident, and it’s so clearly cultural criticism in this rich and increasingly dynamic way that those critical articles seem increasingly too constrained, given what theory is doing, and so I feel like those books are not as helpful as they used to be.”
At this point in the interview, we have to admit we were floundering a bit. Nancy and Susan continued to push our superficial questions into deeper waters. Trying to regain control of the room, we tried again. Least favorite method or theory? Andriana elaborated, “one that you teach that you’re like, oh my god, please don’t write a paper about this,” and in an unprecedented lack of thinking time, Nancy responded: “Psychoanalysis.”
Almost as quickly as she had played within our bounds, though, she fouled again. Following their pattern, Nancy sidestepped her initial answer into a pedagogically-inspiring disclaimer, and ultimately landed with a compliment directed at Susan: “—although I’m happy if students want to do it, it’s just not my comfort zone. She’s really good at it.”
Susan shared that in a recent meeting with Adam Lewis, our department’s wonderful library liaison, “he asked the class which of the methods they really liked, what they found useful or challenging in the course, and I was cracking up because half of them said they love deconstruction, that it blew them away, and that it changed their minds,” which shocked Nancy as well, seeing as deconstruction is the classic answer to our initial question. “And I don’t understand why because I love deconstruction,” Susan said.
“Just to punish me, Freudian references keep happening in my city class right now,” Nancy added.
“Freud is back.” Susan agreed. Nancy continued.
“I can’t get away from it. But we are in this moment where maybe there aren’t new methods, so to speak, but there are these very important new critical conversations around literature. And so my dilemma is to what extent does our course need to engage some of those things? So it might be, you know, eco-criticism or environmental studies as it intersects with literature or it might be disability studies, or it might be queer studies— there are all kinds of important critical conversations, and they all involve all the study of literature, but I mean, in nine and a half weeks, it’s really hard to figure out what the course should emphasize.”
I know what you’re thinking. It’s not good interviewing technique to include entire blocks of spoken dialogue in the write-up, but I would respond simply by daring you, reader, to cut a single word. It’s almost ridiculous! Although we came in with exclusively silly questions, each answer was growing increasingly thought-provoking and considerate. In a last-ditch effort to stay shallow, we insisted on no-nonsense, rapid-fire answers.
Elena: What is your biggest phobia or fear?
Nancy: Getting stuck in an elevator that breaks.
Andriana: Is the candy a bribe to try to get new English majors?
Susan: Although, I think the faculty eat an enormous amount of them, too.
Elena: Do you know what’s on the third floor of Laird? Do you really?
Susan: Oh, yes. The ghost of my office is up there. It was one of my most beloved places on campus.
Andriana: Were you banished to the Weitz?
Susan: I was banished to the Weitz.
Nancy: She self-banished.
Elena: Do you think that Tim Raylor deserves his accent? Has he earned it?
Susan: Oh, yes.
Nancy: Of course.
Elena: What were your dream jobs as children?
Susan: Working for the circus.
Nancy: Hairstylist. Not kidding.
Elena: Susan, do you think that you or Connie would win in a Jane Austen trivia contest?
Susan: Connie, because she’s more competitive than I am,”
Elena: Does that imply that you would let her win?
Susan: I would admire her.
It was working, we thought, looking cautiously back and forth at one another. The rapid-fire questioning was a hit! Glancing down at our ever-dwindling, shared doc of options to ask next, though, it was becoming increasingly clear that we would soon run out. The next few questions we had cued up seemed concerningly thought-provoking. How could we have foreseen this?!
Elena: If there was a book written about your life, what would the genre of the book be?
Susan: Speculative. Short Story. (An uproar ensues in the meeting-room)
Nancy: (no comment)
Elena: Which misunderstood literary figure do you act as a bit of an apologist for?
Nancy: Lily Bart, in House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.
Susan: Wow, you were so fast on that. I think there are so many figures in Victorian novels that need apologies that I’m having trouble…
Nancy: You know, the thing in the room where like three-quarters of the students are like ‘I hate him’ or ‘I hate her.’
Susan: Yeah, but that’s half of the people I teach… I’m thinking about Dickens, and you know most of them are just kinda boring”
Nancy: It’s like every Victorian novel, you know. ‘Boo Jane Eyre.’
Elena: What’s your least favorite Jane Austen?
Susan: There aren’t enough to cut. I would cut a lot of Dickens… I know, isn’t that terrible? I wouldn’t really cut a lot of Dickens… I like them all [Jane Austen’s novels] for what they do, because they’re different. She continued to be really experimental. Who knows where Sanditon would have gone, which is such a heartbreak. I still have dreams that they find a Jane Austen manuscript that’s been lost.
Nancy: I know, you’re not alone in that
Elena: What if Connie found it in the Women’s Monthly Magazine? (Tremendous laughter)
Susan: Jane Austen’s poetry was better.
It couldn’t last forever. Already, the rapid-fire questions were beginning to fall apart. Solemn silences of thinking times were increasing, no comments had entered the fray, and their answers were getting more thoughtful by the second. By the time we asked about the canon (we should have known!), the form had broken completely.
Sophia dealt the final blow, asking whether or not there was a canonical or classic work that either had been forced to read and hated? A noticeable hush fell over the lavish meeting room, and we instinctively rushed to come up with some different wording, before Nancy cut in.
“Hate is strong,” Nancy softened, “I mean there are books that I struggle with, maybe personally, but they are still books that I really love to teach. I enjoy the weirdness of not liking something and having to puzzle out why.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Susan added, “I’m having the same problem. And I’m trying to think— I can’t remember ever in college not finishing a book, even though there were a lot in graduate school that I really didn’t take to. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier.”
“See, I love that book,” Nancy laughed, and Susan readied another example.
“I really disliked Hemingway for a long time. But I think it was the hype around Hemingway more and the assumptions that Hemingway was just God, and that was an okay way to talk about women. Now, I really admire Hemingway’s writing.”
“His minimalism is brilliant,” Nancy agreed
“And that’s why Freudian theory is actually coming back in because at this moment in culture, we are so embedded in the idea of intentional writing, and that people are writing out of their identity and their self and their experiences. And that’s a lovely idea, but it’s also gone so far that it becomes a problem. And so Freudian theory with its unconscious is coming back in…So that’s what I love–this sort of aerial view of theory, because I’m so ancient at this point—”
“—That things come back around,” Nancy landed. They looked at one another and nodded, laughing again. And then quiet. There was a certain heft in the air then, as though we held between us for a moment the acknowledgment of it all. The great weight of the game we had all fallen in love with. With only one question left to ask, we looked back and forth at one another, wordlessly warring over who would have to speak. Nancy and Susan turned to us, waiting.
“If you two had to make a joint spotify playlist, and couldn’t listen to anything else again, what would you compromise on?” Elena almost whispered, looking up from her laptop. Glancing first at one another, they began to talk again. Stephen Sondheim was a must, and Joni Mitchell too. Nancy thought Frank Sinatra might be controversial, but Susan appreciated his connection to jazz.
“I thought of him as a crooner, but he wasn’t just a crooner, he was much more interesting, so I’ll learn about Frank Sinatra,” Susan decided. “Elvis Costello,” Nancy added next. Dylan McKinstry. Indian Ragas. Smokey Robinson. “Miles Davis. Bill Evans. Laurie Anderson. Do you remember Laurie Anderson? Language is a Virus?” Susan asked.
“Okay, this is the dividing point,” Nancy cautioned. Susan dipped her head toward Nancy, beginning to sing.
“—Language, it’s a virus,” she serenaded.
“I’ll let you have Laurie. They said we have to compromise.” Quiet for a moment.
“Do you like Duncan Sheik?” Susan wondered.
“Yes,” Nancy agreed.
“I adore Duncan Sheik.”
“Duncan Sheik can go on,” Nancy allowed, pulling her heels up to the cushioned seat of the giant chair. With the playlist complete, and the three of us out of questions entirely, we went off-book— if only for a moment, just to keep them a bit longer.
“Which Sondheim? Sophia asked.
Into The Woods. Definitely.