Crediting students, crossing borders with literary discussion
Published: Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 02:10
Oregon State University introduced a new staff member to the ranks of the College of Liberal Arts in the fall of 2011, Meghan Freeman, who has already brought a unique, historical and cultural insight to the school of writing, literature and film.
Freeman, whose official title is that of assistant professor of Victorian literature and culture, could be seen as breaking the mold of stereotypical professors of literature, in more ways than one.
This term Freeman is teaching 436 and 536 level courses on Victorian literature, a course that effectively acts as a hybrid involving both graduate and undergraduate students. The title of the class, she says, is Victorian studies. However, she offers an interesting subtitle to her lesson plan.
“The class is about Victorian stuff and stuffiness,” Freeman said. “There tend to be these preconceived notions of the Victorian period — that it was a period of time where everyone was very ‘stuffy,’ or overly concerned with propriety.”
Freeman is in the midst of efforts to disprove that notion.
“What I like to do is show the ways in which contemporary culture is still very much Victorian in a lot of ways,” Freeman said. “We [Americans] are still indebted in a lot of ways to Victorian ideas regarding cultural and industrial production — I focus not on the ‘stuffiness,’ but the stuff.
“I work with literature, art culture and material culture from England during the period of [Queen] Victoria’s reign, so 1837 until the end of [the] century. I’m really interested in novelists like Charlotte Bronte, and the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters like Dante Gabrielle Rossetti and William Morris.”
Yet Freeman does not limit her focus to simply [British] Victorian culture. She also teaches an American literature course, ENG 317, on transcontinental novels of the 19th century — rather, books that traveled to and from the Americas and United Kingdom during the 1800s.
One of the aspects of her teachings that has driven her most is the innate connection between American and [British] Victorian art, music and literature during the mid to late 19th century
“I am interested in the ways in which American culture may have defined itself through its confrontations with great works of European art and literature,” Freeman said. “Thinking about America, not in the sense of what was simply going on in the 19th century, but sort of how America was interacting with Europe at that time.”
Coincidentally, the subject matter for both classes intertwines regularly, and it is often the result of student participation.
“What’s really wonderful is that I have a couple of students in both classes, and sometimes they make the connections for me,” Freeman said. “You realize that, actually, there were these really profound dialogues that were going on — and they didn’t stop at national boundaries.”
Freeman knows all about crossing boundaries, at least in the geographical sense. Born and raised in Illinois, Freeman lived in the Midwest until 1985, when her family moved to Hong Kong. At age 11, her family relocated again, this time to New Jersey, where she lived until she went off to college.
Freeman received her M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from Cornell University, and taught 19th and 20th century British literature, Victorian studies, women’s literature and children’s literature at Tulane University for three years.
So what sets Oregon State students apart from the rest? Freeman thinks she has an answer.
“In terms of teaching at OSU, what I have really enjoyed are my students,” Freeman said. “In particular, for lack of a better word, how game they are. They are so willing to explore literature and material that they aren’t familiar with.”
According to some of her students, its Freeman’s encouraging nature that makes them more willing to participate and explore what they are unaccustomed to.
“The biggest thing that I appreciate her doing is constantly giving feedback in class,” said junior K.C. Plew, an education and English double-major at OSU. “She will never make you feel like you are saying something stupid — she just further probes questions out of you so that you can make a better conclusion.”
Freeman’s classes are generally conversation based, and rely heavily on student participation to deepen the effect of the provided material while advocating for educational discourse, as opposed to a strict lecture format.
“She is a good professor,”said Amanda McDowell, a fourth year English student. “She makes you want to please her. She is encouraging, kind and accepting of everybody. So when you turn [in] an assignment, you want so very much to do well on it and make her happy, that you end up doing really well in her classes and learning quite a bit.”
Tara Williams is an associate professor of English at OSU, and for the last year that Freeman has been employed by the university, Williams has played the role of department mentor to the Victorian studies specialist.
“[Freeman’s] research is really doing something that no one has done before,” Williams said.
Freeman won a grant to go to the archives of the National Gallery of Art over the summer.
“People just haven’t looked at these archives,” Williams said. “So being able to connect these museum archives, that few have looked at, to the really popular literature of that time is brand new.”
Williams praised Freeman for her wide range of foci, as well as the energy she displays toward the curriculum she teaches.
“There really is nothing better than a professor who has enthusiasm for their subject,” Williams said. “And [Freeman] brings that into the classroom and shares that with everyone else — Meghan wants to share what she is learning, not just lecture.”
Drew Wilson-McGrath, news reporter