Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2010
Thinking About—and With—Others:
Adela Pinch WS '87 blends excellence in teaching with innovative scholarship
As far as Adela Pinch WS ’87 is concerned, her best teaching comes from her students.
“What I enjoy most is working with and from students’ ideas,” she says. “I’m most successful when the starting point for a class discussion is a student’s own perception of or question about a text. It’s such a pleasure to get them to understand that what they often think of as their ‘unformed’ responses to literary texts always open up the biggest interpretive and critical questions.”
Dr. Pinch, associate professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, received the 2009 University Undergraduate Teaching Award—one of just two faculty members campuswide recognized for demonstrated innovation, commitment, and effectiveness in the classroom.
“It means a lot to me to be recognized for something I really care about,” she says.
This other-focused classroom approach seems fitting for a scholar who has also won awards for her work on the significance, in Victorian literature, of thinking about others, and about what others think. Dr. Pinch’s innovative 2008 article “Love Thinking” won the year’s Donald Gray Prize for best essay from the North American Victorian Studies Association—the latest in a series of national recognitions that have also included an NEH Fellowship and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.
Her forthcoming book, Thinking About Other People in Nineteenth-Century British Writing (Cambridge UP, 2010), further explores the same subject. The book, Dr. Pinch explains, is “located at the intersection of literature, philosophy, and psychology in 19th century England,” at an historical moment when popular interest in such fads as telepathy, spiritualism, and mesmerism—as well as more mainstream philosophical considerations of mental causation—had opened debates about the power of thought. Even today, Dr. Pinch points out, we still say to acquaintances in difficulty, “I’ll be thinking of you,” or express guilt for thinking unkindly about someone, as though the thoughts in either case could have a direct effect. The notion that thoughts could have power, she adds, had particular implications for Victorian women, given their circumscribed social and domestic roles and, for many, their engagement in charitable and religious endeavors.
Since completing Thinking About Other People, Dr. Pinch has become director of graduate studies in the U-M Department of Women’s Studies, and is turning renewed attention to students’ research. “It’s a really outstanding multidisciplinary feminist scholarly community,” she says, comprising Ph.D. students in joint programs with English, history, sociology, and psychology. “What I find exciting here is the forum for what you might call, not interdisciplinary, but cross-disciplinary conversations among students. I teach the intro to grad studies for this group, and I have three sociologists, three people from literature, three psychologists, three historians. The goal is to get them to understand each other’s fields—to break down the divides between the qualitative humanities and the more empirically based social sciences.”
Creating this kind of venue for exchange among young scholars with related interests in different fields is, Dr. Pinch believes, one of the ongoing values of women’s studies as a discipline. “There is certainly now feminist scholarship in all fields, all disciplines, to a greater or lesser extent, across the university. Sometimes the students in our joint Ph.D. programs look at colleagues and say, well, this person in my field is also doing a dissertation on women; what makes my joint degree in women’s studies different? But if it weren’t for women’s studies programs, there would be nobody to ask the question, ‘What difference does it make?’ I think women’s studies will disappear unless we have institutions that explicitly keep questions of gender open.”
The development of multidisciplinary venues for once-controversial scholarship is just one of the changes Dr. Pinch has seen during her two decades in the classroom. She is particularly struck by the influence of technology on literary research. “It is astonishing how much old primary research material, printed material, has been digitized and is now available to scholars in ways that are quite fantastic. You can find materials that aren’t in your library because they’re someplace on the Internet, and that’s excellent. There are tools you can teach students to use like a full-text searchable database of all of Jane Austen’s novels—not to replace reading the books but to do certain kinds of interpretive research. That’s pretty amazing.”
As impressive as Dr. Pinch finds some of the new tools and approaches available to faculty, her core commitment to exchanges with her students is clear. “There’s still no substitute,” she says, “for class discussions, face-to-face contact, coming to class to get assignments, and reading the books.”
Or for great teaching based on students’ ideas.