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November 28, 2023

Professor discusses 'lovably wonky' undergrads, interest in pre-Civil War lit - Jared Hickman reflects on west-coast roots and New England education

By ASHLEY EMERY | March 28, 2012

With students eagerly gathered outside Professor Hickman's office to discuss an upcoming essay, I was able to interview Hickman about his experience as a professor in the English Department at Hopkins and his path to obtaining this position.

Hickman may have always been on track to enter the world of reading, writing, and literature, but he realized his ambitions through the rare experiences he had in his childhood in Utah, his cherished undergraduate days at Bowdoin College, and his religious festival hopping throughout Latin America.

News-Letter (N-L): What types of courses do you teach?

Jared Hickman (JH): I teach pre-20th century American literature. . .the fusty, musty stuff, a hard sell sometimes. I teach the first half of the American literature survey, so literature from the colonial period to the Civil War.

I'm very interested in the cross-pollination of religion and American literature, so I tend to teach courses, like the one I'm teaching this semester, on the theology of narrative, that combine my interests in 19th century American literature and religion. . .[also] American literary studies, the transnational and the Atlantic in the particular. So thinking about American literature in the context of the Atlantic world. That's something that I'm also very interested in, so I work a lot in the context of Atlantic slavery as well.

N-L: How did you become interested in your field of study?

JH: I suppose I have since high school been really interested in the heavy hitters of the American 19th century: Melville, Whitman, Poe, Hawthorne and Emerson.

In the course of my undergraduate study. . .it was brought to my attention that among other things of interest to these writers were things that they had to say about race and the politics of slavery. One could readily see that as the subtext of a lot of the writing of the period. That whole line of thinking prompted me to see how questions of race and slavery were lurking in literature even when it wasn't right at the surface.

N-L: What research are you currently working on?

JH: I'm finishing up my first book now that's based on my Ph.D. dissertation, which is entitled "Black Prometheus Political Theologies of Atlantic Antislavery," and it takes the Atlantic world as its ground and examines a host of writers from the United States to Cuba to Brazil, who were variously trying to think through the problem of slavery and, specifically, the theological conundrums that were raised by the problem with slavery.

There's a standing argument that had to be refuted, and it's hard for us from our 21st century vantage point where slavery is universally condemned. I'm interested in writers around the Atlantic world in the 18th and 19th centuries, who were trying to imagine an antislavery position that contended with that standing argument for slavery.

N-L: How long have you been at Hopkins?

JH: I've been here since the fall of 2008, so I'm finishing up my fourth year here at Hopkins.

It's been fantastic in every way, honestly. I really enjoy the undergraduate students. I find them to be "lovably wonky."

I feel like the Hopkins undergraduates work extraordinarily hard, sometimes too hard for their own good. The work ethic is really amazing to me, very different from what I encountered as a graduate student Teaching Assistant at Harvard, where I felt like at every turn I was being begged for extensions on papers. Probably that had a lot to do with the fact that I was a graduate student rather than a professor. But I do feel that there's a real work ethic here that is to be commended.

Students really put their heads down and work and do what you ask they to do, which makes our jobs easier. I think that Hopkins students tend to be on a whole smart in a particular way and willing to ask fundamental, foundational questions that one is not always ready for as a professor but that one is retrospectively thankful for as a professor.

The graduate students as well are an incredibly impressive lot. It's a pleasure to be able to occasionally to teach them and to interact with them.

I do feel that there is, not only in the English department, but in the University as a whole, a distinctive intellectual culture. . .It's a place that feels intellectually rigorous and intense in all the best sorts of ways.

I've really enjoyed my time here. It's been really great for me; I feel like I've grown a lot as a scholar, an intellectual and a teacher here thanks to the Hopkins community.

N-L: What is your favorite part of teaching?

JH: I really do enjoy the whole process. I enjoy the process of preparation. I'm somebody who, at this point in my career, prepares and maybe over-prepares.

In my seminar classes, which is most of the teaching that we do here at Hopkins in the English department, I will circulate questions before class so that we can really hit the ground running. I really enjoy that process, especially as you get into the middle of the semester, you get a sense of who your clientele is and the kinds of questions they're interested in.

Being able to shape questions in a certain way that reflects the ongoing conversation in the class, I take pleasure in that. I do think that in the end, teaching, especially seminar teaching in the humanities, is inescapably an art of improvisation because you're in the classroom, and inevitably somebody asks a questions that surprises you in some way or makes a point that you have not considered or seen something in a text that you haven't seen. There's something exhilarating about that.

A humanities seminar room can be full of surprises; people will ask questions, come up with answers that you haven't anticipated. It's fun to, as a collective, address those questions and observations as they come up. It's exciting that one can't always be prepared for what might happen in the classroom.

N-L: Did you always want to be a professor?

JH: I'm afraid I'm one of those people who has been on this track for a long time. Like a lot of people who end up as English professors, I started as a creative writer, and may, some day in the future be a creative writer again. There doesn't seem to be time to do much of that at the moment.

I had this idea that a lot of people have of getting a job as a professor and writing about and teaching literature, and then having that be the steady day job, and then on the side, doing creative writing. It turns out the day job can also become an evening and a night job.

It demands a lot of one's creative resources. I haven't been able to do as much creative writing of late that I'd like to do. I always wanted to be a professional reader and writer. It's a pretty good gig, I have to say.

N-L: Where are you from? Where did you go to college?

JH: I grew up out west in Utah. I was born in CA, down in LA, but really grew up in Utah, in the heart of Mormondom. At age 18, I promptly fled as far as I could in the continental united states from Utah. I ended up going to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, a little liberal arts college that was smaller than the public high school [that I attended].

People ask me all the time, 'How did you get from Utah to Maine?' and as I reflect back on it, it was really sort of arbitrary and accidental in all sorts of ways.

The summer of my junior year of high school, I went to a summer school program at Harvard, and, on the weekends, they would do little bus tours up through New England and they'd go to different colleges. For whatever reason, and probably [from] seeing Dead Poets Society when I was 13, just with the romance surrounding New England and a certain kind of Ivy League culture, I fixated on going to a New England, liberal arts college. . .I took one of those tours. . .and went up to Bowdoin and to Bates, and fell in love with the place as much as anything. It fit all my romantic notions of what Maine would look like.

There was a particular English professor there that was a poet, and he asked to see some of my poetry, and I sent it to him.

He sent me back this very nice letter just saying how much he liked my work. If I look back, that's just what pushed me in that direction in the end - just having that contact that made it feel like a more welcoming place to go or a place where there would already be someone who wanted me and to whom I could talk.

N-L: After Bowdoin, where did you go on to graduate studies?

JH: I was fortunate to receive this wonderful thing called the Watson Fellowship my senior year at Bowdoin.

It's sort of this dream fellowship, there are only, I think, 60 participating liberal arts colleges, and you have to attend one of these to compete for the fellowship.

But basically, they give you a bunch of money to... go out and explore the world. It's expressly non-academic; you don't have to produce anything as a result of your year. You make some sort of a pitch and give them an itinerary, a line of inquiry you want to pursue.

These are famously wacky things. . .the project I pitched was to study Latin American popular Catholicism. My itinerary was built around going to religious festivals in various locales. I think that the hook for them was the Mormon kid from Utah going out and studying religion.

So, the year after I finished my undergrad, I spent three months in Europe to get the cultural background and then nine months traveling through Latin America - Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru.

It was fantastic. And I got to go with my dear wife since we got married young. We got married right as I was finishing up at Bowdoin.

N-L: Did your wife go to Bowdoin?

JH: She actually didn't go to Bowdoin. It's sort of one of those sickeningly sweet stories; we've known each other since we were ten. We were in fifth grade together and were high school sweethearts.

It really does happen; it happens in this day and age. . .I finished up that year and then started at Harvard for my PhD program. Six years at Harvard of graduate study, and then this is the job that I very fortunately landed out of graduate school.

I finished my dissertation in the summer of 2008 and a few months later, started up here at Hopkins.

N-L: Do you have any advice to undergraduates?

JH: I think I'm biased because I went to a liberal arts college as an undergrad and fully absorbed the ethos of a liberal arts education.

Hopkins is a very different place, it's more a culture of proto-professionalization. . .I guess the advice I would give, to the extent possible and advisable, because I don't want anyone to give up their career dreams, I would urge people to resist that to some extent and, as corny as it may sound, to embrace an ideal of learning for learning's sake and take a whole bunch of different types of courses - courses you know nothing about but that, for whatever reason, spark your imagination.

Try to use your time as an undergraduate to become not only a budding professional, but also a budding intellectual, and take advantage of the extraordinary faculty here at Hopkins. And I will of course say in the humanities in particular.

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