Professor Spotlight: Welcome Dr. Thomason
In the Fall of 2022, the English department gained a new addition to the team, Dr. Laura Thomason: Faculty Director of International and Off Campus Studies and English Professor. I’ve had the pleasure of being able to take Dr. Thomason’s ENG 281-OM1 Topics: Women, Writers, and the Marriage Plot course where we discuss the state of 18th century society and the position of women, reflecting those themes in our material with the current state of modern society. During this interview we are taken through her journey to becoming a professor, how she found her way to 18th century literature, and some exciting new things we can expect that are coming in future semesters!
- When and how did you come to find yourself at Stevenson?
Dr. Thomason was born in Macon, Georgia, where she taught at Middle Georgia State University for 16 years before coming to Stevenson. Professor Thomason applied for the International and Off Campus Study position that entwined her within the English department, who welcomed her with open arms!
- How has your experience been within the English Department?
“My experiences in the English Department going all the way back to grad school and even undergrad have been really positive. I really think that this is a field people get into because they really love intellectual community, the material they love sharing with students, and we pitch in and really help each other out. We talk among ourselves about our majors and how somebody is doing in this class or that class. And, I’ve really seen that consistently everywhere that I’ve worked, it’s a really good experience.”
- Why did you become a professor?
“I wouldn’t say I was one of those kid’s who always knew what I wanted to be when they grow up. On the other hand, reading and writing and talking about reading and writing have always always always been what I am best at. So it was sort of a happy thing to discover that could be a job. You know a lot people I found at least going into teaching hereditarily so to speak, like lots of teachers are the children of teachers, and that’s not the case for me.
Neither of my parents were in education but, definitely both of my parents took education seriously, read deeply and widely, and encouraged us to read, so I’m thankful for that. I did English Education as my undergraduate major. I was certified to teach middle and high school. I taught 8th grade for two years before I started my graduate work. I did what was supposed to be a 5-year combined Masters and Ph.D. program—almost everyone took over 5 years. That’s just the way of the world. Then I was fortunate enough to get into a tenure track position right away. This is in my opinion the best job in the world. It is a very competitive job market—it’s a job market that is really messed up in certain ways. Which is probably a topic for a different conversation. I’ve been really luck to have been able to work with people who are great people and to get to do something that I enjoy everyday and get to expand my knowledge everyday.”
- What sparked your interest in British/Eurocentric history and marriage studies?
“That’s such a great question and really hard to answer. It was difficult for me in graduate school to choose a specialization because I’m broadly interested in just about everything as I hope I also convey in class. I like 18th century literature because for me it is particularly representative of ways of thinking that we still use today: the way we think about what it means to be educated, what it means to be a thinking, feeling, human individual in the world. To my way of thinking, it all comes from the 18th century and if you were sitting here with a Medievalist they would tell you it comes from the Middle Ages. If you were sitting here with Aron Chandler her would tell you it comes from the 20th century. The 18th century really resonates for me as a period that combines this level of intellectual interest, education, and even a kind of intellectual showing off with a very modern idea of what it meant to be a person.
I got into it in graduate school, the interest in marriage specifically grew out of kind of a feminist leaning in my critical approach to literature. I think very often we work on things we’re personally interested in or we have a personal stake in. As a woman I’m interested in what woman are up to now and historically. Then in the context of getting a Ph.D. and having to do original scholarship you kind of look for a space you can fill: what’s something people are talking about that’s still an open question? What women say about marriage, their own marriage, or the institution of marriage in general was a place I found a lot of material that hadn’t been examined or hadn’t been examined in the way that I wanted to examine it and I’ve just gone with it ever since.”
- Has the knowledge you learned through your studies impact your life in anyway?
“At the most basic level that you probably see in class I have the vocabulary that I have and I’ve used the words that I know. I think language is there for us to use it. Sometimes that goes great: my husband, for example, is a non-native English speaker and he gets frustrated with me sometimes because I use an elevated vocabulary and he’s not following what I’m trying to say. He sort of says why don’t you speak more simply and to me I don’t want to talk down to you. I’m talking the way I talk. I think the exposure to this literary style that is elevated, that is a little bit as I said “show off”—like sometimes and I think it does affect the way I speak and the way that I write but, I am also just a person who is interested in everything and I’ve picked stuff up and I share it around. And, for me truly it’s not showing off. It’s that I’ve found this interesting and I want to share it and I think other people will find it interesting too, you know, if you haven’t heard of it before you should check it out.”
- What goals do you aim to achieve in the courses you teach through the focus of your curriculum?
“Often times I say that if I taught one person one thing on a given day then I have done my job for that day. And, it might or might not be something to do with the class. One of my former colleagues used to say, “we have a lot to teach our students and only some of it is the course material.” There may be days when you learn something from a professor that isn’t directly related to the course, but is related to professional norms, is related to social situations, or related to some other topic.
I think in general if I can help students make connections so that they don’t feel like literature or writing is this isolated thing that exists in a little bubble, but that it exists in a context—it has a place in history, it still has an effect on us, there are reasons why we should pay attention to it. And, keep on growing connections in people minds. That’s really what college education is about to me and seeing it happen is really exciting. Even on just an anecdotal level when a student says, “oh you mentioned this information and last week in my history class Dr. so and so mentioned…” You know, it’s everywhere. Those kinds of things where you start to figure out that we’re all kind of swimming in the same soup here.”
- Are there any courses or focuses of study that you think could be offered/added to Stevenson’s catalog?
“I have a few ideas for courses I like to offer and one of the things I like as a newcomer about the structure of the English curriculum here is that there is a lot of flexibility built into it. ENG 281 is Topics and the topic is determined by the person teaching the class, so even if I teaching 281 again there’s a good chance it will not be this class (Women, Writers and the Marriage Plot). It’s going to be different; I’m kicking myself up and down the street that I did not and should have assigned Richardson’s Pamela and you all would have left the room in revolt, which is probably why I didn’t assign it but, I’m kind of kicking myself for not assigning it. So even if I came back to the same topic it wouldn’t be exactly the same course. A lot of the ideas I have would make challenging but, I think, really interesting courses for students.
I’ve referred in class to Richardson’s Clarissa which is so important and so little read today by any one other than 18th century historians. It’s very provocative and it’s very engaging. I’d like to do something about Joyce’s Ulysses, another novel that is long and difficult and mysterious and I think very little read. Nobody remembers Clarissa and people know Ulysses by reputation and that might be the difference there. I’m stuck in a groove where I’m suddenly interested around really hard books and whether I can structure a course maybe even around a single novel. Can we spend 16 weeks on 600 pages and if we do what does that course look like? What do we learn in the end and on the way there? And, I genuinely don’t have an answer to that right now but, it’s something I’m really interested in.”
In connection to the previous question, Dr. Thomason also shared information on a new course being introduced in the Fall 23.
“The brand new class ENG 115 is an Introduction to Literature. It is not something that has not existed in the English curriculum in exactly this form before and I’m very excited about it. You’ve heard me say in class before, “the more you know the more you know” and I think the toughest thing about literary study is getting into it and feeling like there is so much to read and if you feel like you’ve read almost none of it, it feels so difficult to get a foothold.
I’m really excited about using that class as a way of creating a foothold and kind of a basic toolbox for students to say okay, when we read a poem here’s how we do it, when we read stories here’s how we do it, when we read plays this is how we do it. And, just that basic kind of what are we looking at? What are we working on? You know those kinds of questions.”
Thank you so much Dr. Thomason for sitting down with me and sharing your background and insight. The English Department is very happy and thankful to have you as a part of our team as your passion for your profession and curricular innovation has already shown to be effective in and outside the classroom. There is no doubt, but only promise, that the intellectual groundwork you are laying down will continue to honor the mind of English majors and fellow Stevenson students!