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Katherine Acheson




What are you currently reading?

Usually this question embarrasses me, as I don't read much contemporary fiction of the worthy sort; my colleagues have to take that responsibility. But I decided to chart my reading in a day instead of reporting to you only the sad fact that my bedside book is a mystery set in ancient Rome.

Today is a day that I'm not teaching, so I'll get a bit more reading done than normal. So far I've read some of an issue of the Times Literary Supplement that’s in the bathroom; instructions for how to fill out a complicated reference form for a graduate student applying for a scholarship; past letters of reference and evaluations for said student, and the new one as I wrote it and when it was done; some recipes for figs as I ate my lunch; and about fifty emails. It’s 12:30 pm, and I expect the rest of the day’s reading will include Acts IV and V of Othello, material for volunteer work that I do, some more recipes, another fifty or so emails, another couple of reviews in the TLS, and finally, at bedtime, a chapter or so of that Roman mystery.

What are your five favourite texts?

What are the top five texts that you find to be the most useful for teaching?

That’s too hard; so many. Paradise Lost teaches brilliantly, as does just about anything by Shakespeare. I love teaching what little Chaucer I know. My favourite course at the moment is English 350A, which we treat as a poetry reading workshop; so any poem that we study in that course is a favourite teaching text. There are some critical essays that are coin-droppers for students — Althusser’s essay on ideology and interpellation, for example, Kress and Van Leeuwen’s work on visual rhetoric, Barthes on semiotics. Anything that can produce that AHA feeling is wonderful to teach, and so much of the work that I get to deal with in my area is just that.

What texts have you had the most fun researching?

I’ve switched this around from texts to topics. My most fun research has been the recent work on illustrations and diagrams, and how they relate conceptually to literature in the early modern period. I’ve looked through hundreds of manuals on gardening, military strategy, embroidery and plasterwork, dozens of natural histories and artist’s instruction books, and hundreds of works about those topics. I just love working with old books, and unfolding illustrations that have been tucked away for centuries is awe-inspiring. I love the atmosphere of rare book libraries; I especially like to work at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is so comfortable. I also love to work in the Bodleian in Oxford; such a beautiful setting.

My next most fun research was my dissertation research, which was an edition of a diary written by a woman in the early 17th century. I had to locate and work with manuscript copies of the diary, and figure out their relationship to the lost original and to each other. The manuscript that I edited was at a great house in England that is also a safari park; quite disconcerting, but a little magical, to drive up the long approach to the house and see giraffes in the fields and hippos in the ponds. Anne Clifford had houses in the north of England, so I also “had” to go visit them. I am quite devoted to her and her things — cranky, eccentric, autocratic, but very intriguing.

What would you be if you weren't an English professor?

Can’t imagine. I’m so lucky that I am an English professor. Otherwise I would be something else, wishing I were an English professor.