Hilary E. Wyss
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I joined the English Department at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut in 2017, where I teach classes in English and American Studies. Before that I taught at Auburn University for nearly twenty years, during which time I had the great privilege of mentoring both graduate and undergraduate students. In those years my teaching has changed considerably, but at core I have remained committed to the principles that brought me into this profession: that learning is a process that involves individual choices, and that it is also a community activity in which people are responsible not only for themselves, but for the well-being of the larger group. Whether I am teaching an advanced graduate class or a core literature survey I try to maintain my commitment to producing a healthy balance between personal choice and community activity.
In classes ranging from “Early Native American Voices” to “Crosscultural Conversations in Early America” and “Early American Women Writers” I ask my students to think about changing notions of American identity, with particular attention to the racial dynamics of “Americanness.” By including materials by underrepresented figures that sometimes appear only in court petitions, oral testimonies, letters, and even as artifacts of material culture, I remind students of the complexity of creating any single narrative of Americanness from such iconic texts as William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, or Anne Bradstreet’s poetry or even Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. In all my classes I offer students the experience I found most rewarding—a sense that their ideas are worth discussing, and guidance about how to participate in the larger conversations of our profession.
Before I went to graduate school, I spent 1988-89 teaching English at the South China Normal University in Guangzhou, China. The year that I spent in China coincided with the Pro-Democracy Movement, and in that period of turmoil, during which our university was closed down for several weeks, I learned a great deal about what an education can mean to people. When armed guards were posted at the gates of the university and in front of every building, choosing to attend class became for many a risky act at a politically volatile moment. Yet it was a choice many of my students made day after day until the university closed (early) for the summer. My experience today is a far cry from that experience now so long ago, but that moment has stayed with me always as I remember what a privilege it is to walk to class safely and talk freely with students about shared interests, differing readings, and cultural and intellectual matters of varying degrees of significance.