Emma Mason – get to know your professor
When researching university courses, one of the things that tends to be overlooked is who actually teaches you. Even once you’re a student, it is possible for there to be a gap between the student and the teacher. Yet there is such a wide range of experiences and passions within the top floor of the Humanities building, and so every now and then I will be interviewing members of staff in the English and Creative Literature Department and posting them here, with the aim of getting to know a little bit more about the academic staff here at Warwick, their interests and achievements.
To start off this series, we have an interview with our amazing Head of department, Professor Emma Mason
What is it that you do in the department?
I’m currently Head of Department, which means I get to work on everything with my exceptional colleagues in English and Comparative Literary Studies. While leading the department is a challenging role, we’ve got such fantastic staff and students that it’s a real pleasure to do the job. I’ve really enjoyed discussing with students their priorities, which are invariably reading, studying, and debating the ideas they discover on their degree. I also teach modules on nineteenth and twentieth-century poetry, and contribute to the university’s BA in Philosophy and Literature.
Tell us a little about your background and how you came to be working in this field.
Music introduced me to literature. Many of the bands I listened to growing up referenced poetry in their lyrics, The Throwing Muses, Saint Etienne, The Smiths, Jayne Cortez, and later Sufjan Stevens. I was also in a couple of indie-folk-rock bands—Jane Says and Ride on the Peace Train—that incorporated poetry into music. These bands and the friendships I formed because of them opened up poetry to me probably more than my comprehensive school education. When I arrived at Cardiff University in the early 90s, the English department there was very much a national centre for critical theory and philosophy and literature, and I found that many of the leading figures in these fields used poetry as a reference point in their published work. I carried on reading and enjoying poetry, especially nineteenth and twentieth-century poetry, and went on to write my PhD on religious poetry and theory. I still work in this area and am focused on religious eco-poetry at the moment.
Why are you interested in academia?
I believe university education should be freely available to all people of all ages. Academia is one of the only spaces left in society in which people can discuss, think about, and enjoy ideas without having to convert them into something measurable or profitable. Literary studies in particular offers us a compassionate and critical language to talk about what’s ultimately most important in our lives—love, friendship, forgiveness, empathy—and to clearly articulate why we should remember their importance in a world defined by money, competition, and self-interest. I think a degree in literature has the capacity to guide students into thoughtful and sympathetic ways of being, and certainly many of our amazing students are proof of this.
What aspects of literature fascinate you the most?
I’ve always loved reading poetry, from Wordsworth and Christina Rossetti to Elizabeth Bishop and Peter Larkin. But my interest has been sustained because of the kind of affective experience reading poetry offers. It slows the reader down, requires careful attention and inquiry, and because it’s indeterminate and subjective, it can’t be easily pinned down. My current work is on ‘weak thought’ and poetry, that is, how poetry shapes a way of thinking that is vulnerable, gentle, uncertain, and therefore open, a counter to the ‘strong thinking’ of criticism and politics today, in which people combatively identify with a particular position or argument. The Romantic poet John Keats called this ‘negative capability’, a valuing of mystery and uncertainty ‘without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’: a world in which we’re less irritated or angry with each other sounds good to me.
Do you have an achievement that you are particularly proud of?
I was really happy to have been voted Most Passionate Lecturer in the university at the first STARS of Warwick awards, which were launched, run, nominated, and judged by students. As a completely student-led scheme, the award meant a lot, and I hope means that students don’t mind too much when I have the occasional rant in my lectures.
What are your future goals/aspirations?
I’m really honoured to be Head of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick, especially as the department’s first gay Head. It’s been fascinating working with people across the university on making sure we offer a great experience for students and staff. But my aspiration is to get back to teaching and research as a regular member of staff and perhaps develop a module or workshop about weak thought and ecology (plants, for example, are model ‘weak thinkers’!) The department is also developing its research on poetry and ecology, and I’m looking forward to having more time to contribute to our fantastic Poetry at Warwick and Critical Environments groups.