A Moment with Anna Gibson, 2014 Graduate of the English Ph.D. Program
Professor Anna Gibson, 2014 graduate of the Duke English Ph.D. program, is currently a tenure-track assistant professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, where her work focuses on 19th-century literature and the Victorian novel. During the Spring and Summer of 2018, while on pre-tenure sabbatical, she returned to Duke to work on her current book, as well as the Digital Dickens Notes Project, for which she is the director.
Professor Gibson is from the village of Abbotts Ann in Hampshire, England. She earned her B.A. in English from the University of Southern Mississippi, her M.A. from Exeter University in England, and her Ph.D. from Duke University. She also worked for Southern Living magazine in Birmingham, AL briefly before earning her Ph.D. During her time in the English Ph.D. program at Duke, she was Mellon ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow, received the Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching, and was a member of the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.
Professor Gibson took a brief break from her work and shared some of her experiences while studying at Duke, her thoughts and opinions about the value of pursuing English as a major, and gave us a little insight into her current projects.
Why would you recommend that a student study English?
I think that someone studies English because they love to read and to dig into meaning and think about how language works. A lot of people think that studying English is not a practical decision. I disagree. I think that many of the skills that you develop as an English major are skills that are very much of use in a wide range of careers. You develop ways of thinking about values as well as practical skills. The skill set that you develop while studying English does not change with technological changes. That is one of the things that sets it apart from other majors that are often considered more practical.
What would like to share about your experience at Duke?
I came to Duke because I wanted to work with the people who were here and be part of this vibrant intellectual community. I was in a cohort of amazing individuals, and there are wonderful resources here. One of the things that I was really pleased with and I think really helped me when I went on the job market was the support from the Graduate School. I completed the Certificate in College Teaching and the Preparing Future Faculty program. The Director of Graduate Studies, Kathy Psomiades, advised me to look at these programs. They helped me to think of myself not just as a researcher but also as a teacher, and I think that really helped me on the job market.
What can or would you like to share with us about what you are currently working on?
The book that I am currently working on is essentially about how fictional form (the way a text is written) helps shape our understanding of the nature of being a person in a very complex modern world. “Forming People: Psychology and Victorian Novel Form,” a project that began as part of the dissertation, will consider the role of the novel form in the development of modern psychology. I'm interested in big capacious Victorian novels--the kind of novels that Henry James called “loose, baggy monsters.” I'm looking at how these novels use narrative to experiment with human psychology at the very same time that psychology was being instantiated as a scientific discipline in the second half of the 19th century. I’m building on work by other critics, who have noticed that novelists picked up on the psychological theories of the time that offered new thoughts about the importance of the body in our understanding of mind. I am interested in how novels can generate new ways of knowing about what it means to be an embodied self, especially at a time when the nature of human consciousness was increasingly subjected to objective, “scientific” ways of knowing from the outside.
I am also excited about another project that I'm directing: the Digital Dickens Notes Project. I am working with co-principal investigator Adam Grener from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, England to explore the working notes that Charles Dickens kept while he was writing his serial novels. Most of these notes are currently in the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. Adam and I hope to digitize and explore these notes to highlight the relationship between the notes and the novels. These working notes show Dickens asking himself questions and then coming back to answer them. This is a project I began while working on my Ph.D. here at Duke, while I was a scholar in the Ph.D. Lab. The fact that you can only access these notes as black and white facsimiles prevents scholars and students from being able to fully understand Dickens writing process. When you view the notes in color and explore their relationship to the novels you see Dickens’s serial writing process and how he would come back to questions that he'd asked in different inks at different times.
What do you like most about your job?
I get to work with students and do things on a day-to-day basis that feel like they help people develop who they are. I love being in the classroom working with students who get engaged with texts that they find intriguing, challenging, or problematic. One of the nice things about teaching at a small liberal arts institution is that I get a lot of freedom in the things that I get to teach. For instance, this year I designed a study aboard program that will have me taking a group of fifteen students to England this summer for a class on 19th-century British literature.
What is your favorite book?