Thirst. If I were only able to prescribe a single word to reflect upon her being, “thirst”
would extend beyond all others. Professor Jennifer Jones perspires a thirst to engage the minds of all who stand before her. With such a profound desire to excite imagination and intellect, it comes as no surprise that Professor Jones was recently honored with the 2014 URI Foundation Teaching Excellence Award.
Whether you’ve had the opportunity to study with her or not, my hope is that through reading the following, readers may collectively engage with and be inspired by Professor Jennifer Jones’ thirst.
Q: What do you believe is foundational to produce and maintain seminars that are beneficial to both student and professor?
JJ: The English graduate seminar is an occasion for the dynamic interplay between research and pedagogy. This cooperation between professor and students is best supported by a course design that reflects two mutually reinforcing, but nevertheless different, concerns. As a first priority, I take it as my responsibility to introduce a topic, an archive, and a set of concerns, and then lead students through this course of study. The second priority is to give students the inspiration and tools to analyze how and why a given course has been put together in a particular way, and to what purpose(s). By the conclusion of a seminar, students should not only gain a sense of mastery over a particular set of texts and ideas, but also a meta-critical sense of their value within a field, multiple fields, the discipline of English Studies, and other disciplines…To my mind, a seminar reaches an ideal state when a professor can serve as an intellectual guide whose skills as both speaker and listener are equally deft. It is in this context that professor and students ultimately use a core set of texts and concerns not only to master canonical knowledge, but also to create new knowledge…
Q: Above all else, what do you wish for your students to take with them upon completion of their work with you?
JJ: I strive to make my classroom a place where students not only gain insight into the influence of the forces that have shaped them – including through the study of historical literature – but also learn to intellectualize this insight. I strive to teach students to recognize that seeking and attaining to excellence is the outcome of hard-earned practices of openness, attentiveness, risk-taking, perseverance, and the grace of good will among many persons and perspectives, among many different types of talent and skill sets. I strive to teach students to recognize that they have the power to engage in these practices and to flourish.
As one of my own teachers has recently written, whose work I taught in my graduate seminar this past spring, “Take the measure of, take pleasure and pride in, what an astonishing being you are. However much education or money you do or don’t have, however well or badly treated, you are a finely-wrought, irreplaceable, brilliant achievement of eons and eons of transformations in ‘vibrant matter.’” I want my students to emerge from my classes as persons who understand what it means to master a discipline, such as English Literature, and who imagine themselves as contributing vibrantly to the world in which they learn and live. The very best chance for this to become the case is for each student to learn how to approach cultural history, his or her peers, and me with a degree of respect that mirrors the sense of self-respect they feel.
Universities, and particularly great public institutions such as the University of Rhode Island, do not exist to reinforce preconceptions we inherit regarding our worth. They exist so that we can think and rethink what excellence means, and how we can rise up to it, individually and collectively, in the image of social and political justice defined as the overlapping voices of many perspectives that together effect what I take a university to be: ongoing disciplined conversation and contestation over what is true, right, good, and valuable.
Q: What do you recognize to be the greatest lesson that teaching has offered you?
JJ: A few ideas come to mind about lessons from the practice of teaching. Teaching demands a breadth and depth of knowledge that exceeds any given professor’s specific research interests. The demands of teaching, therefore, are also a profound gift. Furthermore teaching provides a rich occasion for making and remaking one’s relationship with even the most familiar texts of one’s chosen field of inquiry. One gets to know texts, including their composition and reception histories, better and anew through the practice of teaching. Finding ways to translate the text into a specific course framework and for a specific group of students reanimates texts, testing my perspective and guiding my students and I toward new perspectives. Once again, this lesson is also a great gift. Teaching gives concrete form to the fact that texts are not static and stable, there to be known and conquered, but rather exquisitely dynamic, changing with each moment, day, week, year, decade, and century that passes. Students are thus a crucial part of my intellectual and professional life. Seminars provide a context in which texts actively live and breathe through dialogue and discussion. It is inspiring to see students become intellectually excited about texts I have been reading for decades. It is also inspiring to read a text or idea long familiar to me in a fresh way through the perspectives my students bring to them.
 L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Staying Alive: A Survival Manuel for the Liberal Arts (Brooklyn NY: Punctum, 2013): 34.