By Kristin Bertsch
I hoped that the large cup of coffee in front of me on the lounge table would be a casual excuse for my jitters. I waited for Dr. Robinson to come from her hotel to our little interview room, and every minute past 10:45 was a reassurance that maybe I wouldn’t embarrass myself in this interview. Maybe a department professor had detained her, or maybe she was caught up in preparing for one of her presentations on campus. After two minutes, Dr. Robinson came in, and after introductions shuffled her backpack onto the floor across from mine, and sat tall on the couch opposite me. She cupped her hands in her lap and leaned forward, and we both shifted a little in our seats. Then she gave me earnest eyes and said:
“I’m really glad there aren’t lights and cameras in here. I was so scared. This was the most intimidating thing on my schedule today.”
I was both relieved and amused to know that I was not alone in my anxious anticipation of our conversation. Dr. Robinson had come to Whitworth to give a lecture on her work in publishing and Victorian women’s literature, which culminated most recently in her project on “Victorian Women’s (Publishing) House work: Gender and Cultural Authority in Nineteenth Century Britain.” She had been visiting classes and giving presentation about her areas of expertise. She is an expert in her field, and a highlight of her department at PLU. But sitting across from me talking about the process of research and writing, she was speaking as a student immersed in the thrills and anxieties of a new intellectual pursuit.
“Research is always overwhelming, until something clicks. I try to show my students by example how to channel their own curiosity and interest into materials and topics. It may not be apparent that things connect or even really matter until you approach a topic as a matter of your own interest.”
And Dr. Robinson knows how to explore and make things connect. Her two areas of expertise, the history of the book and Victorian literature, seem to be placed along parallel but separate tracks of English. But during her 36 years in academia, she found a way to intertwine and give direction to both of her academic interests.
“I’m interested in the way books work as a way of giving voices, and how the publishing and print culture works as a way of mediating and curating those voices.”
That sort of intersectionality of interests in something Whitworth English majors recognize and aspire to. Choosing a track and curating a class schedule inevitably means that certain classes are left out, certain projects left undone, certain interests negotiated out of the plan to make room for others. Saying yes to one direction often means saying no to valuable others. And this is something Dr. Robinson sees as a problem for young scholars.
“Among my students, I see this paralyzing fear of specialization. They worry that by choosing to pursue one interest or project, they are forced to give up their curiosity and interest in other things. And that is really counterintuitive to what a liberal arts education is meant to be.”
I asked Dr. Robinson what she saw as being the most valuable asset of a liberal arts education from a university like Whitworth or PLU.
“I knew I wanted to work at a small liberal arts institution because that would be a place where I could explore. The faculty and the students embrace intersecting interests and interaction among projects, and I knew I wanted that freedom.”
Dr. Robinson’s advice for students is to feed as many interests as they can, and to let their interests feed each other.
Kristin Bertsch (’17) is a Senior English major at Whitworth. Kristin has studied English abroad in Britain and Ireland, most recently for a semester at Oxford University in spring of 2016. In addition to her studies and contributions to the English Department blog, Kristin works as research assistant to English faculty, as a conference assistant to Communications faculty, and as archiving assistant to Library Director and Art Professor Dr. Amanda Clark. Kristin is an active supporter of local art and theater and a frequenter of Spokane Poetry Slam.