Codes, Victorians, and Zombies: A Conversation With the English Department’s Newest Professor, Dr. Kari Nixon!

Out of all the possible music genres one would anticipate Whitworth’s Victorianist Dr. Kari Nixon to enjoy, least expected is rap. However, her stunning interests in academia align with this same concept: mixing (as one would in a rap album) old ideas and aesthetics with what humanity has learned in the 21st century.

Nixon connected her interests in music with her passions regarding the Victorian Era and research in medical humanities. I asked why she pursued both English and medical studies and she replied, “Well, the Victorian era kind of lends itself to that… Those very basic foundations of science were all developed in the Victorian era.”
When she was an undergraduate student, Dr. Nixon tended to have an idealistic view of how sciences and statistics can affect the world. She passionately believed that, somewhere out there, there was a formula that could “solve the world.” While in graduate school, she learned about how fallible statistics and math could be; how the tools humanity uses are only as good as the humans who use them. It was at this point in her life that Nixon found a personal connection to those in the Victorian era. The 19th century scientists discovered some of the most foundational aspects of how the medical world functions. They discovered the law of entropy, the theory of evolution, the infinite expansion of the universe and germ theory. Nixon notes how anxiety-provoking these discoveries and ideas were in the time they were made. “The world is full of a lot of flawed and fallible systems… but we really want that ‘meaning framework’… I was seeing them go through the same kind of struggle that I did and that got me thinking about what some of the lesser-known discoveries were.”

Branching off of interests in English and medical humanities, Dr. Nixon shared of her passion for research. She states, “Research, for me, feels like my creative art. And I feel most in my creative prime just when I’m researching and buried in an archive.” One of her works on research is the book Endemic: Essays in Contagion Theory where she and Lorenzo Servitje explore the idea that knowledge of germs’ ability to spread can impact foreign aid and stigmas revolving around illnesses. Her interest in this research was largely driven by how monumental contagion theory was in the Victorian era.

Her passion for Victorian ideas and how they interact with modern times extends to her workspace. Her office shelves are full of old books that she has collected over the years while on her wall she posts some of her research about pregnancy tests and social media. On her door, she has magnets in Norwegian (a language she teaches at the high school level) beside a vintage poster warning about a household under quarantine. “I love the contradiction of like really old Victorian aesthetics and like techno-culture look… Because for me, the Victorians are both like kind of beautiful and stately, and kind of creepy.”

Dr. Nixon is excited to help students open their minds to the breadth of literature in her classes such as Victorian Literature and Modern Global literature. The idea that texts are far more than dusty old books is exciting to her. As a professor, Dr. Nixon appreciates both that research makes her courses more interesting, and that her students can help to open her mind to new ideas in literary studies. At the same time, Nixon is indeed a Victorianist and loves sharing those same dusty old books with students. To study a specialized field such as this means you must learn the language of that field. Nixon describes this technical jargon as “codes”

These codes and secrets are part of what attracts her to rap music. Nixon enjoys listening to music that involves what is called “sampling” (the technique of using a track from another song) and a large amount of allusion to other songs. Those techniques and references create an environment where “unless you know the other music you can’t really understand what’s going on in a given song.” This same concept is what drove Dr. Nixon into researching pregnancy tests and teaching students about the intricacies of Victorian literature.

While many tend to avoid the strange, creepy, and unknown, Dr. Kari Nixon is drawn to it. She is glad to join the Whitworth community here and to experience that passion that those in the English department share.

By Adira McNally

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