Cura Personalis: Jean Lee Cole, Ph.D.

By Brigid Darragh

Jean Lee Cole, Ph.D., hadn’t pictured a career as a college English professor.

She had worked as a graphic designer, doing book and magazine design typesetting, art direction, and editing before coming to Loyola to teach American literature.

Cole, who grew up in Nebraska and Iowa, received her bachelor’s degree from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and her master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.

In her 12 years at Loyola, Cole has created a variety of courses that focus on American literature as it pertains to race, gender, urban and natural landscapes, and its place in culture through various decades and social movements.

In addition to classroom discussions and writing papers that explore various themes in literature, students of Cole’s courses might find themselves volunteering at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, shelving donated books at The Book Thing, attending the monthly book club at the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center, or volunteering at Great Kids Farm or Baltimore’s Civic Works.

During the 2013 fall semester, students set out on a semester-long project that explored the place of the book in today’s culture, investigating and profiling various places such as airports, cafés, independently-owned bookstores, libraries, and several neighborhoods in Baltimore City to document the presence of books and readers in each.

Their findings culminated in an exhibit, Book Places, which was on display at the Loyola/Notre Dame Library this winter and online at http://bookplacesbaltimore.wordpress.com.

What sparked the idea behind Book Places?

In several of the courses I teach, the idea of ‘place’ is important—whether it is the American West, the natural and urban landscapes of the United States, or cities like New York.

I find Baltimore remarkable. I thought it would be interesting for students, most of whom are not from this area and don’t get off campus much, to think about how something they love—reading—evidences itself in a place that many do not find particularly literary.

Do you have a favorite course to teach?

I like teaching all of these courses for different reasons, and I love coming up with new ones. I would say that what I like about all of them is that they either show students a part of the world or a part of the human experience that they didn’t know about before, or they show students something new about something they thought they knew very well.

This is also why I incorporate service-learning, archival and primary-source research, and other experiential learning activities (all of which are combined in the Book Places exhibit) in many of my courses. These kinds of activities cause one to look at texts—and literature, specifically—in new ways.

You have involved your students several times now in exploring literacy and the culture of books in America and especially in Baltimore—through unconventional means. Why is this an important part of your courses?

Incorporating service-learning, field trips, art, music, and even science into the study of literature helps to show how literature does not stand apart from the world, but is an integral part of it. To me, this is what a liberal arts education should accomplish: the creation of a whole person who understands the interrelationships between the world’s different parts.

As far as literacy and the culture of books are concerned, my research interests are grounded in this area. I find the history of the book fascinating. Often, people think books are just the words on the page.

Whether The Great Gatsby is in a fine binding, in paperback, or on a Kindle, it’s the same book. But the pages themselves, the binding, where the book was bought, how many were printed, and who read them and where—all of these are also factors in what a particular book is.

Every “book” is, in fact, many books.

Who is reading and how they read also fascinates me.

What happens when you have a society where an entire racial or ethnic group is legislated into illiteracy, as was the case in the 19th- (and some would argue, 20th-) century U.S.? Or when you have a society that encourages female literacy, as was true in the northern American colonies?

Literacy is power; literacy shapes society.

What do you hope students will take away from your courses?

I think, most of all, that I’d like students to see literature as a vital force in society—not just “reflecting” it passively, but actually participating in it. I want students to appreciate the aesthetic value of literature, but also its power in shaping thought and transforming people’s lives.

You mentioned your research. What are you currently working on?

My current project examines the relationship between the comic strip, which first appeared in American newspapers in the final years of the 19th century, and fiction from the same period.

Many of the early comics were created by immigrants and spoke to these populations. Realist fiction from this time also provided ways of representing these communities that was neither hostile to them, or, on the other extreme, simply born of pity. I am especially interested in how the early comic strips and fiction from this period provided opportunities for immigrants and ethnic/racial minorities to gain access to print and develop a new readership and new ways of reading.

Periodicals bring together literature, art, social commentary, politics, advertising, and readers’ responses (in the form of letters to the editor and the like). In some ways, studying them allows me to apply various interests and modes of analysis to deepen our understanding of American literature and society.

What are you reading now? Are there any books you’d recommend?

Right now I am actually reading some historical cookbooks.

Lately I’ve recommended some graphic novels, a relatively newgenre for me: I loved Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006). Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth (2001) is amazing. If anyone thinks graphic novels are just for children and the simple-minded, they should try that one on for size.

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