Dr. Laura Fisher is an associate professor in the English department at Ryerson University. Holding a BA in English from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Fisher has focused much of her education on studying cultural issues such as social reform, gender, race and class. Her passion for these subjects shines through in each of her classes taught at Ryerson which all involve a focus on one or more of the aforementioned topics.
Her first book titled Reading for Reform: The Social Work of Literature in the Progressive Era provides a unique perspective on the history of social reform in the United States, and highlights Fisher’s dedication to the topics in which she is passionate. I took the time to ask Dr. Fisher about both her writing and teaching careers, and any advice she has for students at Ryerson with similar aspirations.
It’s clear that you have a passion for cultural writings and work surrounding social reform, protest, gender, race and class — what first sparked an interest in these topics for you?
I was always a big reader and loved to write. I was an English major in university and spent a lot of time by myself reading and writing. But at the same time, I was socially engaged and cared a lot about the movements happening around me in university, such as anti-war protests, organizing around feminist and trans issues, and more. Sometimes it felt like there was a conflict between the solitude and inwardness required to read and write deeply, and the public engagement and action necessary to make social and political change happen.
I was excited to learn about how different authors and texts have been involved in social and political upheaval, and so tracking these narratives through time and in different spaces has become one of my intellectual fixations.
Many of the classes that you teach here at Ryerson focus on the aforementioned topics in which you have specialized knowledge. How do you go about presenting these substantial issues to the class and further, provide the right literature to go along with them?
This is a hard question! The way I design my classes really depends on the course itself — whether it is supposed to be a survey course or overview of a topic, or whether it is a more specialized course. I always try to start with the goal of choosing amazing texts that I think students will enjoy reading. Sometimes more contemporary texts are an easier sell, but I teach a lot of literature from the 19th and earlier 20th century too, and try my best to get students engaged in their language and way of thinking, both of which might feel foreign to us at first glance. Most older, historical works of literature are valuable on their own terms, but I also try to focus on the surprising ways in which they speak to our contemporary interests and concerns.
For example, when I teach Emily Dickinson, I try to show how her privacy and inwardness, her ways of conducting relationships mostly through the mail are actually incredibly contemporary when you think about how much of our contact and conversation with friends happens over text, in comments on social media, and so on. Dickinson is my patron saint of staying in touch with my friends during quarantine!
Your first book Reading for Reform: The Social Work of Literature in the Progressive Era provides readers with a history of social reform institutions in the United States. Since this piece of writing is so unique and unprecedented, what was the process like in writing it?
The book builds on the dissertation I wrote as part of my Ph.D. at NYU, so really I was working on this project in some form for over ten years. In terms of research, I spent a lot of time reading American literature from the turn-of-the-century and scouring those texts for references to social reform as a concept. I found these references in surprising places, like in Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth, which people often think about as a book that is strictly about the pampered upper classes of New York.
I also spent a lot of time researching in the archives of social reform institutions, which are now housed in libraries across the United States. I did most of this research at Columbia University, the New York Public Library, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. In those archives I learned about how reading and writing were used as tools of social reform or uplift, and I read lots of private letters, minutes from meetings, behind-the-scenes documents and publications in which people debated the idea of literature as an instrument of social change. As I wrote Reading for Reform, I thought about how these two different conceptions of literature were connected to each other.
As a professor in the English department, it is important to balance both your passion for writing and your love of teaching. How do you balance the two and does conversation in the classroom often spark inspiration for your personal work?
Great question! One of the amazing privileges of my job is that teaching and research do fuel each other. I sometimes come into the classroom thinking that I really understand a text and then find that students see something totally different in it than I do. I then bring that new understanding back with me and it shapes the way I think about that text going forward.
Teaching makes literature fresh for me. Sometimes I will add a new book to a syllabus that I haven’t studied or written about in great depth before because I know that teaching will enable me to learn it inside out. Sometimes I have so much fun teaching a book that I know I need to find a way to write about it in the future.
Finally, what advice do you have for Ryerson students who have a passion for writing and a specialized interest in a certain subject such as social reform? For example, what classes to take or research to conduct.
Ryerson is a great place to be if you have a passion for writing. A lot of English classes allow students to write not just formal essays but journalistic and creative writing too. I encourage students to seek out classes that enable them to engage a new mode of creative expression.
We also have so many extracurricular outlets in which students can practice their writing and editing skills, and learn about running a publication (like the White Wall Review). Our ENG 910 (English Capstone Seminar) seminars are a great place to explore specialized research interests and have the chance to research and write a longer, more involved piece of academic prose. And if you have a passion for a specific topic that you’ve never had the chance to learn about in-depth, you can always write an independent research paper as part of ENG 904 (Independent Research Paper). This is also a good idea for students who think they might want to attend graduate school in the future.