Faculty Feature: Adin Lears
November 22, 2019
Adin Lears is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and started at VCU in the fall of 2018. She teaches classes on medieval literature, Chaucer, and much more.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
In addition to the obvious (I love reading and writing), I enjoy really intense exercise and also lazing about eating snacks. I have a dog named Violet and a cat named Crispin and, after seeing a list of AI-generated cat names, I really want a cat named “Moisture.”
When did you know you wanted to teach?
I can’t say that I could identify a single moment or experience that made me want to teach. When I was in college, I rarely spoke in class because it was terrifying to me. But I’ve found that teaching has been a challenging but important way for me to welcome my inner camp queen. As I gain experience I’ve also found it to be deeply rewarding to work through big ideas cooperatively and to help others use stories and language to figure out their own ethical relationship to the world.
What is the most challenging part of teaching?
There are so many challenging things about teaching; it requires so much flexibility and problem-solving! I think what is most on my mind at the moment, and what I’ve been trying to do more consciously and intentionally in the classroom, is to find a balance between my ideas and those of my students. In most classes (especially because I teach what initially seems like a pretty esoteric body of literature), I really need to do a certain amount of work lecturing to open space for interpretation. I also love testing out my interpretations in the classroom and honing them through discussions with students. But I really don’t like being the main person talking in class! I want students to be able to follow their own noses and I believe learning happens best when the process of interpretation is dynamic, interactive, and collaborative. So, finding the right balance is what I’m really working on.
You joined VCU in the fall of 2018 after teaching at SUNY Oswego. Are the students at VCU different?
In a lot of ways, VCU and Oswego have similar student bodies, especially in the range of backgrounds and educational experiences among students. I wouldn’t say I’ve substantively changed how or what I teach here, but VCU does maybe have more students with a certain kind of creative or aesthetic intelligence, which I think is connected to its strong reputation as an art school. I’ve had wonderful students at both places, but generally, I’ve found more at VCU who are interested in opening up big ideas rather than having a more narrowly pre-professional orientation to learning.
How do you keep the readings and materials relevant and interesting to students?
Personal enthusiasm is key in garnering interest, so I assign reading that I love or really want to read. “Relevance” may be an overrated concept, or at least it is often defined too narrowly. For me, part of the point of reading is to experience what is completely strange to you and find ways into it. I think teaching anything historical requires this kind of work to cultivate an ethical imagination, but medieval texts in particular invite us to think in new ways that can be both alarming and exciting.
Your first book, World of Echo: Noise and Knowing in Late-Medieval England, is forthcoming from Cornell University Press. Can you tell us a little about the book?
In my first book, I’m trying to enlarge how we think about what it means to be human by turning to sound-oriented ways of knowing and being in late-medieval England. I find that in this time and place, all sorts of thinkers—from housewives and religious mystics like Margery Kempe to upwardly-mobile court bureaucrats like Chaucer—were continually turning to immersive sensory experience, which they conceptualized in terms of noise, as a means of developing spiritual and ethical knowledge. I locate this as part of a general impulse among laypeople (one that was parallel to, but distinct from the more established Wycliffite movement, which was responsible for a lot of translation into English, for example) to cultivate knowledge on their own terms, rather than accepting or absorbing it from Church authorities.
Your research focuses on the roles of affect, embodiment, and language in medieval theories of knowledge and their cultural and social contexts. Can you tell us a little more about your research? What initially piqued your interest in this topic?
I’m really interested in different ways people come to know things. The everyday language and expressions we use tends to privilege ways of knowing related to vision: we say “I see” to indicate “I understand” and talk about things being “illuminated” when they are comprehensible or “enlightened” when someone has access to some sort of truth. But other expressions like “go with your gut” or “I have a feeling” or “I hear you” imply that there are other ways of knowing too.
I’ve always been a pretty multi-modal learner and I got into my first book project because of the way certain words sounded: I became obsessed with all the onomatopoetic words in Old and Middle English for speech that was deemed to be “empty” or useless and wondered what it meant for a voice to “jangle” or a tongue to “clap” like a mill wheel. It seemed often to be a tactic of dismissal (like when we talk about someone “chattering” or “babbling” today) and I noticed that they were usually associated with animals, women, and laypeople more broadly. Gradually, through close reading (and re-reading, and re-re-reading) I noticed that these noise-making voices were often tied to body-oriented practices of reading and learning: listening for sounds more than doctrine, being touched, in both a tactile and an emotional way, by language and books.
Are there any texts you’ve taught that garnered a surprising student response?
In my ENGL 410 Medieval Studies class I taught a little-known English mystic named Richard Rolle, who is usually not taught in undergraduate curriculum because there aren’t great translations of his material (pictured left: illustration of Richard Rolle from a 15th C. Carthusian manuscript, British Library MS Additional 37049). It was a challenge to teach because I needed to take a really comparative approach, balancing the not-great modern English translation with details from a Middle English translation and Rolle’s original Latin. But it was worth it! Rolle writes in such a fascinating way about how to cultivate a cognitive shift into a realm he calls “the fire of love,” in which his thoughts are converted to heat, sweetness, and song. One of my students likened this shift in perspective to the episode of 30 Rock where Kenneth sees the entire world as muppets, which I thought was pretty brilliant. Another student made a throwback vine in response. I love those kinds of reactions.
There is so much talk today about using the work we do in literary studies for activism and social justice. I am really glad about this. But I also think we need to acknowledge the importance of other kinds of work—a student of mine once called it “soul work”—centered in self-interrogation and development. This kind of work is a central preoccupation for Rolle and a lot of medieval thinkers. It may not be as obviously active, but it’s crucial in enabling thoughtful and productive social action and community engagement. People need a dynamic and developing sense of themselves in order to act with a conscience in the world. I think there is something about the way we live today that makes a lot of people—including students—hungry for that. I’m glad about it.
How has your teaching and scholarship changed the way you read? Do you think it has changed how you read for fun?
For a while, I felt like building a career out of reading had ruined my capacity to read for pleasure because I couldn’t pick up a book without tightly gripping a pencil in one hand, ready to capture an interpretation. I was so sad about that I decided to develop ways of reading without that kind of muscular effort. Now, I make a point of always having a book going that I’m not using for something specific (class or research). Sometimes I mark passages and sometimes I don’t, but mostly I let myself wallow around in the language and/or the story. This has unquestionably enriched my life and my work.
What books did you enjoy reading when you were growing up?
The books I remember from childhood all have a historical or aesthetic connection to the middle ages, which probably says more about who I am now than who I was then. I loved folktales from various traditions (I had a Book of Mermaids, a 1970s feminist collection of folktales from around the world called Tatterhood, and a book of fantasy stories by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame). I also remember loving this weird book called Masquerade, which was mostly a picture book about a hare who traverses the cosmos in search of the missing sun; supposedly it was a puzzle that contained clues about where the author had buried this bejeweled sculpture of a hare he had made. My very favorite YA books were Wise Child and Juniper by Monica Furlong. They’re about a woman in medieval Wales who practices a form of earth-oriented magic and teaches it to a little girl who is orphaned in her village. Both are ostracized by the villagers and Church authorities. Those books completely shaped who I am as an intellectual.
What are your favorite things you’ve read this year?
This past year I read and loved Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, as well as Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy Outline, Transit, and Kudos. Both authors are really invested in negotiating a sense of self based on verbal and material interface with other people and objects. I’ve also discovered a few sci-fi books that speak to my interest in probing how we think about consciousness and humanness, like John Wyndham’s Chocky and Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. In this vein, I’ve really really really gotten into writing by the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. She was born in Britain, got kicked out of convent school for practicing levitation, and ultimately traveled to France, where she became a painter in surrealist circles. During World War II she suffered a psychotic break, was institutionalized, and eventually fled to Mexico where she lived for most of the rest of her life. Her account of her institutionalization, Down Below, is the most strange, funny, and loving account of trauma I’ve ever read. And her novel The Hearing Trumpet is maybe about how accommodating and embracing senility (and other cognitive perspectives) can re-orient us toward climate catastrophe. I love her.