New Faculty Interview: Emily Thornbury

How did you get interested in your research subject?

My Origin Myth is that I started out in Astrophysics as an undergrad, and switched to Anglo-Saxon because it was adjacent in the course catalog. I really did start in astrophysics; and I suppose I like early medieval literature because so much about it is unknown that it offers a similar kind of thrill of discovery.

What are your intellectual passions?  What are you passionate to teach?

In my research, I tend to be drawn to Big Questions—maybe Implausibly Big Questions—like, what do we see as the source of art’s value? Or, what makes someone a poet? Working on the relatively small corpus of Anglo-Saxon art and literature helps me explore those kinds of questions, but within a frame that lets me come up with reasonably plausible answers within a normal human lifetime.

As for teaching—I love teaching Old English, in part because there’s so much immediate gratification. In the course of one semester, students can go from knowing little to nothing about this language, to being able to read—and write!—poems in it. I also really enjoy teaching the weirder ranges of medieval literature, Otherworld visions in particular.

What is the value of studying literature in the current political climate?

That depends on the literature and the student, of course. One benefit is that you can see that the political climate has had what we might understatedly call its ups and downs in times past, and that people have sometimes responded well, and sometimes very badly indeed. That can be instructive in various ways.

For me, much of the value of reading literature in any political climate is its reminder that the individual human experience matters. Its significance might not be statistical, but it’s no less real.

What are you reading for fun right now?

This summer, while loitering in some British airport bookshops, I happened across Penguin’s new reprints of Eric Ambler’s thrillers, and I’ve really enjoyed them. They’re set (and were written) in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, and are partly about the poisonously cynical international maneuvering that preceded World War II. The writing is sharp and often lovely as well as funny, and the protagonists are unusual for the genre—a stateless Hungarian refugee in France, for instance, or a Croatian journalist with Communist sympathies. They’re great for a long flight.

On Prof. Eccles’ recommendation, I also started reading Scott’s The Antiquary. It’s good fun so far!

What was your favorite job before becoming an academic?

My pre-academic jobs were less than awesome, which may be part of why I’m an academic. The most exciting moment probably came when I was a barista at a bookstore café and I got to make a cappucino for Isabel Allende. I didn’t actually get to see her, though, because I was working. I hope she liked the cappucino.