Assistant Professor of English
Ph.D., City University of New York
M.F.A., City University of New York
B.A., Columbia University
Helping Thoreau Go Digital
University of Maine at Farmington Assistant Professor Kristen Case is focusing her literary research on American icon Henry David Thoreau whose prolific writings fill 20 volumes. His work included poetry and essays on topics as varied as natural science, philosophy, history, anthropology and environmentalism. Although scholars have examined Thoreau’s impact on literature, there is still much to be learned from his work, according to Case.
She is collaborating with her students to create a digital archive of the unpublished manuscripts Thoreau was working on just before his death in 1862. The online database will allow Case and her students to create hyperlinks between Thoreau’s published and unpublished work as well as his sketches and diagrams. In doing so, they will be both preserving and illuminating Thoreau’s work for future research.
“It’s a different type of literary archival scholarship that isn’t often available to undergraduates,” Case “It’s a great opportunity for students.”
Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden, the story of how the author left society to live a simpler life in the woods resonates with her students today, Case said.
“Reading Walden with students is always a wonderful experience because they recognize how crowded their lives are with consumption and technology, and how difficult it is to think for themselves when they are being bombarded with messages. I think college is a great time to ask the fundamental questions that Thoreau does in Walden,” Case said.
Case encourages her students to walk in Thoreau’s footsteps. One assignment requires her students to take weekly walks and then combine their observations with the course readings in an ongoing blog. Case said this physical activity can help students crystallize thoughts and make connections between their lives and the words of the authors they read.
Think Critically and Respond Imaginatively
Case believes studying the words of long dead poets can have relevance for modern problems and that a liberal arts education can be the foundation for success.
“I want every student in my class to struggle with a text that they think is too challenging, too hard, that they can’t immediately master, and to learn to experience that feeling as pleasure. If you can experience complexity and unfamiliarity without fear — that translates beyond literature, beyond the classroom and into life,” Case said.
The world, economically and technologically, changes very quickly, and vocational skills can become obsolete in only a few years, Case said. “But if you can learn to think critically and respond imaginatively to new situations and realities, that’s valuable,” she added.
“We are constantly being exposed to new things, frightening things and things we don’t understand, and if you learn not to shut down or not to dismiss the new or the frightening, then that is a real enrichment,” Case explained.
Case demonstrated this openness to new ideas and willingness to learn while teaching her recent course about poetry and American pragmatism. The class dealt with the intersection of literature and philosophy, and some of her students were philosophy majors who offered different ideas and questions.
“You can’t both be learning and already know the answer,” Case said, “I’m not afraid to say I don’t know the answer, but here’s how I am going to find out.”
Case said she got excited seeing her students’ original insights. “Once you let go of the idea that you have to be the smartest person in the room all the time, really magical things can happen,” she said.
UMF attracts an incredible range of students, some of whom could attend college anywhere, said Case, herself a Columbia graduate. And those students can and do inspire their peers, she added. “There is a culture of genuine intellectual curiosity here that is just contagious.”
“I’m amazed at what is available here for our students,” Case said, “Here you don’t have to pay $50,000 a year to get a great education.”
Small class sizes and faculty collaboration are two of the reasons students can get a quality education at UMF, Case said.
Asking the Big Questions
Cases’ first book, American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice, published in 2011, combines her love of literature and those big life questions.
“People who study the humanities like to think about the big questions and they like to think about the relevance of what they read to their own lives,” Case said. Studying literature was a way to keep thinking and reading, she added.
Her book examines a connection between philosophy and American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, William James and Marianne Moore. Reviewers described Case’s work as an original and much-needed study of poetry and poetics. The book grew out of her graduate studies and her desire to better understand the poems she loved to read.
“I could read poetry on my own, but I started feeling like there was a lot about poetry I couldn’t understand without knowing about philosophy, and I didn’t think I could read philosophy on my own. I tried and failed, and that was what pushed me into graduate school, wanting to make these connections between philosophy and poetry,” Case said.
A Lifelong Bibliophile
For Case, an admitted bookworm, studying and teaching literature wasn’t a difficult choice. “I just love reading books. I had a number of really wonderful teachers myself starting in high school that made clear to me how reading and writing about books can be a transformative experience,” she said.
“In college … there were classes where my homework was reading a Jane Austen novel. I’d do that in the bath and it was pure pleasure. And I thought: if there where was a way to do this for a living, then, yes please,” Case said.
As the daughter of college professor and a high school teacher and counselor, Case said she knew from an early age she would follow in her parents’ footsteps.
“I always knew I wanted to teach. It was a matter of finding the right place,” Case said. “Most of my really profound, transcendent moments as a young person were in classrooms. That’s where the magic happened for me.”
UMF is definitely the right place for Case. “I’m from Massachusetts and we had this dream of coming back to New England, specifically northern New England. We wanted to be in a small, rural community,” Case said, “I’m enormously happy and gratified to be at UMF. It’s my perfect job. I feel lucky to be here.”
When she is not in the classroom, Case can be found home in the country with her husband and two young children. There she enjoys gardening, hiking and, of course, reading.