Webster finds paradise in teaching: Erin Webster interweaves English, science to create interdisciplinary classes for students

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10 students meet in Tucker 220 for the College of William and Mary's first Spanish class for heritage speakers. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Although she teaches classes on literature from across the pond, English professor Erin Webster hails from just north of the United States border. A native of southern Ontario, Webster studied English in Canada, and has taught literature at the College of William and Mary for two years, specializing in early modern literature, early European colonialism and the writings of John Milton.

The way my mind works, I attach myself to stories,” Webster said. “That’s how I learn, but it’s also how I connect, both with other people and the world around me.”

“The way my mind works, I attach myself to stories,” Webster said. “That’s how I learn, but it’s also how I connect, both with other people and the world around me.”

Webster did her graduate work at the University of Toronto, and received her Ph.D. in 17th century English literature. She said she was also interested in the relationship between science and literature, and ended up pursuing works by Milton as a graduate student.

After finishing her Ph.D., Webster did research work at the University of London. From there, she saw there was a job advertised in 17th century literature at the College, for which she applied and eventually received.

Webster said she loved coming to teach at the College, partly because it is a small liberal arts college, reminiscent of her undergraduate education. Webster said she is enthusiastic about how the College lets her interact with her students in small classroom settings, as well as one-on-one, an experience that is different from the larger institutions she previously studied and taught at. She said she can see how her students react to the literature they read, which wasn’t possible in a larger lecture setting. Webster also has a lot of freedom in choosing what literature she chooses to teach her students.

Upon moving to the United States, Webster said she realized the differences between life here and in Canada. Although a lot of the media she consumed while in Canada was based out of the United States, and she and her friends had traveled to the states, she said she is learning more about U.S. history, particularly Virginian history.

Additionally, Canada still has a queen and access to British media, so, according to Webster, culturally, there are ways in which the education system has more of a British influence. When she taught British literature in Canada, she said her students had a different relationship to the education system than they did in the United States.

When Webster started university as an undergraduate, she thought she didn’t want to be a teacher.

“I thought I was going to be a writer, but in a sense I’m still a writer,” Webster said.

She decided to teach because she enjoyed the conversations she had with colleagues and how that carried into conversations with students.

Now, Webster says that she benefits from studying and teaching English in that, when reading someone else’s story, she tries to understand something that the author wants to express. Webster said that she enjoys having conversations with someone else through reading their work or by talking about literature with them.

Currently, Webster is teaching a British literature survey class. She said she is surprised by how many science majors are in the class, which she is excited about. Webster said she went out of her comfort zone as well to learn a different discipline when she was exploring science in literature.

Webster tries to have her students think about how these disciplines can communicate with each other in meaningful ways.

“I find that there are a lot of points of connection between my work as a literary critic and looking into scientific thought,” Webster said.

Webster has also been teaching Interpreting Literature, and she’s taught it twice with the theme of “new worlds.” She said she’s been having a lot of fun, because the course is not organized around a time period or novel, so she can put whatever literary works she pleases into the class. Lately, Webster has been taking works by Shakespeare and combining that with studies of contemporary scientific literature.

It gives me a new way of thinking about the relationship between different time periods and different writers and different pieces of literature that we might not necessarily, or naturally, think of as having much to say to each other,” Webster said. “And yet when you read them side by side you discover that they actually do have a lot to say to each other.”

“It gives me a new way of thinking about the relationship between different time periods and different writers and different pieces of literature that we might not necessarily, or naturally, think of as having much to say to each other,” Webster said. “And yet when you read them side by side you discover that they actually do have a lot to say to each other.”

Webster said that at the College, she has a lot of freedom to teach what she wants and has many opportunities to do so. In the future, she said she hopes to teach a class called Imaginative Voyages to the Moon, which starts with classical Greek literature and moves through the 1600s and 1700s up to more recent science fiction novels.

Outside of the classroom, Webster said she enjoys running. It was originally a hobby Webster started in graduate school because such a large amount of her work was done sitting still indoors, and involved exercising her brain more than her body.

Running was the opposite of that, and allowed her to venture outdoors. Webster said she enjoys running in Williamsburg because she hails from around Toronto, which is snowbound most of the year. In Virginia, she feels that there are very few days the local weather prevents her from going for a run. Aside from running, she also finds solace outdoors in hiking, fishing and camping.

She said she also finds a lot of natural beauty on the campus in her running. Even though she loves the scenery of the campus, Webster’s favorite part of working at the College is still the interactions she has with students inside the classroom.

“There’s something very special about this university, and I think it is the students themselves,” Webster said. “Collectively this is such a great place to teach at because of the quality of the students and how open they are and hardworking and earnest and eager. I’ve had fantastic experiences in the classroom here.”

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