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An Interview with Professor Matthew Rowlinson

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Professor Rowlinson to get to know him as an educator and as an individual beyond the classroom.

Professor Matthew Rowlinson grew up in a mathematical household as the child of two scientists. “My mom was a mathematician and professor. My dad was in the industry. But they were also very literary people.”

Academia was initially not in the books for him. “I didn’t think of myself as a future professor. And really, I didn’t really know what being a professor entailed.” While pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, Professor Rowlinson took a plethora of courses from different fields, and decided English was best suited for him.

“I took a bunch of courses; I took one English course, economics, and history. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, andI really loved my English course. I did really badly in Economics. I began to specialize in what I do now, which is Victorian literature.”

He then went on to do an MA in English at UofT, specializing in 19th century literature. Following his Masters, he went on to do a PhD on the poet Alfred Tennyson at Cornell University in the US.

Professor Rowlinson describes himself as a Victorianist. “I do Victorian and Romantic poetry, but I’ve been a Victorian ever since I became an academic.”

This influence started with his parents. Both being British, the professor read classics from a very young age. “I read Great Expectations in high school. I read Jane Eyre, Jane Austen — I remember reading Pride and Prejudice when I was twelve. I couldn’t put it down.”

When asked what led him to pursue academia after his undergraduate degree, the professor revealed that he did stock theater for a summer once he completed his bachelor’s. “I decided that wasn’t for me. I had stage fright. But then I got a grant from the agency for Canadian graduate students. So I said, ‘great, you’re going to pay me to read books for years?’ That sounds pretty good to me!”

By the time Professor Rowlinson finished his PhD, he felt prepared for a career as a teacher and researcher in a university setting. “I was lucky enough to get a job in the US, but one of the things about being an academic is that by the time you finish your PhD and studies, you’re quite a specialized person. I had done a PhD in Victorian poetry, so I was looking for a faculty position in Victorian poetry, and there just aren’t a lot of those. At the time, maybe in North America, there were half a dozen; it’s a lot bigger now, fortunately.”

He began his career as a professor at Dartmouth College, where he taught for 17 years. When asked what made him choose Western, he responded, “Dartmouth is a great institution — great students — but it’s a liberal arts college, which is something we don’t have in Canada. The thing that defines liberal arts colleges are the narrow graduate students, so I was teaching all undergraduate courses. After a few years, I began to really want to teach graduate students who were working on research under my supervision. I also had a hankering to come back to Canada and, in 2002, Western had a position open in Victorian poetry.”

What specifically drew Professor Rowlinson to Western was its strong tradition in the field of 19th-century British Literature. He explained that, “Western, as an institution, is really strong in the field where I teach and research.”

Professor Rowlinson is passionate that everyone should be reading literature, whether it be for academia or leisure. When asked why he thinks an English degree is important, he responded with what he believes most profoundly: “A society that doesn’t teach its young people its poetry and its stories isn’t going to survive. We have a responsibility to pass these legacies on.”

Other than this, he also believes that an English degree equips students with fundamental skills to prepare them for the workplace. “You’re learning how to write, research; you become an informed citizen who can critically engage with the world around them, and other really important skills.”

Moreover, he believes that, through stories, we pass on heritages. “We teach African literature, English literature, Indigenous literature... People’s lives, their imaginations, their understanding of themselves is enriched by reading.”

When asked what advice he has for students, he replied to “do what you love. You have a privilege here as an undergraduate. You have four years in which you can do what you want; you can read what you want, you can perform in plays, you can make music, you can study painting — so many options are available for you. Take advantage of these years because you may not have another opportunity like this. Make sure these four years are enriching for you. It’s a huge waste of resources to think of university as purely a place where you are preparing for a particular career.”

He goes on to say, “you have access to the whole of the world’s cultural production. You have access to people from many different backgrounds with many different kinds of training. Take advantage of the library, advantage of the opportunity to study theater, novels, philosophy, et cetera.”

His advice for English students is to, “engage with the reading. Think of yourself as being in a conversation with the characters and the author. This is somebody’s work you’re reading, whose words you’re reading, who is coming to you from a very different place. Try to understand the cultural context and where they’re coming from.” He encourages students to “read curiously. Go to the library and JSTOR, and read criticisms about these texts. You’ll learn things not just about the text, but about different ways of reading and interpreting.”

In the current academic year, the only course Professor Rowlinson is teaching is the full-year course, ‘19th-Century Novel’. He enjoys teaching courses in this specific field since it is his area of expertise. His favourite course that he’s ever taught at Western is the aforementioned course he is currently lecturing for, and a seminar on John Keats, which was held a few years ago. His other favourite course that he’s taught includes a graduate seminar held last winter, titled ‘Biopolitics and the Unconscious’.

When asked what literature every student should read, Professor Rowlinson made his love for the romantic poet John Keats abundantly clear. “He’s one of the greatest poets in English, and one of the greatest from the romantic period. His final volume, one of the greatest collections ever published in English, contains the six great odes. These are all poems you should go read. It’s sexy, it’s violent, it has a story.”

Currently, Professor Rowlinson is working on final revisions for a book on Charles Darwin, the concept of species, how this concept changes, and the way it affects literature. He’s also starting some new work focused purely on Victorian poetry; this work will be an essay on the relation between Victorian poetry and medieval courtly love, particularly on the revival of courtly love traditions in Victorian poetry.

Among the courses that the professor is planning to teach next year is the first-year English 1020 course, a course on George Elliot and Charles Darwin, a fall term undergraduate course on literature and natural sciences, and most likely a graduate course about the body in Victorian poetry.

In his free time, Professor Rowlinson likes to race sailboats with his brother and friends.

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