Gatepost Interview Elaine Beilin, English professor

Framingham State

What is your educational and professional background?

I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto and I did honors English. In those days, that meant you did all English classes, so I had a very rich and complete education as an English major. For graduate school, I went to Princeton. I specialized in English Renaissance literature. For about half the time I was enrolled at Princeton, I did research in Oxford at the Bodleian Library and that’s the great thing about being a Renaissance scholar – you have to go to really great research libraries in places like England to do the research. I haunted rare book libraries, archives. After graduate school, my first job I was a visiting professor at Mount Holyoke College, and I was hired to teach Shakespeare and creative writing. I was there for five years. I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. … The purpose of the grant was for people who were just beginning their careers to work on their research projects. I had just started my research on women writers in the Renaissance. I started in 1976 and it took me 10 years to write that book. During that year, I did a lot of research and writing. … After that seminar, I was hired at BU as a visiting professor and I taught there for a couple of years. I had two children at just about the same time in those years. Then I saw an ad for a Shakespeare job at Framingham State. … The moment I got here, I loved it. … I loved everything about this place. That was 1985 when I first came to teach here.

Why did you focus your research on women writers in Renaissance literature?

I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. This was the ’70s. The women’s movement was very strong and things kind of came together. I realized through talking to various people and asking the right questions, that nobody really recently had looked at this field of women writers in the Renaissance. There had been some scholars in the 1930s who had done Ph.D. dissertations and they were great guides for me to figure out what this field was all about. When I started doing the research, there were maybe five or six other people working on this. I got funding to go back to England to just see what was in the archives, and there were hundreds of women writers. I really had to ask the question, “Why did I just go through four years of graduate school and nobody talked about any of the women writers of the 16th and 17th century – except maybe one or two?” The more I got into it, the more I realized this was actually my life’s work – bringing those writers to life, writing about them, trying to make sense of the different genres they wrote in, their different circumstances. That’s where I really wanted to put all of my scholarly energy into. As I say, I really hit that moment. When I finally got the book finished, there was a market for it. People wanted to publish – at last –  books that were uncovering women writers of the past.

What have you learned during your time at Framingham State?

Everything! When I came here, I think I was a pretty good teacher. I still had a lot to learn. I think I always had the love of the literature, the enthusiasm. I loved my field. I loved teaching Shakespeare. I think I really learned – which is what I tell everybody else and they tire of me saying it – I really, really learned to teach the students in front of me. I learned that every class is different. That you have to look at that class, learn who those students are, see them as whole people and be flexible and adjust. You may have an idea of what you want to teach, but you always have to rethink how you are going to teach it for each individual group. … Students have taught me a lot about how to be a good teacher.

What are you looking forward to the most about retirement?

One of the big reasons I’m retiring is because I want to go back to my writing life. At my desk at home, I have quite a few piles of unfinished projects that are all lined up. I think that’s what I’ve neglected the most in the last few years. I’ve kept up my scholarly life. I’ve kept writing. … But I would really like to get back to being a writer of all kinds of things and see where my writing takes me

What are you going to miss about Framingham State?

I really think I will miss the students. It makes me kind of teary, actually, thinking about not going into a classroom and meeting students. There’s sort of a cliché that if you’re a teacher, it’s actually the students who keep you young. I love it when my students tell me things about their culture that I had no idea about. It is educational. I will deeply miss my colleagues, but you know, I have a lot of friends here and I’ll be able to keep up with my friends, but I won’t have that same connection with the students. I think that will be the hardest thing when September rolls around and I’m not getting ready to go into the classroom. I think it’s that give-and-take, the energy, the laughter, the stress. I think the student/teacher bond is what I’ll miss so much.

What is one book you think all students should read?

What a difficult question! My favorite Shakespeare play is “The Winter’s Tale.” With any play, my best advice to students is go see it, even if you’re just watching a video. Because reading it is only half the meaning of it. … “The Winter’s Tale” is really the play of the second chance. It’s one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote. One of the main characters is a king and he does a whole lot of really, really terrible things. He creates havoc and disaster and destruction and death all around him. But this play is not a tragedy. … The great thing about this play and why it’s always been such an inspiration to me is because even someone who has done such terrible things – spoiler alert – he gets a second chance! It’s a very powerful play because it’s about return. Even in the face of death, life asserts itself.
What advice would you give to FSU students?

Be present in classes. I’m an English teacher, so of course I’m going to say, “Do the reading!” but I think it’s being present. It’s really submerging in your education. Be curious. Follow the things you love. You’re not going to get to do everything you love. You’re going to have to do things – difficult things – you probably don’t want to do. But try to find something positive in everything you do. See this day-by-day as an extraordinary opportunity to grow and learn about things that are new and exciting. Be present in every moment of your education.