Profile with Elise Wang

Elise Wang (Illinois & Merton 2007) is currently earning a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. She is the cofounder and editor of Inventory, Princeton’s journal of literary translation. She holds an MSt from the University of Oxford in English and an AB from Harvard University in Women, Gender and Sexuality and Religion.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Elise Wang: Chicago, originally.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Elise Wang: I would like to say it was something literary, but really it’s The Adventures of Asterix. I know I’m late to the party but it’s wonderful. I loved Tintin growing up and it’s in the same vein.

Rhodes Project: What are you working on right now?

Elise Wang: A PhD in Comparative Literature - I’m working on a dissertation on measurement and punishment in medieval literature. Relatedly, I’m teaching a college-level English course at a prison in New Jersey twice a week. I’ve taught everything from remedial English to a course in lyric poetry over three years there. And I’m also a founding editor of Princeton’s literary journal.

Rhodes Project: What would an ideal day look like?

Elise Wang: It’s pretty simple, I guess. I’d get up late – I love sleeping in – go for a long walk, hang out with my family and cook lots of good food, and maybe go to a concert or just read. I love my downtime.

Rhodes Project: What are some of the biggest challenges of teaching at a prison?

Elise Wang: Realizing your limitations as a teacher. The classroom, thanks to their efforts, can seem like it has these endless possibilities. But they’re only in my classroom for four hours every week, and it’s only three months, and then they’re gone. That’s pretty hard to recognize and be okay with.

Rhodes Project: As you teach, do you experience other aspects and problems of the prison system? How does that affect you and the work you’re able to do?

Elise Wang: There are the technicalities: getting my materials and myself cleared to enter, the process of getting into the prison, the surveillance, and the caprice of the system. All that can be wearing. But there’s more than that – we like to say that experience is the only primary source in the prison. Every aspect of that experience is inflected with power and often shame, so the language that comes out of that can be frank. But it also opens up a different kind of honesty than you usually find in a classroom, and their frankness forces me to be more honest with myself about my intentions and beliefs. I think for many college students the idea of admitting they don’t know something or taking a risk in a classroom is terrifying. But my students are so used to these risks that I can count on them to interrupt and say, “Woah, I have no idea what’s going on,” or “Nope, I think you’re wrong, Miss Elise.” They’ve also helped me so much with my own work because they’re unafraid to make unusual connections or bring personal experience into the mix. I bring them my hardest problems!

Rhodes Project: Is there anything that consistently frustrates you?

Elise Wang: It’s consistently frustrating that I have no control over the rest of my students’ lives, and that I can’t protect them. One day a student’s in his usual seat, reading aloud in class and bugging me about his grade, and the next he’s just gone. You get the story later from other students in bits and pieces – transferred, had a fight with a guard, locked down in solitary. But you can’t reach him to tell him how much improvement he made on his last paper, or how much you enjoyed his Prospero when we read The Tempest aloud. I get worked up just thinking about it.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?

Elise Wang: I would say that there are many ways to be happy, and what makes others happy might not work for you, and that’s okay. I think I spent a lot of time trying to figure out happiness from that angle, and I would have liked to let that go sooner. Also, calm down and don’t be in such a rush to leave home. Like most kids, I didn’t realize how close I was to my family until I left.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to devote to any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Elise Wang: Not to sound like a broken record, but I would put it into the education system, especially in cities. That’s what failed my students. School wasn’t a place they could feel safe in, and it wasn’t a place that challenged them. I have such talented, driven and engaging students. If they had had a school that recognized that and had the resources to help them through all the other things they were struggling with, things might not have worked out the way they did.

Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?

Elise Wang: I’m about to go to a Shakespeare performance in Vancouver, part of the Bard on the Beach series. I’m also learning to swim, so I look forward to each trip to the pool, though I’m still a little convinced I’ll drown every time.

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