Profile with Jenni Quilter
Jenni Quilter (New Zealand & St. John’s 2001) is a Senior Language Lecturer at New York University’s Expository Writing Program. She completed a D. Phil and M. Phil in English Literature at the University of Oxford and a BA in English from Auckland University.
Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?
Jennifer Quilter: An Elemental Thing by Eliot Weinberger. We usually tend to think of essays as rather dry, almost as highly structured proofs of our thinking process, and Weinberger is interesting because he doesn’t do away with these qualities—the book is a collection of very short essays that are seemingly plain descriptions of various historical and biological oddities in the universe like the Kaluli in New Guinea, or people named Chang—and yet, at the same time, his sense of selectivity and compression in his descriptions make the essays feel like poetry. It’s a very distinct achievement to only write about verifiable things, and at the same time to make these leaps of intuition and connection that feel so idiosyncratic. He’s one of those writers that you read and by the end of the essay, you’re moved and you’re not sure why. I like not being able to put my finger on the exact emotional pulse.
Rhodes Project: What is currently playing on your iPod?
Jennifer Quilter: I cycle a lot in New York and there’s a route that I like to ride, from Brooklyn up the West Side Highway to the George Washington Bridge and back. It’s along a cycle path by the water and I listen to a lot of cheesy music when I’m on it. Right now there’s a lot of Prince on the iPod and – well, mostly a lot of Prince.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite childhood memory?
Jennifer Quilter: The other day, I found myself recalling one with students. When I was about eight or nine, I went to my father’s work one afternoon—he was a lecturer at Auckland University’s Medical School—and they had just removed the brain of an eighty-year-old woman. She had donated her body to science, and so they were taking parts of her body and divvying it up. The brain was sitting on a stainless steel tray in the lab. I think they were going to cut it up for slides. You could see it turning from pink to grey. I know it doesn’t sound like a particularly happy memory, but it was an amazing moment for me as a kid, to be confronted with what was essentially the biological equivalent of a soul—all of her memories, her personality, her sensibility. I can remember looking at it in awe, and knowing how lucky I was to see it.
Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?
Jennifer Quilter: Seeing students write amazingly intricate and beautiful and interesting ideas that they didn’t even know they were thinking—essentially, watching them surprise themselves.
Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?
Jennifer Quilter: The marking. It’s terrible.
Rhodes Project: Can you describe a memorable teaching moment?
Jennifer Quilter: Not really a teaching moment. But I think one of the things that I’m going to remember in later decades is the moment that often comes two or three weeks into the beginning of a semester, when the students silently decide—using some kind of strange collective osmosis—that they are going to let me work with them in an honest, close way. You can always tell when that happens because you can get the students to laugh; and once you’ve got that, you’ve got a kind of instinctive understanding. They’ll understand your logic more intuitively, and often despite their own tiredness or inertia. You know you’re on good terms. Many of the good memories I have often have to do with the class suddenly erupting into laughter.
Rhodes Project: If you weren’t in your current field of work, what do you think you would be doing?
Jennifer Quilter: Running a business.
Rhodes Project: What motivates you in life?
Jennifer Quilter: The pleasure of thinking through an idea, love, and the exhilaration of moving through space.
Rhodes Project: What do you like to do to relax?
Jennifer Quilter: Cycling, walking, yoga, dancing. Red wine. Crap T.V.
Rhodes Project: If you could have lunch with one historical figure, who would it be with and why?
Jennifer Quilter: Jane Austen. She’s one of those writers that I find myself returning to, almost without noticing I am. She has such a good sense of humour, along with a great deal of grace. I can imagine it’d be pretty great to be sitting at a table, eating and drinking, and laughing with her.
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