Profile with Katie Larson

Katie Larson (Minnesota & Lincoln 2000) is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Toronto, an M.St. in Women’s Studies from the University of Oxford, an M.Phil. in English Literature from the University of Oxford,  a B.A. in English Literature from St. Olaf College, and a B.Mus. in Voice Performance from St. Olaf College.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in Toronto?

Katie Larson: Attending concerts and recitals and operas—I take advantage of the amazing music scene here regularly. Going for long walks through favorite residential neighborhoods and along the lake. The Toronto Island is a particularly beautiful spot. And I love visiting the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

Katie Larson: My very first job was at an ice cream shop. As a student, I also worked at two bookstores and was a part of the residence life staff at St. Olaf, Lincoln, and the University of Toronto. In terms of my academic career, I was very fortunate that my first job was also a dream job. After I finished my Ph.D., I was appointed to an Assistant Professorship at the University of Toronto, and that’s where I still am.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?

Katie Larson: I’m currently working my way through Hilary Mantel’s books. I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and I’m now reading her novel about the French Revolution, which actually predates the other two, called A Place of Greater Safety.

Rhodes Project: When you were a child, what did you aspire to be later in life?

Katie Larson: My interests in English and music go back a long time. I recently found some writing that I did when I was in elementary school that made it clear that, even then, I was considering being an English professor. And by the time I was a teenager I had dreams of singing professionally. I wasn’t sure exactly how my career would evolve—and all the way through university, I continued my training in both English and voice—but I knew pretty early that it was likely going to be a path related to literature or to music or some combination of the two.

Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?

Katie Larson: There are a lot of aspects of my job that I love. One of the best aspects is getting to pursue my research at a university with tremendous resources in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary studies as a part of a wonderful intellectual community of colleagues. I also love mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. At the Scarborough campus of U of T, where I do my undergraduate teaching, I have the opportunity to get to know my students well as they move through the English program and to work closely with them as they are developing their critical thinking and writing abilities. Many of them are the first in their families to attend university, and it’s exciting to be able to introduce them to early modern literature. When combined with the more specialized work that my graduate students are pursuing on the downtown campus, it’s really an ideal teaching and research environment for me.

Rhodes Project: What would you say is the most challenging part?

Katie Larson: Logistically, it’s always a challenge trying to juggle the different pieces of my job: research deadlines, teaching-related responsibilities, administrative work. A particularly frustrating challenge is handling plagiarism cases. But, for me and for many of my colleagues, one of the biggest challenges at the moment is connected to the growing pressures on the humanities in higher education and the need to help students–and funding bodies–understand the value of an undergraduate education in English literature. We tend to get a lot of questions and concerns from students who are considering English, and from parents as well: “What am I (or my child) going to do with this degree?” I understand that students need to feel well prepared for their lives after university, but it’s important, I think, to shift the focus away from assessing the value of university education purely in economic terms. Instead, I would like to see more emphasis on a deeper, though perhaps less tangible, value that is connected to intellectual development and one’s critical capacity for good citizenship within society.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman in your field?

Katie Larson: I would advise a young woman entering the field to seek out trusted female mentors and to make sure that she is able to set good boundaries–both personal and professional–for herself, especially during the pre-tenure years. She will be faced with many requests for her time, and it’s crucial that she establish a trajectory early on that will allow her to advance successfully within the profession, particularly in terms of carving out sufficient time for research. It’s also important that she take care of herself. When one is an academic, the job never really ends, and she will need to prioritize things like exercise, sleep, and time with family and friends. Depending on her interests and skills, as her career progresses I would also encourage her to consider opportunities for leadership. English literature isn’t facing the same challenges as a field like engineering, for example, in terms of the representation of women. That said, the further one advances within academia, the fewer women one tends to see. This is especially true at the ranks of full professor, endowed research chairs, and the upper levels of administration. Universities need more strong female voices among these constituencies.

Rhodes Project: If you could have lunch with one female historical figure, who would it be and why?

Katie Larson:  I would love to have lunch with Margaret Cavendish, one of the seventeenth-century writers I work on. She was an incredibly prolific writer who published everything she wrote and who used her writings to critique gender hierarchies within English society. She was not at all afraid to take pretty significant risks at a time when to be a woman writer at all was seen as potentially compromising to one’s reputation. Although the notion of a feminist movement did not yet exist and Cavendish would never have identified herself as a feminist, the arguments she was making for different kinds of opportunities for women were quite remarkable. I see her as an important voice in women’s history. She also seems to have been a very eccentric figure, so I think she would be a fascinating person to have lunch with.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Katie Larson: I am a recreational runner, and I also really enjoy reading for pleasure. When one reads for a living, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between reading for pleasure and reading for work, but I do love curling up with a good book. I sing in a choir, and I also enjoy knitting, doing crossword puzzles, and traveling. 

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in your life? 

Katie Larson: Moments of solitude bring me joy–reading or going for a run on a perfect spring day–but I find a lot of joy in community as well. A good example of this is the joy that I get when I’m singing with my choir, being swept up in a moment of artistry and communal music making. I love sharing time with my partner–going to concerts, heading off on a hiking or skiing adventure, or simply being quiet together. I feel very fortunate as well to be engaged in a vocation that taps into a number of elements that are integral to who I am. Getting to spend my days in a vibrant intellectual environment, exploring questions with students and colleagues, getting to think, to read, and to write on a variety of topics–these things bring me a lot of joy.

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