Profile with Tanya Pollard

Tanya Pollard (Maine & Magdalen 1990) is currently a Professor in the Department of English at City University of New York. She has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University, an M.A. in Classics and English from Oxford University, and a B.A. in English from Yale University.

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

Tanya Pollard: I really enjoy biking in Brooklyn; beyond being a good way to get around, it’s a beautiful way to see the city. I bike to work at Brooklyn College, and run errands on bike. Both of my daughters now ride, as does my husband, so we can all go on bicycle outings together. During the summer we can bike to the pier and take the ferry to Governors Island; it has no cars, so it’s especially fun for cycling.  Other favorite destinations are Prospect Park, the Botanic Gardens, and the Brooklyn Zoo, all of which are especially appealing in the spring when the trees are flowering.  I spend too much time immersed in books and computers, so the aliveness of air, motion, and speed is especially satisfying.

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

Tanya Pollard: I just read a book called the Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma. My husband picked it up after reading a review in Paper, and I loved it; it’s a slippery picaresque story about love and fiction by a witty and unreliable narrator. I also try to share in what my daughters are reading, which keeps me on my toes because they read constantly. A recent favorite from their reading is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite childhood memory?

Tanya Pollard: Watching my daughters’ delight in swimming has brought back the pleasures of playing in pools and beaches in warm weather. There’s something very luxurious about that floating feeling.

Rhodes Project: Can you describe a memorable teaching moment that you’ve had?

Tanya Pollard: This past semester, I was teaching a class on early modern comedy and its classical models. One of the students asked a fascinating question about why so much of the humor in comedies by Terence, Plautus, and Shakespeare comes from violent beatings of slaves. Another student raised her hand and said, “Where I grew up in Ghana, we were beaten in school, and we would all laugh, out of a combination of nerves and the theatricality of the teacher’s set-up.” It was a moment of genuine shock and revelation: no one in the class would have imagined that one of their peers had such intimate proximity to this apparently archaic cruelty, and her further thoughts on her classmates’ responses raised some very useful approaches to understanding the plays we were reading.  Brooklyn College, like all of the City University of New York, has an extraordinarily diverse population, and this was an especially striking example of how we learn from each other’s wide-ranging backgrounds and experiences.

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

Tanya Pollard: Seeing students fall in love with their reading never stops being thrilling; it’s similarly satisfying to see the epiphany when a new insight emerges and an essay clicks into place. I love the fact that because there are new students every year, I am always getting to re-experience texts as new and strange through their eyes, no matter how many times I may have read or taught them before. Outside of the classroom, I’m also especially enjoying talking with directors and actors about Shakespeare productions, which is a new direction for me. Last year I was interviewed by Ethan Hawke for a documentary about Macbeth, and the experience was fascinating, not only because he was an extremely charming conversationalist, but also because practical perspectives on casting and staging illuminate new aspects of the plays. More recently I’ve started advising directors and actors on productions, which is changing the way I look at the plays.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Tanya Pollard: Helping students who struggle with writing and reading is an ongoing challenge.  CUNY students come from all sorts of backgrounds, and many of them don’t speak English as a first language. Trying to engage them in analyzing the reading while they’re struggling with the mechanics can be slow work: each student has different strengths and weaknesses, and there’s no single formula that works for everyone. Aside from that, one of my biggest challenges is finding ways to free myself from the ongoing din of job-related thoughts in order to focus on my family and relaxation when the day is done.

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do outside of work?

Tanya Pollard: I’m currently taking classes in aerial yoga, and I’m head over heels in love with it.  It’s physically demanding, and thoroughly exhilarating to find yourself flying suspended in the air. It requires complete concentration, which takes me outside of my very full everyday life.

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

Tanya Pollard: I would love to talk with Virginia Woolf about her early and fragile feminism. What was it like to finally find that room of one’s own, and why couldn’t she sustain it?  She seems never to have been at a loss for words, and although I’m sure she would be intimidating, I can’t imagine her not being fascinating.

Rhodes Project: Who inspires you?

Tanya Pollard: I am inspired by writers who can take complex material and make it accessible, vivid, witty and stylish. This is what I love about Shakespeare and the other early modern playwrights that I teach: they are intellectually sophisticated, but they also spoke to a wide public audience. I like moments when literature meets the streets.  I thought Baz Luhrmann did this very well with his film Romeo + Juliet; it’s smart and stylish, and its popular appeal showed that film can combine success with intelligence. A journalist who comes to mind is Elif Batuman, whose writing appears frequently in The New Yorker; she similarly makes intellectually complex topics clear, engaging, often very moving, and almost always funny.

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

Tanya Pollard: I love playing with my daughters, who are six and eight. They invent elaborate stories and scenarios, and burst easily into fits of giggles. They both have very long hair, and I spend a lot of time in the mornings brushing and braiding it while cuddling with them; this physical closeness is a real pleasure.

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