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Carrie Preston likes to challenge her students, inside and outside the classroom. Halfway through an early morning lecture on The Invention of Heterosexuality and Homosexuality in an Introduction to Women’s Studies class, Preston tells students about the practice of pederasty in ancient Athens, in which Greek men developed relationships with adolescent boys they chose as sexual partners and mentored. The practice was completely accepted at the time, she notes, because sex was about power and virility. That’s hard to imagine in today’s world, where Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual contact with young boys led to his imprisonment and a raft of lawsuits against the school.
Preston asks a series of provocative questions: “Is what constitutes a crime culturally determined? And might that change yet again?” The idea floats through the half-filled auditorium as students consider it carefully. Toward the end of class, there is a rush of opinions and questions. The professor has clearly gained her audience’s attention.
Preston likes to push boundaries, something that’s made the 34-year-old College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of English an enormously popular teacher. “It’s not uncommon to hear students say, ‘I follow Carrie Preston around and I take every class she offers,’” says Becca Wilkinson (COM’12), who’s taken three of Preston’s courses. “She taught me to view teaching as activism and how to find activism in daily life.…She connects theory and academia to real life and links the ivory tower with the street.”
“Her pedagogy is so easy to understand,” says Sarah Merriman (CAS’12), a member of the Center for Gender, Sexuality, & Activism, who turned to Preston for advice after taking her Women, Gender, & Sexuality (WGS) Studies course. “She never makes you feel ashamed for asking questions or makes you feel that any question is stupid.”
Preston smiles, brushing off the praise students heap on her as she sits in her book-lined Bay State Road office. Teaching is her primary occupation, she says, not something she does as a side note to scholarly work. “I don’t just want to make students better writers or readers,” she says. “I want to change their lives and have them leave class feeling like they’re looking at the world in an entirely different way. I had professors who did that for me, and that’s what I want to be.”
Since arriving at BU six years ago, Preston has won a Peter Paul Career Development Professorship, published her first book, Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, Solo Performance, and signed a contract for a second, Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and the Pedagogies of Transnational Performance, all while teaching a full course load, including team-taught WGS introductory classes. In addition, she’s shouldered committee responsibilities, helped design a new WGS course and graduate certificate program, earned the Excellence in Student Advising Award, written (and won awards for) poetry, and even organized the occasional social outing for her department.
Harnessing energy, finding a niche
How does she juggle so many responsibilities? Possibly Preston’s productivity comes from years spent harnessing her energy. She recalls that when she was five, a worried babysitter suggested to her mother that she take dance lessons to control her “hyperactive” nature, because otherwise she might “get in trouble in school.” Her mother took the advice, at one point driving 60 miles twice a week from the family’s rural northeast Michigan farm to the nearest dance studio so her daughter could take tap, jazz, and ballet lessons.
Dance has remained a central part of Preston’s life ever since. She took modern dance at Michigan State University, where she enrolled in women’s studies classes and majored in English and dance. She continued to dance during her doctoral studies at Rutgers University as an antidote to the long, sedentary hours spent in the library. “I found in my first year of graduate school that I couldn’t stand myself without dancing,” she says with a laugh. “I couldn’t sit there in front of a book and in front of my computer all of the time.”
Dance, it turned out, also led Preston to her academic niche. Few scholars, she realized, were looking at how dance had influenced modernism and even fewer at the parallels between early 20th-century female modern dancers who were as innovative on the stage as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and other great modernist writers were on the page. Among these dance pioneers who caught Preston’s eye was Isadora Duncan. She enrolled in classes at Duncan’s New York dance company, studying the famed choreographer’s dances and technique under the guidance of artistic director Lori Belilove. The experience provided the material for Preston’s first book, which merged her three passions—dance, women’s studies, and English—and earned her the Society of Dance History Scholars de la Torre Bueno Prize, given annually to a book advancing the understanding of dance studies.
John Matthews, a CAS professor of English, says Modernism’s Mythic Pose is a “breakthrough work of scholarship,” citing the interdisciplinary nature of Preston’s studies, her ability to embody her work as a performer, and her perspective that the body and mind are interdependent—an idea counter to modernist theory.
“Carrie is able to put all her different interests together in a way that just makes sense to other people and that really contributes to the field rather than seeming eccentric,” says Bonnie Costello, a CAS professor of English, who served on the committee that hired Preston. “That’s rare.”
Stirring cultural waters
For Preston’s second book, Learning to Kneel, she traveled to Japan to learn Noh, a highly nuanced and ritualized theatrical dance form once performed only by men that often requires long stretches of kneeling. Her presence as an American woman learning this ancient art stirred cultural waters, and Preston says her teacher was taking a risk. While in Japan, she was invited to perform modern choreography on a Noh stage. Although excited by the opportunity, she saw one major obstacle: Noh performers wear slippery socks on stage, but she needed to be barefoot. Her teacher reluctantly agreed, but some audience members, she says, were offended by such “corruption.”
“I was messing with the traditions and the space of another culture,” Preston says in her soft voice. “At the same time, I felt I was confronting misogynistic comments. Cross-cultural learning and teaching is not easy. It can be painful.”
She emphasizes experiential learning in her own classroom and has taken students to FitRec’s dance studio around midterms to teach them the Duncan technique. She’s also encouraged students to organize Gender Fest, a weeklong series of events featuring invited speakers, panels, and films focused on gender identity. And she has students design activist projects that draw from feminist and gender theory. It was this last assignment that led a handful of women to draft a proposal last spring for what is now the Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center. “That was precisely the kind of project I wanted my class to do,” she says.
Preston gives full credit for the proposal’s success to her students, but those involved in the project say she was actively involved in helping them with the undertaking. She edited the 70-page proposal sent to President Robert A. Brown’s office, advised the students about how to speak with faculty and the administration, and brainstormed with them about how to pitch the idea to the media. “She takes very little credit,” Wilkinson says. “At times we thought, ‘Are we going to get kicked out of school?’ She reassured us that these were our rights.”
Preston fretted about the impact the possible failure of the proposal might have on her activist students. She started composing a letter to them in her mind, pointing out that change takes time, how much she admired their hard work, and that she would continue to push for the center even after the seniors graduated. Then came the University-wide email from Brown on the last day of April announcing the center’s creation. “I was absolutely shocked,” she says. “These students came here and in a very short time changed the University, and that’s pretty remarkable.”
That same day, Preston learned that she had received tenure. While obviously pleased by her promotion, she says, the news about the center gave her even greater joy.
Maybe that’s because she is a “bit of a rebel inside,” says her husband, Derek Oliver, who grew up with her. He says that despite her professorial side, she’s still most comfortable in blue jeans, riding a horse. His first glimpse of her activist side came just months after they started dating in summer 2001. He was a young Marine pilot learning to fly F-18s, and she was a graduate student traveling to New Jersey and New York for peace protests.
Oliver says that although he’s biased, “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’s truly as compassionate as she is.” Or possibly anyone with such relentless energy. “She’s kind of a thoroughbred—she doesn’t mind trotting around, but she really wants to race.”