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Linking the Ivory Tower with the Street

CAS prof as scholar, activist, mentor

Carrie Preston, Associate Professor of English, Boston University College of Arts and Sciences

Carrie Preston, a CAS associate professor of English, encourages students to transform theory into activism. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

With her delicate features, blue eyes, and blonde hair, Carrie Preston could double as a porcelain doll, but she hardly handles life with kid gloves. 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

Carrie Preston, Associate Professor of English, Boston University College of Arts and Sciences

Students studying English and women, gender, and sexuality studies seek out Preston’s classes. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

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 an airy 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

Carrie Preston author Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and the Pedagogies of Transnational Performance book

Preston studied the Noh theatrical dance form in Japan for her second book, Learning to Kneel. Photo by Melody Komyerov

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.”

Watch this video on YouTube

Watch Carrie Preston perform Noh in the video above. Video courtesy of Preston. Photo by Noh Training Project

This semester Preston is teaching Queer Drama and Performance (CAS EN 476) and Performing Gender: Drama, Dance, Film, and Feminism (CAS EN 326). She is also on the fall semester teaching team for An Interdisciplinary Introduction to Gender and Sexuality Studies (CAS WS 101) and regularly teaches Gender and Sexuality in Literature (CAS EN 220).

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

32 Comments on Linking the Ivory Tower with the Street

  • Vika Zafrin on 01.29.2013 at 9:20 am

    I… what?

    “With her delicate features, blue eyes, and blonde hair, Carrie Preston could double as a porcelain doll…”

    Can you imagine beginning an article about a man this way? I’m asking in all seriousness.

    • KC on 01.29.2013 at 10:15 am

      That’s what I thought too. Starting off an article about gender and sexuality activism with a sexist sentence is not the best idea. Be careful of that in the future, Leslie. Otherwise great article!

      • Megan on 01.29.2013 at 11:20 am

        This editor should be fired. What a incredible lapse in judgement to print this story with such a glaringly sexist intro.

    • Sophie on 01.29.2013 at 11:39 am

      I absolutely agree — horrible start to an article on GENDER!!!!

      • KB on 01.29.2013 at 12:23 pm

        Agreed. It’s great to present her work, but starting the article off in such a way epitomizes everything that’s wrong with gendered stereotypes, especially in academia and directed against women. Maybe the author was attempting poetic irony, but it doesn’t read that way.

    • Lea on 01.29.2013 at 12:55 pm

      For REAL.

    • Dan on 01.29.2013 at 1:34 pm

      Could someone (maybe the people who commented earlier) explain why this is a sexist sentence?

      • Vika Zafrin on 01.29.2013 at 3:46 pm

        Dan: it is widespread practice to talk about women’s physical features in inappropriate contexts. In the same contexts, men do not get this treatment. This has historically been used to undermine women’s accomplishments and standing across the board. It is sexist because this happens overwhelmingly to women.

        Carrie Preston is an accomplished scholar and teacher. The rest of the article makes this clear. It is inappropriate to open an article about her scholarly accomplishments by talking about her hair, eyes, and features; and it is wildly inappropriate to compare her to a porcelain doll.

        • Jacob Boucher on 01.29.2013 at 4:29 pm

          And the Smackdown Award for Best Comment goes to…Vika.

        • FWIW on 01.29.2013 at 10:59 pm

          For what it’s worth, profiles of people are often peppered with visual details like this, gender notwithstanding. Yes, perhaps the visual imagery and comparison to a porcelain doll is over the top, but simply because others misuse, or disproportionately reference, physical features does not mean all publications do or that all uses are to be condemned instantly.

          This certainly doesn’t seem to be a recurring trend at BU Today and with a cursory search through past profiles I found only one other instance of describing physical features: http://www.bu.edu/today/2012/professor-and-paratrooper/ In both this and that case, the person in question did have striking physical characteristics that when described help paint a mental image.

          As it is unlikely that any negative intent existed, I’m frustrated that such strong condemnation popped up so quickly. Yes, discuss that it’s not the best choice and could easily be misinterpreted as you have; but, the above “this editor should be fired” is a huge overreaction.

          • Jenny on 01.30.2013 at 11:56 am

            The fact that there was no ill-intent doesn’t make it any better. In fact, it makes it all the more important that we point this out – that kind of thing is wrong, and the fact that whoever was responsible for this didn’t notice that is very problematic. Really, the fact that anyone would think it’s okay in this context is problematic.

          • L on 01.30.2013 at 1:09 pm

            Just want to point out that the original objection did not call for the author’s dismissal, and indeed it is not necessary provided that they recognize the issue, which is that they are likening a woman to a porcelain doll, which has traditionally been a comparison that marginalizes women no matter what comes after it. Similar to how people always say if someone says “I really like this, BUT…” everything before the “but” doesn’t matter? Same with this. People take issue with the description because it seems to nullify everything that comes after, or make it more of a surprise that this “doll-like woman” would be so smart and make such a profound impact on the university.
            There are other ways to visually describe Professor Preston in a respectful way.

        • TY on 01.30.2013 at 7:46 pm

          What’s missing from this discussion is the fact that the author of the piece is female, and we might reasonably infer from her credentials that she has either thought about the real threat of misogyny and has very likely experienced it herself. And we might also–in good faith–remember that in biographical profiles that it’s not uncommon to read physical descriptions of the subjects, male or female. Of course, the likening of Noh and porcelain dolls might be problematic for other reasons, but it seems to have a context.

          The point is that it seems counterproductive to attack a woman for misogyny when there’s real misogyny out there. The outrage comes off as self-serving and self-righteous. We could always ask the subject if she found the description to be degrading–she might have some interesting thoughts on it. But let’s not forget some of the important facts here, or be afraid to acknowledge the complications in the argument before trashing a woman author for perceived sexism.

          • Sigh on 01.31.2013 at 10:47 am

            This, so much this.

          • Heather on 01.31.2013 at 10:59 am

            I’m far from sure that the woman being profiled is the only one who could credibly object to this. And the fact that the profile was *written* by a woman is irrelevant. As a woman, I have several times said things unthinkingly and later realized that they were unfair and perpetuated double standards in how women and men are talked about. As a journalist, I have done the same… and I agree with you that one wants to be careful about shaming writers for things they produce on deadline, when they’re doing their best.

            But this is what an editor is for.

          • redsky on 01.31.2013 at 8:30 pm

            Ty, the fact that the author is female has no bearing on whether what she wrote was sexist. As Heather points out she has caught herself doing the same thing unthinkingly. I don’t know why you think that women can’t perpetuate sexism.
            In biographical profiles published in BU today, physical descriptions are not common at all, as has been discussed, because they are not relevant. An academic works with her brain, not her face, and a discussion of her work does not require a physical description. Such details may be common elsewhere, but that’s outside the scope of this discussion. Moreover it has already been clearly and simply explained exactly why the sentence in question was inappropriate.
            It is not “counterproductive” to point out casual, everyday sexism just because “real misogyny” is a problem. What happens elsewhere doesn’t change the fact that the description of Professor Preston is sexist.
            Nobody has actually “attacked” the author; comments addressed what was written, not who wrote it, which is entirely reasonable.
            There is no “outrage,” all the commenters have been pretty calm (except for the person calling for a firing, which is admittedly a bit OTT) no matter how you might like to dismiss them as “just angry women being unreasonable” or whatever.
            Attacking people for pointing out sexism – calling them self-serving and self-righteous – is uncalled for and does not help you to state your case. Ad hominem attacks only prove that you haven’t got a legitimate point to make. Please stick to the facts rather than trying to insult other commenters.
            As Heather so rightly points out, whether or not Prof. Preston herself is offended does not have any bearing on whether the article is sexist. Sexism by its very nature affects all women, not just the one person at whom it is directed, and we all have a right – indeed, some would say a duty – to point it out when we see it, so that people learn it’s unacceptable. I don’t really understand why you seem to have such a problem with that.
            It’s ironic that after derailing with irrelevant points like the sex of the author and the personal opinion of Prof. Preston you are asking us not to forget “the important facts.” There aren’t any complications in the argument. The description of Prof. Preston’s appearance is inappropriate, irrelevant to the article and sexist. Other commenters have explained why.
            Unless you can explain why it’s not sexist, please don’t try to complicate this very simple issue with irrelevant facts.

          • TY on 02.01.2013 at 3:17 pm

            Redsky: I’m suspicious of anyone who tells me things are irrelevant or uncomplicated–that’s usually a sign that the person telling me to disregard “irrelevant” facts hasn’t thought very much about the subject. Of course women can be misogynistic, and women are unfairly and disproportionately linked to their physical appearance. But outrage can be articulate, too, and there’s a strong streak of “you’re either with us or against us” in the posts here, and no, I don’t go for that. I think it warrants discussion, and it would be interesting to see more information from the participants themselves–I don’t think that’s irrelevant either.

    • S on 01.29.2013 at 5:14 pm

      My thoughts exactly.

    • Christian Engley on 01.31.2013 at 12:19 am

      Good lord, that first sentence epitomizes the antithesis of everything every gender activist has ever worked for. Perhaps the editor and columnist should consider careers at a satirical newspaper.

    • TRK on 05.02.2013 at 10:34 am

      I completely agree!

  • stephanie k '10 on 01.29.2013 at 9:39 am

    My biggest BU regret, not taking a class by Carrie Preston.

  • Sarah on 01.29.2013 at 9:47 am

    She sounds like a wonderful, knowledgeable professor. I’d love to take one of her classes!

  • Tony on 01.29.2013 at 10:48 am

    Thank you Leslie, great article. SARP thanks her and all those she has inspired

  • Lindsay on 01.29.2013 at 3:49 pm

    She was honestly one of the most amazing professors I’ve had a BU. The WGS program in its entirely is just superb.

  • Nebris on 01.30.2013 at 5:34 pm

    Starting off this piece with such a poetically objectifying sentence was a perfect way to give it ‘legs’ as it generated the outrage that would carry it far across the Internet.

  • John on 01.30.2013 at 6:02 pm

    What could be more rebellious than riding a horse or participating in peace protests as a grad student? Talk about shattering societal expectations!

  • redsky on 01.30.2013 at 6:54 pm

    Thanks for your attempt to silence everyone else, “FWIW.” Thanks, I mean, for doing it so poorly that I barely have to put down my book to answer.

    You point out that it is not standard practice at BU Today to include physical descriptions in profiles. Well, obviously. That’s because they are inappropriate. A professor’s appearance is not relevant to her work or the course she teaches. Why would any physical description be necessary for a profile of someone whose work is academic?

    You claim that descriptions of physical appearance appear “gender notwitshtanding” which is patently false. As Vika has already mentioned, the discussion of appearance in inappropriate situations happens overwhelmingly to women.

    You say that “profiles of people are often peppered with physical descriptions like this.” You don’t clarify what profiles, in what publications. Whatever they are, they’re not under discussion here, so I don’t know why you bring them up….

    …..Oh, I see; you claim that these other publications’ disproportionate references to physical features are the reason for the objections raised here. This despite the fact that Vika has already explained very clearly and simply exactly what is wrong with the opening sentence of this article.

    You further imply that commenters want “all uses [of description of appearance] to be condemned instantly”. Nobody has made this ridiculous demand, it’s just a straw man, and quite a transparent one at that. Or did you really read “It is inappropriate to open an article about [Prof. Preston’s] scholarly accomplishments by talking about her hair, eyes, and features; and it is wildly inappropriate to compare her to a porcelain doll,” as “It’s wrong to talk about anyone’s appearance, ever”?

    Finally, you claim that no negative intent existed. But nobody actually accused either the author or her editor of having malicious intent, so why would you feel the need to make this assertion? Is this another straw man, or do you really think that it’s okay just because it wasn’t deliberate?

    Both the author of this article, who is perpetrating sexism, and her editor, who was blind to it, ought to know better; I agree that calls for anyone to be fired are extreme, but that does not mean that you have any right to silence those who point out sexism when it occurs.

    • Sigh on 01.31.2013 at 10:50 am

      You’re special. You’ve injected a whole lot of intent into someone’s comment that totally isn’t there. Clearly this has struck a chord and maybe you should ask yourself why. And trying to stifle conversation? The comment specifically said to discuss, but that rabid condemnation right off the bat was perhaps a bit over the top.

      • redsky on 01.31.2013 at 2:49 pm

        I can’t really answer to your claim that I “injected intent” into the comment, since you have chosen to be so general. Feel free to explain in more detail, or answer any specific point that I made, rather than simply implying that I am somehow being over-emotional.
        And perhaps you are unfamiliar with the concept of “silencing” as it applies to discussion of oppression. Silencing refers to techniques used to shut women up when they complain about sexism or other problems. It encompasses harassment or intimidation that discourages women from speaking out, shaming and humiliation targeted at women who do speak up, and techniques used to dismiss or deny the legitimacy of womens’ speech.
        That would include FWIW’s dismissive “It’s not sexist and you are misinterpreting it” as well as your “Clearly this has struck a chord and maybe you should ask yourself why.”, by the way.
        Honestly, yes. Sexism strikes a chord with me, as it has with all the other people who have commented. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, but if you’re trying to imply that I am being over-emotional then feel free to actually refer to specific instances or language rather than a blanket, vague dismissal.

  • redsky on 01.30.2013 at 7:00 pm

    Incidentally, is it standard practice to interview the husbands of married, female professors? And the wives of married male professors? I’m not trying to pick holes, I genuinely don’t know the answer.

  • holt on 01.30.2013 at 9:05 pm

    This is a very well written article so I commend the person writing it for really being able to tell an interesting story about so many aspects of a person’s life and with such good writing. That said, the first sentence is a little bit awkward and maybe not how you want to describe a person, comes off a bit weird and possibly sexist.

  • redsky on 02.01.2013 at 6:06 pm

    TY – the feelings of the people involved are irrelevant to the question of whether the opening sentence of this article is or is not sexist. Your comment implied, whether intentionally or not, that the fact that the author is female somehow affects this. It doesn’t, and therefore it’s irrelevant to the point.
    If you are sensing a “with us or against us attitude”, it’s probably because women have to live with this kind of casual, everyday sexism their whole lives, and it affects us materially, physically and emotionally. One sentence in one article might not seem important to you, but seen in this context it is, as other commentors have said, a disturbing sign. No offence, but certain things in your comments came off as being quite adversarial and made you seem quite firmly “against” everyone pointing out the sexism here, especially given the ad hominem attacks you introduced, so I think you yourself have contributed to that sense of “with us or against us.”
    Further, when women speak out about the sexism they see around them, they are almost always confronted by someone who doesn’t fully understand the issues, telling them things like “You’re overreacting and hysterical,” or “But s/he didn’t mean it that way,” or “But it was said by a woman, so how can it be sexist?” or, basically, “Hey, I’m just telling it like it is, don’t get angry just because my half-baked theories contradict your lived experience.” Or, as you tried, attacking the person speaking up by accusing them of being “self-serving and self-righteous.” The regularity with which this happens becomes very frustrating after a while, so that women begin to feel discouraged about pointing out sexism because they are afraid that doing so will have negative consequences for them. One tactic frequently used – not just when sexism is being discussed, but in all kinds of discussions – is to try to confuse the issue by concentrating on or giving undue weight to unimportant details, so when you did it both Heather and I felt compelled to point out that the details you mentioned are not relevant and serve only to draw attention away from the main issue.
    Another tired tactic is to complain that “this is unimportant compared to the “real” sexism that’s happening “out there””. This is an insulting statement for several reasons: it dismisses the issue out of hand just because in your supposedly superior judgement, this isn’t a big deal – you don’t really have the right to make this judgement, and it comes off as very arrogant. It is irrational to claim that there is something wrong with pointing out the harm done by something right in front of you just because worse things happen in the world. It’s a little like telling someone with cancer they don’t have the right to feel bad because other people are born with no legs or whatever. Lastly, the wording you chose was quite problematic; by saying that “real misogyny” happens elsewhere (it’s always somewhere else, isn’t it?) you implied that this was not “real.” That’s quite dismissive and arrogant, because you are basically just saying “Shut up you whiners, there’s nothing wrong here.”
    While we’re on the subject of wording, “outrage” isn’t really appropriate here, because the comments from those who saw the sexism here have been quite calm and reasonable.
    Your statement that “I’m suspicious of anyone who tells me things are irrelevant or uncomplicated–that’s usually a sign that the person telling me to disregard “irrelevant” facts hasn’t thought very much about the subject.” is a little hypocritical, to be honest. We’re telling you that the sex of the author and the reaction of Prof. Preston are irrelevant to the question of sexism in this article. If you honestly can’t see that, I have to assume that you haven’t actually thought about this subject – i.e. the opening sentence of this article – at all. It’s really quite straightforward, I don’t understand how it’s not obvious to you.

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