Featured Faculty Member
Three Cheers for Professor Anna Henchman! Winner of an ACLS Fellowship and BU Advising Award
Professor Anna Henchman won two prestigious honors this academic year—an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Fellowship, and Boston University’s 2019 Faculty Academic Advisor Award.
Henchman’s ACLS Fellowship will support research for her current book project, Tiny Creatures and the Boundaries of Being in the Nineteenth-Century British Imagination. The book studies writers who explore the evolution of sentience and consciousness by imagining the world as it appears to beings radically different from humans, such as snails or worms. Focusing on scientists, philosophers, and literary authors, including Charles Darwin, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Margaret Gatty, and Charles Dickens, Henchman studies how literary techniques challenge models of mind that are hierarchal and human centered.
“I’ve always been interested in how we as human beings are able to get outside the constraints of our perception,” Henchman says, “which includes being very visually-oriented, being a certain size, and forward facing.” During her research, Henchman found that “one of the problems that intrigued me was how Darwinian theories of evolution reshaped the way that nineteenth-century thinkers conceived of perception and mental life. It was relatively easy to show anatomical continuity across a bird, a dog and a person. But there was a lot of resistance to thinking about sentience, perception, emotion and thinking as continuous across beings. And that resistance still exists today.”
Henchman’s idea for Tiny Creatures was inspired by Sea-Side Studies, a popular work of naturalism by George Eliot’s partner, George Henry Lewes, who became fascinated by a snail displayed in the Britain Museum that after being shipped all the way from Egypt, survived the trip and began to explore its surroundings. Henchman realized that scientists, thinkers, and authors of the period often turned to tiny creatures to think about big questions, and she has followed her curiosity to look at how stones, shells, skin, and stomachs operate in nineteenth-century British literature and culture.
Henchman has also brought her research interests into the classroom. “I have explored the ideas in Tiny Creatures with students in courses on “The Boundaries of Life,” “Animals and Literature” and on conceptions of Time,” she says. “Each set of students has shaped my thinking in inspiring ways.
The feeling is mutual, as highlighted by Henchman’s recent Faculty Academic Advising Award, a University-wide prize that honors undergraduate advising. Henchman’s advisees and students call her “unimaginably supportive” and “always ready to support and mentor those around her.” They appreciate how she “shows that imagination, creativity, and wonder are crucial components of intellectual work,” and how she “creates opportunities for collaboration and community-building across disciplines, institutions, and academic hierarchies.”
As a teacher, advisor, mentor, and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Henchman has touched the lives of hundreds of BU students and has been especially helpful in guiding them toward internships, honors projects, prizes, and undergraduate research opportunities. Her two awards pay tribute to her remarkable success in combining research excellence and a deep commitment to students.