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Metcalf Winner Murphy Breathes Life Into Classic Lit

Teaching Hamlet with The Simpsons

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Portrait of College of Arts and Sciences Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Associate Professor Erin Murphy

Erin Murphy makes literary giants like Shakespeare and Milton seem less formidable by tying their work to today’s issues. Photo by Kelly Davidson

Literary scholar Erin Murphy makes 17th-century “dead white males” come alive, teaching the ongoing relevance of Shakespeare and Milton—as well as their female counterparts like Margaret Cavendish, Lucy Hutchinson, and Katherine Philips. For her class on the Bard, Murphy screens an adaptation of Hamlet—as seen on The Simpsons. Meanwhile, her British Literature survey course asks students to cast Hollywood actors in the devils’ roles in Paradise Lost as a way to make John Milton’s epic poem seem less intimidating.

Tactics like these do more than engage non-English majors with the subject, says Murphy, associate professor of English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the College of Arts & Sciences. They also provide students with “links between the subject matter of my courses and the pressing issues we all face today,” Murphy wrote in a statement of her teaching approach. That approach has won her one of this year’s Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching, one of the University’s highest teaching honors.

Shakespeare, Milton, et al. wrestled with questions we face today, Murphy says: “What does it mean to live in a gendered body? What does it mean to live in a time of war? And what does it mean to live through a media revolution?” (In this case, printing, which wasn’t widely available to writers until the 1600s.)

“Almost all the writers I teach used literature as a way to change their worlds, and I think that literary study can be a key to becoming an innovative thinker, whether one aims to become an artist or an entrepreneur, a coder or a politician, a teacher or a health care provider.”

Milton, for example, may seem utterly Establishment, given Paradise Lost’s canonical status, Murphy says. Yet he was the Bernie Sanders of his day, the “chief propaganda writer for the forces that overthrew the monarchy in the English civil wars. Milton raged against tyranny and even questioned God.” He was also, to use this word loosely, a feminist, arguing for choice in sexual relations, including the right to divorce, “in ways that resonate with the battle for marriage equality” today, she says.

In his letter nominating Murphy for the Metcalf, English department chair Maurice Lee surveyed the rapturous student comments about their experience, including: “She understands that rigor and compassion are not mutually exclusive” and “her upbeat, enthusiastic nature implanted in us a desire to raise our own standards and go beyond.”

“Reading through these—and many similar—student comments on Prof. Murphy,” Lee wrote, “is a humbling and energizing experience.”

For three years, Murphy has served as the English department’s director of graduate studies, a post for which “she deserves much credit for the department’s strong placement record in the face of a difficult job market,” Lee wrote in his nominating letter. “She has formalized much of the department’s professional training—from instituting a series of training events for students entering the job market, to initiating departmental workshops on alternative academic careers, to making important improvements to our Professionalism and Advanced Writing seminar.”

Murphy joined BU’s faculty in 2003. She graduated from Vassar and received her master’s and doctoral degrees from Rutgers.

A gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a BU Board of Trustees chair emeritus and former professor, funds the Metcalf awards, created in 1973 and presented at Commencement. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000 and the Metcalf Award winners receive $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on statements of nominees’ teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the nominees.

The winner of this year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize, the University’s top teaching honor, is Christopher Gill, associate professor of global health at the School of Public Health. The second Metcalf winner is Manher Jariwala, a CAS physics lecturer.

More information about Commencement can be found here.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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