Q&A: Rebecca Bushnell

Rebecca Bushnell

The woman at the helm of the College of Arts and Sciences talks about the tools of teaching, why the humanities matter and how she fought nature in her own garden—and lost.

Photo by Mark Stehle

At the beginning of her new book, “Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern English Gardens” (Cornell, 2003), Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Rebecca Bushnell makes a confession: “This book took longer to write than I hoped.”

That’s not too surprising when you consider Bushnell’s workload. While writing the book—a study of early English gardening manuals—Bushnell, an English professor, was also serving as associate dean of arts and letters in the School of Arts and Sciences. “I went to Sam [Preston, dean of SAS] and asked him for two and a half months off to finish…and worked like a dog to do it,” she says. “To write a book you need periods of uninterrupted thought.”

Those periods are still few and far between. Since stepping into the deanship of the College last July, Bushnell has been hard at work figuring out ways to improve the undergraduate academic experience. Though her own area is English Renaissance literature, Bushnell is a thoroughly modern pragmatist who embraces new technology and sits in on science classes to get a better handle on how well the College is serving its students.

Q. Since you began at Penn in 1982, what changes have you seen in the faculty?
It has changed immensely in my 22 years here. I’ve seen a faculty that’s come to care more about undergraduate education, and a spirit of innovation that shows itself in their unceasing ambition to create new courses and to use new technologies in teaching. It never ceases to amaze me.

Q. How about your own home, the English Department? What changes have you seen there?
The English Department just redid its major; it’s always taking it down, stripping it, doing something new. The breadth of the curriculum has increased so much in global scope, just like the campus itself and the student body. Our English major and our English courses extend to what we call post-colonial literature, the literature of South Africa and South Asia. We also now teach Asian American literature and Latino and Chicano literature so our notions of what is American literature has expanded immensely and our notion of British literature has expanded to include a post-colonial perspective.

Q. You have used technology in your own teaching. Can you tell me more?
Well, it was a challenge insofar as I didn’t have the technical skills to do it myself, but I had the desire to experiment to see what new technology could do, particularly because I teach Renaissance literature. I was looking for something to make what I did look more up to date, more exciting. I wanted to make it more present and lively. I found a very talented and imaginative graduate student, Jamey Saeger, who worked with me on developing that.

Those of us who teach old subjects like classical studies or Renaissance English literature have that obligation. It’s part of our job. Sometimes it’s difficult to make it present and compelling, but it’s entirely worth it. Whether it’s through the use of new technologies or sheer enthusiasm, you can bring students to appreciate Milton or Sophocles.

One of my first efforts was to develop a web site for my Introduction to Renaissance Studies course. It was a multimedia web site, which gave students access to images, portraits, maps and digital facsimiles of old books. So I was able to use a web site to bring all the material culture of the Renaissance together, and students could work on it from their dorm rooms.

Moving on from that I got involved in a project with the library, doing digital facsimiles of old books and using them to teach.

Q. Do you still find time to teach in your schedule?
Yes, I am teaching, not because I have to but because I want to. Generally I’ve taught one course a year while being dean. Last year I taught English 20, which is the first half of the British literature survey from 1350 to 1660. I think quite frankly where undergraduates are concerned, the College dean needs to be in the classroom some to really understand what goes on in the College. You need to be on the front lines.

Q. I hear you’ve been sitting in on some undergraduate science classes.
I became very interested this year in science education because though it’s not my world I do hear from students that they have a lot of questions and concerns about general education in science for non-science students—people like myself.

So I’ve been sitting down this year to speak with undergraduate chairs and the chairs of the science departments to talk about how we might change general education in science. I couldn’t do that credibly unless I knew what that was like. So I’ve been sitting in on chemistry, physics and biology, both big and small classes, to see what it was like. Something I haven’t done since the 1970s.

It’s been very interesting. I can’t say I’ve understood everything, but one thing I’ve discovered is that there are things all teachers hold in common. Part of that has to do with engaging with students, conveying enthusiasm for the subject, though there are also definite differences between holding a discussion in a science class and an English class. English runs on interpretation and differences of opinion. I’ve been trying to see the different ways students participate.

Q. How did you come to write a book about 16th- and 17th-century gardening manuals?
I was working on my previous book about English humanist education, and I kept coming across comparisons between teaching and gardening. I dug into contemporary English gardening manuals to see what these similes might have meant in their time. Nature was everywhere in early modern writing.

Q. Are you an enthusiastic gardener yourself?
I am. My feelings were hurt because the Times Literary Supplement reviewer said I was no gardener. I guess I was too self-deprecating [in the introduction]. The point I was trying to make was that I did go through a period where I was intensely involved in gardening, and found it to be an immense amount of work. I felt I lost the battle against nature I was trying to wage. Where I live now, a herd of deer lives in my back yard, so I can only grow things that are deer-resistant. The amount of energy you have to invest in working with or fighting nature is huge. That’s why there’s a chapter in the book about work and labor.

Q. Tell me about your involvement in the Penn Humanities Forum.
One of the first things I did [as associate dean] was to work with Wendy Steiner to create the Humanities Forum. I had inherited the idea from my predecessor Eugene Narmour. Humanities centers at other places tend to be inward and research focused. The idea was that this would face outward and engage a wide span of people in discussion of the humanities—graduate students, faculty and a public audience. It’s been a great success.

One of the ways the Forum works is to further understanding about the intersection of human culture, that all things are embraced by the humanities. The programs make a link to medicine, law, the sciences. We want people to understand that the humanities aren’t sitting off there on one side. Far from being merely ornamental, or a way of looking at the world, the study of these things—philosophy, literature, history, art—is intimately connected with every aspect of the contemporary world.

Originally published on April 15, 2004