Office hours with Dr. Erin Finneran
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer,” claims E.B. White in his children’s novel “Charlotte’s Web.”
Yet Dr. Erin Finneran, a professor in the Department of English at Washington University, shares these two qualities that enrich her mission as a teacher. From a biology major at Kenyon College to an Irish literature professor, Finneran’s journey is as interesting as her niche at Wash. U. A swimming star in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, her recruitment to Kenyon College proved fruitful to both her academic career and her future decision to study Irish literature. “What I learned in Kim McMullen and Philip Church’s [classes] became the foundation for my teaching style,” Finneran said. McMullen’s Anglo-Irish literature class piqued Finneran’s interest, but the Finneran’s decision to write and teach began after studying “Ulysses” by James Joyce with Church.
Brimming with potential but unsure about a path, Finneran worked a few odd jobs in Cleveland to make ends meet, including a sleep medicine clinic at Case Western Reserve University. She soon learned from a few Irish nurses working at Case Western that the sole North American office of University College Dublin (UCD) was located right around the corner. The graduate program at UCD seemed to encompass Finneran’s two passions: learning and Irish literature. “I consider learning deep play,” Finneran explained, pointing to a philosophy that convinced her to partake in this opportunity. The problem, however, lay with funding. While teaching at a small school in New Jersey, Finneran applied for and received the Rotary International Scholarship for Graduate Studies to represent Cleveland in her endeavors. The only thing left to do, then, was go to Ireland and entertain her literary passion.
At UCD, Finneran was surrounded by colleagues—mostly other Rotary Scholars—who shared her enthusiasm for the interplay of words and language that culminates in writing. Finneran found her future husband, a Spanish student named Alex, within this group of intellectually curious graduates. These students’ appetites for knowledge, life experiences and the human condition coalesced in a coast-to-coast Eurail trip that went through France, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Rome, Geneva and Spain—Alex’s home country. This would not be the first time Finneran would be in Spain, however. After returning to the United States and working her previous jobs for a while, Finneran decided to move to Spain with Alex with $3 in her pocket—a decision that changed her perspective on language and her own life. Struggling with the new language, she said nearly cried the entire first year she lived in Madrid. Nevertheless, her efforts paid off as she began teaching English as a second language to adult Spaniards and decided to live in Spain for four years. When asked about her relationship with the Spanish language, she replied, “The best day of my time in Spain was the first day I was able to tell a joke in Spanish. It was a pun, and it was hilarious.” Forever a learner, Finneran continued, “My time in Spain served as a humbling form of education. Everyone should experience the feeling of not being understood sometime in his or her life. Everyone should experience feeling like the other.”
Four years after she packed up and moved to Spain, Finneran saw the writing on the Spanish wall that she would not be able to grow as a writer or teacher there. She soon married Alex in Spain and then married again in Ohio at her alma mater. Constantly thinking of the future, she mailed five job applications from the Kenyon College post office the day of her marriage—one of which was sent to Wash. U.
“I chose Wash. U.,” Finneran said, “because it is located in a perfect-sized city. I wanted to stay in the Midwest, and St. Louis was just far enough from Ohio. Chicago was too exhausting and expensive, but mainly I fell in love with the program.” While working on receiving her Ph.D. and post-doctorate degree here, she began teaching Writing 1—the staple of every Wash. U. student’s English diet. “I tend to focus more on the process rather than the product when it comes to writing,” Finneran said. After teaching 14 sections over 14 years, the product has become Finneran’s firm grasp on language and how it relates to history, humanity and individuality. Outside of Writing 1, Finneran’s teaching repertoire is diverse and engaging: from “Irish Women Writers” to “Lilies and Languor: The Life and Writing of Oscar Wilde” to “Make ‘em Laugh: Comedy and Culture,” Finneran immerses herself not only in the literature pertaining to the class but also to the students’ reactions and the cultural context involved with each work. “My wish is to heighten people’s sensitivity to the word and the sharing of words,” Finneran said, adding that she is all the while trying to open the intellectual Pandora’s Box that lies in the mind of each student.
The apex of this aspiration resides in Finneran’s favorite course, the FOCUS program “Literary Culture of Modern Ireland.” The course, which was developed in 2006 by Associate Dean Dirk Killen and lecturer Daniel Shea, corroborates Finneran’s goals in teaching as “this intensive course seeks to inspire a balance between intellectual excellence and life-long camaraderie.” The program encourages “academic inquiry in a small class setting” while also provoking a certain kind of development in perspective. “I absolutely love this class. It encompasses everything I would ever want in a classroom setting—from the one-on-one experience with students to see development to the class trip to Ireland, this program combines the best parts of what teaching is for,” Finneran said. Serving as the highlight of the program, the trip to Ireland allows Finneran and her students to actualize the literature and place it within the context of the natural world and Irish culture. She believes that reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats aloud in Sligo and reciting Seamus Heaney’s poetry in the boglands of Connemera can “make the poetry visceral and real.”
This connection between the reader and the spaces that the literature reflects forms an integral part of Finneran’s teaching purpose. To exemplify this, Finneran relates one of her most notable nights of teaching: while instructing a University College Samuel Beckett course in 2006, one of the classes landed on Beckett’s 100th birthday. She decided to teach that night in the Beckett archives and show the class a reel of Beckett’s only movie, “Film” with Buster Keaton. “That night was pure symmetry,” Finneran recounted, “and I came full circle with teaching. It was magical.”
When asked about future projects, Finneran shared that she is “always hoping to increase the intellectual market at Wash. U. through new and interesting courses.” These new courses include her proposed freshman seminar “From Huck Finn to Harry Potter: Literature and the Rites of Passage,” which points out parallels between the rites of passage in the literature and in the development of the reader. In addition, she hopes to teach a course on the art of argumentation as well as another Beckett course, but regarding the future of literature, she looks to her young daughter. “Parenting is far more humbling than teaching,” Finneran said, and the fact that her daughter is beginning to read “just knocks [her] socks off.” Another magical moment, Finneran said, was the re-reading of “Charlotte’s Web” to her daughter that brought her literary education and growth full circle.