Monday, December 13, 2010

By Lana A. Whited
Professor of English and Director of the Boone Honors Program

In the classroom, I ask a lot of questions to which I already know the answers, leading students in paths of knowledge that I have already traveled. So what I have enjoyed most about working with senior Whitney Scott in an independent study this fall is the opportunity to be a student again myself.

Whitney’s project will ultimately serve as the material for Ferrum’s first honors thesis. An English major from Rocky Mount, Whitney will write the thesis in the spring semester and present her work in April 2011 at the college’s Arts & Humanities Symposium.

For her project, Whitney selected 11 novels dealing with the concept of utopia or dystopia – literary depictions of societies that are either perfect or severely warped. She and I began our work in May with a reading list and a general interest in looking at roles for women in these societies, not even knowing for sure what questions the primary sources would raise.

To some extent, I am out of my element with Whitney’s project, as most of the novels represent the science fiction/fantasy genre, an area of literature that, except for my extensive work with Harry Potter, I have largely avoided.

By fall break, Whitney had nearly completed her reading list, and I was struggling to keep up. She had become increasingly interested in three novels: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974) and The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) by Starhawk.

In particular, Whitney began to examine the role of religious fundamentalism – specifically Christian extremism – in the formation of the dystopias depicted in each of these three novels. She was intrigued by Margaret Atwood’s comment that she tried to set The Handmaid’s Tale in her native Canada but found that it worked much better amid the religious fervor that characterized the United States during the rise of the Moral Majority. As I was a college student at that time and Whitney was not born yet, I could help her understand the sociopolitical context of Atwood’s novel.

Her exploration of this topic led to an interesting discussion of witchcraft persecution and how European societies (and those, like ours, derived from Europe) have always tended to demonize women who defy social norms and conventions. Whitney read the Malleus Maleficarum or “Hammer of Witches,” a treatise written by an inquisitor of the Roman Catholic Church in 1486 and commissioned by Pope Innocent VIII himself. The document, which provides specific directions on identifying witches, ignited the worst period of witchcraft trials in Europe.

Another aspect of Whitney’s project that I have really enjoyed is the way she has recruited a team of faculty to collaborate in mentoring her. Her thesis committee also includes Dr. Susan Virginia Mead, a sociologist who has taught Starhawk’s novel repeatedly in Sociology 101, and Mr. Danny Adams, a member of the Stanley Library staff who knows the genre of science fiction better than most of the English faculty. English professor Karen Duddy, who is teaching “Women in Literature” this semester, has served as a sounding board for Whitney’s ideas. And Stanley Library Director George Loveland has helped with her secondary research and her study of George Orwell’s famous dystopia, “1984.” Simultaneously with her independent study, Whitney enrolled in Dr. Milt Rowan’s “History of Women in the 20th Century” course, which has deepened her understanding of the waves of feminism that have shaped our country in modern times.

On Wed., Dec. 9, just as Fall exams were beginning, Whitney presented her preliminary theories to a group of English professors and other interested faculty, staff, and students. One of the faculty members present called the project “a multidisciplinary undertaking of considerable sophistication.” Another said that Whitney was already working with texts the faculty member’s daughter hadn’t discovered until she took women’s studies courses in graduate school.

Just a few days before the presentation, Whitney received an e-mail from a graduate program director who had read about the project in the Council of Undergraduate Research’s student database. The director invited Whitney to apply to her university’s doctoral program in English, which includes faculty specializing in gender studies and feminist theory.

So as she prepares to undertake the writing of the thesis, Whitney will also begin planning the next phase of her education. Those of us who are fortunate enough to work with her are eager to see what she will teach us next.

Note: Whitney’s thesis blog, “All Fullness, All Vacancy,” is posted at

1 comment:

  1. We are proud of Whitney Scott! I enjoyed her presentation on Dec. 8.