Interview with Dr. Nikki Hessell, Co-Winner of the 2017 NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest

By Caroline Winter

Dr. Nikki Hessell is a co-winner of this year’s NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest, as announced at NASSR 2017 in Ottawa. Nikki is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington. She’s been kind enough to tell us about her submission and share some tips for graduate students on teaching Romanticism.

Caroline Winter: Hello, Nikki. Thank you for sharing your insights with us for the NGSC blog, and congratulations on your award! Could you tell us about your submission?
Nikki Hessell: Thanks Caroline, and thanks again to the organisers of the NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest. My submission was for a fourth-year course on Romanticism and Indigeneity. The course starts with some thinking and reading about the literary forms that already existed in countries like mine (Aotearoa New Zealand), throughout Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean), and across Turtle Island (the US and Canada). It then thinks about how the British Romantic authors responded to those traditions and the people making those works, and how indigenous authors in those places in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries responded to the Romantic literature they encountered through forced or voluntary experiences in colonial education systems.
Caroline: That sounds amazing! What motivated you to develop this particular course?
Nikki: That’s a big question with lots of sides to it. I could talk about this for a long time, but I’ll try to give a short summary.

  1. I’d like to see more indigenous students studying English literature, but there’s no point just saying that, even sincerely, and then sitting back and waiting for it to happen. What is our field doing to make studying literature (Romantic literature especially) as interesting and relevant as, say, studying law, or health sciences, or education, or history?
  2. Romantic studies is well-equipped to make a contribution, since our period overlaps with a the era of imperial expansion and because the literature itself is so engaged with indigeneity. But we need to talk about colonisation from within colonised cultures, not simply as something the British did.
  3. Like most Pākehā (white settler) scholars and teachers, I’ve had to think long and hard about my role here, especially in terms of appropriation. But I’ve come to believe that it is better to use my expertise and my position to create conditions for a new generation of scholars to replace me. The only way to find those scholars is to be willing to train them. And the political situation in Aotearoa means there is considerably more enthusiasm and understanding in an institution like mine than in other parts of the colonised world, so I thought it might be useful to NASSR if I took a leadership role in this area of our field.

Caroline: How does this course fit into your larger research project or areas of interest?
Nikki: My main area of research interest is the intersection of Romanticism and indigeneity, so this is a perfect fit! As my answer above probably indicates, it’s taken me a while to think through the ethical and pedagogical issues of such a course. But working on my forthcoming book (Romantic Literature and the Colonised World: Lessons from Indigenous Translations, Palgrave 2018) has given me years to consider the ways in which Romanticism and indigenous epistemologies interacted from the Romantic period onwards, and also to develop my own skills to be a useful teacher in this area. I’m at work on a new project that will influence the course as well.
Caroline: How did students respond to the course? What was it like to teach it?
Nikki: That remains to be seen! I developed it just in time for the NASSR 2017 conference, and it will be offered in the next cycle of fourth year courses at my institution. But I have taught parts of the course in other contexts already, as I’ve been developing them, and the response has been very positive. One student told me that they felt like the understood modern New Zealand better for understanding the connections between Romanticism and colonial experience, and that was part of what I was hoping students would see. I’m particularly looking forward to taking students to the marae (meeting house) for some of our class time.
Caroline: Please send us an update; I’d love to know how it goes. What advice do you have for graduate students who are developing their own Romanticism courses?
Nikki: Remember that developing as a teacher is a lifelong experience: you don’t have to solve all of the challenges of Romantic pedagogy today. There’s real value in being able to teach what we might think of as a standard Romantic literature course, and there are almost always opportunities within that course for discussion of how the field is changing and where it’s headed. Your own research interests can help change the way even very familiar texts get read in the classroom.
Caroline: Romanticism is such as broad, interdisciplinary field that it can feel overwhelming even thinking about where to start, so this is great advice. Thanks again for telling us about the course and your research.