As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a child, I wanted to be an actor! I participated in a youth theatre program in my hometown, and I absolutely fell in love with every aspect of it. But as this was in the 1980s, it was also clear that casting and race were going to be tricky for me. I’m a black woman, and there weren’t a lot of open conversations about how casting would work with regards to race. No one, for instance, uttered the words non-traditional casting or colorblind casting. It was so taboo that everyone pretended it wasn’t an issue! Looking back now, I see how formative that has been for my career working on casting in Shakespeare’s plays.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
Almost every English course I took at Columbia University! Each one—from African-American Literature with Marcellus Blount to The Modern British Novel with Edward Said to Renaissance Poetry with Kathy Eden to Medieval Literature with Robert Hanning—provided me with material for new love affairs with analyzing texts. I was also incredibly lucky to have very small classes so I got to know almost all of my professors. Best. College Experience. Ever.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
My first real job was as an investment banker, and it taught me to be tough. That was a rough environment for women and minorities in the early 1990s. So when I finally decided to become an academic, I decided not to be afraid. I was willing to take chances because, Why Not?! I knew I could do something else if I failed in the academy, and that allowed me to be brave.
What is your favorite part about your job?
I love thinking with smart people so I am constantly being intellectually challenged and stimulated by my students in the classroom and by my colleagues at the university and in the profession at large. Now that I run a research center, I am thrilled to be able to support bright, new scholars and to publish exciting new scholarship. Plus, as a central part of my job I get to read and see Shakespeare daily. I have the best job in the world!
You previously participated in the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholars program. What was most rewarding about that experience?
The Visiting Scholars program was amazing. I got to meet so many inspiring students across the country, and I got to get them excited about new research opportunities in Shakespeare and theatre. One of my public lectures was about the fact that most theatres do not have data about how audiences make sense of non-traditional casting, and I challenged the students to come up with interdisciplinary projects that could solve this problem. I fully expect an app to appear soon!
Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded arts & sciences education are important in today’s world?
A well-rounded arts and sciences education trains people to deal with complex issues, and that is exactly what we need in our current socio-historical moment. We need citizens who are willing and able to think through complex problems in sophisticated ways but who can explain their thinking in an accessible fashion. We need to make an ability to think through complexity appealing to all, and that is exactly what Phi Beta Kappa recognizes and rewards.
What advice do you have for young Phi Beta Kappa members?
Embrace detours! Your life does not have to be a straight line to be successful or fulfilling. I have failed at lots of things, and each zig and zag has benefited me. I started as an investment banker (after I had fully given up on acting), and I absolutely hated it. Then in graduate school, I started by focusing on the modern British novel before realizing that Renaissance literature was my passion. I am a much better scholar and person because of those detours.
What book are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts? Anything you'd recommend?
I’m reading Donna Zuckerberg’s book, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age
(Harvard University Press, 2018), and it is incredibly moving, erudite, alarming, scary, and ultimately uplifting. I’ve recommended it to everyone who comes through my research center, and Zuckerberg is coming to speak here in April. As for podcasts, I love “2 Dope Queens,” and of course the Phi Beta Kappa [Key Conversations] podcast
Thompson's Key Conversations Episode