Allan K. Smith and Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of English
If you wander into Trinity’s Watkinson Library on any given day of the week, there’s a good chance you’ll find Professor Wyss there, poring over a book she’s pulled from the archives. Professor Wyss has an undeniable enthusiasm for her studies in early American literature and she’s taken full advantage of the resources available at Trinity. Now in her third year here, her dedication and passion definitely show in both her classes and research.
Professor Wyss teaches a variety of courses in early American literature and Native American literature. Just a few of those include “Literature of Native New England,” “Early American Women’s Literature,” and the First-Year Seminar “Indigenous Science Fiction”. In the Spring 2020 semester, Professor Wyss will be teaching two new courses: “Contemporary Native American Literature” and “Orphans and Others in American Literature”. In the former, the course will be focusing on works by modern Native American authors — both well-established and newer to the field — and considering how these texts help us think about what it means to be an indigenous person in the US today. “Orphans and Others in American Literature” will be looking at the ways in which the Americas fostered individuals’ reinventions, and how these reinventions are present within 18th and 19th-century American texts. Any and all of these courses are sure to offer a fantastic introduction to Professor Wyss’ areas of expertise.
Prior to teaching at Trinity, Professor Wyss taught at Auburn University for 20 years. Obviously, there are some big differences between life in Connecticut and Alabama, and because Professor Wyss’ research has always focused on New England, she has really enjoyed the change. When asked about how the move has affected her teaching and research, she commented that students – wherever they’re from- will attach their own personal experiences to the material they’re learning, and said “when I teach texts that I have taught for my entire career now there are students in my class who recognize place names and see their own home towns in new and different ways.” In her own research, the move has allowed Professor Wyss to engage more closely with Native communities. She said the shift has taken her work from “an abstract academic exercise to an engagement with a very real and ongoing set of issues that affect people today.”
Outside of her classes, Professor Wyss is currently working on a few projects. Her long-term focus is her work towards her third book, which will be on 18th-century ideas about children and charity work. Using the evangelical minister George Whitefield as a touchstone, Professor Wyss is studying charity institutions in England and America, ranging from a Foundling Hospital in London to an Orphan House in Savannah, Georgia to a charity school right here in Connecticut for Native American students. Ultimately, she said she’ll be arguing that “if we look at the ideas shaping these three [institutions] we can see that their marginalizing rhetorics of race and poverty are remarkably similar. We can also see that the ways English missionaries and charity organizations imagined their obligations to England and America’s children in the eighteenth century carry over to today.” In the short-term, Professor Wyss is working on an article about some of the resources available in our very own Watkinson Library. “I want to talk about how 19th-century book collectors thought about Native American materials and what the effects of their collecting practices were for Native communities,” she said. The Watkinson has a huge amount of resources that have supported Professor Wyss’ research in the field. She is particularly excited about the Eliot Indian Bibles we have in the collection, and how they can help her to better understand how the Bibles were collected, by whom, and from whom.
The courses Professor Wyss teaches, and her research as well, are all great examples of why studying English, and specifically American literature, is so relevant to us all. As Professor Wyss put it: “As Americans, we’re all grappling with this question of what it means to be an American in political, social, and cultural contexts. The thing is, we’re not the first people to be thinking about this. There are generations of brilliant writers who were contemplating these same questions long before us, so when we thoughtfully engage with their texts, we’re collectively working towards these answers. The answers aren’t always going to be the answers that we want, but that, I think, is part of why doing this work is so important.”
–Macie Bridge (’21)