Trinity College Professor of English Sheila Fisher will deliver the annual Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture, and History at Trinity College on Monday, April 25. Titled “Within Opposing Cells: Questions of Women, Confinement, and Self-Expression,” Fisher’s lecture will take place in McCook Auditorium at 4:30 p.m. and also will be live-streamed here. The lecture will be followed by a reception in Hamlin Hall.

Professor of English Sheila Fisher
Trinity College Professor of English Sheila Fisher. Photo by Sonia Brand-Fisher.

Fisher will discuss possible connections between the expressions of two groups of women who are central to her ongoing work: medieval nuns, mystics, and anchoresses (religious recluses), as well as contemporary women experiencing incarceration. Questions she will explore include: Why might some women find occasion for self-expression within confined spaces, whether those spaces are chosen voluntarily or imposed by social forces? Why might restriction of the body and experience work to generate expansion of the mind, the spirit, and the imagination? And how might these questions resonate with us as we process our experiences of the pandemic?

A medievalist who specializes in Chaucer, late 14th-century English literature, and medieval women writers, Fisher is the author of The Selected Canterbury Tales: A New Verse Translation (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011, and included in the inaugural launch of the new Norton Library Series, 2021) and co-editor of Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism (University of Tennessee Press in Knoxville, 1989). She is nearing completion of her first historical novel, which focuses on two notable 15th-century English women who met and shared their religious experiences: the mystic Margery Kemp, author in 1436 of the first autobiography in English, and the anchoress, mystic, and author Julian of Norwich, best known for her work, Revelations of Divine Love.

A Trinity College faculty member since 1984 who served as chair of Trinity’s English Department from 2005 to 2008 and as associate dean of the faculty from 2009 to 2013, Fisher received her M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Yale University and her B.A. summa cum laude with Highest Honors in English from Smith College. A recipient of the Prize Teaching Fellowship at Yale and the Brownell Prize for Distinguished Teaching at Trinity, Fisher believes that the richest and most challenging teaching in her fields engages students fully in the complexities and difficulties of the text, at the same time that it cultivates in them ways of asking hard questions of the works they examine.

Fisher is co-director of the Trinity Prison Seminar Series, which, since 2012, has offered credit-bearing college-level courses at the York Correctional Institution, the only women’s prison in Connecticut, as well as the Free to Succeed Program, which offers mentoring to citizens in re-entry as they seek to complete their college education after prison.

Support for the Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture and History comes from a fund established in 1996 by Joseph F. Wassong, Jr. ’59, in memory of his first wife, Shirley, and augmented with gifts from family and friends. The annual lecture features members of Trinity’s faculty and guest scholars in alternating years. The lecturers are from various academic disciplines, and their topics range from antiquity to the present day. Since 2010, this annual lecture has been organized by the Trinity Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies.

Joseph F. Wassong, Jr., who passed away in May 2021, was the husband of Rebecca Skinner and the late Shirley (Gyurik) Wassong. He was a resident of Thomaston, Connecticut, for most of his life and a 1955 graduate of Thomaston High School. A double-major in history and educational studies at Trinity College, he was selected as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. After receiving his Trinity bachelor’s degree in 1959, he earned an M.A. degree from Columbia University. He taught history at Glastonbury High School for eight and a half years, followed by a 31-year career as a history professor at Mattatuck (later Naugatuck Valley) Community College. In addition to his contributions as an educator—impacting the lives of more than 10,000 students of all ages—he was actively involved in the Town of Thomaston, serving for many years in volunteer committee and board roles, as well as in leadership roles with the Thomaston Historical Society. He was selected as a Rotary Citizen of the Year in 1991.

Shirley Wassong, who died in 1995, was a graduate of Bryant College and spent her career as a dental assistant. In Thomaston, she volunteered with the St. Thomas Church, the Thomaston Library, and the Thomaston Visiting Nurses Association. A member of the Connecticut Historical Society, she also served as curator of the Thomaston Historical Society.