ASU's resident Janeite rises in the ranks
There is a line in “Northanger Abbey,” Jane Austen’s satirical coming-of-age novel, that Devoney Looser thinks of often, whenever she is afforded a few moments of quiet self-reflection: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”
“I think no one who ever saw me in my infancy would think I was born to be a scholar and a writer,” said Looser recently, mere months after being named a Regents Professor at Arizona State University, the highest faculty honor one can receive.
Whether or not that’s true, Looser is a scholar, and a very well-respected one, particularly when it comes to that giant of late 18th- and early 19th-century British literature that is Jane Austen. For nearly 30 years, Looser has been researching, interpreting and teaching the author, to the point where — among those in the know — the name Devoney Looser produces an almost Pavlovian association between the two.
The reverence she now holds for Austen didn’t come immediately, though. At the age of 13, she tried several times to begin reading a dos-à-dos binding copy of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” that her mother suggested to her, only to become discouraged at the unfamiliar language and set it back down. At her mother’s persistence, Looser kept trying until one day, it clicked.
“For the first time, I understood that some of it was funny,” she said. “It really spoke to me and stuck with me, and it became a favorite.” It wasn’t until after Looser had gone so far as to dedicate her academic career to literature, earning her PhD in 1993, that she found out her mother had never read either of the novels.
“It was a bit of a shock. Even by that point, in my late 20s, that book had shaped my life. So (the fact that she hadn’t read it) was meaningful to me. My mom didn’t have a degree, but she knew it was a book an educated girl should read, and she wanted me to have the kind of opportunities education affords. And to me, that’s very much what Jane Austen’s fiction is about: stories about education, gender and possibility.”
Like something out of an Austen novel, Looser is descended from three generations of women who worked as housecleaners and laundresses for a wealthy family in St. Paul, Minnesota. All of the women in her family wore hand-me-downs from that employer, including Looser, who spent the majority of her childhood dressed in “the very out-of-style but once-expensive clothing of a girl called ‘Muffy.’”
For this, she was predictably teased by her classmates, but she said there was “something formative” in the experience that can be seen in her unique sartorial choices to this day: Looser loves a good vintage bargain and boasts an impressive collection of Austen-themed leggings.
As a student, Looser was admittedly shy and quiet in class, even through to her college years, finding comfort in the solitude of reading and writing. That was, until she came upon Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”
“It was short, poignant and beautiful,” Looser said of the essay, which she makes a point to read every year. “And it feels just as important today as when it was published in 1980.”
Coming of age
Looking at Looser’s resume today, it’s clear she took Lorde’s message to heart. She is the author or editor of nine books on literature by women (including “The Making of Jane Austen,” which was named a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book in 2017), her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic (to name a few) and she’s currently at work on a biography of the early 19th-century literary sisters Jane and Anna Maria Porter, an endeavor that is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Bellagio Fellowship.
Before Looser joined the faculty in ASU’s Department of English in 2013, she had a brief glimpse of the university when she served as a visiting professor in 2001.
“Obviously, it was very transformed by the time I came back, and I was very excited about the mission. I still am,” she said. “Access, excellence and impact are very easy to get behind. And as a first-gen college student myself, these things speak to me.”
As a professor, one of Looser’s greatest joys is keeping in touch with her students and watching as they grow and achieve their goals. After one student took a course on Austen that Looser co-taught with her husband and fellow British literature aficionado George Justice, Looser worked with her on an independent-study project to create a musical version of Austen’s novel “Persuasion.”
“I learned so much from her,” Looser said. “I’m not an expert in musicals, but I was able to bring my expertise to bear on her work and she was able to create something totally unique. Any time you get connected to a student who shares your passion for something and you find ways to grow together, that’s a magical thing.”
Looser’s interactions with her students extend outside academia as well; she serves as faculty adviser to the ASU Derby Devils and has played roller derby herself under the pseudonym Stone Cold Jane Austen. She even has a book planned on the sport, for which she is collaborating with colleagues at ASU’s Global Sport Institute.
“It’s something that allows me to couple the history of strong women — which is an obvious research interest of mine — along with a personal athletic challenge,” Looser said.
As Looser advances into this next phase of her career, the precarious relationship between women and power is something she refuses to lose sight of.
“I’m mindful of the fact that as women advance through the ranks in higher education, the fewer of us there are,” she said. “And I’m also mindful of the fact that I have been given opportunities that others have not had, and in some cases, have been actively denied. So knowing that makes me very much want to continue to do my best by our students and the institution, because I want more deserving women and individuals from underrepresented groups in these positions.”
And the position she’s in is not one Looser takes for granted. A self-described “library rat,” she waxes poetically at the memory of the various historical sites she has had the chance to visit and the rare materials she has been able to view. Her favorite still, though, will always be anything related to Austen.
“You can read and reread Austen’s works and still take great pleasure in it, because they’re entertaining and funny but also deep and full of social criticism,” Looser said. “I see something new every time I open one of them. And teaching and reteaching them is always a pleasure, too. If I ever become bored of them, I’ll be shocked, but the fact that that hasn’t happened in three decades tells me it probably won’t.”
Top photo: ASU Regents Professor Devoney Looser at home (wearing a pair of Jane Austen-themed leggings) in 2018. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News