By Brooke O'Neill
Photo by Chris Strong

A specialist in 19th-century British culture, Elaine Hadley examines popular and political culture of the time — not only through literature, but also through cookbooks, pamphlets, sermons, and other texts. She understands living the life of the mind along with the rest of one’s life can be a challenge; mentoring is her way of helping graduate students navigate the obstacles.

What does the award mean to you?

I’m really touched that students got together and made an effort to recognize me. It’s really quite moving. I realize what a special thing it is for them to have done.

Talk about your mentoring philosophy.

This is an institution that really promotes and takes seriously the life of the mind, which attracts me to the place, but it’s also important to acknowledge students as human beings with lives. That’s been really central to the way I interact with my graduate students. They’re young adults making major life decisions. I try to meet them as full human beings.

In some ways it’s a very simple formula: give them your time. Reassure them, help them think through their options, and provide resources so that they can make the best decisions. I want our students to become the best scholars they can be, but my primary concern is that they leave here having started off a fulfilling life where they can contribute.

Who inspires you as a mentor and teacher?

This’ll sound utterly corny, but my mentoring has been very inspired by my parents. My father was an administrator, a dean of students, of a small-town, state institution. I imbibed quite a bit of my philosophy about interacting with students from him. He was a real inspiration. My mother has tough standards but combines it with a real affection for people.

The person who’s probably influenced me the most in terms of my graduate teaching in the classroom was my mentor, [cultural historian] Mary Poovey. She infused us with two thoughts: one, the idea our work was important, that our scholarly work had something to contribute to a conversation that mattered and two, that we could actually pull it off. That’s really important because graduate school is a mountain to climb, and if you don’t have people encouraging you to think you can scale the mountain, it’s really difficult to finish.

What do you most get out of teaching?

I’m the kind of scholar who sometimes has—and I think a lot of people do—an existential angst about the larger contributions that I’m making through my scholarship. But it’s obvious when I help a student work through a problem or help them make a major life decision about whether to stay in the program or not, that’s a pretty concrete contribution. It’s a feature of my mentoring that has been very valuable to me, as I hope it has been for students.

What’s special about teaching UChicago grad students?

Well, they’re fantastically bright. You learn things from them all the time. They really enhance the quality of your thought.

What do you know now that you didn’t when you started teaching?

Oh, tons. Everything? That’s the great bonus about teaching, especially in the humanities: you really can improve with age because it’s so experiential, especially mentoring. If you stay at a place long enough, you really get to know what’s available there, so when someone seeks your advice, you can help him or her.

What advice do you have for future professors?

The word that comes to mind is balance. That is, being able to be both a good teacher and a good thinker, and then having a life where you’re contributing beyond those two demanding tasks can be challenging but worthwhile.

Originally published on June 4, 2012.