March 5, 2015

For a 21-year-old male commissioning as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps upon graduation, Jane Austen might seem an odd choice as the subject of his senior capstone project at Virginia Military Institute.

Culver Military Academy graduate James Whippo ’11 wrote in his capstone introduction that his interest in Austen is mostly due to the influence of Academies Humanities instructor Dr. Jacqueline Erwin, Ph.D. Whippo was a student in Erwin’s freshman Humanities class and also in her 12th-grade Advanced Placement English Literature course.

As the vice president of VMI’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta (the English Honor Society), Whippo was tasked with scheduling an evening speaker.“Dr. Erwin was the natural choice,” he said in an email.

“I could not have been more profoundly touched. It was a poignant moment,” Erwin said of the invitation and her March 4-5 trip to the Lexington, Va., school.

“It is a reminder,” she said, “that what we do in the classroom makes a difference down the road.”

A 20-year veteran of the Academies’ classroom, she remembers Whippo as “an earnest young man with a sense of humor.”

Whippo, an English major with minors in philosophy and history, recalled that it was the in-class discussions of Northanger Abbey and Wuthering Heights in Erwin’s AP English Lit class that “spurred my interest.” As one of four males in a class of 25, Whippo wrote that his perspective was so different than that of most girls that he felt disregarded. But rather than being discouraged, being disregarded only “increased my resolve to familiarize myself with the material more thoroughly.”

His interest in Austen and the Bröntes would resurface when he studied at New College at The University of Oxford, where it made sense to him to study subjects related to England.

For Erwin, the invitation gave her “an excuse to re-read Jane Austen.” She did her doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University on Austen, “though this is radically different.”

Erwin’s remarks were titled “Gossip and Jane Austen’s Narrative Voice: The Sense of a Non-ending in Happily Ever After.” She spent several weeks re-reading Austen’s novels and formulating a sense of their endings.

“The narrative voice she creates is the voice of a gossip,” Erwin said, adding that “gossip is a serious academic form.”

Erwin also pondered why so many care about what happens to Austen’s characters after the novels; the parodies, the sequels, the analyzing, and movies with a new twist.

“Austen invites us to enter a world, look forward to what could happen and what it could mean,” Erwin said. “For some characters, it is not too happy,” though most of the main characters come out OK in the end, she observed.

“It’s a refreshing experience to be on the writing side again and not on the critiquing side,” she said.

Erwin earned her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College, a master’s from Simmons College, and a Ph.D. in English from Northwestern University. Joining the English faculty in 1994, she has taught British literature, Shakespeare, first-level English courses for international students, linguistics, and the AP English literature course. She currently teaches senior-level courses, including imaginative Writing and the AP English Literature course. Erwin is a Master Instructor and holds the W.A. Moncrief Jr. Chair of Humanities.

Her late husband is a 1969 Culver graduate, as are two of their three children.

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