Meet The Professors

by Kat Weigle

UTSA’s English department is known for attracting top-notch professorial talent. Here’s an opportunity to glimpse the personalities behind the PhDs!

Fiona McWilliam, PhD.

Dr. McWilliam is a professor of all literature American (at least through the 19th century). Like a rare pokemon, Dr. McWilliam is usually in hiding--in her office or at home--but can sometimes be spotted eating tacos or sneaking candy from other people's stashes.

Can you tell a bit about your background that we won’t find on your CV?

 

My dad’s from Scotland and, growing up, my family was very involved in “Scottish activities”: my brothers played in a bagpipe band and my sister and I were competitive Scottish highland dancers. My 1-year-old son already has his first teeny tiny kilt.


What is your favorite class to teach?

My field is nineteenth-century American literature, so I really enjoy teaching the American Literature to 1865 course – sometimes more than teaching specialized courses. I always try use teaching as an opportunity to learn more about my own field, so it’s oddly exciting for me to dig into unfamiliar texts and authors and broaden my own knowledge while at the same time exposing students to new (or new to them) material. I’m also finding that the longer I teach, the more passionate I become about teaching writing, which has caught me by surprise.


What kind of writing do you like to teach? Have you done any rhet/comp scholarship?

 

I teach writing primarily in the literature classroom, so I’m focused on having students perform textual analysis—forming arguments about the text using the text. I haven’t done any rhet/comp scholarship—instead I get to rely on Dr. Hum and Dr. Colombini for ideas and resources!


What is your favorite field of research/specific research interests?

Broadly, I study American literature before 1865. My specific field of interest is abolitionist literature, which intersects with African American literature. I think abolition is often represented as very straightforward, but it’s an incredibly fractured movement (for lack of a better word) that uses what might seem to be contradictory means to fight slavery—this is on top of infighting and secret societies formed to stop slave catchers.


I’ve recently lectured on Uncle Tom’s Cabin in an undergraduate course, and I found it surprising how many students were aceppting of the “benevolent slave owner” concept. Students seemed to want to find ways to rationalize slavery. (Maybe because we can't change that it happened?) Would you care to comment on this? Either with your own take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the kinds of discussions you’ve had with students?

I have never had an experience quite like that! For sure, it’s a curious interpretation—as absolutely fraught as UTC is, I’m not quite sure if any contemporaneous readers would have read it as a novel that rationalizes slavery. To respond seriously, though, I think that (mis)reading perhaps speaks to Stowe’s compelling use of sentimentality, as well as her avoidance of depicting Southerners/ slaveholders in a completely negative light (perhaps fearing that if she alienated them, she would only increase sectional tensions and therefore lose any hope in swaying their views). I will say that Stowe’s depiction of, for instance, the Shelby family is strategic; although the Shelbys can certainly be read as “benevolent,” their apparent “kindness” does not benefit Tom in any way: he is sold away from his wife and children and dies at the hands of Legree – meaning, Stowe shows readers that, in regards to slavery, the best case scenario is still an absolutely awful scenario. I think this same idea is replicated with Augustine St. Clare, one of the more “likeable” slave owners, and who also fails to do anything beneficial for his slaves; he plans on doing something, but feels there is ample time…and then he gets stabbed to death only a couple of pages after he comments on all the time he has to act. But I guess with any text, it’s our job to encourage students to interrogate their assumptions and look deeper into a text rather than be content with a cursory reading.


What’s your favorite space in San Antonio?

Between having a baby AND being a huge homebody, I don’t really get out much. I will say though that after spending five years in a tiny Florida college town, having a slew of restaurants and entertainment options to choose from is amazing, even overwhelming. Also, breakfast tacos have changed my life for the better.


Where is your favorite place to get breakfast tacos? This is a very important question.

I feel like this is a trick question to get me to say the wrong place! The best place is the place closest to me at the moment I want breakfast tacos (as long as it is not a Taco Bell).


Is there a literary figure you could name who had a profound impact on you personally or academically? 

This is a tough question…and I don’t think I can limit myself to one figure. I think Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Nathaniel Hawthorne are fascinating, confusing, and troubling. I just wrapped up teaching novels by Charles Chesnutt and Charles Brockden Brown, and I can’t stop thinking about their works.


Do you have a guilty pleasure, pop culture or otherwise? 

I do occasionally watch the Amazing Race (while imagining what my strategies would be when I’m on the race, ha) but I don’t have any guilt about it. Other than that, I really like Reese’s peanut butter cups.


If you were to run the Amazing Race, would you choose Dr. Ardoin as your partner, or are you willing to acknowledge that he would drag you down?

I would prefer not to.



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