This fall, 11 new tenure-track faculty members joined Scripps College, including two at the W.M. Keck Science Department. As part of our ongoing series on Scripps’ new faculty, the Office of Marketing and Communications recently sat down with Tessie Prakas, who joins the College as an assistant professor of English.
Prakas’s research focuses on early modern poetry and poetics, and especially on devotional lyric. Her current book project, Poetic Priesthood: Reformed Ministry and Radical Verse in the Seventeenth Century, argues that early modern poetry often served to provide models for religious devotion that were distinct from, and sometimes antithetical to, the established church. Her teaching focuses largely on Shakespeare, 16th- and 17th-century poetry, and on the relationship between music and literature. Prakas previously taught at Kenyon College in Ohio, where she held a two-year position as a visiting assistant professor. She received her PhD from Yale University.
Scripps College: As a specialist in Shakespeare, and in early modern literature more broadly, what can students expect in your classroom?
Tessie Prakas: I am currently teaching an introductory British literature course and a course on Shakespeare’s comedies and histories, and both of these bring together famous works with others that are much less well known. I have been very excited by how open Scripps students seem to texts that are unfamiliar to them, and I look forward to our exploring Shakespeare together this year—the 400th anniversary of his death—and in future years.
The early modern literature I teach richly rewards close attention to the layers of meaning in individual words, but also to the historical circumstances that have helped to produce them. When we study Shakespeare, in particular, we think about his words in performance, since so much of his work was written for the stage. Students in my classes can expect to do a lot of reading aloud! And they can expect even more lively forms of performance too: the course ends with a class production for which—in keeping with early modern performance practice—the students will have one reading and rehearsal, go off and study their parts, and then perform. These performances are strictly for the classroom, of course! I look forward to building the Shakespearean tradition that already exists at Scripps, as well as to developing new courses on early modern “outsiders” and on poetry and poetics in the Renaissance.
SC: On the topic of early modern poetry and poetics, your research on devotional lyric considers how poetic form was important to the personal piety of some 17th-century writers, giving them a creative way to navigate the larger ecclesiastical shifts of the Protestant Reformation. How did you arrive at this subject?
TP: My passion for 17th-century poetry started when I was 16 and was assigned the first two books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost for a high school English course. I tried to read the poetry by myself over the summer and felt mystified. When class started on the first day of the semester, though, our teacher asked me to read the first 26 lines of the poem aloud, and I was able to grasp something powerful about the words in hearing and feeling them—which is to say, I suppose, that I realized they had grasped me. As I continued to study Milton and other early modern poets in college and graduate school, I became increasingly fascinated by the formal control and precision of the verse produced in this period of immense political and religious turmoil.
My current book project, Poetic Priesthood, has grown out of that fascination, and focuses on the vexed connections between poetic and ministerial practice in England in the 17th century. It considers this historical moment as one in which, in the wake of the Reformation, the question of how to practice religious devotion was important. I study four poets who had deep professional and personal commitments to the church—three of them were ordained ministers, in fact—but who used verse to do a kind of work that seemed unavailable (or not available to the same extent) within that institution. They used it to give their readers new models for thinking about their relationship to their god, models that were sometimes bolder, more vibrant, and more emotionally fraught than those offered by the liturgy. And we also see poetry, in their hands, becoming a tool for an increasingly radical critique of the ecclesiastical institution, and of the ways in which—for at least one of these poets—it had in fact become an obstacle to genuine piety.
SC: You mentioned your own struggles as a student with unfamiliar or difficult texts. How do you see Scripps students responding to similar challenges?
TP: Thus far I have found that the students at Scripps are extremely willing and eager to accept texts on their own terms. Like many others who teach, I have been thinking about the implications of the word “relatable,” which has seen such a rise in our critical currency in the last few years. I’m troubled by the ways in which it puts our own experience at the center of our attempts to explore less familiar entities, and I’m thrilled by the tendency of the students here not to think in that way. I discuss with them how we might recognize the value of our experiences without thinking that ours is the only perspective, and how we might regard the study of early modern literature as a gateway into some radically different political, aesthetic, and ethical perspectives. I have come to appreciate, too, how much we benefit from the intimate, collegial space that the liberal arts environment provides for exploring challenging and unfamiliar material, and to appreciate how the students here also recognize and value that benefit.
SC: Is there a fact about yourself that is surprising, or that people don’t know about, that you’d like to share?
TP: I moonlight as a musician, and a few years ago I was part of a group that was featured on a major network reality TV show. We got as far as the quarter finals.