Lenfest 2015 Winner: Molly Murray
Asked what makes a good teacher or good student, Molly Murray (CC’94) responds simply, “Curiosity … an openness to new ideas and a willingness to follow them where they lead, into the library or out of it.” She also takes the word “curiosity” back to its Latin root, cura or “care,” and adds that there should be “a willingness to work precisely and patiently to get a thought or a piece of writing exactly right.”
An associate professor of English and Comparative Literature, Murray studies the literature of 16th and 17th century England and its connections to cultural and religious history. She works to bring the texts to life for her students by connecting them to the world the author lived in. For example, students read Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew along with manuals of domestic conduct from that era. When studying the works of 17th century poet and Anglican priest George Herbert, students also read about church architecture.
Murray describes her teaching style as “a combination of rigor and irreverence, scholarship and spontaneity.” She admits to “wild and occasionally indecorous enthusiasms in the classroom,” saying she wants her students to know that while the study of literature is a serious undertaking, the material “can be thrilling to someone living in New York in the 21st century.” She also spends time on what she calls “the nuts and bolts of poetic form” so students can learn to hear and feel a poem, rather than simply paraphrasing its contents.
Murray joined the Columbia faculty in 2004 after earning a Ph.D. at Yale. Her first book, published in 2009, was The Poetics of Conversion in Early Modern Literature, about poetry and religious change in the English Renaissance. Her current book project has to do with cultures of writing in early modern English prisons. She says she doesn’t build her classes around her own research, however. “The best classes I've taught develop their own focuses and preoccupations,” she says. “I wouldn't want to impede that process by imposing my own research agenda on our work together.”
Her teachers in the English department when she was a Columbia undergraduate were an inspiration, she says. “I can only hope that my teaching possesses some faint reflection of Michael Rosenthal's dry wit, Edward Tayler's gnomic erudition, Kathy Eden's utter clarity of thought or Andrew Delbanco's seriousness of purpose.”