"The significance of literature in an atmosphere permeated by science and technology..."
Professor of Literature
Dean for Curriculum and Faculty Support
Metaphorically speaking, Professor Diana Henderson sought a great and roomy house with good light, and in the study and teaching of literature she has found that generous residence. "The field of literary studies is capacious," says Henderson.
A Love of Literature and Theater
She has taught Shakespeare, lyric poetry, film, and gender studies. Her undergraduate seminars have probed the works of Tom Stoppard and Virginia Woolf. A literary scholar who might have become a director, she uses theater and performance to engage her students. She recalls a shy student who was emboldened by the study of costumes, and a math/literature double major who connected the two disciplines by his literary work on John Wallis, the 17th century mathematician.
With Janet Sonenberg, Professor of Theatre Arts, Henderson co-teaches a seminar on drama, science and performance. Recently, the seminar catalyzed material that led to "The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes," a play written by Adriano Shaplin, and produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.
Leaps of Understanding
Growing up in Virginia, Henderson had ample opportunity to observe various cultural strands. On her mother's side, her family has lived in Virginia for 400 years, while her father grew up in New York City. She earned her undergraduate degree in English and Philosophy at William & Mary, and her Masters and Doctorate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia.
She also studied theatre and music and worked at Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts. When she began teaching at Columbia, and saw the leaps of understanding that happen in the classroom, she knew she had found her vocation. After nearly a decade at Middlebury College, Henderson arrived at the School, attracted by the intellectual excitement here, and the significance of teaching literature in an atmosphere permeated by science and technology.
Mise en scene
"At MIT, there's an almost relentless focus on the future," she laughs. "A affects the way we study literature—for example, our courses in comparative media, film and television." Henderson approaches her classroom like a theatre director, creating an academic mise en scene. "You work to create the conditions that encourage students—that enable them to grow more knowledgeable, eloquent, communicative, and self-confident."
After living in Vermont, Virginia, and New York, Henderson is now at home in one of Boston's oldest neighborhoods. The scale, antiquity and architecture of Beacon Hill remind her of Alexandria, and the Cambridge-Boston nexus provides much of what one drawn by history, music, film, psychology, philosophy, poetry, modernism, the Renaissance, and storytelling would want—a generous home with ample room to roam.