Profile: Diana Henderson
Professor of Literature, Dean for Curriculum and Faculty Support
"The strong focus on the future at MIT affects the way we study literature — our inclusion of courses in women’s studies, comparative media, film and television."
Diana Henderson; photography, Richard Howard
by Lynda Morgenroth
Metaphorically speaking, Professor Diana Henderson sought a great and roomy house with good light. The study and teaching of literature has provided lifelong residence, enabling her to occupy and explore her wide range of interests—theater, poetry, and the novel; history, philosophy, and music.
“The field of literary studies is capacious,” says Henderson. She has taught Shakespeare, lyric poetry, film, and gender studies. Her undergraduate seminars have probed the work of playwrights Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill, and novelist Virginia Woolf. A literary scholar who might have become a director, she uses theater, including performance, to engage (and also to change) her students.
She tells of a shy student who wound up engaged in — and emboldened by — the study and purpose of costumes. “Another student, a literature and math major, did a report on John Wallis, the 17th century mathematician and code breaker, who shows up in Adriano’s play [“The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes”]. The student’s sensibility shaped what he wanted to study and was brought to bear in his conversations and presentations. He got to study math from a different perspective and connect it to literature.”
Henderson grew up in Alexandria, Virginia and had ample opportunity to study various cultural strands. Her mother’s family has lived in Virginia for 400 years, while her father grew up in New York. Combining these ancestral influences, she earned her undergraduate degree in English and Philosophy at William & Mary in Virginia, and her Masters and Doctorate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia in New York City. She worked at Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts outside Washington, D.C. and studied theater and music. But once she started to lecture at Columbia, she knew she had found her vocation — drawn to the leaps and new understandings that happen in the classroom.
For almost a decade Henderson taught at Middlebury College in Vermont. “After nine years at Middlebury, I felt, enough—of a small town, and cold, and isolation. But I had wonderful students there, and learned the craft of teaching.”
She arrived at the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Scienes in 1995, attracted by the scholarship at MIT and the challenge of working in an atmosphere where science and technology shape students’ thinking.
“There’s an almost relentless focus on the future here,” she laughs. “It affects the way we study literature—our inclusion of courses in women’s studies, comparative media, film and television.
Henderson, who is also Dean for Curriculum and Faculty Support, approaches her students like the theater director she might have become, creating an academic mise en scène for every class. “You work to create the conditions that will work for students — that enable them to become more knowledgeable, and also more elo- quent, communicative, and self-confident.”
One of her favorite presentations is the reading that takes place at the end of each semester’s seminar on drama, science and performance. While the 2005 seminar was the only instance a professional play was written, Henderson and Sonenberg continue to teach their students “to think about the material not just historically
After living in Virginia, Morningside Heights, and Vermont, the professor is now at home in one of Boston’s oldest, densest 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, mystery, music, film, psychology, philosophy, poetry, modernism, the Renaissance, and storytelling would want — a generous and cozy home with ample room to roam. A capacious life. ∎
Lynda Morgenroth is an essayist and journalist, and the author of two books, Boston Firsts: 40 Feats of Innovation and Invention that Happened First in Boston and Helped Make America Great, and Boston Neighborhoods: A Food Lover's Walking, Eating, and Shopping Guide to Ethnic Enclaves in and around Boston.She is a contributing writer to Soundings Magazine.