Erica Haugtvedt is Assistant Professor of English in the Humanities department and regularly teaches both HUM 200 (Connections: Humanities and Technology) and HUM 375 (Computers in Society) as part of the Science, Technology, and Society degree program.
What’s your area of expertise? What do you primarily research and/or teach? And what drew you to this field?
I study the history of fandom. I study the nineteenth-century British novel and its spin-offs as evidence of how people reacted to and thought about narratives and characters. I like to think about how print newspapers, magazines, books, and theatre are all interrelated. Another way of saying what I specialize in is to say that I study the history of transmedia storytelling (for more about what transmedia storytelling means, see Henry Jenkins’ writing here).
I think there were a lot of things that drew me to these topics, but the main memory I’ll relate it back to is being a fan of Harry Potter in high school. Harry Potter books had been coming out since I was in late elementary school, but I hadn’t read them because I thought they were too popular and overrated. Then, during my freshmen year of high school, my best friend convinced me to read Harry Potter around when the fourth book came out. She said that I would love them, and she was totally right. There was a long publication gap between the fourth book and the fifth book (three years), so during that time my best friend and I became part of the Harry Potter fandom online as we waited for more from Rowling. This was a transformative experience for me because fandom was a unique culture that had a sophisticated scholarly apparatus for detailing facts from the books and for interpreting them. You can say a lot about fandom that is derisive, but that mode of reading and looking for more engagement—that really made a lasting impression on me. I’m not active in fandom anymore, sadly, but I will always be ready to defend fans and fandom.
My first year in college, I took a first year seminar on Cognitive Narratology from one of my mentors, Professor Frederick Aldama, at The Ohio State University. Cognitive narratology combines approaches from psychology and narrative theory to help explain how narratives work on people. I immediately wanted to combine cognitive narratology with insights I had picked up from fandom and fan studies. In some ways, the modes of interpreting narrative from each theory’s perspective were very different, but I also saw some fundamental commonalities that still stay with me today.
As to how I became a Victorianist? I gravitated to what I liked to read best. I think maybe the answer, again, can be found in Harry Potter. What I loved about Harry Potter was its combination of fairy tale, folklore, and modern storytelling. I had also always liked studying the nineteenth century in general—my ancestors emigrated from Norway to the U.S. in the late 1800s, so I found that story of leaving the homeland for a new world to be very evocative. I liked reading many Victorian novelists like the Brontës and Dickens already; I’m a bit of an Anglophile. The Victorians have also always struck me as relatable in a lot of ways, so when I discovered that serialization—the publication mode where stories are broken up and distributed in smaller parts across time—was one of the most popular publication formats during the Victorian period, I felt that the period was exactly what I wanted to spend my days thinking about.
What’s one of your favorite courses, topics, or specific texts to teach? Why?
One of my favorite courses to teach is HUM 375: Computers in Society. Although it might not initially seem like a person who studies Victorian media history would be interested in computers, I like to see the interrelations between types of media, and that includes seeing print as an ancestor of computers and the internet.
I also like teaching about the thwarted history of the Victorian computer. In the early 1840s, Charles Babbage had detailed plans for a steam-powered general-purpose computer called the Analytical Engine, but it was never built in his lifetime (for a number of reasons, the most salient of which is that he was bad at communication—so take your STEM Communication classes seriously!). Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, translated an article explaining how Babbage’s Analytical Engine would work. In the footnotes, she wrote one of the first computer programs and predicted that computers would be used to “calculate symbolical results” and not just crunch numbers. In the 1990s, the forerunner to Babbage’s Analytical Engine, The Difference Engine, was finally built from Babbage’s plans, but to my knowledge nobody has yet built the Analytical Engine (a 2013 TEDx talk expressed plans to do so before the 2030s).
What’s something you’ve done that you’re really proud of?
In September, I have an article, “Victorian Penny Press Plagiarisms as Transmedia Storytelling,” coming out in Transformative Works and Cultures, an open-source, peer-reviewed academic journal published by The Organization for Transformative Works, which also runs An Archive of Our Own. I’m particularly proud of this publication because it takes my years of research in narrative theory, the history of the novel, and Victorian periodical studies and brings all that back to a publication venue that is not only open-source (which means it’s free to access for anyone), but that is also a publication that is for, about, and by fans themselves. This is not my first publication, but the fact that this article is able to uniquely speak across fields to an audience of fans and fan scholars is special to me.
Tell us about a book you’ve read recently, a movie you’ve seen recently, or another work of art or media you’ve engaged with recently that you really enjoyed and would like to recommend. Or: what is your favorite book, movie, or other work of art/media? Why?
This is a hard one. I like watching British crime dramas, or basically just British dramas in general. In the last few years, my favorites have been Top of the Lake, Broadchurch, and Happy Valley.
I almost always need a good TV series or novel in my life or I feel bored and unfulfilled. On the American side, I’ve really enjoyed Better Call Saul (just caught up by buying the latest season). Bob Odenkirk is a fantastic actor, and the characters in that series are all so complicated and realistically portrayed. I also like anticipating and trying to connect the world of Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad.
Since these are all crime series, they have mature and violent content—so take that into consideration when considering whether to watch.
My very favorite TV show of all time is Mad Men. Seriously, that is such a beautiful show, I could watch it again and again (and have). I consider it a very novelistic TV show. My PhD advisor, Professor Sean O’Sullivan, has written about Mad Men and serial narrative.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
It’s been a few years since I’ve been able to travel abroad, but Norway is near and dear to my heart. My family started visiting and making friends with our distant relatives there more than twenty years ago. Now, my son is the same age as one of his cousins in Norway, so I hope someday they’ll be able to meet and play together.