Professor Spotlight: Dr. Maha Jafri

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By Katherine LeClair
Staff Writer

Assistant Professor of English Dr. Maha Jafri is a lover of language, literature, and the magic that Sewanee brings to the classroom. While chatting over a cup of coffee, she gestured to the window of her office that looks over a beautifully busy stretch of the campus.  

“When I look out the window and I see the beautiful buildings and the students walking around… it doesn’t even look real,” she said with a laugh. “Part of me just thinks that one day I’m going to wake up and it’s just going to have been a dream.”

After receiving her B.A. in English from Johns Hopkins University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Northwestern, Jafri came to Sewanee more than prepared to teach Victorian literature, her area of specialization. When she arrived, she remarked that Sewanee “reenchanted the world” for her in ways that she didn’t expect.

“The literary tradition here is so strong,” she said. She feels that because of this tradition, students have a shared sense of purpose which creates strong bonds within the English community. “All of you are crafting your purpose under the auspices of a shared dream,” she remarked.

It is clear that Jafri values the time she spends with her students. She believes that the closeness of the Sewanee community “can’t help but inform the way you teach.” Like all professors, she enjoys observing the academic growth of students, but what’s most rewarding, she contended, is empowering students to analyze and value literature in their own ways.

“When you help someone learn to appreciate something, you are giving them a renewable source of knowledge and pleasure,” she said.

Referring to her own education, she remarked, “I feel like I have been enabled to think in ways that are immensely gratifying to me because someone else helped me to understand something.”

Jafri’s teaching style is in part inspired by her own undergraduate professors. She said, “When teaching I am always thinking back to…that sensation of seeing something captured in language that you didn’t even know there was a way to capture. Those are the things I got from college literature classes that I really appreciated.”

After college, she read more classic novels simply for the sake of enjoyment, and during this period she discovered Middlemarch, now one of her favorite books to teach. “It really is a book that completely transformed the way I think about things, and I go back to it constantly,” she said.

Jafri is currently working on a manuscript entitled Between Us: Gossip, Sociability, and the Victorian Novel. She explained, “Victorian novels were very aware of how the practices of narration echo the practices of gossip.”

While describing this pattern in Victorian novels, Jane Austen became the topic of conversation, and Jafri beamed. “You know that very first line of Pride and Prejudice?” she asked and began to recite the famous line from memory. She then grabbed her annotated copy of the novel, knowing its exact place amongst the hundreds of books that fill her office.

As she read aloud the first paragraph of Austen’s novel, her admiration for literature and passion for teaching became apparent. Later, describing the joys of teaching, she said, “What’s pleasurable, and what’s deeply rewarding… is just talking about really beautiful things with a bunch of people.”

Jafri considers herself “very fortunate” to analyze works of literature with students. She believes that “literature is one of many ways of understanding the world,” and by looking at texts from the past, today’s world becomes more clear.

When asked about her primary goal as an educator, Jafri remarked that she hopes she can give students the tools they need to find the value in any given work. “I want my students to understand that literature is for everyone,” she said. “Anyone and everyone can enjoy, critique, or understand a work of literature.”