Emory Report
February 26, 2007
Volume 59, Number 21

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February 26, 2007
Affection for connection

by kim urquhart

Spanish professor Karen Stolley enjoys creating connections. She believes that language training is intimately connected to cultural learning, and recalls the last faculty abroad trip she led to Salamanca, Spain, in 2001. Faculty returned from the month-long course and told Stolley: “I thought I’d go and learn Spanish, but I never realized it would be so significant in terms of having me rethink my connection with the institution and with my colleagues, and my own teaching practices,” she recalls.

Through her work as chair of Emory’s Spanish and Portuguese Department, trustee of her alma mater, Middlebury College, and a crusader for public education, Stolley links engaged scholarship with community engagement.

“I think what brings me to work every day is the possibility to make intellectual and human connections,” she says. “To take what I know and to combine it with what other people know exponentially expands how Spanish, Spanish American and Latino culture resonate for all of us.”

Spanish is no longer a foreign language in the U.S., Stolley says. Latino populations have increased by almost 53 percent in the last five years in Atlanta alone. “There’s been a similar explosion in terms of two phenomena: the number of students wanting to study Spanish and the number of Spanish-speaking students entering the education pipeline at every level,” she says. “One is a question of demographics, and the other is a question of the discipline. But both change the role that departments of Spanish or Hispanic studies play in universities.”

The ability to speak Spanish is “an important skill, and at the same time it’s much more than a skill,” Stolley says. “Undergraduate students take Spanish not because they’re trying to fulfill a requirement, and not only because they’re going into health sciences or into the legal profession where Spanish is becoming increasingly important, but because they are interested in issues of cross-cultural communication.”

“Our greatest challenge is negotiating the recognition of the exploding need for and interest in Spanish with the danger of Spanish departments being understood solely as service departments,” says Stolley, noting that language departments “are not a translation service and are not Berlitz.”

Instead, she says, “What we offer is really a way of thinking about how language and discourse are produced and how they work.”

Whether the object of study is a novel, a film, the knotted thread of a quipu at the Carlos Museum, or a letter to the editor in the Spanish-language Atlanta newspaper El Mundo Latino, the close reading of texts “runs from our 100-level classes all the way through our graduate seminars and to our scholarship,” Stolley says. “The connections that link the undergraduate and the graduate programs and the scholarship we do as faculty really energize me. They link those who focus on peninsular literature and those who work on Latin American literature, and the study of Latino literature and culture within the U.S.” She adds: “I think my own personal focus on connections is reflected in the department as a whole,” a department that has become nationally known for best practices in terms of student preparation and the strength of its faculty.

Stolley applies the same energy to her teaching, and was recently listed as a “favorite professor” in Atlanta Magazine’s Georgia College Guide. Her upper-level graduate courses and graduate seminars reflect her research interests: colonial Spanish American literature and culture; 18th-century studies; and early modern transatlantic studies.

“Broadly, my field is colonial Spanish America,” she explains. “That’s anything from Columbus’ 1492 ship logs up to Latin American independence, which comes in the beginning of the 19th century, when most of the viceroyalties break from Spain to form newly independent nations.”

She says she is “interested in the general issue of women writing in the colonial period — convent writing particularly, since it is often nuns who were the ones who had access to education and time to write.” Recently, she says, her specific field of research has been the 18th century, “the tail end of the colonial period that has been overlooked or underestimated by scholars of Spanish American literary history.”

In this area, she is currently completing a book on the domestication of colonial topics in the 18th-century rewritings of earlier Latin American texts. She has also authored “El lazarillo de ciegos caminantes: un itinerario critico” and has an article forthcoming in the Modern Language Association of America “Approaches to Teaching” series, co-authored with her former graduate student David Slade. “The article looks at how the Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas, — famous as a defender of Amerindians against Spanish mistreatment during the colonial period — was received and read in the 18th century.”

Also forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press is Stolley’s article that examines narrative accounts written by Jesuits about their expulsion from Spanish territories in 1767. “It’s a key moment in Spanish American history, and the way the story is told reflects both colonial tensions and criollo nostalgia,” she says.
Languages come naturally to Stolley, who is also proficient in French, Portuguese and Italian. Her interest in Spanish was sparked as an exchange student in Argentina during the year between high school and college. “I think I would have always been an academic,” she muses, but said her “incredible experience” in Latin America led her to pursue study in Spanish.

She continued her travels in college — where she met her husband a fellow Spanish major — and spent her junior year abroad in both Paris and Madrid. Upon graduation, she spent a year in Bogota, Colombia, on a Fulbright fellowship.

Her own experience has made her “a big supporter” of immersion and study abroad programs, whether they are for high school students, college students or faculty, she says.

Stolley joined Emory in 1992 from Vassar College, where she also taught Spanish, after receiving a Ph.D. in Spanish from Yale University and a B.A. in Spanish and French from Middlebury College in Vermont.
On her participation in this year’s Gustafson faculty seminar at Emory, she says: “In some ways, my whole career has been spent in a conversation between the research university and the liberal arts college.” She calls the Gustafson experience “an intellectual feast” and says she enjoys engaging in conversations with her colleagues throughout the University.

Stolley is well-schooled in the area of liberal education. In her joint role as faculty and trustee, Stolley says she is particularly interested in questions of governance and describes herself as an institutional optimist. “I think that it’s important for individuals to invest time and energy in their academic institution,” she says. “It’s complicated because we’re so short on time, but I think it’s clear that every institution needs a critical mass of faculty who are willing to do that kind of work.”

Her passion also translates into public education, which she strongly supports. Both of her daughters have attended DeKalb County public schools, and Stolley has taken an active role in that arena over the years. She continues to be involved with a Montessori pilot program at Briar Vista Elementary, which she praises as a “curriculum that really encourages the students to take responsibility for their own learning.” It is particularly effective for the many cultures of the “Atlanta diaspora” reflected in DeKalb County classrooms, she says.

And as Emory deepens its own commitment to initiatives in race and difference and engaged scholarship through its strategic plan, Stolley says the Spanish and Portuguese department “will have an important role to play in the conversation as it moves forward.”