Victorian Novels and the Power of Words: English Professor Carol Hanbery MacKay ‘62 Shares Her Love For Literature

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MacKay’s portrait in the 1962 M-A yearbook.

This is the fifteenth article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.

Carol Hanbery MacKay ‘62 was an enthusiastic M-A English student who is now in academia. She currently holds the J. R. Millikan Centennial Professorship in English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin.

MacKay said, “English was always kind of my thing—I loved my English classes at M-A. Ms. Davis was my sophomore year English teacher, and I had Ms. Backhus for junior year.” MacKay was also the editor of the Oak Leaves literary magazine and a member of the Future Teachers of America club.

After graduating from M-A, MacKay studied English at Stanford, where she received both her B.A. and M.A. degrees. She earned a Ph.D. from UCLA after writing a dissertation titled “Thinking Out Loud in Thackeray: Soliloquy in the Novels of William Makepeace Thackeray.”

On her writing process, MacKay said, “I spend anywhere from weeks to months absorbing and reading primary texts and critical articles, and taking notes on both the content and my own ideas. At some point, I brainstorm and try to figure out what the point of all the reading I’ve been doing is, and what I am headed toward. I have a pre-writing questionnaire that I give my students which I also use myself. It starts out with questions like: What are you writing about? What’s important? What couple of points do you want to be sure to make? And the last one is: So what? Why bother? Usually people’s instinctive answer to that last question is the one they want to elaborate on—that eventually becomes their thesis.”

After a few teaching stints at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, and UCLA, MacKay settled into her current job at the University of Texas at Austin. 

She said, “I teach Victorian novels—those are my favorites. Right now I’m teaching a wonderful course focusing on four ‘Loose, Baggy Monsters’: Vanity Fair by William Thackeray, Villette by Charlotte Brontë, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and Middlemarch by George Eliot.” Two more of MacKay’s favorite courses to teach are a graduate class on the dual-protagonist novel, which begins with Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, and an honors freshman English course focused on works by female authors.

One of MacKay’s Honors Freshman World Literature students who is also a Journalism major remarked, “This course has been so helpful for my growth as a writer. I’m starting to recognize that what can be said in fewer words should sometimes be said in more! I have always been focused on conciseness, but the works we have studied have shown me that sometimes mere beauty in words is worth keeping. In my writing next semester, I hope to apply this while finding a good middle ground between consolidating as much as possible and using too much clutter. As a journalism student, this is particularly interesting because news writing is so minimalistic, whereas essay writing has more room for style.”

In many of MacKay’s courses, one of the first writing assignments is for students to write the first pages of their own autobiographies. “I tell them to find something creative that epitomizes what they’re like,” said MacKay. “I don’t grade it. I have them share in small groups and then some students share theirs in front of the class. Later in the course, I have them take it out and wonder if they would still start it the same way.”

On day-to-day life in academia, MacKay said, “I give lectures, mentor students, correct papers, and write articles, papers, and book chapters. I also edit volumes, especially of female writers whose work is out of print, contribute to collections of essays, and attend conferences.”

On her teaching philosophy, MacKay said, “I want to help my students hone the skills that can carry them into a lifetime of analysis and contemplation about the issues they confront on a daily basis, whether these confrontations comprise the intellectual challenges of an academic setting or the everyday acts of navigating their lives.”

MacKay’s advice to current M-A students: “Keep reading, writing, and engaging in discussions with other people—and not just the ones who agree with you. One of the main things I do as a professor is teach courses that have a lot of reading and a lot of writing. There are larger courses that have lots of tests instead of papers—those are not the ones I like to teach. You really learn by writing about what you’ve been reading. Your goal should be to be your own teacher, to keep teaching yourself how to learn.“

MacKay is also a strong proponent of hard copy books. She said, “I think that used books and old books are very important to keep. I don’t like seeing people divesting themselves of hard copy books just because you can do so much reading on the internet these days. I’m always going to be surrounded by hard copy books.”

Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. All have wisdom, entertaining anecdotes, and book recommendations to share. There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them!

Caroline Pecore is a senior in her first year of journalism. Her column, "Bears Doing Big Things," runs every Monday. She enjoys meeting new people through journalism and writing about the M-A community. Outside of school, she spends most of her time rowing for Norcal Crew and also enjoys reading, drawing, and exploring the outdoors.

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