If Jane Austen were magically to come back to life and appear in Devoney Looser’s ’89 English classroom at Arizona State University, she would undoubtedly be charmed by the lively discussion of her writings from two centuries ago, pleased that they had survived and continue to be relevant among college students. If she decided to hang out after class, however, she would be in for quite a surprise, learning about Looser’s athletic alter ego. For the past five years, Looser has played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen.
A Twin Cities native, Looser first encountered Austen’s novels as a teenager (thanks to her mother, who had not read the novels herself but sensed their importance). Looser loved the opportunity to read them then—and loves to teach them now—along with other favorites from that era, like Frances Burney, Mary Hays, and Maria Edgeworth. She also is intrigued by other truly unusual women from that period who led fascinating lives: Harriette Wilson, Lady Hester Stanhope, and Anne Lister.
Now, Looser is following their example. She is editor of a recently released volume, The Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing in the Romantic Period (Cambridge University Press). As much as she enjoys spending time around people who’ve written fascinating books (one of the “great gifts” of her professional life), she is likely surrounded by many who feel the same about her. Find more information on her numerous publications and background at devoneylooser.com.
For Looser, a really fine day in the classroom is team-teaching Jane Austen’s Emma (1816) with her husband, George Justice, also an English professor at ASU. She loves watching the students respond to the two of them arguing over the interpretation of a character or a passage, and getting them to use the text to figure out and support their own positions. Also, Looser says, “if they laugh at our dorky quips, that’s a pretty good day!”
So what would Jane Austen appreciate about watching Stone Cold Jane Austen out on the flat track? Looser thinks Austen “would have enjoyed the idea of strong women working together but would maybe not be such a fan of the tattoos.” Both activities (teaching and playing roller derby) require a sense of adventure, possibility, and wonder, says Looser, as well as being open to new things, being willing to work hard with others, and not really knowing if you are going to “get anywhere.”
She is grateful that her friends encouraged her to join them at roller derby, even though she worried at first that, because she was already in her 40s, she was too old to start. She discovered that she loved the skating, the speed, and even the hitting and taking a hit of roller derby, but thinks “none of it would have been worth it without the community of incredible people out there sweating together.” Playing derby may even have helped her improve her teaching of literature. Looser suspects that the mixture of excitement, fear, and lack of confidence she often feels on the derby track is similar to what some students experience when they open a Jane Austen novel for the first time. That’s what she told Phoenix’s Fox 10 News, when they did a short feature on her as a roller derby professor a year ago.
As a first-generation college student, Looser looks back on her Augsburg experience with gratitude. It never occurred to the shy, introverted first-year Auggie to imagine herself as an English professor, but professor Cathie Nicholl counseled her in her sophomore year not to drop her French class as she would need that for graduate school. With space to try many new things, and encouragement from an “amazing faculty,” Looser found herself in the Honors Program and served as co-editor of the Echo, a section editor of the yearbook, and editor of the literary magazine, Murphy Square. After earning her PhD in English, with certification in women’s studies, from SUNY-Stony Brook, she held teaching positions at Indiana State University, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Louisiana State University, and the University of Missouri. She has been Professor of English at ASU since 2013.
Looser and Justice live in Phoenix, Ariz., with their two sons, aged 9 and 11. If you don’t find her in her classroom, you may want to check out the ASU Derby Devils. The Derby Devils are one of the few collegiate roller derby teams, and last April, they competed in the first-ever collegiate roller derby bout, an experience that Looser wrote about in Slate. If you’d attended that historic bout, you’d have recognized her as the one with the streaming golden hair who speaks impeccable English.
By Cheryl Crockett ‘89