Lover of Wordsworth and the Wild

Blonde-haired, blue eyed, nomadic, Oxford graduate, Ph.D. student Emma Hammack can tell you what a ptarmigan is and what dendrophilous means. She can tell you the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise. But there’s one word that is not in her vocabulary: “disinterest.” She learns with the awe and enthusiasm of a giggling baby seeing her reflection in the mirror for the first time.

Hammack was born in San Diego. With her father in the military, the family lived in Arizona, Germany, New Mexico, Florida, before ending up back in San Diego, where she attended high school.

From a young age, Hammack was curious, always asking questions and trying to understand the unknown. One day during her childhood, her mother was worried that something was wrong with her. So she took Hammack and her sister, Molly, to the doctor’s office where she explained her concerns. While Molly was calm and quiet, Hammack climbed the medicine cabinet and outstretched her arm, reaching for the skull that rested on the edge of the table.

“I was pretty precocious and always wanted to go out and look at things, always incredibly curious,” she said.

Books have fostered her imagination since childhood. On family camping trips, Hammack’s favorite activity was reading the Goosebumps book in the dark woods. Her mother quickly learned to bring a few extra books for when her eager daughter exhausted the ones she packed. Whether it was the books she read—such as Earl Stein’s—or things she wrote, Hammack was eager to analyze the plot and its characters. Her passion for exchanging ideas and delving into a text eventually translated into her research in literature.

As professional educators, both her parents were adamant supporters of intellectual exploration, especially in literature. But, Hammack takes all the credit discovering her love of science. She was interested in science as a kid, and saw the outdoors as her playground. Hammack was always playing with trees and animals, trying to unlock the marvels of nature. Growing up she hoped to become two things: a teacher and a zoologist for National Geographic. These desires still guide her career today as well as her goals for the future. The dichotomous nature of the two professions is emblematic of how Hammack’s mind processes her surroundings: at an academic level and a level based more in the day to day realities, the nuances of which can get lost in the removed nature of the classroom.

Her constant desire for making connections sparked her interest in both disciplines. She has always wanted the opportunity to work in the Amazon or be in the Kalahari. Through literature, she has the opportunity to discover these destinations in the reading she does.  

“A mistake that a lot of people—students, educators, whomever—make is not realizing that kind of art is a science to a certain degree,” Hammack said.

According to Hammack, analysis is a scientific process that serves to uncover the intellectual nature of individuals. For this reason, she proudly acknowledges that the discipline of literature is greatly interrelated with that of science.

Enjoying this connection, she went on to pursue a zoology degree at the University of Hawaii. Surrounded by both mountains and oceans, Hawaii served as a great inspiration for her research, reminding her of childhood experiences in nature that first piqued her interest in science.

Hammack describes her experience as both incredible and taxing as she was deciphering what she wanted to learn and how she was going to do it. Being on an island far away from home was especially difficult for her. And of course, like any freshman in college, she was trying to figure out how to survive on her own.    

After transferring from the University of Hawaii, she completed her undergraduate education at the University of Santa Barbara. While her friends surfed, Hammack would sit by the rocks, working through her readings.

“For me, you always kind of have to integrate the natural world with your internal world,” she said.

Her education did not stop there. In order to process her degree and figure out her next career steps, she took some time off. She traveled around Mexico, Europe, and Canada. Hammack then decided to continue her education at the University of Oxford in England, where she earned her masters degree in English literature. At Oxford, she was in awe of the rich tradition that surrounded her.

“There is something about tradition that is incredibly encouraging towards, I think, education and towards trying to reach higher levels,” Hammack said.

The contrast between the modern culture and the antiquated buildings that surrounded the city was profound. She found herself listening to Akon while walking around buildings constructed in 1737. Hammack had the pleasure of meeting so many interesting people and traveling to a variety of new locations.

After experiencing both the education system in America and the United Kingdom, she noted significant differences in the way that they structure their curriculum. She particularly loves the “interdisciplinary awareness” that American education systems employ. In the U.S. system, students typically take a core of different classes before declaring a major, while in the U.K., students have a more narrow study focused on their major.

Her appetite for knowledge is what constantly draws her back to school. She is passionate about the teacher-student interchange.

“I learn as much from my students as they learn from me,” Hammack said.

After working for a publishing company for a few years, Hammack decided to move to Boston to continue her involvement with education. She knew that she wanted to live on the East Coast and loved Boston, so it was an easy decision. She describes her experience as a “great, lucky dynamic” between living on the east coast and studying and working at BC.

Currently, she is completing her Ph.D. in literature at BC. Her fascination for 19th-century authors has inspired her current work: Hammack is writing a piece on the connection between walking through nature and the poems of writers like Williams Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Interestingly, through her work, she has concluded that nature indeed affects the utilities of the brain.

Hammack is teaching a unique elective course at BC this semester called Solitary Genius: Transatlantic Romanticism in the 19th Century. Based on the exchange of ideas within the literary genre between 19th-century Britain and America, it focuses on the notion of the solitary genius or “mad man” as she describes it. Along with her students, she seeks to explore the connections between different literary masters, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry Thoreau, within their particular time and place.

She doesn’t teach alone, however. She has a furry teaching assistant, a “big ol’ mutt” named Bear.

Her students react wonderfully to having him in class. She believes it relieves the pressure of a college classroom and gives students space to say that thing they’ve been itching to say but maybe were afraid to. Surprisingly, this beloved dog reacts to class discussions.  

“[He] puts his two cents in every once in while. He really likes Coleridge, does not like Wordsworth,” she said.

Hammack strongly believes that interacting with animals is beneficial for both mental and physical health. Along with teaching, Hammack is working at BC as an instructional technology consultant. She helps the faculty navigate sites like Canvas and tests out new programs. With faculty members, she discusses social media platforms like Snapchat, Twitter, and even “why Vine is dead.” She enjoys her work in that it differs from the traditional question-answer method of teaching that she employs within the classroom. It’s an excellent way of understanding technology and how it can be used more efficiently throughout BC. While she has a lot on her plate at the moment, Hammack has a whole agenda of noteworthy goals she wants to achieve in future.

“I have more plans than I have time or resources for … For the next couple of years, I will be a bit like an ostrich, head stuck in the sand,” she said.

After finishing her doctorate at BC, she would like to continue teaching. She intends to keep writing and to dedicate herself more fully to research and to learning more about neuroscience and cognitive theory. Academics aside, Hammack also plans to continue her travels throughout the world. But, more than anything, she still hopes to work for National Geographic one day.  Hammack is grateful for her “tenacity and resiliency,” as it has helped her remained focused in the face of the ups and downs that life has thrown her way.

She has no regrets, firmly believing that with failure comes the opportunity for growth. Failure has allowed her to be bolder and more outspoken in the way she defends herself and asks questions.

Most of all, Hammack relies on her awareness. She strongly believes that “education is self-motivated” but one has to maintain a certain type of awareness to move forward in their studies, constantly evaluating themselves and paying attention to their passions.

March 25, 2018