MTSU English professor Dr. Marion Hollings uses her horsewoman's knowledge of equestrian lore to create context as she teaches English poetry from around the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. JOHN BUTWELL
Q: What do horses, the historical district of Murfreesboro and MTSU English students have in common?
A: Dr. Marion Hollings, who has strong commitments to all three.
Hollings, who describes herself as "old school, kind of quiet," has been teaching English at MTSU for 23 years now, since 1994. She also served as director of graduate studies in English for several years.
"What I like is getting gifts from students," she quips with a laugh, pointing at the pictures and paperweights that she's been gifted with over her years at MTSU, crowding her desk in Peck Hall. Then, more seriously, Hollings confides, "Really, it's the students and the people I work with. The shared interest in favorite authors and language."
This spring, she taught early modern British literature, 16th-century British poetry and prose, and an introduction to women's and gender studies. In 2016, she won the Outstanding Teaching Award in women's and gender studies, too.
Started out in engineering
But Hollings hasn't always focused on English and gender studies. She started her own college education with an engineering degree from Tulane and a master's from the University of Montana.
Then she decided that she really wanted to study literature, so she started work on her doctorate at the University of Arizona, where she planned to focus on Native American writing. But first, she took a literary theory class and one in British literature. That's when she discovered Edmund Spenser.
"I've always loved poetry," she says. And Spenser's "The Faerie Queene," first published in 1590, is an epic narrative written in beautifully complex poetry.
While she acknowledges that Spenser's characters are more allegorical than realistic, Hollings says, "Spenser has a psychological realism that can be breathtaking."
Heroines from Renaissance
One of Hollings' heroines is Elizabeth the Great of England, the Faerie Queene in the poem. She admires both her politics and her poetry: "I learned a lot from Elizabeth, from her politics."
Another queen from that period Hollings finds impressive is Marguerite de Navarre, an author and patron of humanists and reformers who offered her protection to French Protestants even though she was a Catholic.
A third group of women that Hollings says influenced the future of women were the medieval mystics who sometimes even advised the pope. "They had a claim to authority," she says. "Their freedom of conscience improved women's lives."
In general, Hollings draws inspiration from "strong women and men such as Milton," she says, referring to the 17th-century epic British poet John Milton who wrote "Paradise Lost" while going blind. "He set himself a program of study and followed it all his life."
This is even though he had a political career and wrote extensively, points out Hollings, who chaired the discussion on "Milton's Women" at a recent Milton conference here in Murfreesboro.
Riding horses gives her context
While Hollings learned to ride horseback as a child in New Jersey, she adds that her later study of horsemanship has improved her understanding of medieval literature and history. "Everything they did was equestrian back then," she explains.
As a member of the Hunter Jumper Association, she has many opportunities to study the history of horses and their gear.
For example, she has discovered that many of the terms used for riding equipment are the same ones used for hundreds or maybe even thousands of years, she explains. One horse she rode wore a breastplate, for example, even though it wasn't armor for her modern horse.
Her current fur baby is a chestnut hunter-jumper named Benson. "He is currently exploring a new position," Hollings says. Benson is visiting at Saddle Up! - a special therapeutic riding school in Franklin.
'Auditioning as therapy horse'
One of the trainers there met Benson and said - although hunter-jumpers are not usually used as therapy horses - Hollings' horse may have a gift for it.
So "not wanting to stand in his way," she let him go for a trial, but she says she really thinks he will be back.
Middle Tennessee, it seems, is an almost perfect locale for a horsewoman like Hollings to teach literature. She met Benson when he belonged to David Wright and rode the horse at Wright's stable. When Wright died of a brain tumor, she arranged to "acquire Benson."
But Hollings doesn't live out in the country herself. She has a house in the Murfreesboro historical district east of the Square.
Cottage in historical zone
She bought her "Victorian cottage" when it came up for auction, but she says it technically isn't a historical house, even though it meets the district's standards for styling and construction.
"The original house burned, so this one is a replica," she explains. But her nearest neighbor lives in an antebellum house built around 1830. "I like living in older neighborhoods," she says.
One of her pastimes is to walk around her neighborhood and take pictures with her phone.
She says this is because her sister Margaret Delury, a lawyer who lives in New Jersey, always wants to see what she does. "I take pictures and send them to her," Hollings says. "And she sends me a lot of pictures, too." Many are of Hollings' niece Emma, a professional model with followers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
Grew up on seacoast
A daughter of two teachers, Hollings was raised on one of the barrier islands off the coast of New Jersey. She doesn't think the island had a name. It was just one of the thousands that line the East Coast, all the way from Miami to Nova Scotia.
As a senior in high school, she received an award from the local chapter of the American Association of University Women - recognition that she says has had a lasting effect. "It has always encouraged me to do my best," she says. And now she's a member of the AAUW herself.
Which brings Hollings back to her life as an English professor at MTSU, where she appreciates the diversity, various accents, insights and attitudes of her students from all across Tennessee.
They're "motivated because they want to be here," Hollings explains. "They have common sense, and they're hard workers."
'Tennessee is poetry'
Hollings enjoys hearing the names of towns around the state that her students come from, too.
"Tennessee is poetry, all the place names are poetry." she says. Of course, the study of words themselves, as well as literature, is also important to Hollings.
"I like knowing where each word came from," this remarkable Rutherford woman and scholar says. "I want to know the Latin or Greek words we still use."
Add this to her knowledge of literature and the life stories of its authors in the context of medieval and Renaissance history, augmented by actually riding horses like Western Europeans of yore did - not only does Hollings like getting gifts, she has great gifts to give her students as well.