This English professor and Chaucer expert got her start with first place in an essay contest
Sheila Fisher ’72, as an intellectually ambitious 13-year-old, was determined to attend NSFG, even though her family lacked the funds to pay the full tuition. She won first place in an essay contest and was awarded a nearly full ride to NSFG for four years. Decades later, she’s still writing, now as a professor of English at Trinity College. She’s a medievalist who specializes in Chaucer, late 14th-century English literature, and medieval women writers. In 2011, W.W. Norton published her book, The Selected Canterbury Tales: A New Verse Translation.
Most young kids weren’t as driven as you. What motivated you?
If I could do it in a way that would not impede my family’s finances, then I really owed it to myself to get the best secondary school education I could get. My parents were both brilliant, but they didn’t have circumstances to go to college. My parents looked at this a little askance because they were worried about financing college. It took a little bit of persuasion on my part and the generosity of the schoolto pull it off.
What subjects were you most drawn to?
My two favorite subjects,which would become the subjects I majored in in college, were English and Latin. The English faculty was really extraordinary. My most important teachers there were Barbara Carlin and Lorraine Teller, who did more for my interpretive abilities and writing than anyone else. They were really demanding. I would overwrite and my prose would get purple, and they would have none of it. They made me much more disciplined as a writer.
Was there a book that blew your mind?
Virgil’s Aeneid, which I read my senior year in Latin 4 with Lorraine Teller. I think for somebody in high school to make her way through The Aeneid over the course of the year with a gifted teacher is usually something you do in college. That was an extraordinary experience.
What did you value about a women’s education?
I liked the fact that there was no way that girls were second-class citizens. These were institutions that were geared toward teaching women. I was there right at the time when second-wave feminism was taking hold. I had a consciousness that it was a privilege to be ina place that was dedicated to women’s empowerment. If there was going to be a head of the student body, it was going to be a girl. If there was an editor of the school newspaper, it was going to be a girl. Leadership positions were filled entirely for girls in ways that gave women a whole lot more practice.
What are you working on now?
I just completed a sabbatical and I’m back to full-time teaching. Having finished my translation of The Canterbury Tales, I’m working on a brand new project of medieval women mystics. I’m hoping it might take the shape of a historical novel.