Merriam-Webster defines a blanket as “a large, usually oblong piece of woven fabric used as a bed covering.”
Kara Thompson sees things much differently.
“A blanket is such a mundane object and yet culturally so profound,” said Thompson, assistant professor of English and American studies at William & Mary. “For some, it’s a matter of survival; for others a way of marking someone’s passing. It can also function as a weapon, as it did when the British disseminated smallpox in gift blankets to Native people who were defending their homelands in the 1700s.”
That out-of-the-box thinking (which led to an essay in The Atlantic on the deeper meaning of blankets and a forthcoming book) is precisely what drives Thompson to create new classes, develop innovative assignments and facilitate unique discussions with her students at W&M. It’s also one of the many reasons Thompson is being honored with the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award this year.
“I love taking something familiar and making it strange,” said Thompson, “but in ways that are totally productive in the end because they encourage a deeper way of thinking about things in the world.”
Thompson will be presented with the award at W&M’s Charter Day ceremony at 4 p.m. on Feb. 10 in Kaplan Arena. The award is presented annually to a younger faculty member who has demonstrated — through concern as a teacher and through character and influence —the inspiration and stimulation of learning to the betterment of the individual and society, as exemplified by Thomas Jefferson.
Thompson received the award after being nominated by Suzanne Raitt, chancellor professor and department chair of English, and Charles McGovern, director of the American studies program and associate professor. In their recommendation letter, the two commend Thompson for her approach to teaching as an ethical, as well as educational, practice.
“Her powers of empathy, her ability to make the material relevant to students’ lives, and her capacity to inspire students to look outward as well as inward, to alter their relations with the world around them because of what they have learned from her, are unique on campus,” Raitt and McGovern wrote.
In her five years at W&M, Thompson has introduced 12 new classes to the American studies and English programs, including Queer Theory, Introduction to Dis/ability studies, and Reimagining the American West. Students praise her for her imaginative assignments and “slow reading” approach, allowing ample time to digest information that’s often complex and sometimes controversial.
In her popular theory classes, Thompson raises questions that encourage students to rethink normality, whether around the definition of a disability or the concept of time. In a freshman seminar focused on haunted houses in American literature, Thompson challenged the notion of ghosts and tasked the class with hypothesizing what a haunting actually represents.
“I think we came to the conclusion that this is a stolen nation, so perhaps the ghost is standing in for a kind of guilt over land theft, or the idea that many of us are not supposed to be where we are,” said Thompson.
Much of Thompson’s research focuses on 19th century settlers and displaced Native populations, an interest she developed after questioning her own legacy growing up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the homelands of the Lakota. Her teachings, however, are often broadly rooted in themes of power and oppression.
“I’m always engaged in questions of the present,” said Thompson. “’How did we get here?’ and ‘How do we see these things not just as vestiges of our past but as things that really affect our lives in the present?’”
In addition to past challenges facing American Indians, Thompson frequently addresses current struggles. Hayley Hahn ’17, a former student in Thompson’s American Indian Sovereignty: Land, Governance, Identity class, said Thompson opened her eyes to the contemporary challenges of Native populations.
“From our discussions, I learned to regard Native people and traditions not as relics of some bygone era, but as individuals and cultures that populate the present and embody the promise of the future,” Hahn wrote in her recommendation letter. “As a result of this class, I try to keep informed of issues affecting Native individuals, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
The pipeline is one of many current events and issues Thompson introduces to students in her classes. In a recent class on Indigenous literature of the 20th and 21st centuries, Thompson followed the situation as it unfolded through the semester and facilitated an information night with her class and the American Indian Student Association to educate the W&M community on the pipeline and its implications.
“One might wonder what a pipeline has to do with literature, but I argued on the first day of class that it has everything to do with literature,” said Thompson. “Native people have survived for 500 years — despite many efforts to kill them off — because they have their stories. These contemporary Native authors are not just survivors, they are fierce carriers of culture, and to me there’s nothing more exciting than to be able to engage with a story like that. I think it became that way for a number of students, too.”
Thompson’s enthusiasm for the material and ability to make things relevant to everyday life has inspired students like Jessica Cowing, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in American studies with an emphasis on settler colonialism and American Indian sovereignty.
“Dr. Thompson’s introductory course for the American studies graduate program remains the most influential seminar of my student career,” she said in her recommendation letter. “Her approach to introducing the study of American culture through Native/Indigenous studies challenged our class to reconceptualize ideas of nation and sovereignty that are often taken for granted as uncontested conditions. This course asked me to reconsider stories about belonging in a nation settled through the displacement of Native peoples.”
As Lindsey Hutchison ’12 said, these complex notions not only serve students who go onto become scholars; it touches each and every student as citizens.
“She wants her students to be better scholars, but she really wants them to be better humans,” said Hutchison.
For Thompson, that’s the greatest reward imaginable.
“If I can get my students to open up their minds and think about how they might have been touched by oppression or privilege — and maybe feel emboldened to do something about it — it doesn’t matter to me whether they go on to be a professor or a journalist or to work in the public sector,” said Thompson. “If I can be a part of that process, I think that’s the best thing that could come out of my teaching.”