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ASU's resident Janeite rises in the ranks

February 5, 2021

Devoney Looser, expert on all things Austen, named Regents Professor

There is a line in “Northanger Abbey,” Jane Austen’s satirical coming-of-age novel, that Devoney Looser thinks of often, whenever she is afforded a few moments of quiet self-reflection: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”

“I think no one who ever saw me in my infancy would think I was born to be a scholar and a writer,” said Looser recently, mere months after being named a Regents Professor at Arizona State University, the highest faculty honor one can receive.

Whether or not that’s true, Looser is a scholar, and a very well-respected one, particularly when it comes to that giant of late 18th- and early 19th-century British literature that is Jane Austen. For nearly 30 years, Looser has been researching, interpreting and teaching the author, to the point where — among those in the know — the name Devoney Looser produces an almost Pavlovian association between the two.

The reverence she now holds for Austen didn’t come immediately, though. At the age of 13, she tried several times to begin reading a dos-à-dos binding copy of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” that her mother suggested to her, only to become discouraged at the unfamiliar language and set it back down. At her mother’s persistence, Looser kept trying until one day, it clicked.

“For the first time, I understood that some of it was funny,” she said. “It really spoke to me and stuck with me, and it became a favorite.” It wasn’t until after Looser had gone so far as to dedicate her academic career to literature, earning her PhD in 1993, that she found out her mother had never read either of the novels.

“It was a bit of a shock. Even by that point, in my late 20s, that book had shaped my life. So (the fact that she hadn’t read it) was meaningful to me. My mom didn’t have a degree, but she knew it was a book an educated girl should read, and she wanted me to have the kind of opportunities education affords. And to me, that’s very much what Jane Austen’s fiction is about: stories about education, gender and possibility.”

Modest beginnings

Like something out of an Austen novel, Looser is descended from three generations of women who worked as housecleaners and laundresses for a wealthy family in St. Paul, Minnesota. All of the women in her family wore hand-me-downs from that employer, including Looser, who spent the majority of her childhood dressed in “the very out-of-style but once-expensive clothing of a girl called ‘Muffy.’”

For this, she was predictably teased by her classmates, but she said there was “something formative” in the experience that can be seen in her unique sartorial choices to this day: Looser loves a good vintage bargain and boasts an impressive collection of Austen-themed leggings.

As a student, Looser was admittedly shy and quiet in class, even through to her college years, finding comfort in the solitude of reading and writing. That was, until she came upon Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”

“It was short, poignant and beautiful,” Looser said of the essay, which she makes a point to read every year. “And it feels just as important today as when it was published in 1980.”

Coming of age

Looking at Looser’s resume today, it’s clear she took Lorde’s message to heart. She is the author or editor of nine books on literature by women (including “The Making of Jane Austen,” which was named a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book in 2017), her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic (to name a few) and she’s currently at work on a biography of the early 19th-century literary sisters Jane and Anna Maria Porter, an endeavor that is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Bellagio Fellowship.

Before Looser joined the faculty in ASU’s Department of English in 2013, she had a brief glimpse of the university when she served as a visiting professor in 2001.

“Obviously, it was very transformed by the time I came back, and I was very excited about the mission. I still am,” she said. “Access, excellence and impact are very easy to get behind. And as a first-gen college student myself, these things speak to me.”

As a professor, one of Looser’s greatest joys is keeping in touch with her students and watching as they grow and achieve their goals. After one student took a course on Austen that Looser co-taught with her husband and fellow British literature aficionado George Justice, Looser worked with her on an independent-study project to create a musical version of Austen’s novel “Persuasion.”

“I learned so much from her,” Looser said. “I’m not an expert in musicals, but I was able to bring my expertise to bear on her work and she was able to create something totally unique. Any time you get connected to a student who shares your passion for something and you find ways to grow together, that’s a magical thing.”

Looser’s interactions with her students extend outside academia as well; she serves as faculty adviser to the ASU Derby Devils and has played roller derby herself under the pseudonym Stone Cold Jane Austen. She even has a book planned on the sport, for which she is collaborating with colleagues at ASU’s Global Sport Institute.

“It’s something that allows me to couple the history of strong women — which is an obvious research interest of mine — along with a personal athletic challenge,” Looser said.

Denouement

As Looser advances into this next phase of her career, the precarious relationship between women and power is something she refuses to lose sight of.

“I’m mindful of the fact that as women advance through the ranks in higher education, the fewer of us there are,” she said. “And I’m also mindful of the fact that I have been given opportunities that others have not had, and in some cases, have been actively denied. So knowing that makes me very much want to continue to do my best by our students and the institution, because I want more deserving women and individuals from underrepresented groups in these positions.”

And the position she’s in is not one Looser takes for granted. A self-described “library rat,” she waxes poetically at the memory of the various historical sites she has had the chance to visit and the rare materials she has been able to view. Her favorite still, though, will always be anything related to Austen.

“You can read and reread Austen’s works and still take great pleasure in it, because they’re entertaining and funny but also deep and full of social criticism,” Looser said. “I see something new every time I open one of them. And teaching and reteaching them is always a pleasure, too. If I ever become bored of them, I’ll be shocked, but the fact that that hasn’t happened in three decades tells me it probably won’t.”

Top photo: ASU Regents Professor Devoney Looser at home (wearing a pair of Jane Austen-themed leggings) in 2018. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

 
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ASU research reveals dismal record of hiring Black NFL head coaches

February 5, 2021

Global Sport Institute panel experts say team owners might face pressure or even litigation

A new Arizona State University study shows the dismal record of hiring Black head coaches in the NFL — a league in which three-quarters of the players are Black.

The research was unveiled Feb. 5 during a panel discussion titled “How the NFL Moves Forward," sponsored by the Global Sport Institute at ASU.

The Global Sport Institute study, “NFL Head Coach Hiring and Pathways in the Rooney Rule Era,” was presented by Rachel Lofton, project coordinator for the Global Sport Institute. It covers the seasons 2002–03 to 2019–20 and shows:

  • Of the 115 head coaching hires in that time period, 92 were white men.
  • There were three seasons when no head coaches of color were hired.
  • White and minority head coaches have similar winning percentages.

Several speakers noted that in the most recently completed cycle of hiring, in January, one Black man, one Arab-American man and five white men were hired for the seven open head coach positions.

“By any standard, the hiring this season in the NFL has been abysmal,” said Ken Shropshire, the adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport and the CEO of the Global Sport Institute.

“Hiring one African-American coach with seven openings is really head-scratching. At the same time, it’s an odd year because I would say the league itself, the league office in New York, has done a lot of work (in diversity and equity),” he said.

There are currently three Black head coaches in the NFL: the newly hired David Culley of the Houston Texans, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and the Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores.

That’s the same number of Black head coaches as when the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003. The Rooney Rule, named after the late Dan Rooney, former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, requires NFL franchises to interview minority candidates for senior football operations and head coaching positions.

Jim Rooney, son of Dan Rooney, was a panelist at the Friday webinar.

“I think my father did a good job with this and folks get to hide behind his good work, and it’s difficult to watch that year after year,” said Rooney, author of the book "A Different Way to Win.”

Doug Williams is the senior adviser to the president of the Washington Football Team and was the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. He disputed that the problem is not enough qualified Black coaches in the pipeline.

“We have them in the pipeline. It’s a matter of opening the valve,” he said.

“You’ve got 75% African Americans in your dressing room. They want to see somebody who looks like them.”

The panelists agreed that the responsibility lies with the 32 team owners.

“My experience dealing with NFL owners is, at the end of the day, no hiring decisions are made without his or her blessing,” said Ray Anderson, vice president of university athletics at ASU and a former agent. 

“There’s not a general manager who will make that decision without having the backing of the owner.”

So what could make the NFL owners change their behavior?

Esé Ighedosa, a former lawyer with the NFL and now the president of House of Athlete wellness company, said that it might come down to external pressure.

“I was someone who wanted to believe it was unconscious bias and team owners hiring people they are ‘more comfortable’ with, but at some point, it seems really intentional and it’s hard to accept that,” she said.

“If you’re anywhere in the NFL, you’re around Black people all the time. And you’re comfortable with a player when they come to your house but not comfortable when they help run your organization?

“We have to say that out loud.”

She said that the reasoning of being “more comfortable” with white people can no longer be excused.

“You can say, ‘This person reminds me of myself when I was young,’ but a Black person might never remind of you of yourself when you were young but I don’t believe that’s in the job description,” Ighedosa said.

She said that fans might be able to make a difference.

“I don’t know if fans care, but if they started to care like they care about what Facebook is doing, or what Google is doing, then there could be consumer activism in sports, where fans say, ‘I have issues with your hiring practices,’” she said.

“That could move the needle.”

Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said that change will demand a collective effort by players, sponsors and, possibly, the government.

“We’re dealing with businesses that rely on public funding for stadiums and so forth,” said Graves, who was general manager of the Arizona Cardinals from 2002 to 2012. “They should be held to a higher standard.”

He also said that lack of diversity in NFL hiring goes beyond the sidelines.

“We’ve allowed them to confine this conversation to NFL teams and the NFL office and what takes place on the field, but if you pull back the sheet on the NFL and look at properties and media and all the other subsidiaries, you’ll find their record on diversity of leadership is just as dismal.”

N. Jeremi Duru, professor of law at American University Washington College of Law, noted that the Rooney Rule began after a threat of litigation, which ultimately never materialized.

“It is not unfathomable that there could be a lawsuit,” he said. He added that such a case would likely be against a team when there is evidence of discrimination.

“In the context now where people are finding their voice and talking about systemic discrimination, I can’t promise there won’t be activist litigation that comes to bear.”

Rooney said his father’s actions were driven by more than business.

“He believed it was a moral and spiritual imperative to do this. He believed he had to be accountable to his own faith and his own soul in doing this,” he said. “I don’t know how you transfer that.”

Rooney said people will “vote with their feet.”

“Maybe they’ll stop watching games. That would disrupt the business enough to get their attention.”

The Global Sport Institute research report included a deep dive into pathways to head coaching, including offensive coordinator and the slightly more promising path for Black candidates, defensive coordinator. Both are dominated by white men.

The study also looked at playing experience. Overall, coaches of color had higher levels of playing experience than white head coaches. Six white head coaches in the time period studied had not played at all beyond high school or community college. No Black head coaches had that lack of experience.

“There is a common misconception that to be an NFL head coach you have to have played, but when we look at that data, that’s not the case,” Lofton said.

That raises the question about women in the NFL, she said.

“If you don’t have to play, why can’t you coach?”

Top image by Pixabay

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4503