by Thom Kilburn
What do a keen wit, a bizarre fascination with 18th and 19th century British literature, a personality stuffed to the brim with quirky idiosyncrasies and a sick obsession with Jane Austen have in common? The answer is Crystal Lake, Ph. D., one of Wright State’s newest English professors.
Although Lake stands just over 5-feet-tall, rendering her often overlooked when sauntering about campus, her stylish appearance makes her stick out like a fashionable sore thumb in the English department. (In fact, one can usually see her clad in large hipster glasses, chic dresses and leather boots—an ensemble typically reserved for wayward art students.)
But however vertically challenged and stylish she may be, once Lake steps in front of her jam-packed English classes, she commands an academic, intellectual, and respectable presence few other faculty members possess.
Lake’s humble roots begin in a log cabin in rural West Virginia. She grew up near a “very cool, artsy little town” called Lewisburg. “It was idyllic, and sometimes I think it’s how I came to fall in love with the eighteenth century,” said Lake. “We didn’t have a TV, and I remember being about ten years old and deciding to read my way through the Harvard Classics on summer, a series that comprises about fifty volumes of supposedly classic literature. I’m sure I didn’t understand a word of it, though.”
Although she was a voracious reader in her youth, Lake’s initial trifles in hefty books weren’t coupled with the aspiration of one day making a career out literature. In fact, she did not even begin college as an English major—instead, she started out as a musical theatre major.
But after a year, she became “disillusioned with the specter of trying to tap dance [her] way into the entertainment industry” and switched to English after an enlightening sophomore course in British literature.
“I’d love to say that from the time I was born, I knew I was born to study eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature. But that isn’t really the case,” said Lake. “When I finished my undergraduate degree with a major in English and a minor in History (both of which I finished by the skin of my teeth), I wasn’t really sure what was supposed to happen next.”
One of Lake’s favorite professors recommended she consider enrolling in the master’s program. She was keen to do just that because, for the most part, she simply wanted to spend more time reading, writing, talking about books and doing research.
“I love the thrill of research: of finding moldy books that no one had read for centuries, of learning about the nooks and crannies in history, of deciphering an author’s difficult handwriting in a diary, of unearthing a previously unrecognized allusion in a poem, or realizing that someone, somewhere, had once done something as ridiculous and as fascinating as cross-stitch a portrait of Shakespeare into their handkerchief,” said Lake.
In the midst of her master’s studies, Lake soon realized that she wanted to make finding out new information and creating new knowledge her life’s work. After that realization, applying to Ph. D. programs was the obvious next step.
Now, as a faculty member of Wright State University’s English Department, Lake says she couldn’t be happier with life and considers herself unbelievably lucky to have found a career in her passions.
“I wake up many mornings, pour myself a cup of coffee and sit down to read and write,” said Lake. “On other mornings, I get to call an archivist in London with a question or wander into a climate-controlled special collection myself and request a box full of three-hundred year old manuscripts. Or I get to walk into a classroom full of students with fresh perspectives and ideas and talk to them about what they think about, of all things, books.”
Throughout Lake’s lifelong endeavors in literature and research, she has been an avid proponent of the importance of the liberal arts.
“Some claim that the liberal arts are important because they cultivate crucial critical thinking, reading, and writing skills that will prepare individuals to be nimble workers in an ever-changing, ever-advancing global marketplace,” said Lake. “Others,” she said, “maintain that we have to read books because it makes us human. There has to be a way to thread the needle between the two.”
Lake asserts that a study of literature in particular cultivates a valuable generalized skillset of critical thinking, technical knowledge, reading, writing. Simultaneously, according to Lake, the liberal arts foster a deep, nuanced empathy for others.
“All too often, we tend to think of [research] as the work of someone in the ivory tower, or the work of someone who is eccentrically alienated from the modern world, or the work of someone who doesn’t really like to work,” said Lake.
“But we’re living in a world made new every day by words and language, maybe more so than ever. Think of how many words all of us read everyday! On Facebook! On Twitter! On our iPhones! Now, more than ever, then, is the time to study literature.”
Lake also certainly knows the collegiate ropes. When asked to give advice to the average Wright State student, she said:
“I would recommend that the average Wright State student slow down, take their college experience all in, savor it, and go to every single class with an open mind and an enthusiastic attitude. There’s a lot to learn here, if we can let go of our preconceived ideas about what has to happen now or next and, instead, celebrate and cultivate a spirit of curiosity.”