Christina Crosby, a scholarly icon and beloved professorial member of the English Department and Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies Department, passed away from pancreatic cancer on Jan. 5, at the age of 67.
After becoming a University professor in 1982, Crosby made waves in the academic community as a founding member of the Women’s Studies department. She was deeply involved in the beginning of the Diane Weiss ’80 Memorial Lectures and wrote her first book, “The Ends of History: Victorians and ‘The Woman Question’” in 1991. In 2002, Crosby was appointed as the chair of the Women’s Studies department (which was officially renamed to its current title, the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, in 2007). In 2003, a sudden bicycle accident and resulting paralysis catapulted her into a new equilibrium.
According to her partner Janet Jakobsen, the Claire Tow Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, Crosby’s favorite word was “capacious,” which means “having a lot of space inside; roomy.” Crosby viewed education in particular as a capacious activity, one that allowed for expansion, pushing boundaries, and building both understanding and collaboration. Jakobsen emphasized that this attitude constitutes the legacy she hopes Crosby has left at the University and in the world.
“When you ask the question about legacy, I think about expansiveness, of seeing the University as a place where [education] happens, and valuing being an educator,” Jakobsen said. “[T]hat was the part of the job that she valued the most highly. And valuing education as a capacious activity that could expand more broadly into the world, where many of her students went on to various activist [roles], social justice practices; went on to become writers themselves; went on to become academics, many of them. [Her students] went on to become professors; went on to become healthcare providers—alternative healthcare of various kinds and also regular healthcare providers. On and on like that.”
Besides having a vast appreciation for scholastic avocations, Crosby also had an enormous capacity for caring for her students, which made her a natural favorite among the Wesleyan student body. One of these student admirers was Anna Hauser ’23, who took Crosby’s course titled “Reading the Victorians” in Spring 2020.
“You can feel her presence, no matter what,” Hauser said. “And no matter how much you know about her story, she just [was] very welcoming and very open to being a presence to cling onto. We’ve only spoken individually like twice, but I still didn’t feel like I was imposing by creating this deeper connection, I feel like that was something that she wanted with students.”
Crosby’s unique ability to connect with students, colleagues, and others allowed her to develop close relationships with a large number of people in her life. This group included Maggie Nelson ’94, an acclaimed writer and professor at the University of Southern California, who wrote her undergraduate thesis under Crosby’s advisement.
“I was into politics, but I’d never studied feminist theory per se before walking into Christina’s class,” Nelson said. “And you know, she’s such a great teacher, and I was so blown away, and actually wrote about [her] in my book, ‘The Argonauts,’ about her very dashing and very legendary charisma in the classroom.”
After she graduated from Wesleyan in 1994, Nelson became close friends with Crosby. Their relationship was further fortified in 2003, after Crosby suffered the traumatic accident.
“Christina, from her hospital special care bed, you know, paralyzed at that point from the neck down—she wanted to talk to me about, if you can imagine, the vicissitudes of some theory or other that she was thinking about,” Nelson said. “It was very intense. She would say to her nurses, ‘Have you heard of secularization?’ She would ask them these questions and then describe to them the concept in ways that they could completely understand, and then she was very interested in [hearing back about] their experience.”
Jakobsen emphasized Crosby’s life force, which informed her teaching, her personal relationships, and her approach to living in a body drastically changed by her cycling accident.
“One of the things that I loved about her work was that she was very dedicated to the text that she was teaching, both feminist theory and also the Victorian novels and other literature that she taught,” Jakobsen said. “I often emerged from teaching drained, and Christina would often come out of teaching feeling thrilled and energized and so interested in what the students had said. Feeling that expansiveness that the classroom can provide, where you enter with certain ideas about the text, whether it’s critical, theoretical, or literary itself, and you come out with other ideas, having talked with your students—that’s a very powerful part of my memory of Christina.”
Many current Wesleyan students got to know both Crosby’s life story and narrative voice when her 2016 memoir, “A Body Undone: Living on After Great Pain” was selected as the First Year Matters text in 2018 and sent to all matriculating students.
“Writing, no matter about what subject, has its way with the writer,” Crosby wrote in the memoir. “Writing helps to teach us what we can’t know otherwise, which makes it a demanding and invaluable discipline. Writing offers, not a way out, but a way into the impossible dilemmas of not-knowing.”
“I think that, obviously, [there is] that legacy and the contribution of that book and its honesty,” Nelson said. “And its probing and its willingness to poke at pieties around disability, I think, will be a very lasting legacy for her.”
Nelson added that Crosby’s accident both shaped and complicated her perspective on her life.
“After her accident, I just felt like Christina was more able to allow for harmony and disharmony, and hell and grace in a moment…because her daily existence was so full of pain, and yet she was able to be so grateful and to have so much in her life that felt rich,” Nelson said. “And I think she was just uncommonly alive to how to be with these contradictory feelings, just to be enraged at the loss of her former body and to be completely devoted to living in the body that she had. It was an emotional lesson for me that I just kind of hope to never learn.”
Like Nelson, many more recent students also felt that they had shared a special connection with Crosby through their academic experiences together. Julia Chung ’21 took Crosby’s section of “Ways of Reading,” which serves as the introductory course for the English major.
“I wrote this really cheeky essay that was just like a list of all of the painful moments in [Nelson’s] book ‘The Red Parts,’” Julia Chung ’21 said. “She wrote me an email back just saying that it was a real pleasure to have that stupid cheeky essay. I felt like, ‘Oh yeah, someone is saying you have this good academic brain, but also you don’t need to be using it in this academic institutional way.’”
Hauser also discussed the way that Crosby would accept whatever people had to give.
“A lot of people in that class were like kind of half-in, half-out, especially once we transitioned to being online [due to COVID-19,]” Hauser said. “And I felt like she never was really bothered by that, I felt like she accepted whatever level of attention people were willing to pay [at] any moment, and she didn’t hold grudges against people for not being ready or perfect. That was really nice.”
While there are many places that will carry on Crosby’s legacy and spirit, her essence will certainly continue to be felt most at Wesleyan, where she poured her passion and energy into every aspect of her professorial role. Jakobsen spoke to Crosby’s impactful connection to the University.
“Thinking back to the lecture for the First Year Matters…I remember [her] ending as, coming to the conclusion of her speech and then saying, ‘Welcome to Wesleyan,’” Jakobsen said. “That sentence, ‘Welcome to Wesleyan,’ that Wesleyan was a place that welcomed students and their interests—that was Christina to me.”
Emma Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Annika Shiffer-Delegard can be reached at email@example.com.
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