It was only after a series of clarifying experiences that she found her home where the two academic paths converged.
Dolan’s academic journey has taken her through literary works that examine the role of illness—particularly mental illness—and how it influences social perception.
And her finesse as a teacher and her passion for research has earned the assistant professor of English the 2003 Lehigh Junior Award for Distinguished Teaching. She was also named a recipient of the Frank Hook Assistant Professorship for the 2003-04 and 2004-05 academic years.
The Hook Professorship is awarded to an assistant professor who exemplifies the scholar-teacher model and who contributes significantly to the mentoring of students—a role Dolan clearly relishes.
And it’s a role that her students clearly relish as well.
Margaret Hagerman ’04 bounced around Lehigh with several majors before settling on English. She credits Dolan and the other English professors she encountered with helping her to find her own passion.
Hagerman found Dolan, like many of the professors in the English department, to be flexible and sensitive to students’ interests, and willing to work toward engaging students in unfamiliar areas of study.
"If the class wasn’t completely intrigued by something, Professor Dolan would modify her plans to include a short story or poetry to make it more interesting and accessible," Hagerman says. "She is very effective at working with her students, not against them, and I learned a great deal from her."
In pursuit of `high meaning’
Dolan didn’t set out to be an English professor.
"I was a pre-med student, and did my clinical research in cardiology while I was a sophomore in college," says Dolan, who earned her undergraduate degree from Davidson College in 1989. "Then I spent my junior year in Germany and found I missed reading instead of the lab. I was taking fascinating courses—`History of Eastern Medicine’ and ‘The Catholic Church and the Nazi State.’ The world just got very big while I was there."
When she returned to Davidson for her senior year, Dolan took a course titled "Religious Selfhood," and found herself drawn in by the broader perspective, or what she refers to as "high meaning."
She also vividly remembers observing a hip replacement procedure on a woman, and overhearing the surgeon making a snide comment on the amount of body fat on the patient’s hips.
"To see this woman objectified and criticized about a part of her body by this person who was supposed to be taking care of her, while she was lying there unconscious on the operating table, was very striking to me," Dolan says. "It pretty much convinced me that if I was seeing things that way, I was more comfortable in the realm of broader social context than in the details of the medicine."
Dolan finished her senior year as an English major, taught science and German her first year out of school, then went to graduate school. While writing her dissertation, she served as the senior fellow of literature and medicine, a position that allowed her to teach medical students in the Department of Social Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"Teaching in social medicine was a complete second education for me," she says. "They have a fantastic program at Chapel Hill that’s been in existence for 25 years that combines it all: history of medicine, health economics, medical anthropology. What I learned there continues to have an enormous impact on my teaching."
She also learned that digesting illness literature can be transformative for students.
"Reading, reflecting, meditating—they’re all quiet and contemplative ways to absorb information and discover its meaning to you," she says. "Those experiences made me want to recreate the satisfaction of self discovery on some level in my classes. I want students to write about what they care about and think about why it matters to them."
`Creative and provocative’
Her approach has won her accolades from her students.
Sunny Bavaro, a graduate student in English, praises Dolan for providing "one of the most gratifying learning experiences of my Lehigh career."
"She’s always encouraging creative play within serious academic pursuits," says Bavaro, who describes Dolan’s teaching style as "creative and provocative."
"She carves out spaces to discuss ideas that have been squelched, and I really admire that about her. It’s what I hope to take with me when I begin to teach."
David Webster ‘06 calls Dolan "one of the most passionate, intellectual and open-minded teachers I have ever had" who listens to ideas and challenges students to push even further.
Jennifer Black, a graduate student who just earned her master’s degree, is equally effusive, calling Dolan "a true inspiration whose passion and enthusiasm for her work shines through in her teaching."
As the MA thesis advisor for Black, Dolan offered "constant encouragement to me and dedication in helping me discover my ideas and then helping me shape them."
A journey of exploration
The role that illness plays in social perception has been of special interest to Dolan. The topic of melancholia, for example, has a different perception for male writers such as Poe, Keats, Coleridge and Fitzgerald than it does for women writers such as Mary Shelley, Mary Robinson, or Charlotte Smith or Mary Wollstonecraft, she says.
"For men, melancholia is an illness that confers a degree of status, going all the way back to Milton," she says. "In the early modern period, the melancholic was defined as the ‘seer.’ For women, the illness was more closely associated with irrationality. Again, there is the lens of the broader social context."
Participating in the NEH Institute, "Medicine, Literature and Culture" last summer helped transform her dissertation work on Romantic melancholia into a study of Romantic visuality, gender and illness—the subject of her first book, which she will be working on while she is on leave during the fall semester.
"Visuality was the dominant mode for understanding gender and power in the Romantic era, much in the way that flexibility (or the immune system), as Emily Martin has taught us, has become a dominant trope in current culture," Dolan says. "The women writers—Shelley, Robinson, Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft—explore the stakes of being visible or ‘marked’ as women in their culture, yet invisible or disempowered as authors."
To wrestle with the social consequences of these conditions, they engage in scientific discussions that attempt to project rational order to concepts such as nature, or invent new genres to help culture see and appreciate the social problems that concern them, such as the relationship between illness and poverty, or the oppression of women under the law.
Ultimately, says Dolan, it is her hope that her work will demonstrate that despite social constructions of gender, women have been deeply engaged in intellectual pursuits in fields as diverse as botany, aesthetics, medicine, and of course literature, for hundreds of years.