The devil is in the details. But Beelzebub is in good company — Dracula, Beowulf, Victor Frankenstein and a full cast of zombies are among the characters that make their way into Frances Auld’s English classes at University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County.
And the assistant professor is a character in her own right. Her office offers a glimpse into her personality and popularity with students and faculty alike.
Before stepping inside, visitors are greeted with a sign that warns “Enter if you dare,” complete with a skull and crossbones.
“At least half of the crud you see up here is from students,” Auld said as she made a sweeping gesture toward her full bookshelves before pushing her sparkly cat’s-eye glasses up on her nose.
Among the items dotting the shelves are gummy rats in jars; a Cthulhu figure; a cuddly, knitted zombie doll; skulls of all shapes and sizes and a Grendel lunchbox.
“The ‘Hellraiser’ cube I actually bought myself,” she said. “I didn’t have one.”
Auld is known around campus and the community for her quirky, out-of-the-box approach to the subject matter she teaches, which ranges from British literature to horror films.
She recently was honored by the university as the winner of this year’s Arthur M. Kaplan Award, which recognizes faculty for innovation in instruction and service to students.
“Dr. Auld is an outstanding member of our faculty,” Dean Thomas Pleger said in a statement announcing the award. “Her students find her accessible, engaging, and passionate about her subject. She has done an excellent job in helping our campus develop a service learning program to connect first year seminar students to our community needs.”
Auld said the award was a “great kindness.”
“I’m so delighted that the people I work with see the good in what I do and wish to give me a shout-out,” she said. “That is incredibly wonderful.”
In addition to staples such as British literature, Auld teaches classes on topics such as vampires and desire, zombies and ethnicity, as well as the undead.
Her professional interests center on monsters, horror and all things macabre. Auld’s field of research focuses on monstrous bodies and the ways in which they are created out of social fears and concerns — “how we draw them, write them, inscribe upon them the things that we’re afraid of,” she said.
Monsters are “others,” marginalized beings, and some of Auld’s classes focus on how to recognize that process and even begin to “open up those margins.”
“By really, really looking at that, we learn who we are as a culture,” she said. “ … Let’s face it. Monsters are people, really, in some version.”
Auld encourages her students to investigate these concepts in literature, film and other media.
“What is it we buried? We spent so much time burying this thing. We buried it so deep,” she said. “We look shocked as can be when it comes back and pops its head around the corner and says, ‘Remember me?’”
Auld provided zombies as an example. The shambling, gnashing undead hordes seem to be on every TV and movie screen these days and feature prominently in her classes.
The creatures, often portrayed as ravenous for human flesh, are consumers, Auld said as she explained a few theories for the real-world issues they represent.
“They are dead to art, they are dead to the life of the mind, the life of the heart, and they are dead to all the other zombies around them,” she said.
Zombies represent disconnectedness from one’s own self, from others and from the world, she explained. “That’s, I think, a very poignant fear that we’ve got right now.”
Auld’s classes go far beyond the texts, encouraging students to take an active role in their learning and the community and world around them. Teaching Shakespeare in the woods, inviting students to a fine British tea in the university cafeteria and encouraging impromptu poetry performances are just a few examples of her zany classroom pursuits.
Auld also sponsors the university’s film club, serves as curriculum chair and is the coordinator of efforts to engage first-year students on campus. Several service-learning projects have included zombie walk events to benefit the Baraboo Food Pantry and an activity with the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project.
“This place has been just incredibly a fertile ground for taking creativity and making it practical and making it mean something,” she said.
Auld feels a kinship with nontraditional students.
“I actually took a 13-year break in my undergraduate career,” she said, producing a framed photo of her daughter.
Auld finished her bachelor’s degree in 1995 and received her master’s in 1998 and her Ph.D. in 2005. She came to Baraboo in 2009 after serving as an assistant professor at a university in Florida.
“In some ways, I think that’s kind of a cool kick in the pants when I talk to a (nontraditional student) and they’re like, ‘Oh, man, you can’t understand how I feel out of this.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, honey, been there, done that, and got that T-shirt,’” she said with a chuckle.
Those who wind up back in the classroom after a break have interesting perspectives and a special commitment to learning, Auld said.
“I can’t wait to feed that,” she said. “I can’t wait to nourish that and see how far it takes you.”
Not feeding one’s “intellectual appetite” is a tragic waste, Auld said. “That’s a terrible waste. That’s worse than not recycling.”
Auld is inspired by her students’ successes and the connections they make between their classroom and real-world lessons.
She spoke fondly of a group of students that worked on an independent film, a student who published an excerpt of his novel and one student, Emily Mashak, who recently presented a paper with her at an international conference.
“She has become an active member of that community of critics,” Auld said.
Mashak, 40, started at the university in 2009. She recalled taking British literature with Auld during her first semester.
Mashak said at first she tried to fade into the background, but eventually she started to catch on and felt drawn into participating in classroom discussions.
“It was just like a blossom opening,” she said.
Mashak said she started to develop a real love of literature. A lot of that had to do with Auld’s approach in the classroom, she added.
“She was just inspiring,” Mashak said. “She gave a lot of confidence in my writing …”
Mashak took classes with Auld each semester. She remembered one particularly “inspiring” day in class when the students acted out a scene from “The Tempest” onstage with a lightsaber.
In March, Mashak was invited to present her paper, “The Decomposition of the Contemporary Family: Zombies’ Role in the Transmogrification of the Nuclear Family,” at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando.
Was Mashak always interested in zombies?
“Oh, God no!” she said, adding that she took the first horror class to overcome a fear of a genre she felt she didn’t understand.
Now she’s even up for analyzing “28 Days Later” with her 12-year-old.
Since attending college in Baraboo, Mashak has moved to northern Minnesota, but her education continues. She’s working in a library and is set to complete her bachelor’s degree in May through an online program at UW-Superior. She’s also applying to online graduate programs.
Mashak is working on her next paper — also about zombies — and credits much of her educational and professional growth to Auld and some of the other faculty and staff in Baraboo.
Auld simply loves learning.
“I’ve always been just a wicked reader,” she said. “I mean, I’ve read the dictionary if that was all there was.”
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