Amid spring temperatures in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Anna Merz prepares for her upcoming Ph.D. exams, which will take place this fall. It might seem too soon to study for an exam that won’t take place for another six months, but for Merz, preparing for her Ph.D. exams include reading, synthesizing, and discussing over 350 texts or sources. 

Merz, a 2020 graduate from Virginia Tech’s Master of Arts in English program, is currently a third-year doctoral student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Her current research focuses on 19th-century Victorian depictions of “bad” children, a research interest that was shaped by her love for children and education. 

Merz has been invited back to Blacksburg to be the keynote speaker at the Undergraduate Excellence Conference. On April 21, 2023, the Virginia Tech Department of English will welcome her back, and she is excited about the opportunity to speak to undergraduate students and to reconnect with the professors who helped shape her education. 

Before coming to Virginia Tech in 2019, Merz graduated from Roanoke College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2015. In the time between her undergraduate and graduate studies, Merz taught kindergarten in Montgomery County. 

“I wasn’t sure I was going to go back to grad school, actually—I was ready to have teaching kindergarten be my career,” she said. 

While she felt compelled to return to academia, Merz said she missed teaching kindergarten and is grateful for the time she spent in her elementary school classroom. When she began to teach English 1105 and 1106 at Virginia Tech as part of her graduate studies, it felt like a return home for her, reminding her of her time spent in the classroom before beginning her master’s degree. 

Though leaving kindergarten was a difficult decision, it proved to be a fruitful decision for her studies and interests, ultimately leading her to her current program in Chapel Hill. 

“Virginia Tech was perfect,” she said. “The way that literature students, M.F.A. students, and Ph.D. students all work together is entirely unique, and it’s a really beautiful thing.” 

Working with graduate students within the Department of English and across disciplines helped the university feel like a community during her time in Blacksburg. But it was more than her peers that encouraged and supported her—Merz formed strong bonds with faculty members as well. 

“Every professor I worked with at Virginia Tech was incredible,” Merz said. But she specifically mentioned Silas Moon CassinelliGena ChandlerKatherine ClelandPeter GrahamNancy MetzSu Fang Ng, and Ashley Reed.

“Dr. Ng was a really important influence in the way that I think about theory and the way that I conduct myself as a graduate student,” Merz said. “And both Dr. Metz and Dr. Cleland were incredible mentors to me.” 

Currently, alongside reading her way through 350+ texts, Merz is involved with the William Blake Archive at her current university, a connection that. Reed, who also worked at the archive during her Ph.D. studies at the University of North Carolina, helped her make. Beyond the archive, Merz works with the Jane Austen Summer Program, where her experience teaching and her love for education help her contribute to the public facing events. Much like with the William Blake Archive, Merz’ bonds with Virginia Tech faculty helped her begin working with the summer program, as Graham works closely with that program. 

“What I am most excited about is working with public school teachers through a program called JASP Plus,” Merz said. “We get to work with teachers and give them digital resources and projects for teaching in the classroom.” Working alongside her peer, Katherine Stein, Merz contributes to this no-cost experience for educators who attend the events, and Merz cherishes the opportunity to thank teachers for their hard work in this way.

Merz’ contributions to her Ph.D. studies do not end there. 

Although she has not completed her third full year at North Carolina, Merz has also helped to co-found A-19, or Area 19, which is a multidisciplinary organization dedicated to providing resources for further study of the 19th century. She and co-founder Emily Sferra have grown the organization to include about 50 members and they support graduate students through access to financial resources and research and teaching opportunities. Merz also works as a board member on the editorial team for the Journal of Juvenilia Studies. Merz’ first publications will be chapters in a book on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Juvenilia, published by the Juvenilia Press. Finally, Merz runs her university’s Critical Speaker Series with her peer John Albright. 

 Merz values interdisciplinary work and strives to break the boundaries of what is often considered “Victorian Literature” in her own scholarship, a value she learned from her work with Cassinelli, who she said helped her become a better person and scholar. 

Written by Hannah Ballowe, a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program