An Interview with Carolyn Foster Segal: Reading at the Freshman Level – And Beyond

Jul 21, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1, Carolyn, could you first tell us about your position and what you teach?

I’m a Professor of English at Cedar Crest College, in Allentown, PA. I teach American literature, with a focus on 20th and 21st century writing; Contemporary British literature; creative writing, nonfiction, and women’s film. I’m the director of the college’s writing minor and a member of the Honors Faculty.

2. Now, we are going to discuss a few topics that may raise a few eyebrows. Are there certain books or essays that you believe should be read by every freshman student in America?

That’s a lot of responsibility. I have a list that I think would work well for the sort of school I teach at—a small liberal arts and (increasingly) professional college for women: Julia Alverez’s “In the Time of Butterflies”, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx & Crake, Edwidge Danticat’s “The Farming of Bones”, Chapter Two of Thoreau’s Walden (“Where I Lived and What I Lived For”), E.B.White’s “Education,” Meghan Daum’s “Music Is My Bag.”

Walden Pond


3. What is wrong with the way we teach reading, and what is wrong with the way English teachers across America encourage an appreciation of literature?

I’m going to start with something very basic: let high school students take their textbooks home.

The practice of holding all books (hostage!) in the classroom and having students read together as a group is limiting and defeating. The availability of online texts should make access much easier. Second, raise expectations. Third, treat a novel as a rewarding adventure and not an obscure document to be decoded.

All that being said, high school English teachers have nothing but my sympathy: they have too many students (and parents) overall and per class, and too many instructors have to work within block scheduling (75-120 minute classes taught for ½ of the year). Reading, like writing, requires constant practice.

4. Let me go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear- my freshman year of college- and I was forced to read Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha”….amazingly, I proceeded to read, I think, every other book he has ever written.  I do not recall Frank Messman, my teacher encouraging us to read the rest of his portfolio if you will. What happened?

Ah, serial reading. I think what happened is that you had a sense not only of discovering someone that you found significant but of being discovered, found out. There’s a line in Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club that I love—“I wanted to be found”—and reading can make that happen.

5. Now, I don’t recall how or when or why I first read “The Three Musketeers”- but again, I became hooked on Dumas. Was it the dialog, the characters or something else?

Based on this and the previous question, clearly you’re a romantic. In a sense, we have to want to be hooked. I can’t say for certain, but I think your reaction has to do less with any single element like dialog or setting and more with a whole complex of elements contributing to the alternate world that the novel(s) invited you to participate in. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner talks about fiction as the creation of a dream. Of course, characterization is probably at the heart of why we love particular books—and not just novels, but all sorts of nonfiction. John McPhee has said that no matter what a nonfiction essay is about it has to have a strong character at the center. And as we read, we become—for a while, at least—that character. Readers read for two opposing reasons: to learn /experience something new and to find their own ideas and dreams confirmed. These points seem very basic, but they’re revelations to many students.

6. You were recently featured in a periodical discussing recommended and required reading- can you summarize some of the main points?

The link to the Inside Higher Education piece is here for your readers to review and perhaps put things in context.

Most bluntly, if not in college, then where and when are students going to read—and think about—“big” books?

On the one hand, it is absurd to invest the common book for the entering class with so many heavy expectations.

On the other hand, college students can get by with reading so remarkably little that a great deal does ride on this choice. I’m thinking here, too, about my answer to your 4th question. It’s our job to lead students to that point of wanting to be hooked—to lead them to discover that reading can be a valuable experience, that books can teach us about morality and empathy. My essay can be summed up in just a few words: the importance of exposure.

7. You seem to have also taken a stand on the idea that students SHOULD read more than is required in their English lit classes- how has THAT gone over?

Well, I wasn’t invited to serve on the most recent ad hoc committee for the first year program. But again, I don’t think that we should underestimate our students. It’s true that, in many instances, we are starting with nearly blank slates. I have had students who never read a novel before college. And we do have to recognize that there’s a lot of defensiveness and fear involved not only with college writing—but with reading. So, we need to proceed gently and fairly. A good number of the courses that I teach are “service courses”—that is, they serve not just English majors but all majors. That gives me 14 weeks to guide “beginner” students to discover the rewards of reading.

I also proceed with the blithe assumption that each class is the start, not the end. Throughout the semester, when the title of a new (to them) book or film comes up, I tell students, “Put it on the list for after this class/after graduation.” I’ve received all sorts of reports months and even years after classes ended. And now I’ll circle back to my second answer. Building a syllabus requires the same attentiveness to audience that writing does. My colleagues and I have found that the British and American topics classes are always well enrolled.

For the last several years, I’ve taught a topics class called “Trauma and Survival.” It complements—with novels, film, and memoirs—the course requirements for psychology, criminal justice, and nursing majors.

8. I have to tell you, if some English professor in some University mandated that students read Thomas Mann, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Frankl, Tolstoy, Cervantes, and maybe a play or two of Shakespeare, either Cliff’s notes would do well, or the upper administration would be besieged by angry frustrated exasperated students. What is an instructor to do

First, I wouldn’t put all of these on one syllabus!

Second, I’d cheerfully remind my students that after all it is college and that college is where we’re supposed to read big books. I stress that there is a big conversation going on out in the world—and that we need to read so that we can enter it.

Third, I do a lot of context-setting. In contrast to my own experience as a student and my method in my early years of teaching, I never simply assign a book “cold.” I prepare information sheets, along with questions that prod students to make connections among the readings, and I use films. And I’ve found that if you build it, they will come.

9. On the more positive side, kids seem to have gobbled up the Harry Potter series and vampires- how do we help them make that transition to ” the classics ” if you will ?

We can encourage them to see the Harry Potter series and vampire novels as two out of many literary takes. On the first day of the semester, I ask the students in every class to talk about what they read over the break. This is one way to begin–as in, if you liked Harry Potter, you’ll be interested to see how many other authors have used these archetypes and what they’ve done with them. As for vampires, I turn the discussion over to the students: “Why vampires?” By the way, vampire lit has a great deal in common with Dumas’ novels.

10. In your mind– who is an author that NEEDS to be read, but isn’t- who is an author that needs to be appreciated, but isn’t?

Hmmm. I’ll start by saying that this past semester I asked a class of 23 students how many of them had read The Great Gatsby. The answer was one student, so maybe we need to begin with the obvious. And after that, I’d like to see a revival of Carl Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. And then—I have a list of about 50 writers that I can send to you.

11. What sort of reader are you?

An obsessive reader.

Some of the most rewarding books that I’ve taught: Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Underworld, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, Carole Maso’s Ghost Dance, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted.

What I’ve read recently: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts,, Jack London’s Martin Eden, Carol Edgarian’s Three Stages of Amazement, Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

Bio note: My essays have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Women in Higher Education, The Irascible Professor, One for the Table, and The Huffington Post.

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