Lily Saint, Assistant Professor of English since 2013, is slowly but surely filling the copious bookshelves in her Downey House office. Saint, a scholar of postcolonial literature and ethical theory, sat down with The Argus to talk about her short-lived career as a student poet, whether she wants her students to fear her, and her burgeoning book on reading and ethics.
The Argus: [Gesturing to bookshelves] Is it exciting to have all this space to fill?
Lily Saint: Yes! I mean, it’s daunting. I have tons of books I could fill them with, but I’ve got to fill boxes and carry them in. Here I have mostly books that I teach for my courses, not so much books for my own research. But slowly, over time, those books will accrue.
A: How do you choose books to teach?
LS: It’s a combination of books that I have read and taught before and know work well in a classroom setting, and books that I haven’t read and want to read—that I’ve read about, or other professors have recommended to me. A lot of it depends on the class. I taught a class last semester on contemporary African writing, so that was really a combination of relatively recent books that I had read, but also things that had just come out, things that I hadn’t had a chance to read yet.
A: Have you ever read a book for the first time alongside your class?
LS: On occasion. Rarely. Usually at least I’ve put my nose into a book and read a few pages to have some sense of it, to know whether or not it’s accessible. I’ve never picked up something I know nothing about and thrown it onto a syllabus. I have read a book for the first time with students, and I really enjoy doing that, because it tends to be a more spontaneous conversation that’s produced; I’m discovering as I speak out loud rather than coming to the class with notions that I’ve formed in advance about the book. The class comes up with its own interpretation on the spot, which I really like. But it means I’m more nervous and less prepared as a teacher, because I’m not really sure what’s going to happen.
A: Do you ever teach books that you can’t stand?
LS: No. I mean, I teach books—especially nonfiction essays—whose arguments I disagree with. I find that it’s really useful to do that because often students will think that the things that are assigned to them are assigned because the argument is convincing in some way and should be agreed with. So I like to teach things that seem like they have a really strong argument, but then raise objections to those arguments in the classroom. The reasons I would hate something would be that it was boring, or trite, or the language is uninteresting, and I wouldn’t want to inflict that on anybody else.
A: I know you’re friends with [Douglas Martin, Visiting Assistant Professor of English], and we’re reading his book “Branwell” in our class [Ways of Reading: Influence, Imitation, Invention]. Is it strange to teach a book written by a friend?
LS: I’ve never taught the book before, so we will see! I think it’ll be a lot of fun. Douglas is brave and game for anything.
A: Are you a writer also?
LS: No. I’m a lapsed writer—a lapsed poet. I have a fantasy that when I retire, I will write novels. I think I realized pretty early on in my attempts to be a creative writer that I’m a pretty good judge of poetry but I wasn’t producing anything of the quality that I would consider to be good poetry.
A: That’s a remarkable amount of self-awareness.
LS: Well, I may have been wrong, but I also enjoyed reading great poets, and I never enjoyed reading my work. I sort of preferred reading books that had been tested by readers before me.
A: What kind of poetry did you write?
LS: Oh, God! I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t write poetry anymore. No comment.
A: Do you want your students to be a little bit afraid of you?
LS: [Laughing] I don’t think it’s a requirement to be a good teacher. I think it’s really good for a teacher to show her vulnerabilities, or lack of knowledge, to model for students being open to figuring it out on the spot or if she doesn’t know something, to go away after class to find the answer and getting back to them. Showing that I’m not devastated by my own failings ideally helps students to avoid feeling that way about their own inabilities, lacks, and discomforts in the classroom as well.
That said, I think that students tend to be afraid of whoever comes and sits in the front of the classroom; it’s a thing that’s bestowed upon you whether or not you have any desire to cultivate it. Students tend to respect you just because you’re a body sitting in a certain seat, regardless of what comes out of your mouth. You can definitely disappoint, or lose the trust and confidence of your students over the course of the semester, in a week, in a day, but teachers are all given that respect initially.
A: Going back to books, what kinds of books did you like to read as a child? What do you think of those books now?
LS: I liked a lot of the big Victorian novels. Reading, for me, as a child or a young teenager was an escape, though I didn’t realize that at the time. I liked the big Victorian novels because they are so long. I was able to immerse myself in a novel for longer than I’d be able to do in a shorter novel. Now those novels are like chocolate cake for me. They allow me to resort to being that child reader who just is reading for pleasure and not for any sort of pedagogical or academic or intellectual reason.
A: When you try to read for pleasure now, do you find yourself being so analytical that you can’t let yourself just love it?
LS: I think a lot of people are anxious about becoming English majors or going to grad school for English because they’re afraid that they’ll no longer enjoy what they read. I think it’s actually the opposite. The more tools you have to complicate the process of reading and make rich the process of reading, the more pleasure you take from it. My work has enhanced the experience of reading rather than detracted from it. But sometimes I turn off all of that stuff; I just read for plot, or the pleasure of knowing. I read George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” five or six years ago, and I read like, one page a day. It’s a gigantic novel.
A: That’s really luxurious.
LS: Yeah. It was great.
A: When you want a total escape, what do you turn to?
LS: I don’t really have time.
A: Ever? Even on vacation?
LS: I have two children.
A: How old are your children?
LS: Five months and three years.
A: What do they like to read?
LS: My oldest daughter likes to read the “Thomas the Tank Engine” books. She can’t read but she memorizes a lot of books. She recently memorized a book called “Arturo’s Baton” about a conductor who loses his precious baton only to discover he can conduct beautifully without it. (His dog, Toscanini, stole the damn thing.)
A: Do you think you’ll ever try to censor what she reads?
LS: Good question. I’m already trying to censor what she wears! But I hope not. I don’t actually know. It’s the big question of parenting: how much you should tell your children what to do? If she comes home with—what shocking thing could she come home with?—if she came home with a box of “Playboy,” would I be upset? At age 10? Probably.
A: Tell me about your research.
LS: Well, I’m writing a book. One of the thing that interests me is the relationship between reading and ethics. Throughout history, a lot of people have suggested that reading makes us better people—that there’s something about the engagement in narratives about other places, times, and peoples that creates empathy in us as readers by exposing us to differences and making us inhabit other people’s lives. My graduate work and my current work is in postcolonial studies, so I’m interested in what it means to encounter difference. What does it do to us? I write about South Africa, but I’m interested in popular culture, too. If—and that’s a big if—reading makes us better people, what other aesthetic forms do that? Does going to the cinema have that potential? Reading the newspaper? Listening to the radio?
A: Does that overlap with psychology and neuroscience?
LS: It could. There was research featured recently in The New York Times that said that people, after having read certain novels, were more likely to have positive feelings about various scenarios testing their empathetic responses: more likely to be generous, kind, sympathetic—to actually act in more communitarian ways. The study also said that these impulses were only short-lived, and only in response to literary works, not nonfiction. I found it to be a very suspicious study…. I worry about the attempt to explain complex psychological, intellectual and emotional responses too rigidly in scientific terms.
A: Are there a lot of people studying this? Or are you one of the first?
LS: No, I’m not one of the first. People have been studying the relationship between reading and ethics since Aristotle. There’s a lot of interest in reading these days—not just what’s in the text, but in the act of reading, the sociology of reading.
A: Have you found that reading does have an ethical impact?
LS: I haven’t answered that question yet. My suspicion is yes and no. Because I think that one of the dangers of saying that reading literature makes us ethical is that it excludes large swaths of the global populous that don’t have access to literature, or who don’t read because they don’t have time. So it becomes an argument, in some ways, about privilege. That’s why I’m interested in popular culture, about how any type of aesthetic engagement can help us imagine someone else’s story. That’s where the “yes” is.
A: Will your book go on your bookshelf?
A: Just one copy?
LS: Maybe five. I don’t think you get a lot of free copies from the press.
This interview was edited for length..