Alumni Feature: “Reading Against The Grain”

Sally Smits Masten, ’01

What are you doing now?

Currently, I am a Writing Center mentor at Western Governors University, an online nonprofit university that primarily serves adults going back to school for their undergraduate or graduate degrees.  I adore this work.  I feel really lucky to be part of it.  I get to work with dedicated students all over the U.S. who are working so hard to make life better for themselves and their families.  I get to help them gain confidence in their writing, which is just joyful work.  And I get to work with a wonderful bunch of colleagues and at a university that works hard to keep students at the center of all we do.

Second, but not least, I live in North Carolina, near the shore, with my marvelous husband, my ridiculous dog, and my grumpy cat.

How did your Hope English education shape you?

My Hope English education shaped me in every way, really.  My professors were then (and are now) some of the best people I’ve met.  They taught me to pay attention to detail, to think hard and revise my opinion based on a second look, another point of view, someone else’s comments.  They opened my eyes to whole new fields that I otherwise would have avoided (e.g., Milton, Pope!).  They continuously reminded me why I loved words and books and poems; they sustained that enthusiasm.  They taught me how to read against the grain–a skill I use every day.  Simultaneously, they helped me trust my own ideas and voice, which, despite my loudmouthiness now, was not something I was able to do at 18.

Perhaps most importantly, though, they taught me compassion.  They made me want to become a teacher, but beyond that, even now, they make me want to embody exactly the kind of respect, kindness, seriousness, and thoughtfulness with which they taught me.  My gratitude for those relationships is just boundless.

What advice would you give to English majors today?

Don’t listen to all the people who say, “What will you do with an English major?” Or, more sarcastically, “So, you plan to be a barista?”  English majors are valued and valuable for their insights, their ability to communicate those insights, their ability to carefully craft and interpret language.  I have many English major friends, of course, and we’ve ended up in many fields — publishing, business, law, education, healthcare, nonprofit work, etc. The important thing is to pursue what you love and know that there is a place for you and what you love in the world. It may be scary sometimes, but there is a place for you in the world.

If you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

Currently, since I live in North Carolina, since I studied 20th-century southern poetry for my dissertation, and since the debate over Confederate monuments has sprung up again recently, I would like to teach a course titled “Take It Down: Southern Poets Writing against Racism and Sexism.”  I’d have to do more research, but on the syllabus, I’d definitely include Anne Spencer, Jean Toomer, Eleanor Ross Taylor, Robert Penn Warren, and oh, so many more.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

Of all the questions…!  Paradise by Toni Morrison is maybe my all-time favorite novel.  Wilderness of Ladies, a poetry collection by Eleanor Ross Taylor, is a collection that just keeps revealing more brilliance each time I come back to it.  Any and all of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems. And, for the joy of it, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, maybe the best (only?) children’s book about unionized cows ever.

 

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