It is that time again! The next lecturer that a certain Solent English student had the pleasure to interview was the wonderful Carolyn Cummings-Osmond. Read on to find out more…
What inspired you to teach English?
My secondary school English teacher, Mrs Smith. She encouraged us to read literature that was ‘outside’ of the canon. She was aware that she might be criticized for the texts she put on the reading list, but she was quite fearless and independent and she knew her subject better than anyone in the school.
What is your favourite piece of literature and why?
My favourite novel is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. It is quite shocking and I think, revolutionary. It’s revolutionary because there is a scene in the novel where Helen Huntington almost slams the door in her husband’s face to protest against his controlling and violent behavior. It’s a point of resistance and a significant moment in the development of the novel because it’s one of the first scenes to challenge notions of propriety in the fiction of the period. It shows that Helen is not going to back down when faced with a violent husband.
What is your favourite period of English Literature?
Like many who teach literature, I like all periods. If I had to choose one, my favourite would have to be the longeighteenth century because the novel is beginning to develop as a form and as the novel is my preferred form of literature, I enjoy observing the changes I notice when I’m reading the eighteenth-century novel. The eighteenth century is the period of Enlightenment – all sorts of changes in society and culture are taking place in Europe and print culture is really taking off.
In reference to your work in the Publishing Industry, what sparked that?
In the 1990s, the sorts of professional jobs I was seeking were advertised in The Guardian. I sent my application by post and was invited for an interview with the Managing Director of the company. He was really quite intimidating because he asked me many unusual questions and gave me an IQ Test and the Lucia Colour Test. I soon realized that this was not a job for the faint-hearted! I made it through the first round and was then called back for an interview with five male company directors. I got the job and was appointed Managing Editor within a few days of the second interview. My boss (the MD) turned out to be a wonderful mentor – I was taught everything I know about editing by him. He got me involved with product development, introduced me to industrial printing processes and helped me to understanding how international publishing and distribution worked. Later, I was tasked with ensuring that I secured royalty contracts with the top authors in the primary publishing sector.
When did you decide to teach English?
I’ve always been a fully qualified teacher and have always worked with teachers, but when I saw the Solent post advertised (the university was then called Southampton Institute) I was really interested in working with young people and sharing what I knew about industry. For me, it was wanting to make a change – to move out of the commercial world and back into the world of education. It was always important for me to make connections between the study of English and the wider world.
What is it like being the course leader for Joint Honours English and what is your favourite unit to teach?
It’s a job with a lot of responsibilities, but I’m very lucky because I have the best colleague one could hope for in Devon Campbell-Hall, who is the Course Leader for the Single Honours English programme. Together, we work hard to ensure that things run smoothly. We’re also incredibly fortunate to work with a team of highly professional peers, who give their all to ensure that the curriculum brings literature alive. Devon and I are not just responsible for teaching – we have to write copy for our courses, design and validate them, talk to prospective students, attend Open Days to give presentations, make sure the marking is in on time, respond to external examiner reports and work closely with the student representatives. We do all this and try to find time for our own research. My favourite two units are Children’s Literature, because students enjoy talking about the reading that made an impression on them as children and young adults and Criminal Texts, because having worked as an editor and sat on panels where censorship has been discussed, I’m interested in the issues associated with the banning and censorship of literature and who has the authority to ban and censor.
Any memorable moments when teaching?
Graduation. Years ago at Solent, I taught a girl whose father was against education for women. He did not want his daughter to study and went to great lengths to try to sabotage her confidence and in turn, her degree. It took great courage for her to approach her tutor to discuss her situation, but talking about it was the first step in the many she would take over the next three years. The teaching team supported herall the way. Some students focus on marks; this student simply wanted to get her degree. It was her dream. To her, it was a privilege to study. I will never forget the moment when she walked across the stage at graduation. She was crying. Her mother was crying and the whole course team was crying.The course team, the mother and the student were the only ones who knew what she had been through – what that moment represented to her. She didn’t get a first, but she got her degree and went on to work for a charitable organisation that supports education for girls. She is an outspoken advocate in her field. These sorts of moments at graduation are the ones that stick with me.
Who is the most famous person you have met and why?
Pierce Brosnan. I was at the US Embassy in London with my son who was getting his passport renewed. We were standing in the queue and I said to my son, who was a huge James Bond fan at the time, ‘if you look to your right, you’ll see Pierce Brosnan standing next to you.’ He didn’t believe me at first, but sure enough, standing right next to him in the queue was Pierce Brosnan. My son said to Brosnan “What happened to you? How come you’re not James Bond anymore?” To which Brosnan replied, “Mind your own business young man, I want to read my paper”. I was so embarrassed because I had taught my son good manners, but he was in the moment and the moment got the better of him. Later that day, I discovered that my son messaged all his friends from the embassy to say, ‘Guess what guys? I’ve just p*****d off James Bond!’
Being originally from the United States, do you think that it has shaped your career? Or has it been shaped by living in the United Kingdom?
I think my work ethic comes from growing up in America, where you’re frequently told that you can be fired for combing your hair the wrong way. Many of my career opportunities have occurred since living in England – I’ve been a resident of the UK for 28 years, so I’ve lived here longer than in the USA. My son is English and I’ve had the most amazing cultural experiences travelling in England and abroad. In my experience, no one country has influenced more than another. All have contributed to my ‘map of the world.’ What I can say is that deciding to live abroad was the best choice I could have made. I’m very open minded about other cultures – I embrace them and I’m constantly wanting to learn more about others. I think if I had stayed where I was, this would not have been the case.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to study English Literature at University level?
Don’t focus so much on the marks. Experience literature. Feel it. Don’t spend all your time thinking about your assessments. Try to engage with literature on an emotional level as well as an intellectual level as that is what literature is there for. Think about the text. Read. That’s my advice. Read, read and read. Read everything you can get your hands on.
Be sure to check back next time, where there will be a interview with the wonderful Tom Masters in the next installment of the Meet the Lecturer series!