Faculty spotlight: question and answer with Professor Susan Zlotnick

Professor Zlotnick reclining with Jane Austen's “Persuasion.”

Vassar, with an average undergraduate population of 2424, is small enough for students to recognize the faces they see around campus. However, even in an institution as small as Vassar, it is impossible for students to know every professor by name. By casting a spotlight on some of the teaching staff, The Miscellany News hopes to make students feel more connected to the faculty and more aware of some of the classes offered at Vassar.

This week, I interviewed Professor Susan Zlotnick via email. I was interested to find out more about her interests, classes and career path. Hopefully you will be inspired to take a class with her!

The Miscellany News: What classes do you teach at Vassar? What do they involve?  

Susan Zlotnick: I teach in English and Women’s Studies, and I participate in the Victorian Studies Program. I ordinarily teach courses in 19th-century British literature, with an emphasis on the novel—that includes 200-level courses on the 19-century British novel as well as (this semester) a course on Jane Austen. I also teach a 300-level seminar on the Gothic Novel and another on The Brontë Sisters. I’ve taught a lot of First-Year Writing Seminars as well, which is typical for those of us in English. In Women’s Studies, I taught a seminar on Women and Class last term, and I’ve taught Women’s Studies 130 (Intro) in the past. In almost all the courses I teach, the focus is on careful reading and writing.  But I am a feminist literary critic, so my classes also have a focus on gender, and one can’t teach courses on 19th-century Britain without taking class into account and without addressing the fact that Britain was an imperial power.  

The Misc: Did you always think you would be an English Professor?

Zlotnick: No, I was supposed to go to law school. I was an argumentative teenager, so everyone told me I would be a great lawyer. I applied to law school as a senior in college and deferred my admission for a year while I figured out another life plan.

The Misc: What did you train in? Did you study other disciplines?  

Zlotnick: I double majored in English and History as an undergraduate, and my research has always been interdisciplinary. Victorianists on the whole tend to be interdisciplinary because 19th-century British literature, particularly the novel, directly engages with the tectonic social and technological changes that were occurring during the period.

The Misc: How long have you taught at Vassar?  

Zlotnick: I came in 1989.

The Misc: What drew you to Vassar? Do you consider it a home?  

Zlotnick: I liked the fact that it had been a women’s college. During my campus visit, I remember feeling very much that I was in an environment originally built for women. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to consider one’s workplace a home. But I am very happy to be part of the Vassar community, and I have made a great many friends here over the years. Those friendships are sustaining.   

The Misc: Is Vassar unique? How would you describe it to someone who knew nothing about it?  

Zlotnick: Vassar is what Raymond Williams, the Marxist literary critic, would call a “knowable community.” There’s essentially something pre-modern about Vassar, in that most interactions are still face-to-face, and we (faculty, staff, students) actually know each other by name. I also think that what sets Vassar apart from a lot of other institutions in higher education is the enormous respect the faculty have for the students here. My colleagues are dedicated teachers, and I am continually inspired by them. I’m also always unpleasantly surprised at conferences when faculty from large universities make uncharitable remarks about their undergraduates.     

The Misc: What are your main academic interests, passions and research topics?  

Zlotnick: My main academic interest is 19th-century British literature, with a focus on the novel.  My first book was on the literature of the industrial revolution, but I’ve written about a whole range of topics, from curry recipes in Victorian cookbooks to the poor law reforms. My current book project is on middle-class identity in the mid-Victorian period (roughly the 1860s): the book takes the Victorian notion of gentility seriously by framing gentility as a kind of habitus, a term borrowed from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that indicates class-based dispositions internalized in childhood. Ultimately, the book project connects gentility (and the obsessive self-scrutiny it engenders) to the form of the 19th-century British novel. In other words, I’m looking at the way in which class shaped certain formal aspects of the Victorian novel.  

The Misc: What do you think are the most radical changes that have affected college classrooms in the last 20 years?  

Zlotnick: I think the most radical changes have to do with technology. Students spend a lot more time engaging with screens than they did 20 years ago. Reading very long novels is more of a challenge for students now because they are more accustomed to reading shorter texts in digital environments. I insist that students read the books I assign in print copies—it makes a huge difference.

The Misc: Do you think students have changed all that much from when you began teaching to now?  

Zlotnick: I think they read less for pleasure because they have access to other forms of entertainment through their phones and laptops. However, I do think that because students are always online and connected, they seem to know a whole lot more about what’s going on in the world than they did 20 years ago. They are much more politically astute, perhaps by virtue of those wider digital connections.

The Misc: What are you reading at the moment?  

Zlotnick: I’m re-reading “Sense and Sensibility” because it’s what I’m teaching at the moment. I also have Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Eligible” next to my bed, waiting for me. Sittenfeld went to Vassar, and she came here to do a reading several years ago. “Eligible” is a modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” and it received good reviews. I’m going all in with Austen this semester.

The Misc: Can you name a text you wish all college students would read?

Zlotnick: “Middlemarch.” Read it now and again when you are 40. It’s the best portrait of a bad marriage in the English canon.    

The Misc: Do you have any projects or new classes on the horizon?  

Zlotnick: I’m very excited about next fall: Lydia Murdoch (in History) and I are scheduled to teach a brand new Victorian Studies course: “Revolutions, Evolutions and the Global Nineteenth Century.” It’s going to draw on faculty expertise from across the curriculum and focus on the nineteenth century from a global (rather than British) perspective.

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