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Graduating student cultivates the joy – and necessity – of critical reading

ASU English student Sheilah Cummings wants to share her love for literature with others

Sheilah Cummings / Courtesy photo

Sheila Cummings graduates from ASU this fall with a master's degree in English. "School is like the rest of life," she says, "the more you put in, the more you get out. My advice would be to fully embrace being a student. Actually do the reading!"

December 08, 2016

Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2016 commencement. See more graduates here.

An English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher to recent immigrants, ASU master’s student Sheila Cummings was happy but not fulfilled. The California-based mother already had a Bachelor of English from UC Berkeley; she had enrolled at ASU just to get a leg-up in her teaching.

But during her ASU studies, Cummings rediscovered a dormant intellectual curiosity — and love for literature — that she hopes now to share with others. Her highly original final project was a research paper on the novela negra (black novel) tradition in Argentina. The genre draws deeply from a combination of “hard-boiled” detective fiction and Latin American writing that engages social critique, attending to socio-economic disparities within the “new suburbs” of Buenos Aires.

Cummings found that the detective fiction in Argentina is closely related to social realities that her thesis documents, having worked extensively with primary sources in both Spanish and English. Her immediate plans involve Latin America: Cummings is off to spend three weeks in Chile, traveling with her daughter in the south.

Whether she continues in her present job working with ESL students at the Adult School in Santa Cruz, CA, or if she works with college-level students, she wants to help students see literature as way for identifying and critiquing the larger culture, as the novela negra does.

We asked Cummings a few questions about why she chose ASU and how her experience in the Master of English program shaped her future plans.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? (Might be while you were at ASU or earlier.)

Answer: My initial motivation for enrolling in the MA English program at ASU was the desire to broaden my teaching horizons. I’ve been teaching ESL to adults for the last several years and I absolutely love it. But I also wanted to challenge myself and have the opportunity to teach at the local community college. I say initial because, as I progressed in the program, I rediscovered the joy of critical reading and the opportunity for deep reflection. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Two classes in particular helped reaffirm for me the potential of literature to be life changing. One of the classes was called “American Captivities.” It dealt with writings by slaves in early American history.  I had never thought about the profound psychological effects of slavery and the diverse strategies for survival employed by slaves. The class gave me a window into a painful part of our national history and insight into some of the challenges to achieving racial equality that we still face today. The other class that had a profound impact on me was called “Spies and Detection.” I had never been drawn to either of those genres, yet I began to realize that, like all literature, they arose (and continue to arise) out of social and political contexts. The works we read served either to promote or critique a political and social order. The overarching theme for me of both of these classes was that literature, even popular literature, can help us understand our world more deeply.

Q: Why did you choose ASU? 

A: For reasons of practicality, I wanted to attend an online program. Financial and logistical factors played a large role in my choice, but I also came to appreciate the English department’s strong reputation. My experience was shaped by having excellent, caring, and involved teachers. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: School is like the rest of life; the more you put in, the more you get out. My advice would be to fully embrace being a student. Actually do the reading! Have an open mind and be willing to work hard. Fully participate as both a listener and a speaker in class discussions. If you only go through the motions, doing the bare minimum to get by, all you’ll have at the end is a piece of paper. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I hope to be a better, more critical reader and a clearer, more incisive writer. I have a newfound belief in the power of literature to help us understand ourselves and our world more deeply. I also believe that strategic reading assignments can help students who struggle with writing to become better writers. I hope to incorporate these lessons into whatever teaching I do, whether in my ESL classes or English classes I may teach at the college level. I’m also considering applying to a doctoral program, but I haven’t made a final decision.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: In this world increasingly ruled by social media and the Internet, we are all exposed to vast amounts of information and pseudo-information. I would devote resources to getting schools actively involved in helping train students to be critical and skeptical consumers and producers of media. We tend to surround ourselves with information that supports our beliefs and biases. Students need to be taught to actively seek out opposing viewpoints and to critically analyze all sides of an argument. Most importantly, students need to be able to distinguish facts from rumors. $40 million isn’t enough money to teach critical thinking to all students, but it is certainly enough to start pilot programs in media literacy.

The Department of English is an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Elizabeth Horan contributed to this profile.

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