Interview with Tishna Asim, Lecturer
September 24th, 2019
The National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at SDSU had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Tishna Asim, a lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. We spoke about the ways that her background has influenced her literary and teaching interests, and spent time discussing how Dr. Mary Galbraith’s teaching and mentoring informs Tishna Asim’s work in the classroom.
What Tishna Asim would look like as a Disney character!
Can you share with us your educational background? How did you get to where you are professionally?
I did my undergraduate Bachelor of Arts at Revelle College, University of California San Diego. I went to law school, and I got my law degree from University of San Diego. I practiced law for ten years as a trial attorney, mostly in criminal defense but also in dependency defense. And then in 2013, I hit pause on the law stuff mostly because I was tired of looking at autopsy photo – I wanted a break from some of that gruesome reality – and I enrolled here at SDSU in the Masters program in 2013. I got my Master of Arts with a British Literature specialization in 2016 and started teaching as a lecturer in fall of that same year here at SDSU. My research focus in the graduate program was Victorian crime fiction specifically, and then even more specifically it was on Sherlock Holmes, and that’s probably because of my former career – you know, law and literature. You can take the girl out of the courtroom but you can’t take the courtroom out of the girl.
And you’ve been a lecturer at SDSU since?
Since the fall of 2016 so this is my fourth fall semester.
What are your research interests?
I’m really interested in the Gothic; I’m really interested in the horror genre to the extent that it overlaps with the Gothic and how it overlaps – all of those overlap – with crime fiction. I’m really interested in mystery and the detective genres as well. But I also really like fantasy. So Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, and of course Harry Potter. So to the extent that the children’s literature sometimes is represented in those specifically fantasy genres, I’m really interested in that. And other YA literature as well.
You teach English 306A, a children’s literature course for Liberal Studies students. What is it like working with students who will use children's literature in their own classrooms?
The theme of the class has varied a tiny bit over time. Right now, it’s evolved into examining Gothic within children’s literature, so Gothic themes, Gothic subtext, Gothic tropes in a place that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find it: i.e. children’s literature. But I’ve also been interested in framing how child detectives work, in examining their world, so I’ve had a detectives class within children’s literature as well. In fact, if you turn around, you’ll see those are the texts that I’ve taught: Encyclopedia Brown, and Nancy Drew, and The Great Mouse Detective, and The Eleventh Hour, which is this gorgeous book. Every single page is covered with sumptuous illustrations and it’s a curious mystery to figure out who stole the birthday cake at a little eleventh birthday – it's so cute.
The poster mentioned above.
But mostly I teach those themes as a way of investigating that the child psyche is as complex as the adult psyche, and to dumb it down for children is a disservice to them and doesn’t allow for them to have the same complexity as an adult would, which I think is ridiculous.
Teaching Liberal Studies students in particular has been very rewarding in the sense that a lot of the texts we examine become texts that they use themselves in their classrooms, or with children they encounter, siblings, or their own kids, or classrooms where they are already teaching. And I often ask the question of whether or not the text that we just completed is actually for children, even though it’s marketed to them. So there’s this distinction between capitalist marketing and whether or not this is something the kids should be digesting – and then that invites the question of censorship. What do we expose our kids to? What do we allow them to be exposed to in a classroom, in a bookstore, et cetera? And so that perspective is really valuable because they as future teachers are so rigidly boxed-in to what is allowed in the classroom and texts that are supposedly safe for kids might actually reveal subtexts that are really quite problematic, or emotionally charged, or sexual, or violent, et cetera. Little Red Riding Hood is a great example.
What is it like to create syllabi each semester? Do you often reuse books or create completely new ones?
80% of the books are ones that I’ve already taught, but every semester I include at least one new text mostly to keep me engaged. It’s something new to see ‘hey does this work’? So I do change it up every semester in all of my classes, even in my Intro to Literature 220 class, just because I don’t want to get bored.
Can you share one notable teaching experience here at SDSU?
Every day I don’t have to go to court is a notable teaching experience! They’ve all been really rewarding. And certain semester the students are – this semester in particular – the students are very engaged. They want to talk; they want to hear from each other and get that global perspective within thirty different opinions and voices in the classroom – thirty-one if you include mine. So it’s always really, really rewarding when students are as engaged as I am because I care about this. I think it’s fun, and when it stops being fun is when I’ll stop teaching. And I’ll go back to court.
What is your experience working with Dr. Mary Galbraith?
She taught a class when I was in my last semester in the graduate program on adolescence in children's literature, or adolescence in literature, or something like that, and it was fascinating because there were texts that we wouldn’t have considered to be adolescent texts at all: specifically Hamlet, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. These characters are ostensibly in their twenties and yet they embody the adolescent perspective, whether it’s through naiveté or a lack of life experience or in the case of Hamlet, he’s been so protected by his role as a prince. And we talked about development in ways I hadn't considered before. Her class was just so intriguing because it invited, it required, an alternative perspective on what is adolescence in the first place. So already you were challenging your own preconceived notions even about the theme of the class before the class even started, which I thought was brilliant. We continued to have that subversive, unsettled perspective throughout, which I thought was really refreshing. It wasn’t her lecturing at us about ‘you know this book was written in such-and-such year and this was happening and that was going on.’ It was really just an opportunity for us to totally take a text that we thought we knew about and shift it. What would it be like if Hamlet was actually sixteen? That’s kind of how it is if you read it now. Now I can’t not see him as an adolescent. But her class was so open to listening to all of our perspectives. She brought in guest speakers that spoke very eloquently about books even though they weren't traditional academy members, which I thought was great. We read lots and lots of cultural texts that again gave us that new chance at shifting our perspective. I thought she was fascinating as a professor because her own life has been marked by different landscapes and living in different places. Just being a sort of global citizen. She lived in England at one time and when I took her class, she had just come back from a sabbatical in England where she was walking in the footsteps of Dickens. It was so cool; she’s so cool. She knows what she’s doing; she knows what she’s talking about. Her units on chapter books and picture books are really empowering to the reader because there aren't a lot of wrong answers, which I think is a great thing about the humanities in general. If you have evidence, you get to be right.
Have you been able to interact with her a lot as a colleague?
Not as much as I’d like. We teach at around the same time, so we’re kind of ships passing in the night. If I see her, it’s just catching up on personal stuff, which is nice. She’s still a great mentor and role model for me on how I want to do this work. She publishes a ton. She’s pretty prolific. I think she published three articles last year. She’s busy engaging with these questions that don’t go away. Even after the child who reads this book becomes an adult, it still has impact. And she’s tracing that in really cool ways. She’s really smart.
Thank you so much to Tishna Asim! We’re grateful to showcase one of the many brilliant instructors teaching children’s literature at SDSU.
This is part one of a series of blog posts in preparation for Dr. Mary Galbraith’s talk, "The Deictic Imaginary: Literature as Creation," to be held in LL430 on Wednesday, October 30th from 4:00-5:00PM. Please keep an eye out for part two to come out next week!