Associate Prof. Megan Sweeney remembered Payne Hiraldo as a shy fourth grader from New York City’s Washington Heights, a girl she mentored and taught more than 20 years ago at P.S. 128 Elementary School.
Last December, Sweeney learned her student — the girl whose family she got to know, whose first Holy Communion she attended — earned her master’s degree from the University of Vermont. Hiraldo now works at the University of Maryland, College Park as a residence director.
“Once I found you and had the opportunity to look at your CV, it felt great to know that you yourself went off to become an professor, get tenure and become a director,” Hiraldo wrote in an e-mail to Sweeney. “It is very inspiring. You serve as a reminder of what I would like to do and where my passion lies.”
And Sweeney herself — who serves as an associate professor with joint appointment in the Departments of English Language and Literature and Afroamerican and African Studies, as a faculty affiliate in Women’s Studies and American Culture and director of undergraduate studies in the DAAS — continues to teach.
These kinds of reconnections are common for Sweeney, recently named an Arthur F. Thurnau professor in recognition of her work in undergraduate teaching. Even though she’s teaching seminars in race and gender instead of how to multiply fractions, Sweeney said she values relationships with former students.
“That’s a teacher’s dream to hear back from a long time ago and see who they’ve become and keep that connection,” Sweeney said. “It can be emotional at the end of the semester when you feel like you don’t know how often you’ll see your students, but I’ve actually been fortunate and been able to keep in touch with a lot of my students over time, and that matters to me a lot.”
Sweeney’s résumé reflects a hodgepodge of community involvement between receiving her B.A. at Northwestern in 1989 and M.A. from Penn State in 1997. She also received her Ph.D. at Duke University in 2002. Among her former positions are as a caretaker for children afflicted with AIDS in Houston, an arts and education facilitator in a Mississippi town where 20 percent of families live on incomes of less than $10,000 per year and a seamstress in a factory near Boston. Sweeney recalls listening to the life stories of her factory co-workers — including a Japanese woman who lost her arm and young women from the area who were already mothers.
She said some of the most inspiring stories came from the female prisoners she met when working as a book club facilitator and GED tutor at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, a women’s prison, and a halfway home where recently released prisoners work to readjust to society.
Sweeney remembers a 42-year-old prisoner named Sissy as being particularly inspiring. Sissy used books and art as a way to understand the world beyond her upbringing in Mississippi, where she encountered racism and substance abuse, as well as abusive and violent relationships.
“She has been unfathomably creative in trying to educate herself and stay connected to the world around her,” Sweeney said. “Reading has helped her to understand people whose experiences and backgrounds are different than hers. The materials that are available to prisoners are so paltry.”
Sweeney later featured Sissy and others in two books. “Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons,” which won the 2011 Emily Toth Award for Best Single Work in Women’s Studies, a 2010 PASS Award from the National Council of Crime and Delinquency and an Honorable Mention for the 2011 Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Award, examines how prisoners like Sissy use reading to come to terms with their pasts. “The Story Within Us: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading” shares interviews with 11 such women.
“She is somebody that will probably never leave prison but she’s made a life of herself and it’s a life of the mind,” Sweeney said.
The courses Sweeney teaches, like the issues she explored when interviewing female prisoners, concern race and gender. She has also taught courses on social justice and community engagement. In her classes, students analyze topics through film, novels and history, such as that of the Black experience in America in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“The work that I’ve done with all different types of groups has made me realize how differently our experiences are shaped by race, culture, gender, nationality, by things that are not just theoretical concepts,” Sweeney said. “They deeply shape our experience and our history in the U.S. and everywhere.”
Rebecca Pickus, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, took Sweeney’s English 398 course, “Reading ‘the Black Body’ in 20th/21st-Century American Literature and Culture” as an undergraduate student in 2009. One novel she read in the course, “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, ended up being the topic of Pickus’ undergraduate honors thesis, which Sweeney advised.
Pickus said her thesis topic was initially vague, and Sweeney helped her narrow it down significantly. During their weekly meetings, Sweeney would read Pickus’s lengthy drafts, propose alternate theories and recommend scholars to research.
“That journey was every bit as fulfilling as the final product,” Pickus said. “It was a journey of discovery and questioning and trusting her to guide me to ask the right questions.”
Michael Schoenfeldt — John R. Knott, Jr. Collegiate Professor of English and chair of the Department of English Language and Literature — said Sweeney is the type of teacher that changes lives.
“She leads her classes to ask just what literary or cultural materials can teach us about particular social and historical realities,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “She is a deeply thoughtful teacher who listens to her students, and allows them to develop their own voices and positions.”
Sweeney said the process of helping students like Pickus in long-term projects was fulfilling. She discussed the importance of “finding yourself in scholarship.”
“That gets back to the idea for students to figure it out what they want and why it matters,” Sweeney said. “It’s not just to get a grade, but to try to understand why do I care about these subjects, why does this matter to me, what do I want readers to know or understand.”
For Sweeney, teaching and reading are her ways of conducting social justice. Making a difference in the world is a value she said her parents instilled in her. Her childhood in suburban Pittsburgh included living with four foster children her parents took in, witnessing her mother’s social work as an agent on a suicide hotline and with the elderly and her father’s commitment to ensuring the education of his children, grandchildren and others outside the family.
“I always ask, ‘How are people trying to make meaning and survive in the world?’” Sweeney said. “Reading and writing are a huge part of the ways that they interpret their experiences. All of the complicated ways that we as humans have to deal with our identities in many ways, those are the subjects that really matter to me as a human being.”
Clarifications: A previous version of the article “Thurnau professor series: Sweeney promotes social justice through literature” did not clarify that Associate Prof. Megan Sweeney conducted research on female prisoners in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Sweeney also received her Ph.D. at Duke in addition to her other degrees.