The English major’s cheerleader and champion

Author and alum Jennifer Egan returns to campus to teach an undergraduate literature course as a booster for the humanities.

Jennifer Egan standing in front of class smiling
Bestselling author and journalist Jennifer Egan, a Class of 1985 Penn alum, taught an undergraduate literature course during the spring semester as a returning artist-in-residence.

Jennifer Egan is a writer: six novels, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a book of short stories, as well as many in-depth newspaper and magazine articles. She is a reader; her study of literature started in earnest as an undergraduate at Penn. She is a professor of literature, having completed her second semester teaching undergraduates as an English Department artist in residence.

And Egan is a passionate advocate for the English major, the humanities, and a liberal arts education.

“One reason I came back to do this is that I am in agony over the shrinking of the English major. It concerns me so much, and pains me so much, that I felt compelled to try to do my part and return—and remind myself, and anyone who wanted to be in the class, of why I think this kind of inquiry is important,” Egan says. “And also to make the point that the skills required to undertake this kind of inquiry are incredibly useful in the world and just to basically be a cheerleader for the study of literature. I find it to be one of the richest undertakings someone can be involved in. I want to share that.”

And share she did, during office hours and weekly lectures for her course, Writer in Residence: Jennifer Egan and the Art of Fiction, for a class of 44 undergraduates. She took the train from her Brooklyn home to Penn’s campus on Tuesdays, blue backpack bulging with books and papers.
Although based on the curriculum she taught in the spring of 2019, Egan restructured the approach and created entirely new lectures.

Jennifer Egan standing in front of class gesturing with one hand and holding papers in the other
Egan first taught literature at Penn in the spring of 2019, but she restructured the course and wrote new lectures for this year’s class.

The course examined works of literature spanning 100 years —including Anthony Trollope, Edith Wharton, Nella Larsen, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, Chester Himes, and Joan Didion— and how they offer “portals into both the public mores of their eras and the contradictory private experience of their characters,” she wrote in the course description. All students were welcome; no previous literary training was required.

“She’s so invested, so clearly invested in what we do in English and what the humanities can teach, the power of the study of literature, of storytelling, of the craft,” says Jean-Christophe Cloutier, undergraduate chair of the English Department. She is “one of the greatest living contemporary fiction writers and a Penn English alum wanting to give back to the community, and we were overjoyed that she was interested in coming back to teach again.”

Champion of the English major

Egan was an English major at Penn, Class of 1985. On a Thouron Award scholarship, she went on to Cambridge University in England to continue studying literature. Her 2010 novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her latest novel, “The Candy House,” a bestseller published in 2022, is a continuation of that story.

The perception that an English degree won’t lead to a job is “actually misinformation,” Egan says. “When you talk to people in the working world who are doing the hiring, they say, ‘We can’t find anyone who can write. We want people with varied interests, with cultural engagement.’ All of those things really matter in the workplace.”

An English major emerges from college “able to make logical arguments and prove them but with the ability to actually write with color, in part because you’ve been saturated with good literature, which is like taking vitamins for your writing.” Works of fiction are like “literary artifacts” she says, “whatever your focus is, literary analysis is a way to explore it.”

The undergraduate years, she says, are “a time to lock in with a practice of reading and writing which, once it is established, is much easier to carry forward into one’s life.”

Liberal arts and humanities need better marketing, she says, which is partly why she taught the course again. “If I’m sitting in my home in Brooklyn ranting about why people aren’t studying literature, it is not really helping anyone,” she says. “But, if I get in there and try to at least demonstrate how vital and fun I think this study can be, that feels a little more productive.”

Reading and writing required

Egan made a few changes to her course curriculum based on feedback from the class five years ago, a survey organized by Jed Esty, the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English, who Egan says is her teaching mentor.

The result was a “framework of inquiry” to unify the material, she says. The class sessions examined the readings with four areas of focus: technology, representations of the body and sexuality, identity and exclusion, and inner life/representations of consciousness. Together Egan and the students considered the way the books were crafted, as well as their place as cultural artifacts.

“I feel good about the lectures,” says Egan. “I have pretty high standards. And I think I am meeting them, so I feel good about that.” She used every one of the 90 minutes allotted, “barely able to let them out on time. I’m down to the minute keeping them in,” she says. “There’s just so much to discuss.”

Writing the lectures—as many as 20 pages a week—and teaching demanded most of her time during the semester. “I cannot speak extemporaneously. My lectures are pretty dense, and there’s no way I could accomplish that with just an outline. Each lecture is an essay, in effect,” she says. “The only way to get all that in is to have it written out, and I tried to deliver it in a natural and comfortable way.” 

Jennifer Egan standing in middle of students sitting at desks in classroom
Egan took the train to campus once a week from her home in Brooklyn to teach the course, and also had regular office hours to meet with students. 

Cloutier called the lectures “a gift” to the students. “She really took the time and care to craft these lectures, these unique Jennifer Egan lectures, on the novels that she chose for the students to read. One day maybe they’ll be published,” he says.

Egan also revised the course to slightly reduce the amount of reading and adjusted the amount of time the class spent on each book. For example, with “Goodbye Columbus,” a collection of fiction by novelist Philip Roth, Egan assigned just the novella, not the five additional short stories.

Roth was the focus of the class on an unseasonably warm day in April, allowing her to open the windows to let in the fresh air. Egan read from notes but also looked to the students for responses as she took them through the 1959 novella. At the hour mark she paused to ask students to write. And they did, with pens and pencils in notebooks and journals, as computers and phones are banned in Egan’s classroom.

The writing prompt was a continuation, based on a “sensory observation from the ‘word throw,’” a generative writing exercise Egan guided the students through during the first class. Previous prompts included locating “a sensory description” and “adding an element of time to create and occasion.” On this day the observer in their stories arrived in a new location and would encounter another person. “I want you to describe that encounter between them, giving us as much information as you can with no backstory,” Egan said. “Try to just write it in a flowing way; if you get it wrong, who cares; we’re just going to go for this and see what happens.”

‘Smart and thoughtful and engaged’

One of the four teaching assistants who held small discussion-based seminars was

Matty Hemming, who graduated in May with her Ph.D. in English. She says she is taking several of Egan’s approaches to her new job as the Janice G. Doty Lecturer in Medical Humanities at Rice University in the fall.

Hemming was impressed by the in-class writing sessions, not something she’s experienced in a literature course. “I think that the shared moment of quiet reflection and creativity in class together was really special,” Hemming says. “That’s a really generative way of using the lecture space, not just to be speaking at the students, but to be asking them to actively participate, not just through speaking themselves but through generating material.”

Jillian Lombardi graduated in May with an uncoordinated dual-degree, in English from the College of Arts and Sciences and in economics from the Wharton School with a finance concentration “I loved the break in the class to write,” she says. “Trying to free-write by myself is very difficult, so having prompts and interesting angles was very helpful to me.”

Lombardi had read “Goon Squad” in a fiction class with Esty her first year, and she “couldn’t pass up the opportunity” to take Egan’s course.

“I came early, sat in the front row, and didn’t miss a class,” says Lombardi, who is from Barrington, Rhode Island. “I feel like that’s rare for college when there are a million things happening, but it was definitely a priority for me.”

Two images of students writing with pen and paper in Jennifer Egan’s English class.
Computers and phones are banned from Egan’s classroom, so students write with pens and pencils in notebooks and journals.

Egan says she found her students to be “smart and thoughtful and engaged,” and that she felt “lucky to be in their midst,” adding that “it feeds me directly as a human and as a writer.”

Cloutier, associate professor of English and comparative literature, says Egan is “very interested in what the students have to say. She wants to know what they're thinking, how these different texts are hitting them. And for me that’s the mark of a great teacher.”

For her final project, Lombardi painted a series of watercolors, a visual response to “Good Morning Midnight” by Jean Rhys, illustrating how the protagonist’s “memories were melting into her present life,” she says. “I also felt like that applied to my own life as I transition out of Penn to a new space.”

Lombardi is starting a job in finance in New York City, but she’s going to keep involved in literature. “The English major will always be a part of my life, whether that’s me spending my weekends reading, joining a writer’s group, or maybe even connecting with the network of Penn English majors,” Lombardi says, adding that she got the idea from Egan.

Coming back and looking forward

Egan and Esty had been talking about her coming back to teach and settled on this spring semester, after her major journalism project for The New Yorker, “Off the Street: A journey from homelessness to a room of one’s own in New York City,” published in September.

That investigation was the basis of a conversation at the Kelly Writers House in April with Dennis Culhane, a professor in the School of Policy & Practice. She also spoke to more than 100 students in January about “Candy House” for the Winter Reading Project, on a panel with two Penn faculty and a graduate student.

Jennifer Egan in front of class speaking with one hand up and the other holding papers
Egan is working on three new novels now that she has completed teaching. 

Egan says she is “plunging” into new fiction projects now that the semester has ended. One will be a crime novel, perhaps a kind of sequel to her historical fiction novel, the bestseller “Manhattan Beach,” she says, with some characters in common, set in the 1950s in San Francisco. “If it works, it’ll be a really fun continuation of that story to some degree.”

The “rigor of thinking” that she put into writing the course lectures has been “very beneficial,” she says, and she is finding ways to use the material in other contexts, noting an introduction to “House of Mirth,” which she wrote for the newest Scribner’s edition.

Ultimately, she would like to write a book about reading and writing, based in part on what she learned by writing her lectures. “I think these conversations, especially about craft, will be very helpful,” she says. “It’s the beginning of a process of distilling basically a career’s worth of observations on reading and writing.”

No matter what, she says, she values the supportive relationship she has with Penn and may teach a literature course again. “I feel like I became the person I am while at Penn. I can’t separate any of the good things that have come to me since from the wonderful experience I had there,” she says. “My life is just impossible to extricate from the gift of being an undergrad at Penn. It was spectacular, and so right.”