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Professors

I've had two English professors during my academic career who I regard as excellent people and excellent teachers as well. They gave me a new understanding of writing and reading, and made me more enthusiastic to do a good job -- not only did I want to get a good grade, as in every other class, but I also wanted to please the teachers, which I rarely cared about doing.

The first, Rich Ring, taught at the tiny upstate New York community college I attended from 1997 to 1999. Adirondack Community College had about 2000 students or so at the time. Rich was head of the English department.

In his first class, he stressed how difficult he was, how much work he expected us to do, and how tough he was when he graded things. The class size had dropped from 30 to 10 by the third class, and then he revealed that his intent during the first classes had been just that: to get rid of people not willing to put in any real effort. We moved to a smaller, more intimate classroom, and he told us what he expected of us.

And what he expected was something highly unusual. He first revealed that he knew that many of us simply got through other classes by churning out formulaic essays that met the teachers' expectations. We'd discover what the teacher liked, and write to appeal to those preferences, and get a good grade. He wanted to discourage that.

The only thing he wanted was for us to write something real. And he could tell when we were holding back and stifling ourselves, trying to meet his expectations rather than writing what we truly thought we ought to say. Some of us caught on quickly, and learned a lot about truth. Others kept trying to write the way every other teacher had wanted them to, and didn't do very well. It's hard to explain, but his educational philosophy did more than teach me about "writing about the creative and performing arts" (the title of the course). It also renewed my faith in the educational system and made me more aware of what it was like to write for someone who cared about your words rather than your fulfillment of the syllabus goals.

I felt a deep connection with Rich after that, and recommended him to friends. My future wife took one of his classes (a class which had, I think, four other students in it) and absolutely loved it. We ended up inviting Rich to our wedding, and he showed up.

At Syracuse, I was told I needed to take another creative writing course, since all of my writing credits didn't transfer. The course I had was taught by Sean Thomas Dougherty, then a graduate student at Syracuse, now a lecturer at Penn State Erie. I didn't know it then, but he was a Pulitzer Prize nominee and a performer with the original Lollapalooza tour. I did know, because he told us, that he was a performance poet with a very odd multicultural background.

He encouraged us to explore new ways of constructing writing, and again, to explore truth and emotion. When he asked us to write an essay about Itabari Njeri's essay "What's in a Name?", I found myself writing, and turning in, a piece that was more about my emotional and cultural reaction to the piece than the content of the piece itself. I was taking a chance; he hadn't asked for that, but I felt it was right. He understood perfectly, and I got an A on the assignment.

In later assignments he encouraged my blending of prose and poetry, and usage of rhythm and rhyme to stress important points even in factual or opinion pieces, which I loved doing. He also encouraged the use of non-traditional media and non-linear constructions in writing, which was exciting and different as well.

I heard an interview with Sekou Sundiata on NPR today, and his poetry reminded me of Sean's. I got to thinking, and this post was the result. Now I feel inspired to dig up some of my old poetry, even if it makes me cringe. My creative effort really ought to be going to NotNaNoWriMo, though. Oh well.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Nov. 21st, 2002 09:25 am (UTC)
kitty kitty, glens falls is not upstate
rfreebern
Nov. 21st, 2002 10:06 am (UTC)
Anything that's not on Long Island is upstate. Glens Falls is practically in Canada. This is how the rest of the world views New York State.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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