It has been said that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, but the 10 writers-slash-teachers below prove that idiom dead wrong. Studying with David Foster Wallace or Zadie Smith sounds like something we’d dream about, but for some (very) lucky undergrads it was a reality.
1. Lorrie Moore
After nearly 30 years of teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Moore bid The Badger State adieu and headed south for Nashville's Vanderbilt University. She began this past spring, teaching a graduate fiction workshop, while promoting her latest story collection, Bark. Though you might leave one of Moore's classes a better writer, don't expect to leave feeling great about yourself. A 2009 Elle article reports that Moore once told her students to "satirize the tics and tendencies" of the student sitting next to them. Yikes!
2. David Foster Wallace
Though Wallace is known (as he should be) for his writing, he also spent over 10 years teaching at different colleges. He began with Boston's Emerson College at 1991 and then moved on to teach at the English Department of Illinois State University the next year. In 2002, he began teaching in the Creative Writing and English Department at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he taught a couple of undergraduate courses per semester. Despite the God-like status that Wallace has reached as a writer, he was, well, just a normal professor with a normal class. Once upon a time he even had a RateMyProfessors.com profile that included such gems as "tough as shit and can hurt students' feelings" and "very neurotic and tends to chew tobacco and spit in a cup while lecturing." All you need to do to verify that Wallace was indeed "tough as shit" is to take a peek at his Pomona syllabus from Spring 2005. To quote: "I know that many professors say this kind of hard-ass stuff at the beginning of the term but don't actually mean it or enforce it as the course wears on. I, however, do mean it, and will enforce it—feel free to verify this with students who've taken other classes with me."
3. Junot Díaz
When you think "creative writing" you probably don't think “Massachusetts Institute of Technology." The school is lauded for its achievements in math and science, but it also boasts one of the greatest living writers as a creative writing professor. Díaz teaches two undergrad courses in MIT's Comparative Media Studies/Writing Department, one section of advanced fiction and another course on "world-building" in fantasy literature. That class focuses on "the design and analysis of imaginary (or constructed) worlds for narrative media such as roleplaying games, films, comics, videogames and literary texts …." Sounds AWESOME.
4. Zadie Smith
Smith tackled academia in her novel On Beauty, and one has to wonder if she drew from her own life. The author has taught fiction about both Columbia University and New York University, where she has been a tenured professor of fiction since the fall of 2010. During her time at Columbia, Smith taught a fiction seminar called "Sense and Sensibility," for which the syllabus is still available. The course tackled what "'having a sensibility’, literary or otherwise, mean[s]."
5. Tao Lin
In 2012, Lin taught a graduate course at Sarah Lawrence College titled "The Contemporary Short Story," which covered — you guessed it — the contemporary short story. Though the syllabus is no longer available on Sarah Lawrence's website, it will live forever (or until it's deleted) on the blog Tao Lin's Contemporary Short Story Class at Sarah Lawrence, a blog from, not a student, but a fan who wanted to read all the books and stories that Lin suggested to his actual students. Yeah.
6. Lydia Davis
Acclaimed fiction writer and translator Davis is a professor of creative writing at the University of Albany, SUNY. If you've ever read Davis's work, you likely know that there are many female professors in her writing. The Rumpus once asked how close to reality are the professors that Davis writes about, and she replied, "I do enjoy using that sort of 'found' material—including material from other lives—rather than inventing it." The takeaway: Don't do anything too outlandish in one of Davis's classes or you might just wind up in her next story.
7. Maya Angelou
Angelou is one of the most accomplished writers and civil rights activists of our times, and has taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina since 1982. However, despite Angelou's wide list of accomplishments (which, really, no one can dispute), her student reviews are less than impressive. Granted, RateMyProfessor is where spiteful students go to die, but most students seem to think that Angelou puts teaching on the low end of her priority list.
These reviews might be completely off base (Perhaps the result of a bad grade?), but they do point to a larger issue when it comes to famous writers teaching: How much time does someone like Maya Angelou really have to dedicate to her students? Anyone who has ever benefited from office hours knows the commitment of a professor can make or break a class.
8. Mary Karr
Karr is best known for her memoirs The Liars' Club and Lit, but she is also a professor of literature at Syracuse University, specializing in poetry and memoir. Who better to learn memoir writing from than the master of memoir herself?
9. Salman Rushdie
The renowned writer is a University Distinguished Professor at Emory, which means that, although he does not teach a class each semester, he does give an annual lecture on campus. In the past, Rushdie has taught graduate seminars and undergraduate lectures, and been a participant in numerous on-campus literary events. Don't expect to hang with Rushdie one-on-one, though. His faculty page states "Sir Salman CANNOT" be contacted through the English Department. Alright then.
10. Alissa Nutting
The author of Tampa is an assistant professor of creative writing at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. Based off her student reviews alone, we're dying to sit in on one of her workshops. Nutting has received rave reviews, including "Alissa has changed my life and writing for the better" and "willing to do whatever she can to help." Where do we sign up?
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
This blog post about authors-slash-teachers is brought to you by Black Balloon Publishing’s own author-slash-teacher, Kevin Clouther, and his new collection of short stories, We Were Flying to Chicago.
About the Book:
Hypnotizing us with the deceptively simple rhythm of the ordinary, We Were Flying to Chicago offers a moment of change: the view over the cliff, the breath before a decision, a sidelong glance of impending news. Award-winning writer Kevin Clouther skillfully slows time to note the visceral, emotional impact of an everyday moment. A man drives to the wrong mountain, a hubcap cleaner moonlights as a karaoke star and a woman trusts a stranger on the bus. Each of the 10 stories in We Were Flying to Chicago is contemporary without being ironic or glib, offering a glimpse of stark vulnerability, faith and shared experience.
About the Author:
Kevin Clouther was born in Boston and grew up on Cape Cod and in South Florida. He holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he completed his thesis under Marilynne Robinson and won the Richard Yates Fiction Award for best short story. He has worked at The Iowa Review, Meridian and The Virginia Literary Review, where he served as fiction editor. He teaches creative writing at Stony Brook University, where he coordinates the Program in Writing Reading Series, and at John Hopkins. He has previously taught at Bridgewater College in Virginia, the University of Michigan Dearborn and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Floral Park, New York with his wife and two children.
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