In Rachel May’s courses, students don’t just learn about writers’ work, they meet writers.
Over the past few years as a graduate student instructor in URI’s Department of English, May has arranged to have her literature and creative writing students speak with Jody Lisberger about her short stories; with Kristin Prevallet, David McGlynn, and Nancy Caronia about their nonfiction; and with M. NourbeSe Philip about her poetry.
This pedagogical practice brings her students in touch with writers, a choice that is important to her because, she says, students “don’t always see writers as real people and then when they speak with the writer they have a new perception of the work and what it means to be a writer. This is a regular person who wrote that book and that could be them.”
May’s students are also practicing how to speak with someone professionally about their work. When her students met Jody Lisberger, May says, “They didn’t understand the ending of one of her stories and were asking a lot of questions. She talked about how she got inspired in her writing and it makes the students feel more connected to the work. [This practice demonstrates that] I’m not just assigning random stuff…this is important for a reason; this is the writer who devoted years of their life to the work.”
May’s students have given her very positive feedback on this exercise. For example, sometimes students guess a writer’s personality or political views from reading their work, which facilitates in-class conversations about authors or speakers and voice. Then, “when they speak with the writer, they realize that the writer is different from how they thought he/she would be,” May says.
In a recent Skype video call, M. NourbeSe Philip read to students from her collection Zong!, which features poems “found” in the court documents surrounding the case of the slave ship Zong and its crew members, who murdered 150 slaves by throwing them overboard. The court case does not concern murder, but rather concerns whether the ship’s owners could make an insurance claim for their lost “cargo.” Philip’s poetry is as beautiful as it is haunting. May was moved when one student told Philip about living in Newport, knowing of its slave trading history. Philip responded that the student had given her “a gift” by telling her about this. May’s students come away from discussions with accomplished writers, like Philip, with “gifts,” themselves – many overcome any awe or timidity to speak and listen carefully, taking seriously their time with these authors.
When asked about tips for other graduate student instructors, May advises: “Choose people whose work means a lot to you. Write notes to them that express that and describe how students have responded to their work, if applicable. In the end, the worst that could happen is that you hear a ‘no’; but, you will have introduced yourself to someone you admire, and expressed very good things about their work.”