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You were given the 2000 Senior Class Charles W. Bassett Teaching Award. How does that make you feel?In all honesty? It's the greatest honor of my professional life.
Did Bassett give you any advice about your subsequent Spotlight Event lecture? Offer you his trenchcoat?
No, he didn't offer me his trenchcoat, but I did ask if I could borrow those hideous plaid pants and the woolen ties. Cedric [Bryant (English)] once looked at one of Charlie's ties and said, "Bassett, in its previous life, this tie was a sock."
Do you now have to muss your own hair as you teach?
No, as it turns out the terms of the award are quite specific. Bassett has to come in and muss my hair for me.
Why do you think students picked you?
I don't know. I mean, I do think I'm a good teacher. On a good day I can really teach students that literature is important. On a good day students discover-some of them for the first time, ever-that fiction and poetry and drama can teach you how to live your life. It can make you weep with unspeakable sorrow and it can make you sit there with your jaw dropped open and drooling as you understand the meaning of joy and laughter for the first time. When I have a day like that, I think students leave the classroom feeling that the way they see the world has actually changed, possibly forever. So maybe that's why they picked me.
That, and the fact that I know a few dumb jokes.
What is one essential trait a good teacher must have?
Passion for what he or she is teaching. You have to make your love for the subject apparent to the students in their chairs. Your enthusiasm ought to pretty much levitate them into the air and strand them on the ceiling.
In the same vein, do you think you can learn to be a Charles W. Bassett Teaching Award recipient or is that ability to relate to students an innate gift?
Well, I think you get to be a better teacher the longer you stay at it. In both fiction and teaching, you have to know your audience. I think it took me about five years to really understand how to reach a Colby student. As opposed to a Johns Hopkins student or a Wesleyan student, which are places where I've also taught and where the students react to totally different things. When I spent last year at University College Cork, in Ireland, that was yet another huge leap. So I think teaching is really a learned activity. You and the students work together over the years to come up with the process that succeeds.
Unfortunately, you can't really ever rest on your laurels, because the students keep changing every year and so do you. When I first came to Colby, I was 29; the students and I pretty much liked the same songs, read the same books. I was their peer, almost. That's not true any more. Dammit. I guess that's another thing Bassett's given me. Metamucil.
How do you balance your own writing with your teaching?
Well, one thing about having little kids (mine are 4 and 6), you learn how to work in any circumstance whatsoever. If I have an hour between classes, I'll try to write a page. It's not the best way to work, but it's better than nothing. I wrote the novel Getting In with me in my office at home and two kids pretty much rolling on the floor screaming, beating each other over the head with Legos.
You've taught at Colby for 12 years. Are student writers changing in any culturally identifiable way?
I think students now are more oriented toward film rather than fiction. In 1988, we were still in the vivid days of high eighties minimalism, and there was a lot of excitement for the short story as an art form. Now students are more interested in movies. When I try to find a story or novel everybody's read at the beginning of the semester, I usually come up empty-handed. But they've all seen Pulp Fiction.
You've signed a multi-book contract-with a TV tie-in-to write novels intended for a college-age audience. Presuming that doesn't mean Virginia Woolf, what does that mean?
Could you tell us one good anecdote about working with the original Saturday Night Live cast?
We used to go bowling with Billy Murray at Beacon Lanes on Amsterdam Avenue. Not a bad bowler, I guess, for a comedian. Anyway, the end of the place-it's been torn down now, of course-was just this long wooden bar, and you bought your beers and stuff from the same woman who rented you your shoes. And one time, I asked her, is it a big deal having Billy Murray in here, and she said, "Oh, no, we get celebrities in here all the time. You know that Dustin Hoffman? He offered us a million dollars to close for six weeks so they could shoot some movie in here." She went back to wiping the bar with a rag. And I said, "Well, did you do it? Did you take the money?" And she just shrugged and said, "Yeah, well, we thought about it. But we figured it would only screw up the leagues."
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College Colby Magazine 4181
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