Harris taught literature at Colby since 1978, when she joined the faculty from the Ph.D. program at Indiana University. Associate professor since 1988, she focused on creative writing for the last third of her career. Earning an M.F.A. in creative writing at Warren Wilson College (20 years after her Ph.D.), she passed on her knowledge and skills as she encouraged legions of Colby students who were exploring the world and themselves through writing. Her own publications included short fiction, personal essays, and critical and scholarly essays.
But when asked what she found most gratifying about her career, she didn’t hesitate. “I loved being in the classroom with the students,” Harris said. “That’s the heart and soul of the whole thing. I loved the vitality, the stimulation of being around them, the openness.”
“I felt like what I had to give the students was, as I got older, a certain amount of wisdom, a certain amount of encouragement in the direction of courage. I didn’t push, but I nudged.”—Associate Professor of English Natalie Harris
Her creative writing students, both in fiction and nonfiction, often worked on material she describes as coming out of “their inner necessity.” Students wanted to be there, Harris said, and had a stake in their own work. As their writing mentor and guide, she created an atmosphere where students had a stake in their fellow students’ work as well.
Creative writing was the medium that allowed student writers to engage with subjects and events in their own lives that they had not had the courage to engage with before. “I felt like what I had to give the students was, as I got older, a certain amount of wisdom, a certain amount of encouragement in the direction of courage. I didn’t push, but I nudged,” Harris said.
In the classroom she tried to pass on what she calls “the great pleasure of revision,” as stories are honed and refined and then refined further. This helped students address personal subjects and events in a way that was artful, Harris said, rather than merely revealing.
When she saw work that had particular merit, she was quick to champion it, both in the classroom and out. Erin Rhoda ’06 recalls writing a nonfiction piece for Harris that recounted Rhoda’s experience helping her mother deliver a stillborn lamb on the family farm in Washington, Maine.
“She loved it so much she made me come with her to another professor’s office, who in addition to being a professor also worked for MPBN,” Rhoda recalled. “Natalie told her she should publish the piece. The woman said, ‘Well, we don’t publish just anything.’ And Natalie shot back. ‘This isn’t just any story.’”
“I loved being in the classroom with the students. That’s the heart and soul of the whole thing.”— Associate Professor of English Natalie Harris
The story was picked up by Maine Public Radio, with Rhoda doing her own reading for broadcast. That credential, she said, helped her become a George Mitchell Scholar, studying creative writing in Dublin, Ireland, after graduation from Colby. Rhoda is now an editor and writer for the Bangor Daily News, and she credits Harris for helping make that career possible.
“She had really profound influence on me in a lot of different ways,” Rhoda said. “I loved her. She was a fabulous professor. … Most of all, what I learned from her is to always be looking for a way to enhance the underlying message or meaning of the story. And to be mindful of what that is.”
Harris is mindful of the meaning in her teaching, saying she has no regrets about spending her working life in a Colby classroom. “It was a way I could integrate what I was doing, what I cared about, what I loved,” she said, “and reinforce what I felt were important human values.