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Former Students’ Recollections of Classes Taught by Famous Authors

This week, we read a wonderful essay at The New York Review of Books from a former student of Vladimir Nabokov, a juicy read for anyone who wishes that they could have taken one of the genius writer’s classes (i.e., everyone). Inspired, we hunted around for more first-person recollections of classes taken with famous writers — whether they were famous at the time or only later on. Read through a few of the ones we found after the jump, and add your own memories (if you’re lucky enough to have them) in the comments.

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Edward Jay Epstein on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lit 311 class at Cornell, 1954

About six feet tall and balding, he stood, with what I took to be an aristocratic bearing, on the stage of the two-hundred-fifty-seat lecture hall in Goldwin Smith. Facing him on the stage was his white-haired wife Vera, whom he identified only as “my course assistant.” He made it clear from the first lecture that he had little interest in fraternizing with students, who would be known not by their name but by their seat number. Mine was 121. He said his only rule was that we could not leave his lecture, even to use the bathroom, without a doctor’s note.

He then described his requisites for reading the assigned books. He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines.

Read the rest at The New York Review of Books

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Brian Kiteley on Donald Barthelme’s class at City College

Barthelme had no set reading list that I can recall. He simply said, “Read all of Western philosophy, for starters, then read some history, anthropology, history of science.” I’ve read a reaction that a Johns Hopkins class had to this command (which was similar to the one he made to us). A student there said, “But we have to eat and sleep.” Give up sleeping, Barthelme replied; that’s a good place to start.

He had no set assignments. Perhaps he was completely disenchanted with his City College students by then (mine was the last class he taught there). I heard this through the student grapevine. He did seem to enjoy us a great deal, but his approach was casual, and everything he did seemed geared to make his life as easy as possible. He allowed no one to hand in copies of the stories a week in advance. He did not even want copies handed out the day of class, for us to read along with the writer reading the story. He argued that we needed to learn how to hear stories and respond to them only that way. It was a great challenge, and some of the students never learned how to speak about something they’d heard only that day. His method was to have the student read the story, and then he would ask tough, leading questions of one specific student (never the student writer). If that student did not answer the question to his satisfaction, he asked another, usually very different, question of another student (so we were trained not to be thinking of interesting and entertaining answers to his questions). I don’t remember any of these questions specifically, but they were generally related to narrative strategies, point of view, and language. I myself loved this stern Socratic method. Many in the class disliked it. He made things move along quickly, this way, without the usual blather a workshop manufactures. He did not want to hear from everyone about a story. He was satisfied when he’d heard enough interesting things, and this offended many of my classmates. I have never had a more thrilling intellectual experience than Donald Barthelme’s class, and I was surprised at the reactions to the class that I learned about only belatedly (but this too taught me a lesson–that a class I thought was so good could be seen as being bad by others–the lesson was not to be afraid to challenge students, which is easier said than done).

Read the rest at Kiteley’s website.

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Amanda Shapiro on David Foster Wallace’s class at Pomona

When I consider what Dave would have wanted us to remember, three things come to mind: how to identify point of view, the difference between “compliment” and “complement,” and proper use of the serial comma. But I never want to forget that Dave wore white socks pulled halfway up his calves, and tennis shoes. I want to keep talking and writing about him, all sides of him, because I’m afraid of forgetting these details, which are more important to me than anything he ever published.

Read more at Pomona College Magazine

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George Hunka on William Gaddis’s class, The Literature of Failure, at Bard College, 1979

The structure of the class was fairly simple — a dozen books, one a week, with two short papers through the semester and a final long paper due in December. The reading list itself was extraordinary, ranging over the whole field of contemporary popular culture. The first assignment was Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, which Gaddis thought a masterpiece of a kind. There was also Buried Alive, a biography of Janis Joplin; Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; Doris Kearns Goodwin’s psychobiography of Lyndon Johnson; and, most memorably, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which we students took care to hide from our fellow classmates lest they get the wrong idea. (Or, given the gawky apprehensiveness of most kids our age, lest they get the right idea.) Gaddis assigned us no readings from any of his own work, though there were great gobs of both novels he’d completed by then that would have made appropriate reading for the class. This was the only time in my entire academic career when a teacher did not assign his own work as required reading.

We always called him “Mr. Gaddis” — I don’t think there was ever any question of us calling him by his first name, after the fashion of so many professors of the period — but despite that his conversation during the classes was relaxed, full of good humor and respectful, sometimes more respectful than a callow 17-year-old deserves. He didn’t make any effort to pretend that his own conclusions were gospel or laws from on high, and, like all good teachers in my experience, would never interrupt a student in the midst of discourse, no matter how irrelevant or sometimes sadly misinformed that discourse was. He reserved his impatience and vitriol for those parts of the American experience he thought stupid and idiotic. And he didn’t mince words here, either; his own growlings would often include phrases like “insanely stupid” and “completely idiotic.”

For general mass insipidity he had absolutely no patience. He was surprisingly easy to talk to, though, and often enough, after class another student and myself accompanied him as he walked back to his office, continuing the conversation we were having in class, tying up loose ends.

Read more here.

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David Lambert and Robert McGill on W.G. Sebald’s fiction workshop at the University of East Anglia, 2001

In the literary world he was rapidly gaining renown: there had been the succès d’estime of his first three books, and then the publication of Austerlitz earlier that year. In the classroom—where David Lambert and I were two of sixteen students—Sebald was unassuming, almost shy, and asked that we call him Max. When discussing students’ work he was anecdotal and associative, more storyteller than technician. He had weary eyes that made it tempting to identify him with the melancholy narrators of his books, but he also had a gentle amiability and wry sense of humour. We were in his thrall. He died three days after the final class.

Read more (and see Sebald’s advice for students) here.

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Leslea Newman on being Allen Ginsberg’s student at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics

I began my studies with Ginzy in the summer of 1979. On a hot June morning, I knocked on his door, excited to meet him and begin my work as his apprentice. Though I had seen many pictures of Allen (including some of him naked with love beads draped around his neck), I was surprised at the sight of the country’s most infamous poet. He looked more like a rumpled accountant, in gray baggy pants, white cotton dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and striped maroon tie. (Later I learned that Allen had asked his guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, how to get people to take him seriously as a poet. Rinpoche had said, “Wear a suit.” So Allen did every day for the rest of his life.)

My job was to help Allen answer his mail. Each letter he received was deemed of equal worth, whether it was from a senator responding to a political rant Allen had sent him, or an editor asking Allen for some poems, or a lonely gay teenager living in Kansas who wanted Allen’s advice. Allen answered them all with the same consideration.

Then Allen would look at my poems. He shunned hierarchy, so he’d ask my opinion of his poems as well. He didn’t think he had a lot to teach me. “All you can do,” he said, “is hang out with poets and study their minds.” His mantra — for writing and for life — was “first thought, best thought.” He taught me to meditate and reminded me that the word inspiration is similar to the words respiration and perspiration. I learned from Allen that poems are made of two things: breath and sweat.

Read the rest at Obit.

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Jason M. Wester on Barry Hannah’s class at Ole Miss

My junior year at Ole Miss, I signed up for his undergrad short fiction course, and I soaked up every word he said. No namby pamby pedagogy, just an hour of listening to Hannah wax about writing. We read great books of short fiction, and we wrote stories. His formula was simple: To write well, one has to read well. Then write, write, write.

I felt, when I was sitting in his course, like I was in the presence of greatness, a feeling I’ve never felt since. Everything he said seemed like the most profound wisdom. But his formula for writing a great short story was very simple, and he said it very often: Beginning, middle, end: Thrill me.

Read more at The Compositionist.

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Suzanne McConnell on Kurt Vonnegut’s class at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop

He was passionate, indignant. He wheezed with laughter. He laughed at his own jokes. He was practical. He was shy. He amused himself, during workshops, by doodling. He was kind. He was entertaining. He was smart.

Kurt’s frame of reference was not literary. He often made self-deprecating remarks about his lack of a college degree and knowledge of English literature. Once in a Form of Fiction class a student made an allusion to the poet Keats. Kurt blinked and asked, “Who’s Keats?” He assumed Keats was someone we knew. Another student clarified the reference. Kurt fled the classroom in mock embarrassment, then stomped back amidst our uproarious laughter.

Read more at The Brooklyn Rail.

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Paul Horn on Frank McCourt’s class at Stuyvesant High School, 1975

His English class at Stuyvesant High School in 1975 was memorable for his Irish brogue, admiration of Jonathan Swift (“Gulliver’s Travels,” “A Modest Proposal”), general distaste for James Joyce (“Ulysses,” “Finnegans Wake”), and his raconteur-style, old-country tales. While we enjoyed the class, no one thought this particular teacher would become a world-renowned author.

I can still hear Mr. McCourt exhorting us to conform our writing to a favorite phrase from “Hamlet”: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” This adage can apply just as well to the lessons of time and memory.

Read more at the New York Times.

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Adam Haslett on Jonathan Franzen’s class as Swarthmore

Jon’s greatest strength as a teacher was the seriousness he brought to the task of writing, to the idea of a life devoted to writing, and for that I’ve always been thankful because he treated me as a fellow writer, which allowed me to view myself as one.

Read more here.

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