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Joyce Carol Oates on Teaching at Princeton

JHSJHS Registered User Posts: 17,020 Senior Member
edited May 2010 in Princeton University
I am surprised no one has posted about this yet. The Princeton fans here should love this beautiful essay Ms. Oates published recently about dealing with the death of her husband, a lot of which addresses, with far more passion than I would have imagined, how much she loves the teaching she does at Princeton.

I Am Sorry to Inform You - Magazine - The Atlantic
I am hopeful about teaching. Each semester I am hopeful and each semester I become deeply involved with my writing students and each semester has turned out well—in fact, very well—since I first began teaching at Princeton. But now, I am thinking that I will focus even more intensely on my students. I have just 22 students this semester—two workshops and two seniors whom I am directing in “creative” theses.

Devote myself to my students, my teaching. This is something that I can do, that is of value.

For writing—being a writer—always seems to the writer to be of dubious value.

Being a writer is like being one of those riskily overbred pedigreed dogs—a French bulldog, for instance—poorly suited for survival despite their very special attributes.

Being a writer is in defiance of Darwin’s observation that the more highly specialized a species, the more likely its extinction.

Teaching—even the teaching of writing—is altogether different. Teaching is an act of communication, sympathy—a reaching-out—a wish to share knowledge, skills; a rapport with others, who are students; a way of allowing others into the solitariness of one’s soul.

“Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”—so Chaucer says of his young scholar in The Canterbury Tales. When teachers feel good about teaching, this is how we feel.

And so, in this afternoon’s “advanced fiction” workshop, in an upstairs, lounge-like room in 185 Nassau, the university’s arts building, I am greatly relieved to be teaching! To be back in the presence of undergraduates who know nothing of my private life. For two lively and absorbing hours I am able to forget the radically altered circumstances of this life—none of my students could guess, I am certain, that “Professor Oates” is a sort of raw bleeding stump whose brain, outside the perimeter of the workshop, is in thrall to chaos.

That's not all; there's more. It makes me really jealous of Oates' writing students. It also serves as a reminder of two sides of a coin about Princeton that I sometimes mention, and sometimes get slammed for here.

(1) The Princeton English Department is not hip. Oates was fashionable for about two weeks 20 years ago. Her writing is sophisticated, meticulous, beautiful, but it has long been suspended in a sort of no-man's-land between lowbrow popularity (she relentlessly makes sense, she tells actual stories, and though she clearly knows what post-modernism is she rarely situates herself there) and high art (she is not always an easy read, she does not go for easy effects, she does not write bestsellers). Plus, she is embarrassingly prolific. Becoming truly conversant with Oates' oeuvre would take more time than almost anyone has. She may be a tortured artist, but she makes Steven King look like someone with a writer's block problem.

(2) So what? Oates is a fabulous writer who understands her writing as a craft, that can be planned, refined, practiced. She loves teaching. She loves her students. She clearly gives them her attention and her knowledge. Regardless of her hipness or lack thereof, her students are clearly luck-ducks, every darn one of them.

Among the HYPS tetragrammaton, I would put P last for English. Reading this doesn't change that, but it serves as a sharp reminder just how great "last" can be at this level, and how little the rank order matters if you even get one teacher like this.
Post edited by JHS on

Replies to: Joyce Carol Oates on Teaching at Princeton

  • PizzagirlPizzagirl Registered User Posts: 40,488 Senior Member
    Interesting. I have actually never read anything by her, to my knowledge. (Or I might have, and forgotten. I have a tendency to do that.) Are there any particular works you would suggest starting with, JHS?
  • JHSJHS Registered User Posts: 17,020 Senior Member
    Oates has published over 50 novels, plus 15-20 collections of short stories and essays, and a number of plays. Someone may have read all of them, but I have hardly read any. They tend to be dark and violent, with lots of brooding Wuthering Heights-type sexuality. At least some of the ones I've read.

    I think I have read You Must Remember This, We Were The Mullaleys, and Black Water, along with a bunch of short stories. them and Blonde are supposed to be good.
  • millysmamillysma Registered User Posts: 39 Junior Member
    I'm in the process of reading Blonde. The writing is amazing, but it's pretty heavy-going.
    I thought P's English dept. would beat out Stanford at least?
  • AlumotherAlumother Registered User Posts: 6,233 Senior Member
    P's English department is different in feel from the Creative Writing program. My son has taken CWR from Oates, and from Eugenides. Eugenides in particular he feels is an astonishing teacher. The Pulitzer is just gravy:). Next year, Chang-Rae Lee. I don't know where else an undergraduate has exposure to these kinds of writers, in such small classes. And not just one, but many writers of this caliber.
  • screwitlahscrewitlah Registered User Posts: 1,980 Senior Member
    I just took a class with her this term, and I highly recommend it to everyone regardless of your creative writing ability. Her classes are always interesting and helpful because of all her witty yet insightful comments. She sees things in your writing that you and your classmates would never see, and knows exactly how to improve your pieces everytime. Her contagious passion for the art of writing will surely rub off on you and make you think about writing differently.
  • ajibikeajibike Registered User Posts: 144 Junior Member
    @Pizzagirl--if you think you may have read some Oates, you might have read her short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" ( Joyce Carol Oates - Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? : Text ) It's one of her really popular works of short fiction. I've read Foxfire and The Tattooed Girl and I'm really hoping to take a class with her. That would be a completely wonderful experience.
  • JHSJHS Registered User Posts: 17,020 Senior Member
    I took a closer look at who's actually in the Princeton English Department this weekend, and I have to stop saying it isn't hip, because I'm totally wrong on that. If anything, it's over-hip. And in creative writing Oates may not be particularly hip, but you could illustrate the word with a picture of Eugenides these days.
  • ec1234ec1234 Registered User Posts: 1,201 Senior Member
    The english department is separate from the creative writing department-- but the people in the creative writing department are pretty amazing. The english department offers a class, ENG133- Princeton Reads, that I would highly highly recommend. The faculty from the creative writing department choose books of their own to read, and then lecture on them. It's a pretty unique experience, and something that you could not get at most other schools. The year that I took it we heard Oates talk about blonde, Eugenides talk about middlesex, Muldoon about a book of poems, Toni Morrison about Paradise and Edmund White about hotel du dream. There were more, but I don't remember them all.
This discussion has been closed.