In Conversation

In Anne Fadiman’s writing classes, it’s all about making what is good ‘even better’

Anne Fadiman
Anne Fadiman

Every other week, each student in Anne Fadiman’s writing seminars is welcomed into her office for an hour-long, one-on-one session.

In these meetings, Fadiman, the Francis Writer-in-Residence and adjunct professor of English, sits alongside her student writers and counsels them on their newest work —“line by line,” she says.

For Fadiman, it is a chance to encourage her students to write more effectively in their own voices, and a way of giving them the kind of mentoring she valued as a young undergraduate writer. For her students, it’s a special treat: Fadiman is an award-winning essayist, reporter, and editor — and one who believes that the best way to develop better writers is to urge them to take risks and to create a safe and supportive space for them to learn from each other.

Shortly after learning she had won the 2012 Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Prize for Teaching Excellence by Non-Ladder Faculty (see “Six faculty members are honored with Yale College Teaching Prizes”), Fadiman spoke with YaleNews about her teaching experience. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What do you most enjoy about teaching at Yale?

The students are so much smarter than I am. They write so much better than I did when I was their age. In fact, in certain paragraphs, some of them write better than I write now. But they are not just accomplished; they’re funny, they’re articulate, and they’re kind to each other. The class is never a bunch of cutthroat competitors. It’s a circle of friends. 

Writing classes always include workshops in which we discuss the work of one of the students, and that’s always incredibly scary if you are the one who has to stand up and read something aloud. The workshops are structured so that we always talk about what’s good about the piece first. Then we talk about what changes might make that good piece even better. So no one ever tears anybody else’s work down. The students also write supportive comments on our online forum and exchange detailed peer critiques that are full of useful critical insights but typically begin and end with enthusiasm.

What do you think you’ve learned from your students?

They teach me how to get out of my groove. What’s scariest to them at this point in their lives is that all of their options are still open. As we get older, life becomes a gradual narrowing of options, and by the time we reach our late 50s — which is my own age —we tend to keep on doing the things we already know we do well and stop taking risks. My students have taught me how to take risks because I encourage them to, and they jump off the precipice. I look at them do it and I think, “I’ve got to try that, too.”

Did you have a teacher who particularly inspired you?

John Bethell was the editor of Harvard Magazine when I was a student at Harvard. I was the undergraduate columnist for his magazine, did an independent study on journalism with him, and also worked for him one summer. That summer he had me write for every section of the magazine: news, sports, class notes, obituaries. I always thought that what I’d written was absolutely brilliant. John would stay after work every day, and we would sit next to each other on the sofa in his office, and — gently, kindly — he would disabuse me of that notion. We would go through my work line by line, and he taught me how to write.

I try to replicate that experience with my own students in our conferences. We don’t sit on my sofa together, but we sit at my desk, and we go through what they’ve just written on my laptop computer, line by line. I feel that I am channeling John Bethell.

If there is one thing you want your students to learn from you, what would that be?

Know what you are trying to say.  If you don’t, all the gorgeous prose in the world won’t help you, because it will just be pretty embellishment around an empty core.

Is there a memorable classroom experience you’d like to share?

One of my best students ever was a young journalist who took my advanced non-fiction class. He wrote an essay about visiting his mother in prison, where she was serving seven years for a felony offense. This was something that he had not yet told all his closest friends, let alone his classmates. I’m sure that reading this piece to the class was difficult, but he met with nothing but support. He ended up turning that short essay into an exceptional writing concentration project the following year. It ended up winning Yale’s Field Prize. That might not have happened if the expressions on the faces of the other 11 students in our seminar had been different.