Ode to a Great Writing Teacher

In late August I received a letter from my Alma mater requesting that I “candidly assess” the classroom performance of a former professor. With love, I offered the following response.

To the Promotions and Tenure Committee, concerning the promotion of Dr. D to the rank of Professor:

When I came to college, I knew I liked to write. Everyone told me I wrote well and I made excellent marks. I escaped the five paragraph essay with seamless transition and continued along the tedious road of eliminating to-be verbs.

Then, in my junior year, something extraordinary happened to my writing: I met Dr. D.
Suddenly, new horizons exploded everywhere.

The nuclear bomb of his instruction in Advanced Composition still radiates in every sentence of my writing today. Dr. D told us things I had not heard in the university community before. The grandest lesson he ever taught me was to cultivate my voice. For so long I was trying to write like the academy seemed to require, making frequent use of my thesaurus and chopping sentences in endless exasperation. That is, until I learned another way. Dr. D waltzed into my life, bringing a whole new world with him.

In the classroom, he maintains an air of causal significance. We all know he is the expert and his expertise evident, but his tone and address allow us to think of him as a friend. He manages the balance between discussion and activity well; most classes compose of open discussion and writing exercise, with lecture often in between. I appreciate this approach, as I believe the students need both a forum to share their opinions and also supervised writing time in which questions can be brought before the professor during the process.

Dr. D has employed a few techniques in his writing classes that prove exceedingly beneficial to his students. He usually requires the keeping of a Writer’s Notebook as a certain percentage of the student’s grade. This notebook becomes the writer’s journal and catalog of ideas; it is a tool that has followed me out of the university and into my daily life.

Writing classes further rely on a workshop element in which students exchange their writing for peer review. With Dr. D’s direction, these workshops become a place where students can fearlessly bring their work, engaging in meaningful collaboration over point of view, tone, syntax, diction, and the like. During the workshop process, Dr. D also provides his own elaborate edits. While I value the opinions of my peers, many times I relied solely on Dr. D’s revisions to improve my work, as they were always the most insightful and thorough.

But Dr. D is not only dynamic in the classroom. As a Thesis Mentor, he spent many hours poring over my inordinate drafts, clipping and questioning to perfection. His time, attention, and instruction challenged me to craft a project of excellence. I owe that 99 to him; a student’s success is only as good as a teacher’s investment.

I appreciate the opportunity to petition you in favor of Dr. D’s promotion, although I expect this committee meeting is merely a formality considering Dr. D’s overwhelming contribution to our institution and his students. It would be an awfully unfortunate loss to forfeit his continued participation in the growing scholarship of the university.

So, as if I haven’t been clear enough, I strongly recommend the promotion of Dr. D to the rank of Professor.


Do you have a professor or teacher you really loved? What was great about him or her? How have they left a lasting impression on you?





  1. I had one such teacher in college, Dr. L. I took her class to satisfy a requirement, not because I was interested in the topic. The Harlem Renaissance. I will never forget it. The first day of class she passed a sign-up sheet around the room. It was a list of HR writers and we were to pick one, not already picked by someone else, and study that one for an oral presentation. I picked Nella Larsen because she was female and I liked her name. As I began to study her I was thoroughly confused, so I went to Dr. L’s office.
    I questioned and she answered until I asked, “so why is this one story so completely different from the others? why did she abandon everything she had been working towards by penning “Sanctuary”? and in such a way as to alienate her peers?” Dr. L said she had a copy of Larsen’s collection of letters, and she thought perhaps I could find the answer in there. She handed me a stack of papers and changed my life. I set off on a research adventure that had me begging a librarian at the New York Public Library to please send me a copy of that tiny square of a story, traversing the trains of NY to get to Harlem and the Harlem branch of the NYPL, and finding the connection between a quote in the newspaper and a sentence in a letter that answered my why.
    All along, Dr. L listened to my varied theories and stretches of attempts at solving the mystery. She directed me to resources when she knew that resource would help. She read drafts and offered helpful rearrangements. She tried to talk me out of going to Harlem alone, and out of skipping out on the school-funded trip to a journalism convention just to make the trip to Harlem alone. And then, when I turned in my research paper and my final thoughts on the undoing of Nella Larsen, she put me in one of her classes for the next semester and we fine-tuned the work with me writing and her reviewing. She red-penned me more than I have ever been red-penned before. She helped me grow into a scholar who could stand in front of a group of Harlem Renaissance experts and put forth my theory, answer questions on my theory, and defend my theory. And I was only a Bachelor student.

    • Wow! What an amazing experience. And I am interested to know more about the mystery of Nella Larsen. (I like her name too). This is a truly remarkable accomplishment for you. It’s so wonderful when we stumble upon something that really ignites a passion in us. Thank you so much for sharing about Dr. L!

      • Nella Larsen is a tragic character. She was so well respected and loved as an artist, until a quote appeared in a newspaper. Her friends rejected her and so she rejected them by writing “Sanctuary” against their accepted style of prose. It was finding that quote that led me to the connection between her “proper” stories in standard English and her “improper” story in southern slang.

      • O that’s very unfortunate… But I do respect a woman willing to tread against the grain in order to stand up for herself. Tragic, but courageous!

      • She did have courage and stand up for herself. She tried to say sorry and no one would accept it. This was the last piece she wrote. She became a nurse and lived alone until she died.
        It was such a great adventure to discover all this. Thanks for letting me re-live it here. It changed how I approached literature from then on. Those are the great teachers.

  2. He sounds like a dream mentor. I would have done anything to have someone speak into my life this way and walk me through revisions. Priceless. Sadly, I have no such professor to point to, but I enjoyed reading about your experience.

    • I just realized the he may have been a she. So sorry for assuming this. 😉

    • Well I should say, you’ve come a long way to have done it alone (writing-wise I mean). I’m sure you’ve had all kinds of other support along the way, but to have someone versed in the craft as a guide is surely a gift. And in fact, HE is a HE haha. But isn’t it awful how we do that? In one of my other posts I refer to a “computer genius” and then I use the pronoun “he” without even thinking. Shame on us, but good we recognize it!

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