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Joyce Carol Oates Perspective: A Powerful Teacher

Cover of The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates.Between my previous education experience and my current studies as a Masters of Information candidate I have spent the majority of my life in school. As a perpetual student I have learned the life-changing value of having incredible teachers and am quick to recognize them. I already knew that she had been professor at Princeton and a visiting professor at Rutgers this past year, but after just one hour of listening to her interview at our Summer Tales event it was abundantly clear that Oates is a true teacher. Being a part of Summer Tales and listening to Joyce Carol Oates speak reminded me of the importance of having access to committed and generous teachers in all aspects of life.

Throughout the interview, she frequently framed her answers around her students or young people in general. For example, she often shifted the focus of her answer away from herself and towards her students. When asked about her approach to teaching writing she responded by talking about the writing of several of her Rutgers students. She highlighted the awards they received and the strengths of their writing. As she talked you could tell how much pride she had in those students and how motivated she was to be able to talk about them. She also used her short story we read for the Summer Tales program “Where is Here?” to ponder the idea of who we are and how we know ourselves. The idea which she presented, that our external attributes or circumstances don’t make us who we are, while universal, is especially relevant to coming-of-age stories and young people.

Professor Oates also discussed several timely issues and reflected on the activism especially prevalent in today’s world, which again, seemed to be directed to her students and the younger generation. If you spend just a few minutes browsing Oates’ twitter you’ll see she is actively engaged in advocacy on social media. You can see that same drive to discuss the issues facing our world in her interview as well. She noted her privilege (especially in regard to the pandemic) and highlighted Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and climate change as some of the most pressing movements of our time. On top of her own passion for activism, I believe this speaks to her desire to engage a generation of young people who are participating in unprecedented levels of activism, in relation to recent history, and who care deeply about improving the planet.

Overwhelmingly, my impression of Oates is that she values the craft of teaching as much as the craft of writing. Ordinarily, since I am not a writer or English student, I wouldn’t have crossed paths with Professor Oates, but I’m glad I did because her knowledge clearly extends beyond her expertise. The success and quality of her interview (despite some technical difficulties) also demonstrates that events and outreach such as virtual interviews allow students and the community to benefit from the experiences of extraordinary people.

Read other reflections on the event