Mrs. A.B. "Dolly" Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching:
Date: May 19, 2000
Passionate About Poetry, Protector of Poets
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photo by: Colleen Kelley
Archive: General News, Campus News
Not once has Scott Rhoden, a UC doctoral candidate, occupied a
chair in John Drury's classes in creative writing. Yet he knows
that Drury is one of the best teachers he has ever met and
reaches a level of achievement that, Rhoden says, "I could only
hope to reach for an hour on my very best day."
Rhoden hold so much respect and admiration for an English
professor he has never seen inside the classroom?
His reasons show us why Drury has gained a reputation as an
excellent teacher and has been conferred UC's top faculty
teaching prize, the Mrs. A.B. "Dolly" Cohen Award.
Nearing the completion of his PhD class work last year, Rhoden
realized that his chance of landing a job might be thwarted by
his relatively weak grasp of contemporary American poetry.
Impressed with Drury's own poetry readings and his Poetry
Dictionary reference book, Rhoden called Drury with the bold
request for a "crash course" in American verse.
"Much to my
surprise, he readily and enthusiastically agreed," writes
Rhoden in a letter nominating Drury for the Cohen Award. Drury
designed an independent study and scheduled regular, intensive
meetings that usually occurred at coffee shops and sometimes
stretched to three or four hours.
"With his assistance
and over a hundred books of poetry and criticism under my belt...
after less than a year's time, I received a unanimous high-pass
in all three areas of creative writing, American fiction and
nonfiction," attests Rhoden, who is now completing his
"Throughout the process I experienced the kind of
warmth and diligence all of his students and colleagues have come
to admire and respect about John Drury," he adds.
Over and over
again, this sense of Drury's warmth and sensitivity to student
writers appears in his nomination letters. Students noticed his
regular attendance at graduate student readings and say they are
encouraged by his presence.
The novice writers also say they
appreciate Drury's use of an innovation he calls "the Primary
Reader," a student he assigns to lead the critique of a
classmate's poem during in-class discussion.
Drury likens the
technique to the "crits" commonly used in art studios. After a
student writer reads a piece aloud in class, the author must keep
silent as the Primary Reader makes comments, followed by
comments from other classmates and then Drury, who could be an
intimidating critic if he chose to be. His own poems have been
published in prominent journals plus a collection called "The
Disappearing Town," and his byline appears on two texts that are
headed for second printings, "The Poetry Dictionary" and
Instead, the terrifying moment when
students read their poetry in public, often for the first time,
becomes a useful exercise in revision and possible improvement,
says Liz Tilton, a 41-year-old UC student.
"Right off the bat,
in his poetry workshop ground rules, Professor Drury sets the
tone by highlighting on his course syllabus, 'Comments should
be kind to the poet but tough on the poems.'"
"I want to
establish some distance between the poet and the work," explains
Drury, who has taught at UC since 1985. "It's easier to see
problems and possible solutions in other people's poems than in
your own. But eventually the poet should learn to give his or her
own poems a hard look and even to find pleasure in moving the
words around, adding and cutting material. It's not a question
of expression but of discovery. If all else fails, there's
always the next poem."
Pointing the way toward a better piece
of writing or verse can be a sensitive matter because young
writers often have more than a little emotion or personal
experience hiding behind their texts. Yet Dina Ben-Lev, UC
doctoral candidate in creative writing, remembers a class where
Drury skillfully aided a student with a particularly intense
piece of writing about growing up without a father. The student
admitted her poem was autobiographical and that her father had
left when she was 7.
"She bit her lip several times to keep from crying. The poem
was very moving, full of provocative images and interesting turns
of phrase," said Ben-Lev. However, the last couple of stanzas
were unduly abstract and detracted from the poem's overall
effect. Professor Drury, with his usual aplomb, referred back to
comments made by her classmates, and then asked questions that
made the student re-examine and rethink the poem's conclusion.
One could literally see her face brighten when she realized there
were more possibilities for its ending...
"Professor Drury is an extremely articulate, insightful analyst
of student work...Students admire his sincerity, intelligence,
sense of aesthetic proportion and his lively presence."
Drury to come up with a metaphor for this diplomatic teaching
style and he will compare it to coaching. "There is sort of a
double role. You can't limit yourself to praise. You have to find
some way to encourage the student to revise, to keep pushing
them. Sometimes I describe the workshop as 'poetry boot camp.' I
want them to be serious about writing , but also to have fun
doing it. I don't want to stop them from writing; I want them to
continue, to keep on revising."
And to keep on reading. As a
writing instructor, Drury also insists his job is not only to
encourage students to write but also to examine other writers
work."I try to teach what I consider 'maximalist courses.'
I assign a lot of writing exercises, and they're always connected
to specific poems that serve as models. I want to show the
students that writing poetry depends on reading it. But I also
want them to value their own experiences, such as jobs they ve
had and interests they pursue. Anything can work its way into
poetry, as long as the language is inventive and suggestive. I
want to show them that poetry is something they can enjoy and get
Just the way Drury himself gets passionate
about verse. "Certainly I try to stimulate in my students
the same love of language, poetry and literature that I feel,"
he says. After all, he acknowledges, he wouldn't be a teacher if
he weren't a poet. "Writing poetry, as well as reading it, is
pretty much behind all the teaching I do."