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Mrs. A.B. "Dolly" Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching:
Passionate About Poetry, Protector of Poets

Date: May 19, 2000
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."

Why does 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.

image of Drury

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 dissertation.

"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 "Creating Poetry."

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...

She adds: "Professor Drury is an extremely articulate, insightful analyst of student work...Students admire his sincerity, intelligence, sense of aesthetic proportion and his lively presence."

Ask 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 excited about."

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."

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