Back to school!

By Caitlin Kelly

"It's the one with he goats in front"...deKalb Hall, built in 1955
“It’s the one with the goats in front”…deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Guess what Robert Redford and I have in common?

The Brooklyn-based school where this week I start teaching freshman writing and a small mixed-year class on blogging, Pratt Institute.

The college, ranked in the top 20 in the Northeast U.S., occupies its own campus, a long rectangle in Clinton Hill, whose collection of handsome buildings made it, in 2011, named by Architectural Digest as one of the nation’s most attractive campuses.

When I went there for my interview, I was running through thick snow. I’d never been on campus and wasn’t sure which building it was, so I asked a passing student.

“It’s the one with the goats in front.”

And it is…a row of goat statues stands in front of the building, itself, designed in 1955 by the legendary firm of McKim, Mead and White.


If I get the enrolment we hope for, I’ll also be teaching students at the New York School of Interior Design, in Manhattan on East 70th. Street. I’m excited and honored to return to the school, where I was a student myself in the 1990s, hoping to leave journalism for a new career; my marriage ended abruptly and I decided to stop my studies.

I did very well there, learned a lot I’ve used ever since in my own home and helping others design theirs. I loved the school and its small, rigorous classes and passionate instructors. I had only happy memories of my time there.

One of their foundation classes, Historical Styles, required memorizing every element of interior design from ancient Egypt to the year 1900. What did a 16th century Italian bedroom look like? What fabric would you find on an 18th century Swedish chair? Would an English floor in the 14th century be tile? Earth? Wood?

Nor would I ever again confuse Louis IV, V or VI again! (We called it Hysterical Styles. It was tough!)

I still remember the passion of my English professors from my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, especially our Chaucer prof, who has us all reading Middle English aloud. Practical? No. Amazing and fun and a great lesson in the power of language? Yes.

It’s been an interesting challenge to find and choose readings for my syllabi, and I’ve got everyone from David Finkel (on war) to Rose George (on the shipping industry.)

I enjoy teaching and know that a terrific teacher can forever inspire a student and alter their course, just as a rude, dismissive one can crush young idea(l)s very easily. It’s a challenge to balance cracking the whip for excellence with scaring the shit out of everyone; one friend, who teaches journalism in Arizona, has been called “tough” and “difficult” in her student evaluations.

Both of which are really code for “demanding.”

If you aren’t required to produce excellence in college, it won’t magically occur to you when you’re competing to keep and get a good job. College is about much more than graduating and “getting a job”, certainly, but understanding what it means to meet high standards — to me — is as much a part of the experience as any specific subject matter.

My English degree from U of T never won me a job. No one asked for my GPA nor about Chaucer nor my understanding of 16th. century drama or Romantic poetry. But the ferocity and passion of my profs in those four years made very clear to me, from my very first freshman class, what excellence looked like, and what it takes to achieve.

That has proven valuable.

My college experience wasn’t one of partying and drunken escapades. I was far too busy freelancing every spare minute, for national newspapers and magazines after my sophomore year, to earn the money to pay my bills, living alone in a small studio apartment. So I have only a small handful of college friends, never had a college room-mate and, when my alma mater calls me for donations — as it did recently — I decline.

College was helpful to me, but it was also often a lonely time with a lot of financial stress; U of T is huge (50,000+ students) and, then, paid little to no attention to undergraduates as individuals. So I don’t have the sort of gauzy nostalgia, or deep gratitude for a lucrative later career, that would prompt me to open my checkbook.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Are you headed back into the classroom?

If a student, what year and what are you studying?

If a teacher or professor, how about you?


33 thoughts on “Back to school!

  1. this sounds wonderful, caitlyn, and what a wonderful opportunity. it looks like a stunning campus and i love the eccentric twist of the goats our front. as know, i’ll be heading back to teach full day kindergarten next week, and that puts us at opposite ends of the spectrum, but not that different in many ways –

  2. I googled U of T. My first thought was University of Tampa. Haha, not everyone lives in the US. The new teaching gigs sound exciting. The info from your interior design classes sounded interesting to me. I think I would’ve enjoyed that. It was never a thought back then though. Do you know what the goats are symbolic of (if anything)?

  3. Good luck with the classes.

    Recently I moved home to Ireland after about 4.5 years in Korea. Still teaching here, but gone is the stability that my old university position provided. I’m also no longer tea Hong writing, just general ESL to language learners in Dublin. The change is big, but I’m hoping on working out something better as time goes by.

  4. This is it! Classes start next week. I will be teaching high school seniors the good, bad, and ugly of British literature. This has always been a bit of irony for me since I didn’t know anything about Brit lit until I started teaching it a few years ago (my public ed schooling wasn’t so great). Now I’m an enthusiast and hope instill the same appreciation. At least, as I always say, they will understand movies better now that understand the obscure references.

  5. I started my final year of college yesterday. And it is going to be a busy year! I’ve got five classes, a thesis, and a part-time job. But I’m looking forward to it all, and there’s going to be a ton of writing, so I’m excited for that. I just hope I can maybe edit and publish one more book before my college career ends.

  6. In a way, back to the classroom for me–I’m starting a job tutoring our (adult) neighbors in English. I’m excited and nervous. I taught English in Thailand to 4th graders for a year, 9 years ago. I have tutored adults as well, but these will be the highest-level students I’ve had, so it’s a new challenge.

    I’m excited to pursue another avenue of income as a stay-at-home/working-on-the-side mom!

    Good luck with your courses!

  7. You’re so right about the impact of a teacher’s demeanor and presence on students, even years later. I remember when Margaret Atwood conducted a writing workshop. My college professor went and mentioned how biting she was, how brittle in her comments to the students in the class. I guess she was similar to her writing. But, instead of them being able to hear her criticism, she made them defensive. Ugh. I am sure you will bring a better balance to the classroom!

    1. That’s really interesting…Ms. Atwood attended my Toronto high school and she was my first celebrity interview; I interviewed her for our high school paper. She was still very nice; Surfacing had just won acclaim and we were studying it in school.

      But I later interviewed her a few times as a reporter and she cld be indeed quite scathing. Not necessary.

      1. I never would have guessed she was a bit more vanilla at one time. Her writing so cut to the chase that I guess I assumed she’d always been that way. Interesting. I wonder what changed her . . . .not sure that’s something she’ll ever share, eh?

  8. In reply to your own comment on Atwood, “she could be indeed quite scathing”, you say “Not necessary”.

    I think ‘scathing’ to be necessary at times. A bit like a cold shower. Wakes you up. And, Caitlin, may I say that you are one of the most scathing people I have encountered in the blogging writers’ world. You may package yourself and your opinions, dress them up ‘nicely’ for the unobservant but, by golly, you sure don’t cut much slack.

    I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be your daughter. Would I find the will to get out of bed before breakfast?


      1. I took an enforced break Caitlin πŸ™‚ I’m now trying to get back into it as part of my “get thee better” plan! I’m really curious to see how your professional journo head works across the topic you’re teaching. Especially given that’ll you’ll be across a class of young people who won’t be as aware or experienced as you are (and of course they can’t possilbly be), across the depth and breadth of professional writing. What does the ‘start’ of a professional writers life look like today (at this level) – as opposed to what it looked like when you first sharpened your pencil ( πŸ˜‰ ) so to speak?

      2. They are a sophisticated bunch! It’s a very mixed group — from all across the U.S. and even a foreign country. They’ve chosen a BFA program so are serious, for now, about becoming writers.

        But their world is so different — esp. with social media. I’m excited to share to some of my favorite books with them.

  9. Pingback: Friday Links | Small Dog Syndrome

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