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.

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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?