May 29, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 18

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    Quantrell award: Elizabeth Alexander

    Assistant Professor in English Language & Literature "Teaching," said Elizabeth Alexander, "is full of surprises. Each student is different, and every class is a whole universe of ideas."

    To Alexander, Assistant Professor in English, teaching is also a joint project, which is why she is particularly excited to receive a Quantrell Award.

    "I feel honored because it means that my students, who teach me so much and make my job interesting, take meaning from my teaching," she said.

    Alexander, who teaches African-American literature and gender studies as well as poetry writing, believes that there is no one right way to read a text. She particularly likes teaching the plays of Anna Deveare Smith, because they are filled with different and often contradictory opinions about such events as the Los Angeles riots, and they show students that people witnessing the same thing can come to greatly different conclusions.

    "Smith's plays are also an example of what students can do on their own," Alexander said. "She culls her material from interviews with people who saw what happened, and then uses those voices to make her plays." That's one route students can use to express different views, Alexander said -- and she thinks the expression of different views is vital in a classroom.

    "It's very important for me to help students find within themselves their own opinions, their own visions, their own metaphors. As a teacher friend of mine says, when someone writes something beautiful, I'm not the mother of that baby -- I help ease the passage onto paper, like a midwife. I find out what words are inside of them, no more, no less."

    When she teaches the literature of poetry, for instance, she finds that "There are poems that I have loved for years and years, and when we sit down together and work through them, students always find things in them that I have never seen before."

    She has learned to be flexible, realizing that any central plan she has for a particular class may have to be discarded if what students read in a text sends the discussion off in a different direction.

    "I don't think that I have the stone tablets of knowledge that are going to be passed on to the students," she said. "We all learn from each other."

    Alexander said that teaching creative writing brings its own set of challenges. "It's always true that you must reach different students in different ways, but it's particularly true in creative writing," she said. "You must search for ways into a student's creativity, and you must show them how to develop and judge their writing themselves -- because the teacher is only going to be looking over their shoulders for 10 weeks! After that, it's up to each of them to know when they are writing well. The validation must come from within."

    Alexander herself is a well-regarded poet, with her poems anthologized in over a dozen collections. Commenting on her most recent book of poetry, Body of Life, the Chicago Tribune said, "If Alexander can sing, she can also strip and peel words to their luminous, ambiguous cores." She is also currently working on a book of critical prose called On Black Masculinity.

    Her poems, short stories and critical writings have been widely published in such journals and periodicals as The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Village Voice, The Women's Review of Books and the Washington Post. Her play Diva Studies was performed last May at the Yale School of Drama. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship and an Illinois Arts Council award.

    "To teach about the beauty and potency of art is a luxury," Alexander said, "and to teach about why art matters -- because I believe it does -- is a privilege. -- Jay Vanasco