Most Improved Writing Student

In 1982, while a graduate student at Columbia University, I taught Introduction to Freshman Composition, a remedial course for bright but inarticulate young men just entering the college. (Columbia was still all-male back then.) I’d never taken Freshman Composition of any kind, so I found the class useful and interesting. Indeed, I developed an appreciation for fluid non-fiction as a result of the class, and the skills that I learned by teaching have served me well. For even though my heart lies in writing literary fiction, my bank account depends on my ability to write clear, expository, prose.

I earned my PhD and moved to Vermont, creating a free-lance career outside the academic mainstream. I lost touch with all my students and most of my colleagues from my New York days – until 2009.  That’s when I received an email from a former student, who wrote to thank me for my tutelage.

Daniel Chamovitz, that former student, is now a professor of biology at Tel Aviv University, where among other classes, he teaches a course called “Scientific Writing in English for PhD Students”. In his letter, he explained how a student had asked him how he learned to write, prompting him to remember the C- I gave him for what he now says, “was, in retrospect, a very pitiful piece of work.”

In his long and lovely letter, he says that his success as a scientist is due as much to his writing skills as it is to any scientific achievements. It concludes with thanks “for the path you started me on.” I never dreamed I’d had such an impact on any of those young men, let alone such a positive one that would be remembered three decades later.

Of course I replied, and we’ve maintained the correspondence. When we met in 1982, Danny was a mere 18 to my mature 24. Now, that six-year gap seems insignificant. (My youngest child and his oldest are the same age.) But best of all, we’re now both authors. Danny’s book, What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses of Your Garden – and Beyond, was just published in a joint venture between Scientific American and FSG. And Danny is coming to read from it at this year’s Brattleboro Literary Festival.

The 2012 Brattleboro Literary Festival takes place October 12-14. It’s a fabulous way to spend a weekend in downtown Brattleboro, Vermont, a gateway community with a vibrant literary and arts economy – and really good food – in the southeast corner of the state.

I go every year. Hearing authors read aloud is a treat; meeting them is a thrill; talking books with other book-lovers a great way to spend a weekend. And this year, on Saturday afternoon, I’ll be introducing my former C- student, whose book, What A Plant Knows deserves an A+.

Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at

12 thoughts on “Most Improved Writing Student

  1. I love this. I remember entering college and not knowing how to write a paper. I spent many hours studying grammar and how to write papers. Thanks to that time spent and some inspiring professors, I learned a very important life skill.

  2. This reminded me of two teachers in high school who set the tone for my life as a writer. Maybe I’d go so far as to say they planted the seed which took nearly 30 years to grow but is thriving, in spite of the days I think I see no growth.
    For those who teach, they have no idea where the seed will plant.
    When my first book is published, my dedication will be to those two people I haven’t seen since high school graduation. I could thank my family, editors and others who have been supportive, who have watered and fed the seed, but without the seed in the first place, what would there be?
    This post made me smile and reflect. Thank you.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Laura. Most of the time, we teachers have no idea if we’re getting through to our students in such a meaningful way. It’s always nice to be told!

  3. When you show someone how to express themselves be it in writing or speaking, you give them an unimaginable gift of freedom. We are creatures of words, and to be unable to function fluidly in the realm into we were born, takes a terrible and needless toll. Wonderful work, Deborah.

    • Thank you for these affirming words. I know just how true they are from my work with inmates, who had never before been asked to tell their stories – and have them be heard. Best, Deborah.

  4. Such a lovely tale, Deborah. What a gift you gave to him, and how wonderfully it has been returned to you. I hope you have a great time at the festival. 🙂

  5. Pingback: The Scientist Writes « Live to Write – Write to Live

  6. Articles like this one makes me think what can I say about such an inspirational piece that flows so well. It demonstrates a craft well honed, I am sure.

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