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Faculty Q&A with English Teacher James Vescovi

Authored By: 
The Beekman School

James Vescovi loved to write stories since the time he could hold a pencil. He grew up in Michigan and attended Miami University, majoring in English. After spending a year abroad, he earned a Master’s degree in American literature at Columbia University and then worked for twenty-five years as an editor and freelance writer before coming to Beekman.

How did you end up becoming an English teacher?

At the age of fifty, I’d been working for twenty-five years as a writer and editor and needed a career change. I’d been doing some adjunct teaching at City College and I loved it. A move into teaching seemed the right step.

How does your previous career affect your teaching?

Teachers complain that their students can’t write. I can tell you that the same is true among so-called professional writers. I wrote and edited thousands of stories, so I know how clear, interesting prose reads. If a student submits a dreadful first draft, I’m unfazed. I can determine quickly what she needs to do to improve it. My students do at least three drafts of every paper. Otherwise they make the same mistakes.

Most students detest grammar. How do you teach it?

In context. By that I mean I will determine what kinds of errors students are consistently making on their writing assignments and turn those into lessons. That way, the principles are not so abstract.

Do they come to like grammar?

I’m not a miracle worker. But I get them to see that good grammar makes for good writing and people who know how to write will often excel faster than their peers in the workplace. That can translate into higher salary and more job satisfaction.

How do you teach literature?

I teach a good bit of literature that was popular in its day but no longer widely read. For example, Herman Melville sold only 5,000 copies of Moby Dick, while Harriett Beecher Stowe sold 10,000 copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the first week and 300,000 in the first year. The book had an important place in the abolition movements. We study works like hers not so much for their literary value as for the effect they had on society in their day.

So you skip “The Classics”?

Absolutely not. No student leave senior English without making the acquaintance of Melville’s forlorn scrivener Bartleby or Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock.

Educators tell us that students today are less and less interested in reading because they’re so hooked into the immediate gratification supplied by technology. How do you address this?

 I try to convince students that reading literature can help them understand how humans operate in the real world. It can sharpen interpersonal skills they’ll use as adults. It also helps them to think critically. I know it’s an oft-used phrase, but it’s important that 21st century kids learn to think on their feet. Critical thinking creates new pathways in the brain that will be useful to them throughout life.

 How do you keep the subject fresh for yourself year in and year out?

I’m always on the lookout for international writers. The late Harry Mulisch’s novel The Assault, about conscience during wartime, is a big hit. Cities of Salt by A. Munif tells the story of a small village changed overnight by the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia. The students really sink their teeth into Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe because it’s about the ultimate teenage rebel.

Any final thoughts?

The beauty of teaching English at Beekman is that the classes are seminar size. No student can sink down in his chair or hide behind his backpack to avoid being called on. That means each class draws from the voices and ideas of all present, and that makes the experience rich for everyone—including me.