Dr. Raymond Wachter studied creative writing and received his B.A. in English from the University of Iowa. He studied American literature and received his M.A. and PhD in English from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. A recent Pushcart Prize nominee, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pinch, Tipton Poetry Journal, Burnt Bridge, Knock, Verdad, Phantasmagoria, Apalachee Review, and other online and print journals.
It is always a pleasure to sit down with a teacher, whose courses you have previously taken. It is a little more personal to talk with a former teacher as a person, rather than a teacher you saw twice a week. That is exactly what I got to do with Dr. Wachter. As a freshman in a brand new place, I did not care much to know anything about my professors. But now as a junior, I look at myself as lucky to sit down and be able to speak with Dr. Wachter and learn a little more about him, not only as a teacher but a writer as well.
Where did you go to school and under whom did you study?
I got my Bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in English, and then I applied to a bunch of places for grad school, and I ended up going to the University of Southern Mississippi. It’s interesting because people think you want to go to a huge place but that is not necessarily what you want to do. You want to choose someone you want to study under because they direct your masters thesis and your dissertation for your PhD. I wanted to study under Angela Ball. She was this really great poet and the program was as good as I wanted it to be, if not better because she was a fabulous poet. She was good then, and she is becoming even more well-known now. That is how I ended up down there, and they also offered me a full scholarship for both my Masters and PhD.
What areas in English do you enjoy teaching the most? Are there any genres or classes you hope to teach in the future?
My favorite class was one I designed here from scratch, and it was called the Construction of Masculinity in 20th century American literature. We basically read male authors and talked about how they wrote about their gender. That approach may sound a little old fashioned, but there was a great variety in how the authors and why the authors saw the world; complications of race, sexual orientation, and how masculinity may be viewed as a social construct were all par for the course. So that was cool and I felt very fortunate that the department allowed me to create this course from scratch and then teach it.
What strategies in your teaching have provided the best results, thus far?
I would say the most important thing is when I teach stream of consciousness writing. There is an aspect of my students’ growth as writers and as critical thinkers that is hard to ‘quantify’ in terms of the mechanics of writing an essay; but I see a ‘qualitative’ improvement in that they have more self-assurance in their own style and the ability to believe that they have unique voices as writers. They can build on their strengths. That’s why I believe in teaching the stream-of-consciousness journaling exercises, because it helps a person make the transition from thinking of themselves only as a college student taking a required course, into eventually believing that they have the creativity and the inner resources to become a writer. I can see progress in how much confidence students have as writers
How do you believe your teaching style has changed throughout the years?
It has become more streamlined. When I first started, well when anyone first starts teaching, they don’t know exactly what works well for them. As you keep teaching the same classes over and enjoy them, as I do, you can basically eliminate the exercises or ideas that don’t work too well. I’ve gotten to rely much less on textbooks for English 101 and 102.
As your former student, I know we wrote a lot my freshman year. Let’s talk a little more about your different teaching strategies.
The biggest strategy I have that sets me apart is that I work with a theory in education called Process Writing. When I was in undergrad at the University of Iowa, I was given a teaching assistantship my senior year. The woman for whom I worked was Bonnie Sunstein. I was a TA for her classroom. She is famous in the Process Writing movement. Professor Sunstein was the one who introduced me to that approach to writing. One of my biggest influences in learning and using Process Writing is Professor Lad Tobin who teaches at Boston College. It basically focuses on looking at the holistic process of writing and trying to get away from teaching grammar. The process is trying to get away from isolating the students’ thesis statements and trading papers with another student, but instead teaches them to go step by step and revise a lot.
How do you think Process Writing benefits your students?
The biggest benefit is that they not only become really good writers, but I also help them see they can take this approach and apply it to their lives. They can take a large task, like writing a large research paper, and just do each step well and give it a certain amount of time. This sectioning of tasks quickens the writing process. They learn they can take those same writing procedures and apply them to something else they want to do. So they actually end up gaining life skills from it.
How did you get started in writing your own work?
When I was studying at the University of Iowa, I was really lucky because I got accepted as an undergrad to a special class called “The Undergraduate Writers Workshop.” It was taught by students who were at the MFA program of the Iowa Writers Workshop. One class was taught by a then-unknown poet, Dan Beachy-Quick. It was his first teaching gig, ever. That was more than 15 years ago and he’s now a very well-known and critically acclaimed poet. Basically what I learned from him was the Iowa writers’ approach: we read a lot of art theory and talked about Marcel Duchamp, and focused on the workshop approach to revising our poetry. My foundation for writing came from the studio-approach: revising, workshopping my materials, and learning to push myself as a writer. That was a long time ago, in the late 90’s, when I was an undergraduate. Now, I have branched out so much. I was publishing a lot of my poetry for awhile and I wrote a novel, and I tried to get that published. But I couldn’t get a literary agent for it. It is just sitting on my hard drive. But now I am on to the third genre, nonfiction. So right now, I am writing a book kind of explaining what I have learned from teaching my most recent class, called Advancing Mind and Body. I learned a lot about the mind and body connection and human health. Now, I am compiling what I have learned and presenting it in a nonfiction book. That is what I am working on right now as a writer.
How do you believe your own writing helps your teaching?
I just read two books by one of the best critics in America: Robert D. Richardson. He’s simply the most creative and articulate in investigating the work of the Transcendentalists. So I read him to help with my teaching, I’m teaching Henry David Thoreau tomorrow in my Literature class. Then, I am doing my own writing, ad so what happens is that these authors just have this interesting effect where they are constantly circling each other: Richardson as a critic, and emerson and Thoreau, all of their writing then influences my own work. I will find something that they wrote about the mind-body connection, but they did it in an abstract spiritual way but then that informs how I think of my own manuscript-in-process.
What has been your most rewarding experience during your time as faculty at UA?
I had a student who took me for English 101 and 102, then stayed in touch with me. In her freshman year, she wrote a paper for me about how she wanted to be a lawyer eventually. We stayed in contact and I eventually wrote her a letter of recommendation for the University of Georgia Law School and she got in, which was great. It was kind of cool to see this long term thing where I meet someone right after they have graduated high school. In one of my classes, they end up writing a paper about what they want to do for a career. Then several years later, I am helping them enter into that. Something like that is really great because it is this long term big thing that is really emotionally satisfying.