Bruce Bennett, Professor Emeritus of English, has been named winner of the first annual Writing the Rockies Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Creative Writing for his dedication to teaching in the “particularly perilous and strange” discipline of creative writing. In a wake of institutional importance being placed on publications rather than teaching, the award was designed, according to Writing the Rockies, to encourage professors to shift their focus onto interactions with their students.
Bennett’s own profound commitment to teaching his students resonated throughout his forty-one years at Wells. "The great thing about Wells—maybe the greatest—is the direct interaction between faculty and students,” said Bennett. “That was certainly essential to my teaching. I knew them and they knew me, and we liked and respected one another. And we (almost) always had fun! The best of the best [courses] were writing workshops when everyone was on. They really were incomparable experiences for me, and I believe also for students.”
This award celebrates Professor Bennett’s knack for this pedagogy of creativity and the ease with which he passed on to his students a love for the art of writing. Creative writing courses present a teacher with the challenge of combining literary curriculum; an understanding of criticism, theory, form and genre; and the freedom of creativity and artistic license. As the Writing the Rockies announcement notes: “The job quarrels with itself, requiring the teacher not only to offer some rational structure of knowledge, but also to inculcate the difficult disciplines of artistic practice, all with the delicate touch that cultivates talent…It is a bit like leading a class in how to waltz, in which each couple is standing on the back of an irritated tiger.”
Professor Bennett handled this challenge, in part, by holding one-on-one conferences with students at the end of certain classes. “In those conferences, when we looked together through each student's portfolio, I had the opportunity to really follow through with students about their entire semester's work, as well as learn much more about them personally in ways that could be helpful to me in the future as a teacher,” he said. “Again, that is one of the great benefits of Wells: one can do that with almost everyone in one's classes, mainly because the classes themselves are relatively small and the students are very involved. In teaching writing, the more you and the student can get beneath the surface, the more can be accomplished, and conferences contributed enormously to that. It's a remarkable process, the talking through things together outside of class, and it just about always works!”
“One further observation: Shilo McGiff, who was a student at Wells and taught in the Department in 2013-14, remarked that what made writing at Wells such a strong program is that students in one's courses got to repeat courses with the same instructors as they advanced through the major,” Bennett notes. “You had them at the beginning, and at intermediate stages, and by the time they were seniors and writing their theses, everyone had grown and shared a lot together. It wasn't like someone coming in once as a teacher and having a single shot at what he or she might be trying to do, or like a student always having to get to know a new instructor. The growing together part of it was crucial.”
Since his retirement from Wells, Bennett has continued his work in creative writing, and just last fall served as the Poetry Editor of Syracuse-based literary journal Stone Canoe. While absent from the classroom, Bennett continues to maintain a presence in the Aurora community—he will hold a reading at the Aurora Arts and Design Center on Thursday, April 9, and he still often attends literary events on campus.
The announcement from Writing the Rockies notes an apt quote from writer Henry Adams—one which Professor Bennett’s own former students could identify with: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."