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A conversation with Writing faculty member Vijay Seshadri
Did you always want to be a writer?
Writing was long an ambition of mine, although I was never one of those people who knew from age two that they wanted to write. Knowing happened probably around adolescence. I went to Oberlin College, which had a strong literary and poetic culture. I started out in mathematics and philosophy but writing slowly took over. But I came to poetry pretty late, although I’d written poems when I was an undergraduate and had been encouraged. I didn’t get down to it seriously until my mid-20s, and I’ve pursued it ever since. Prose has always been something I’m deeply interested in, too, not only as a writer but as an editor and critic.
Can you describe the road you took to become the inaugural director of the graduate program in non-fiction at Sarah Lawrence?
I got my MFA at Columbia, where I also studied Indian languages. My language teachers liked me and they asked me to do a Ph.D., and I eventually enrolled in Columbia’s Ph.D. program in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures. I went to South Asia on a fellowship after my course work, but while there I decided that I didn't want to write a dissertation, and when I came back to New York I wound up as a copy editor at the New Yorker. I was at the magazine for about seven years. During that time I published a book and I started teaching as an adjunct first at the West Side YMCA and then at the New School, and came to enjoy teaching a great deal. I had known Thom Lux, who was then the poetry director at Sarah Lawrence, and I wrote him to ask whether he had any adjunct work—I was still a full-time editor but thinking about making a real transition. He said yes, and that he would be willing to hire me, so I came up to Sarah Lawrence in 1998. I taught the spring of that year and was a guest for three years. Then, in 2001, the college wanted to start a MFA program in non-fiction writing, and because I had written and published essays, and because I had been an editor at The New Yorker dealing with non-fiction pieces, it seemed reasonable for me to put myself forward as a candidate to direct the new program.
The one-on-one conference system is emblematic of a more personalized pedagogical approach at Sarah Lawrence. How does that differ from other writing institutions?
The tutorial system is different from the pedagogical system at every other place—in fact, dramatically different. You’re involved in the one-on-one education of the student, and the classrooms are something of an echo chamber for what is happening in the conferences. You can point out things that writers are doing or not doing in conference with a specificity that can’t be arrived at in the classroom. A lot of learning is done when people feel secure enough to ask questions that might seem simple or silly. Of course, the conference is the perfect place to ask those kinds of questions and the perfect place for a teacher to say to a writer, for example, “You’re really being sentimental here and it’s just not going to work” or “This is a lazy sentence.” There can be many salutary interactions between a student and a person whom that student trusts. Ultimately, I think, all arts instruction is a form of mentorship. Teaching at Sarah Lawrence is not authoritarian in the way that the traditional classroom is authoritarian, where there is an authority, the teacher, and everyone is listening to that authority. It’s more personal—more like a friendship, and that friendship can be enabled in a conference situation.
Who or what has most influenced your approach to teaching?
I’ve had an academic experience and I’ve had a hands-on experience as an editor, and I tend to sort of have a theoretical basis on which is overlaid a clear idea of what it takes to make a successful piece of writing. Of those, probably the deepest influence on my teaching would be my experience as an editor at The New Yorker. I’m craft oriented. I’m concerned with clarity and logic and tracking and flow, and those are concerns that aren’t always as central in academic contexts, because they are considerations arising from the need to communicate to a broad audience. For me, the hands-on approach of the conference system facilitates my biases and is quite simply the best approach to teach writing.
How would you describe the literary community at Sarah Lawrence?
What we have at Sarah Lawrence is a literary civilization. We have famous writers who spend a lot of time with their students, writers who have national reputations and who are recognized as responsible citizens of the republic of writers. And it has been a little civilization of its own for a long time. It has that peculiar quality given to it because of the intimacy of the relationships. I always hear from students who have left: "Oh, I wish I were back at Sarah Lawrence." And these are usually former students who are functioning and publishing and in some cases attached to important literary organizations, such as the Academy of American Poets. What they’re saying is that they don’t necessarily want to go to classes, but that they want to be back in a community of people who are always talking about writing—people are always sort of living the life here.
How does the proximity of New York City factor into student life here at Sarah Lawrence?
We orbit New York City—that is a distinct advantage for us. There are all sorts of literary jobs in the city. It’s an area rich in opportunities if you want to be a writer. Most of the agents are here. There are lots of writers here, lots of the major publications are here. Many of the major literary organizations are here. And so, in terms of building a career, while there are vibrant literary communities across the country, New York is the most dense with literary opportunities. And New York is one of the cultural capitals of the world, and that energy and activity feeds artists. They say New York is a tough town, but the good thing about Sarah Lawrence is that we’re protected from it, too. We’re not a social Darwinist institution—we don’t believe in the law of the jungle survival. We’re a nurturing enclave within the jungle, or at the edge of it. And so our geography is advantageous to us, both practically and morally.
Sarah Lawrence doesn’t hire teaching assistants, so how does the college help graduate students who want teaching experience?
We understand that it’s good to have teaching experience for your resume. Teaching is a good profession even if you aren’t a published writer, and that’s why we try to encourage the mastery of it through various co-curricular programs for students, which are designed to give them teaching experience. But, also, I think we try to emphasize that writers are here to write, that that is their primary activity, and that our activity is to lead them into careers not as teachers but as writers. If they have a writing career, a teaching career will follow if they want it.
How has Sarah Lawrence impacted your literary career?
Sarah Lawrence is a boon to me. I gain enjoyment and energy and instruction from teaching and from teaching in the seminar/conference system. I love to talk about literature and to talk about and explain writing. Those little technical problems of writing are endlessly fascinating to me. I can think about them all the time down to the level of the sentence and the phrase and up to the level of overarching structure and development. Teaching has been intellectually enriching and it’s been wonderful to be part of a community of scholars and thinkers. And I’m grateful to my students, too—they teach me a lot simply by letting me teach them writing. So the school has given me emotional and intellectual satisfaction and stability, and that can only be good for one’s career
by Daniel Ross '13