History, Teachers, and Titles
Pretty much every good thing I know about writing I learned by writing for one man, in one class. He absolutely changed the course of my life and in doing so, influenced a generation of writers. One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t ever get a chance to tell him thank you. This is my poor attempt at just that. And in sitting down to write this, I realize, I’m still writing for him. And I can see him now, laughing at me with a shake of his head and I know what he would tell me. “Write this for you, not me. You’re the one who needs it. But you’d better make damn sure you give it a good title.”
I met Claudio Segre in January of 1994. It was my last semester of college and I was in need of just one more class to complete my history degree. I was originally a pre-med major before anyone told me so much science would be involved and I only switched to history once I realized I had already accrued enough credits to do so. History was an accidental love affair for me. I only discovered my zeal for it after plunging into the deep end. I chose most of my classes on sheer instinct and Dr. Segre’s “What is Fascism?” was no different. I just couldn’t resist the strange title and the written blurb underneath it.
I recall walking up to the small conference room that first day and checking my schedule several times. There must be a mistake. This classroom only held a singular, oval shaped table and 13 chairs surrounding it. This was the University of Texas. Most of my other history classes were in large lecture halls where the professor stood behind a lectern and had to use a microphone for us to hear. TA’s always graded our papers and the professors were literally out of our reach. This couldn’t be right. I remember taking a step or two backwards right as other students started to file in around me, talking about Nazi Germany. I figured I was in the right place after all.
Shortly after we all took our seats, a man in his mid 50s walked into the room and took one of the two remaining chairs. He carried no briefcase. He had no paper. He sat down and looked at us. We looked at him. Awkward silence ensued. We all took out our notebooks, clicked our pens, and eagerly awaited his instructions. He gave none. We exchanged worried glances and started to wonder if indeed any of us were in the right room.
After what felt like an unbearably long silence, he cleared his throat and said with a thick German accent, “I’m not who you think I am. My name is Bruno and I am auditing this course to learn from Dr. Segre.” As if on cue, another man in his mid 50s entered the room. Actually, I’m pretty sure his eyebrows entered the room first. They always did.
This man was tall and slim, with a shock of salt and pepper hair that moved with him and he seemed to be speaking to no one in particular as he walked into class. His features were bold and expressive, his energy crackling. I knew within seconds that he would become my favorite professor but it’s taken me 26 years to be able to really understand why.
Dr. Segre began the class by asking us questions. Why were we here? What did we hope to get out of this class? What were our plans after graduation? Robert went first. He was there because his grandfather fought in WWII and he wanted to connect with him before he died. He planned on attending law school. Tricia was next. She had always been fascinated by Nazi Germany ever since she read The Diary of Anne Frank in 8th grade. She would be moving to DC for an internship in political science. Next was Bruno. He was taking the course because he was there. Literally. His family had fled Germany when Hitler came to power.
All of our eyes widened. Dr. Segre positively lit up and began rapidly telling us all the story of his own upbringing in Italy before WWII and how his father, a world-renowned physicist fled from Mussolini to the US and worked to develop the Atomic Bomb. He shared that he was currently working on a memoir of their relationship that he hoped would be published soon. The whole class of young, blank slates sat in rapture as these two men, the age of our fathers, laughed and compared timelines, career choices, and emigration stories. We learned about Dr. Segre’s background in journalism, his devotion to his family, and his insistence on treating us as capable historians instead of empty vessels to be filled. He had us all thoroughly entranced and only realized after about 15 minutes that there was one student yet to speak. He profusely apologized and turned his attention and his eyebrows my way.
I have never wanted to disappear more in my life before or since. I swallowed hard and responded meekly something about the title and reading list being interesting. And my honest response about the uncertainty of my future felt limp. All I wanted was for the moment to pass so we could get back to hearing from the interesting people. But to my initial dismay and eventual delight, Dr. Segre pointed right at me, telling everyone else that this was the kind of openness that he wanted us all to bring to the table.
He then went on to describe his teaching philosophy. There would be no lectures and no tests. Each week of the course would be dedicated to one book from the syllabus. We were to read it and write a five-page response paper. We were then to distill that paper into a five sentence paragraph to be presented before the class for discussion and dissection. The formula was deceptively simple and deliciously effective if the goal was to make us work harder than ever before.
Our notebooks remained devoid of historical facts and figures that first class. He spent the remainder of our time teaching us about how we should write these papers. These were not to be merely book reports. They were conversations that we were to have with the author of the book as we turned his or her argument inside out and fit it into our own historical framework. And we were supposed to spend as much time titling our piece as we spent writing it. He warned us that he had never really met a title that he loved.
I don’t remember much about the specific papers, honestly. But I do recall the trepidation and excitement I felt coming to class each week. It felt more like a newspaper room than a classroom. Dr. Segre treated us like journalists and he acted like our editor. We talked about real ideas and real writing. We all wanted to make him proud, to make him think, and we all had the chance. Each class session began by reading aloud your paragraph and paper title, and then asking for critique. The biggest thrill of all was the slight tilt of his head and the subtle and approving arch of his eyebrow that you could just make out through your peripheral vision as you finished your last word. That smallest movement drove me all week long. Gaining not his approval, but his respect was my goal.
Next, he would hand back our papers from the week before. They came back with few comments, but each one was incisive, cutting like a scalpel, and his holistic letter grades were honest appraisals of the effort, not of our class performance or our political beliefs. The last paper I wrote for him was our final exam. A 20 page answer to the course question: “What is Fascism?” I poured more time and energy into this one paper than any of my other classes combined. I was really proud of it, but when I finally got it back, all it had on it was one, lone scribble: “See me about this paper.”
My stomach lurched. Did I plagiarize? Did I disappoint? Was he going to tell me I wasn’t cut out for academic writing? By this point, and because of this class, I had decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life thinking and writing in an environment such as this. I had started the process of working on my applications for graduate school to pursue European History and was planning on asking Dr. Segre for a letter of recommendation. Now I wasn’t so sure.
The next week, I made the trek from my apartment to Dr. Segre’s office. His dark wooden door was open and he sat at his desk, bent over a book. I knocked on the frame so as not to startle him. He told me to come in and asked me if I brought my paper with me. I produced it and he leaned back in his chair, not speaking to me for a long time. I was certain that I was about to be kicked out of college for doing something terrible, although I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was.
Finally, he spoke. “What is that you want to do after college, Ms. Runkel?” The question surprised me and I fumbled for the answer.
“Well, I’m not exactly sure, but I think I want to pursue at least a Masters and maybe a Ph.D in history. I just love it so much, with the…”
He cut me off mid-sentence, “No, no, no, no….you don’t need to do that. There are enough stodgy history professors in the world. You need to be a writer. Or you need to teach other people how to write.”
I must have furrowed my brow or looked shocked because I remember him laughing. He told me that my writing was clean and my arguments solid, but he felt very strongly that academic writing would be a waste of my talents. I didn’t know what to say.
He grabbed a pad of paper and scribbled something on it before handing it to me. “Buy this book and do everything it says. If you’ve never written creatively, this is where you start. And you should start. You’re a writer, you just don’t know it yet.” He then looked me dead in the eye and said with a disarming seriousness, “Write. Always write.”
That one moment felt like both a split second and an entire year. I could not look away. I dare not. He finally broke eye contact, sniffed, and said casually. “Ok. That’s all. I hope I don’t see you next year in the Master’s program.” He took the paper from my hand, wrote a large “A+” on it, handed it to me, and went back to his book.
I found myself outside of his office with my head was spinning and my heart pounding. The note he wrote simply said, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I recall tucking that note into my bag and walking around campus in a fog, both elated with and confounded by the encounter.
That next fall, I did not attend graduate school for history. Instead, I got my teaching certificate in history and English, which I used for the next 20 years as a High School Literature and Composition educator. I suppose my first accidental love led to my second and I’m so grateful that I stumbled into it. I don’t think I would have considered teaching had it not been for Dr. Segre.
Although I only knew him briefly, he taught me so much. Now that I reflect back on it, I have to say that I probably modeled not only most of my writing style, but also most of my teaching style after his. What follows is a short list of things I learned in the small sliver of time that Claudio Segre and I shared on the campus of the University of Texas. These lessons not only made their way into my life, but also into the lives of the 1800 or so students I eventually taught because of his advice:
1. Titles matter. If you can’t say it well in the title, it’s not worth my time to read it.
2. Always distill your writing. Doing so will sharpen good thinking and expose weak thinking.
3. You are capable of way more than you think.
4. You should start way sooner than you want.
5. Bury yourself in reading and it becomes possible to write your way to a good idea.
6. Read slow and write fast.
7. Revise slow and share fast.
8. Listen carefully. Books talk to one another.
9. You can’t write anything worth reading if you’re too careful.
10. It’s incredibly contagious to be passionate.
11. It’s empowering to your students when you actually care about what it is they have to say.
12. Stay curious and you’ll always be interesting.
13. Have opinions. Share them. Ask others to poke holes in your logic and mean it.
14. Sit with your students. Not above them.
15. Don’t coddle your students. It’s insulting.
16. Write with them as often as possible. Modeling process and struggle is courageous.
17. Students will go wherever you ask if you are passionate enough.
18. How an author says something is just as important as what she says.
19. You can talk about very difficult things with very different people if real learning rather than being right is your objective.
20. If you see something in a student, tell them, even if it’s painful for them to hear. Chances are, they don’t see it in themselves.
As for Writing Down the Bones, it only took me 25 years to actually read it and do everything it said. It’s a part of my morning routine now and it sits on my desk alongside my tattered copy of Dr. Segre’s memoir Atoms, Bombs, and Eskimo Kisses. I can’t help but smile whenever I see it, knowing that he had to be proud of that title when he came up with it.
I set out to thank him for his tremendous impact on my life not too long ago. I was retiring from teaching in order to pursue writing full time and he was the first person I thought about. One quick Google search brought me to my knees when I learned that he passed away suddenly only a year after our meeting. I don’t think he even got the chance to see his memoir hit the shelves.
To him, I was probably just one eager student of hundreds he taught over his career. But to me, he was and still is the teacher I hear in my ear as I sit down to write, as I wrestle with writer’s block, as I wonder if what I have to say is worthwhile. And because of him, I’ve had students express the exact same, incredibly humbling sentiment to me. Most of us never get to know the impact we’ve had on another’s life. I regret that I didn’t get a chance to tell him. But I delight in the fact that I do get a chance to keep his memory alive doing the very thing that he encouraged me to do: Write. Always write.