Ali keeps hearing all these lovely things about someone named “Gina Barreca.” But when she enrolls in Professor Barreca’s Creative Writing course, it’s not exactly what she expected. Professor Barreca helps the class unravel their stories, and in the process tells a few of hers; those stories overlap in more ways than you’d expect.
Professors Are People Too is a show hosted by an English major looking to find the person behind the Ph.D. Trying to rebuild the professor-student relationship, host Ali Oshinskie takes us on a tour of the professors who transformed her learning experience from lecture-hall lost to office-hour happy. In collaboration with University of Connecticut’s Creative Writing Department and WHUS, UConn’s Sound Alternative, this podcast ventures off the syllabus into lessons that can’t be graded.
Episode 5: Victoria Ford Smith
Episode 4: Dwight Codr
Season 2: Introduction
Episode 3: Sean Forbes
Episode 2: Cathy Schlund-Vials
Episode 1: Gina Barreca
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The Music (from soundofpicture.com)
- Many Hands
- Now Son
- Dust In Sunlight
ALI OSHINSKIE: HOST: I’m Ali Oshinskie and this semester I’m taking you on a tour, a tour of the friends you didn’t know you could have, the advice you didn’t know you could ask for, and the professors you didn’t know were, like, people.
PROFESSOR DWIGHT CODR: Professor
PROFESSOR SEAN FORBES: Professor
PROFESSOR GINA BARRECA: Professor
OSHINSKIE: Professors are People Too
OSHINSKIE: In the first episode of Professors Are People Too, we’re going to the basement of the Austin building to meet the most tenured faculty of the English Department
GINA BARRECA: (different clips) Professor. Professah. Gina Barreca. Gina Barreca.
OSHINSKIE: You guessed it. Professor
BARRECA: and I’m a Professah
OSHINSKIE: Professah Gina Barreca.
OSHINSKIE: Remember in elementary school when you’d see your teacher at the grocery store and you, like, freaked out? It was hard to believe that the Mrs. Wallace who taught you about long division earlier that day was buying potato chips in the grocery store, right now.
By college we know better but somehow our professors remain in that unbelievable realm. The Mr. and Mrs. are now Professor and Doctor and instead of long division and potato chips it’s scholarly essays and honorary degrees. These people have incredible awards and accomplishments, they probably went to Yale or Oxford and I’m over here filling my C.V. with the most “Likes” I’ve gotten on Instagram and aspiring to live in a reconstructed mini-van someday. With so much difference between us, why would they care about me? And why should I care about them? And that’s what I was thinking when I first heard of Professor Barreca, because I heard it through my mom.
DOREEN OSHINSKIE: Ali, you have to take a class with Gina Barreca at Uconn!
OSHINSKIE: That’s my mom.
DOREEN OSHINSKIE: She’s so funny, and you would love her.
OSHINSKIE: And being the avid emailer that she is…
DOREEN OSHINSKIE: And I’m sending you this article you’ve gotta read it.
OSHINSKIE: Around course selection time she came up again. A friend suggested that I take her Creative Writing course. It was one of those have to kind of things.
SIERRA MAZUR: Gina’s creative writing class is something that everyone should take regardless of your major, where you want to end up in life, what career you’re looking towards. It will help you in, like, many, many, many ways.
OSHINSKIE: So a year later I enroll in her Creative Writing course. I kept hearing all these awesome things about Professor Barreca so how could I not? I saw her stack of books at the Co-op, someone showed me a picture of her with Taylor Swift, and a couple of friends talk about going to her office hours and just hanging out with her. This is gonna to be so cool! And then in the first class of the semester, she gives us the syllabus, except she calls it a contract. She stresses the importance of deadlines and said that if we’re late, we will not be welcomed. We had seven papers to write for this class with two deadlines per week. And if we got the assignments in late, she wouldn’t even look at them: no exceptions.
BARRECA: I give very strict deadlines for getting work done. I don’t accept work late. There are no electronic devices allowed in my classroom. If I see you with your hands in your lap, I’m going to assume you’re masturbating. It’s essential that everybody is awake and alert and paying attention. Students have to learn how to take notes. I do not write on the board, I grew up in New York, I do not turn my back on a crowd.
OSHINSKIE: Wow. This is gonna be a lot of work. But it didn’t feel like Professor Barreca made it this way because she was out to get us.
BARRECA: Within the boundaries that are set, there’s an enormous amount of freedom: is what I think is important, and, so I’m about making sure that the classes are very structured, that I think the students know what my expectations are and again I think that most people rise to them. But that within that structure everybody can feel comfortable.
OSHINSKIE: After the first couple of weeks of class, we start to realize how big a deal Professor Barreca is. As it turns out her heyday was not at Yale or Oxford but
BARRECA: Cambridge University, where I was a Reynolds Fellow.
OSHINSKIE: She’s got a couple of accomplishments:
BARRECA: I was honored by the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, regular on Faith Middleton’s NPR Show,
OSHINSKIE: Hi Faith Middleton, I hope you’re listening.
BARRECA: the 100 Best Books, honorary degrees, Elle’s Readers Pick
OSHINSKIE: She’s written and edited a few books:
BARRECA: Uh, there’s Untamed and Unabashed; They Used to Call Me Snow White But I Drifted; The Penguin Book of Women’s Humor; Last Laughs; I’m With Stupid; Sex and Death and Victorian Literature. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine “If You Lean In Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” was ten and then for edited: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen.
OSHINSKIE: She’s got a column that gets syndicated in just one or two places:
BARRECA: The Hartford Courant, Seattle Times, Georgia, the Arab Emirates, I’m big in New Zealand.
OSHINSKIE: And she’s been on Oprah.
BARRECA: I’ve been on Oprah four times. You would never get paid to go on any of these TV shows. I was on 20-20 and 48 Hours and Oprah and the Today Show. Then the idea is that it will get you publicity. But being on Oprah was really fun because returning to school the next day after taping out in Chicago at the Harpo Studios, it was the only time that students would come up and like, high five me in the hallway, students I’ve never met. And I thought, “that’s what you’re doing in the afternoon, you’re supposed to be in the library, how do you know I was on TV if you were watching T.V., what are you doing watching?” It was fun and my relatives, being my relatives, would say, “No, you looked good. You looked a little heavy.”
OSHINSKIE: Each time we learn something new and impressive about Professor Barreca, it was intimidating. She was such an accomplished woman. And she wanted to read my writing? In those first weeks, I could feel the same resistance from my classmates. Some people wanted to be mysterious, others were just shy but I’m pretty sure that we all wanted to impress her. But story sharing would not be a competition in Professor Barreca’s classroom. And soon I realized that every accomplishment she shared was just the backdrop for a story, a story that worked perfectly.
BARRECA: One of the times I was on Oprah was with these two women who were called the Rules Girls. They had written a book called The Rules. And it should have been titled How to Start your Bad First Marriage. It was an advice book for young women about how to trap some poor, unsuspecting guy into marrying them, basically by withholding sex. And I thought this wasn’t really such great advice. Um, not the withholding sex part you can do, or not do, anything you want to as you choose, but using that as a form of power seemed manipulative and also a setback to some sort of 17th century, patriarchal guidebook that did not seem to have women’s autonomy and independence as its goal. So, um, I had been on Oprah a couple of times before that and so I knew what to expect being on the show, and they knew what to expect from me as a guest. And so they knew that I was not exactly going to be this shy, retiring guest. And there were these two women who were exactly my age and uh, there was a blonde and a brunette. And not to sound nasty, but the blonde was as blonde as I am, which is not blonde (laughter). The blond talks like she’s very New York, very New York – Long Island accent. And so that’s not far, you know, that’s sort of in my youth. And so I can do that. The brunette, her co-author did not speak for whatever reason: it’s like Penn and Teller. So I come on and I’m wearing a scarf and pearls and so I look like every female expert is supposed to look. So I’m there to be the expert, I’m there to discuss why I think that this book is not a good idea. And I get a question that is very personal, I’m not expecting to be asked that because I’m there as the expert. And so I come on as the expert and the blonde goes “Docta Barrekka” and makes doctor sound like road-kill first of all so “DOCTA BARREKKA! We hear you have a real problem with awh book?” (Laughter) And I say, “Well, yes, actually I do. I think that your book really uh, is not only disrespectful to women, but is actually shows an enormous contempt for men. I said if I were a guy I’d be protesting outside your publisher’s office. I mean this shows men as morons, I don’t think this is respectful to men at all.” And she says, “Well, we’re both on our furst marriage. How many times have you been married?” And you know the audience sorta goes ‘woo’ and I think “you know what? I’m too close to menopause to, you know, just not have a good time with this.” And so I answer honestly and so I answer “I’ve been married twice.” And she says “Well, like I said, we’ve both on our first marriage.”And I said “Yeah honey but I’m on my last.” And there’s a pause in the response and then the audience really starts to laugh and some old lady back in the audience yells out, “YOU GO GIRL” and I thought I’m just going to have fun. And you know, there’s a reason I’m an English teacher and make my students learn the lines from the books they are studying. And I said “look, my problem with your book is that on page 18 you say, and I quote “that a Rules Girl should never laugh in front of the guy she finds attractive that she has to be like the Mona Lisa, she has to just smile, she can’t just laugh out loud. She should save the laughter for her girlfriends.” I said, you know “this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard, you can’t laugh out loud?” And then on page 118, it says no matter “no matter how hot the sex gets you have to remain cool.” And I said, “You can’t laugh out loud, you can’t have hot sex, why do you want a partner?” I say “you know, you could live alone, you would always know where the remote was. You know you can hire people to open jars, I mean you don’t have to find a partner just to do that.” And they didn’t think that was funny. And um, then at one point the blond said to me, and this was her real mistake, and she said “Oh, I think the lady doth protest too much.” And I said, “It’s the lady doth protest too much methinks.” I’m correcting this woman’s misuse of Shakespeare on the Oprah Winfrey show and I mean at that point the audience was laughing and laughing. You know, we’re going back to Elizabeth Janeway’s definition of power where she says ‘power is the ability not to have to please.’ And one of the nice things about being on those shows is knowing I don’t have to please.
OSHINSKIE: She had this graceful sense of humor that could be emotionally honest at the same time. And although it wasn’t on the syllabus, we were going to have to do the same. The writing prompts demanded a type of emotional exposure that I’d never had to give in an academic setting before. In the third week, we were assigned this essay, “Write the letter of apology you have been hoping to get. Write it from their point of view. And make it convincing.” So I sat down to this prompt with an idea, but certainly not one that I wanted to share with all my classmates. Did I want these people to see me in this way? I typed it up and sent it in anyway.
But something sort of amazing happened. As I read through my classmates essays, I realized that we all simultaneously took the plunge. There were apologies from parents who had been absent, admissions of guilt or jealousy from exes, and honest moments from each of our personal histories that we never thought we’d tell thirteen strangers about. We made an unspoken agreement that week: we weren’t going to be strangers anymore. And there was an agreement between Professor Barreca and all of us, we would unravel our stories and she would help us make them better.
BARRECA: Well, stories and feelings go together. I mean you need to figure out why you feel a certain way, you think something, you worry about something: there is a story behind it. So, I will often say when a student walks in, “What’s your story?” Whenever I would have a conversation with my dad, he would always start with “What’s your story? Give me your story.” And so I always had a story. What’s your story? Stories were always important in my family and they’re important to me because it’s more than just an exchange of information. You choose to put words in a certain order. Often the story that’s on the top, the information you think you’re giving, that’s gonna be the story isn’t going to be the real story. And so that you need to talk around it, you need to figure out what the story is, and then as you are sort of circling around it, you’ll realize that putting words in a certain order and the way you tell the story sometimes leads you to understand that it’s the story underneath the ostensible story that’s really going to matter.
OSHINSKIE: So I have an admission to make: I think I’ve been circling around the story of this podcast. Hearing those words from Professor Barreca again, I’m asking myself “What’s the story underneath?” I went to her looking for guidance on this episode. She said to me “Ali, you’ve been working on it for too long. You just have to get it done, You just have to go in there and finish it. And it doesn’t have to be perfect.” And you know what? She’s right. She called me out and that’s what I needed. And I’m starting to realize that’s what good professors do. It’s not the assignments or the grades they give you that make you a better student. It’s how they allow you to see yourself, they reflect to you the most important lessons. But you know what? I think I’m going to let Professor Barreca take this one.
BARRECA: The first woman professor I ever had at Dartmouth was a woman named Faith, Faith Dunn. She had dark curly hair. She was like the only other person who had dark curly hair. She had a family, uh, she had a husband and kids. And it was like, you could be a professor and actually have a life? I mean that was amazing. She didn’t feel that somehow she had to compartmentalize the parts of her life. So that, it wasn’t like she had to only had to seem to be a scholar and not a person. You could see that she had a lot going on, but she always had time for any student who wanted to come in. She was maternal, but not in a soft and easy way. She was maternal in a wonderful sense, in that you felt that her respect for you was unconditional, but her admiration for you was going to depend on how well you did. (laughter) And I never put it that way before but I think that that was really it. And so, she was somebody who I really looked at and thought “now wait a minute, maybe I could be somebody like that.” And it was the first time that I ever saw a woman who seemed to have both a professional life and a personal life that she integrated and that she seemed to enjoy, she seemed happy. And she was also somebody who I remember calling me on my stuff when you know when I handed in something that wasn’t clearly wasn’t as good as it should have been, she, like, turned it back and said “you didn’t do what you should have done with this so do it again.” Ok, it’s not just because she likes me what she will like everything I do. And my teachers
both as a graduate and when I was an undergraduate were enormously kind to me and I always promised myself that I would try to be as welcoming as they were to my students if I were ever fortunate enough to ever to be in a position that they were in at a university. And so I’ve tried to model myself after them. I’m just part of the legacy, I think, of teachers that I’ve seen the way that people thrive when they feel that somebody’s got their back. And that doesn’t mean being uncritical. I mean, I present a very honest, critical response to the students who then rise to the occasion.
OSHINSKIE: So I guess this story is about the tenderness in being called out, the love behind the critical comment. Professor Barreca was calling me on on my stuff not as an act of disrespect, but as a push for my own self improvement. And isn’t that the ultimate assignment? Being seen as something more than you think you are, and then being asked to write, to think, and to be, as good as you are. Seeing this legacy of women, of professors who push their students beyond self-doubt makes this whole college thing suddenly bigger than grades and GPA’s. It’s uncomfortable getting a C, and at first, it’s uncomfortable getting to know the people who can give C’s. So arming myself with a cup of coffee and a genuine interest to get to know this obviously wise woman, I saw that the grades were just a stand in for a challenge, a challenge that I needed to face. So professors are people, people who want you to succeed. People who know how good you can be, even if you don’t.
So go grab a cup of coffee, bring it to your favorite professor, and start to get to know their story. Or someone who you think could be your favorite professor. Or the professor who just gave you a C: you probably despise them right now but they could become your new best friend.
Thanks for listening to my first episode, I really hope you enjoyed it. Professors Are People Too is recorded and produced by me, Ali Oshinskie, but there are plenty of other people involved. I’d like to give a special thanks to Jason McMullan, Danielle Chaloux, Ruth Fairbanks, and Sean Forbes, for their guidance on the creation of this first episode. I’d also like to give a special thanks to my Professah Gina Barreca, thank you for being my debut subject. Keep your eyes peeled for the next episode of Professors Are People Too at whus.org. This is
PROFESSOR DWIGHT CODR: Professor
PROFESSOR SEAN FORBES: Professor
PROFESSOR GINA BARRECA: Professor
OSHINSKIE: Professors are People Too
Ali, this was wonderful. On every level. Never doubt yourself. You’re good at this.
Thank you, thank you Amy! Can’t wait to share the next one with you all!