PWR In the Spotlight
Spotlight on: Professor Ryan Calvey
1. How did you become a writing teacher? How did you start teaching at Stony Brook?
Somewhat accidentally, though I did sort of plan to teach literature (or become a film critic) when I began grad school. I started in the Ph.D. program in the English department at Stony Brook in the fall of 2000, and for the first semester, we taught sections of WRT 101 for the Writing Program, which was my first teaching experience (I’d tutored in a writing center before). I taught for the program as a TA and then a part time lecturer for several years (all the while finding teaching writing and designing lessons and assignments really interesting and the program an extremely warm and supportive group) and then became a full-time lecturer in 2008.
2. What inspires you?
I’m always really excited about new ideas or fresh ways of looking at things, especially when it comes to stories or movies but also just in general. I love great conversation, especially when you can really dig deeply into an idea or have funny, creative banter with someone. I like when a person can bring clarity or simplicity to something that has previously been confusing or hard to understand. Probably the most exciting things for me are when something combines fantasy or imagination or anything we sometimes wrongly dismiss as childish or not serious with deep and meaningful thinking and exploration. I think my enjoyment of that combination is why I love great fantasy and science fiction as well as animation (I recently went to see the Oscar-nominated animated shorts) and arty video games (and the music from them). I’m also always really excited by natural beauty and aesthetics that draw on bright colors (I think the almost Technicolor aesthetic of the 2016 puzzle game The Witness is incredibly beautiful and inspiring, even if I don’t love everything else about it as much).
3. What are some of your favorite experiences as a writing teacher?
I’ve always really liked classroom moments that go well. Times when I’m able to help or push students to come up with really interesting and fresh paper topics and arguments--ones that will actually make people want to read them and not merely read them because they have to. Times when, through feedback and conferencing, I’ve been able to help a student turn an argument on something they care really deeply about into a much more effective paper. But I also get a lot of enjoyment from designing course documents and feeling like I’ve come up with a lesson that ensures students will understand something or be able to avoid a common pitfall in some way. And some of my proudest moments as a teacher have been designing new classes in topics including “The Problem of Happiness,” “Worlds within Worlds,” “Escapist Texts, Escapist Reading,” “Coming of Age Literature,” “Science Fantasy,” and “Literary Fantasy, Before and After Realism” and thinking about all of the different texts we could use and even movies and video games and other materials that might also be relevant. In some cases, designing courses I haven’t even taught yet but think could be great (I have ideas for classes in “Mysterious Islands,” “The Near Future,” “Robots, A.I. and Other Aspiring Humans,” and “‘V’ for Violence,” among others).
4. What do you enjoy the most about your students?
Their creative topic ideas; their sense of humor; their willingness to grow as writers by accepting critical feedback and working to make their writing clearer, smoother, and more persuasive via skillful and careful revision; their openness to challenge.
5. What is the one thing that you hope your students take away and remember from WRT 102?
On a basic level, the importance of revision--that almost no excellent writing (from papers to books to films to television shows) ever emerged without serious revision. But maybe even more personally, the centrality of interest in writing. I believe very strongly that we write, almost always, because we find something interesting and hope to interest others. Sometimes, as a result of years of very mechanical writing for teachers they think of as grading robots more than people, and perhaps because they mistakenly think of scholarly writing as the only model for their work in our classes, students forget that they should be writing about things because they’re genuinely interested in them and because they think that writing has something new and intriguing to offer even savvy readers. I put an enormous amount of emphasis on this in my classes (discouraging students from all tired topics, emphasizing the importance of titles and introductions that engage readers, pointing out student paper cliches they should always avoid--like the phrase “in today’s society”), so I really hope they leave my class realizing that writing isn’t a charade or a rote ritual but an actual exchange in which a writer explores something that genuinely interests and surprises them and shares it with real readers in the hope that it will engage, interest, and maybe even move or change them.
6. You are a fan of science fiction and video games. How does this affect your teaching (if it does)?
Quite a bit. Most of the more literature-focused classes I’ve created and taught have used a lot of fantasy and science fiction, since I think students sometimes aren’t aware of how literary and meaningful both genres can be and because I think their core message (which I take to be, essentially, “ Things could be different ”) is perhaps the most empowering and useful thing we can believe. And in my WRT 102 classes, I talk about video games quite a bit and encourage students to explore deep issues relating to games and gaming (as art, as entertainment, etc.) in their papers. I also use a “Debate of the Day” lesson in which we look at quirky, usually science fictional situations (one example: “In 2068, you require a really important surgical procedure. Some humans still perform it, but most operations are carried out by robot surgeons considered more skilled and reliable than even the best human surgeons. What are the best arguments for choosing the robot surgeon? What are the best arguments for insisting on a human surgeon?”) as a way to boost students’ creative thinking and ability to make and support arguments on unusual topics. I also have an idea for a WRT 302 class in “Writing about Gaming,” which would explore how, as the medium has evolved (dominating entertainment, growing in more and more artistic directions with art and indie gaming), writing about it has become more diverse and important as well.