“Teaching is the second best thing to writing for me,” Toni Morrison told a large audience in 2012.
She’d been lecturing at universities for more than 50 years when she uttered those words. As the acclaimed literary figure’s work is being celebrated in the weeks since she passed away at age 88, her former students are reflecting on her influence as a teacher who commanded her classrooms with a spellbinding blend of wit, sensibility and grace.
David Hancock Turner – who in 2002 took a Morrison course at Princeton University, where she taught in the university’s creative writing program and in African American studies from 1989 until she transferred to emeritus status in 2006 – recalled a speech she gave that laid out her academic philosophy.
“Universities play a powerful mnemonic role,” Morrison said in a keynote address as the university celebrated its 250th anniversary. “Their fields, their campuses, are dotted with figures and plaques of bronze, stone, and marble – with botanical life to keep memory alive. But universities are not memorabilia; they’re not mausoleums.”
In Morrison’s view elite institutions weren’t tombs to preserve old educational traditions. Reimagining that image, questioning long-established ways of thinking and challenging structures of power, Turner said, that was the lesson Morrison the professor wanted her students to learn.
She challenged her students to ask: “What are we really trying to do at this place?” said Turner, 39, who is a musical theater composer. She wanted to “further the pursuit of science, of philosophy, of literature.”
Morrison’s teaching career included stints at Texas Southern University (1955-1957), Howard University (1957-1964) and State University of New York at Albany (1984-1989.) At Howard, the young professor influenced a number of students including civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael, future Ambassador Andrew Young and Claude Brown, author of “Manchild in the Promised Land.”
Her legacy includes teaching “black people how to not judge ourselves by the way white people have put us in a box and have attempted to constrict us,” said Marilyn Mobley, a professor of English and African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University and co-founder of the Toni Morrison Society. “That was transformative.”
At Princeton she taught now-published writers including David Treuer, Ladee Hubbard, Kate Morgenroth, MacKenzie Bezos and Rachel Kadish, among others. But her reach as a professor went beyond students who were destined to become novelists.
Morrison’s guiding educational creedwas to encourage her students to be bold. She didn’t condone settling for easy answers and urged students to think more critically, even if it meant drawing from different subjects and perspectives, said Helen Moran, who took Morisson’s Studies in American Africanism course in the fall of 1993.
“I got a mediocre grade on a paper for her once,” recalled Moran, 47, now the Group Vice President of Product & Design/UX for Medscape. “When I met with her about it, she told me to go deeper and find those truths, not just be satisfied with the surface.”
Sitting in the presence of a world-renowned author could certainly be nerve-racking. In the first few days of Morrison’s seminars there were timid hands raised and discussions that barely brushed the core issues. Morrison would lighten the mood with jokes and knew when to laugh at herself.
“We were intimidated by making ourselves vulnerable to a mind that great and experienced,” said Symeon K. Davies, a COO and general counsel for an investment company who studied under Morrison at Princeton. “So she admitted she was also a little intimidated by our expectations and asked for a fresh start. She wanted to bring us out and engage us.”
In a 1993 interview with The Paris Review, Morrison outlined the importance she placed on students figuring out what they required to be at their best creatively. Her personal routine included waking up, making a cup of coffee while it was still dark, then drinking the coffee as the morning light appeared.
“They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like?,” she told the interviewer. “Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?”
By all accounts, the seminar classroom was her ideal room as a professor. The close quarters for courses created a space for developing personalized relationships with her students.
“She had this physical presence, this voice, that just took up space in this very magical way,” said 46-year-old Jessie Janowitz, a New York-based novelist who in 1992 – as a freshman – took Morrison’s Long Fiction course. “She could have been an actor or a politician.”
Morrison was an instructor, but careful to not come across as pedantic, Janowitz said. She offered life advice as resonantly as literary analysis.
“Nobody at Princeton talked about how you were going to make a living as a writer, particularly as a woman,” Janowitz said, but Morrison did. “She’d talk about being a mother. I appreciated her being honest. You had to make sacrifices in order to write.”
Tao Leigh Goffe took a Morrison course called “The Foreigner’s Home” in the fall of 2008. In Morrison’s office hours, Goffe asked her whether she should become a professor or a lawyer. One-on-one, Morrison was intently focused and frank with her.
“She said I should become a lawyer because there aren’t enough women lawyers in the world,” Goffe recalled. “I think she’s very pragmatic. She understood that there were different places from which we could have power.”
Goffe, who remained drawn to the world of the literature, didn’t take Morrison’s advice and is now an assistant professor of literary theory and cultural history at Cornell University.
Turner, who participated in Morrison’s Princeton Atelier – an ongoing workshop course she founded in 1994 that offers students the chance to collaborate with famous artists and performers, ranging from Yo-Yo Ma to Gabriel Garcia Márquez – said the defining moment for him was when Morrison came to the final class and criticized the results of the semester’s work.
She wanted to see ideas flow back and forth. She wanted to see everyone embark on a difficult journey, taking risks and learning to be comfortable with discomfort. Instead, Turner said, people did only what they thought would suffice and did not push boundaries.
He recalled Morrison saying Princeton is a place where there were a bunch of grapes in one place and other bunches spread out in other places, but they’d never blend to “make the wine.”
“It was a comment on our inability to come together and transcend our subjectivities,” Turner said. “How do you get outside of yourself and really make something with a group of people?”
Those were the kinds of urgent questions Morrison asked, queries that linger years later.
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The Washington Post’s Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report.