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Visting Instructors Inspire Carleton Writers

November 21, 2006


  • Willy Stern
    Willy Stern

Carleton writing students were challenged this fall by two visiting teachers—Dennis Cass ’90 and Willy Stern. Both instructors brought their dynamic style and professional writing experience to the classroom, Stern as Anderson Visiting Scholar in American studies and Cass as a visiting instructor in English.

Cass and Stern aren’t your typical visiting instructors. Neither has a Ph.D. and neither is a tenured faculty member at another institution. Cass, a nationally published freelance magazine writer who just sold his first book, had no prior teaching experience. Stern is an award-winning investigative reporter who has traveled the world covering the news and exposing corruption, most recently writing for the alternative newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee.

Not surprisingly, their classes reflected their real-world experiences. Cass set up his freshman creative non-fiction seminar like the editorial board of a magazine, with small group work and work-shopping of stories. He assigned only three major articles and encouraged his students to work together to revise each piece several times. Cass, says freshman Lila Battis (Cary, N.C.) “showed us the writing process, let us run with our crazy ideas, supported and guided us without being overbearing. He made me confident in my writing and my own judgment.”

Stern taught an American studies course on investigative reporting, using journalism as an entry point to discuss ethics, psychology, non-fiction writing and media studies. Says senior Patrick Gibson (Wilmette, Ill.), “Willy’s a great teacher and his class was a real shot in the arm for a lot of us in the Carleton bubble.”

What set the course apart was the nature of the material rather than the methodology. “We used real-world examples, not theoretical ones,” says Stern, who focused on keeping students engaged. “I look at every class session as theater,” he says. “There needs to be drama every 20 minutes.” His students wrote about such disparate topics as the ethics of dumpster diving and psychological profiling.

When the term ended, Cass returned to writing his second book, and Stern went back to Nashville to continue writing and teaching at Vanderbilt Law School. Both instructors said they had a great experience teaching at Carleton. Says Stern, “The students were smart—both book smart and street smart.” He’s now exploring the possibility of creating a Carleton summer nature-writing program in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

If the accomplishments of their students are any indication, Cass and Stern’s efforts were successful. All of Cass’s students, in his assessment, wrote pieces worthy of publication. Stern’s students have learned a new way of writing; some plan to continue learning more about investigative reporting through writing for campus publications and independent study.

Written by Andrew Navratil ’07