Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An Interview with Hofstra Professor Bill McGee

Last week, I was lucky enough to sit down with Hofstra Creative Writing Professor, Bill McGee. A devoted parent and proud member of the Hofstra community, Prof. McGee was able to give a faculty member's perspective on what it means to be involved with Hofstra and to see University students develop.

Journalist and Hofstra University Creative Writing Professor, Bill McGee

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview, Bill.

Not a problem.

So, let’s get right to it: basically, the aim of our interview today is to give parents of incoming and current Hofstra students an insight into the faculty at the University. So, would you be able to speak on your experiences at Hofstra?

Well, I think it’s important to point out that not only have I been a teacher at Hofstra, but I’m also an alumnus.  I first entered Hofstra in 1982, graduated in 1984 with a degree in Creative Writing and so I have very strong ties to the school. In fact, when I entered grad school at Columbia in 1995 for an MFA in fiction, I started teaching at Hofstra.  I was there for a year part-time and in 2005 I wanted to get back into it so I reached out to see if there was an opening and luckily enough there was. I’ve been teaching here ever since – that’s for seven straight years, adjunct my whole time. Now adjuncts are limited to teaching two courses per semester so I’ve supplemented my time teaching with various other activities on campus, not least of which has been my role as an advisor for Hofstra Writers. Some years back I founded the Hofstra Writers Club with Prof. Erik Brogger and Prof. Connie Roberts – and with Erik being a playwright and Connie a poet, we were able to get that all-important range of perspectives at the onset.

I would have to say that some of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at Hofstra have been through that group. The kids there are very serious about writing, which in a workshop – where students are often there to fulfill a requirement and don’t normally consider it as a passion or a career – is not always the case. Obviously, however, you get a wide range of students coming through the doors, in what is – I guess – a “semi-official” venue for their creative work; and in that setting they get to build relationships and speak freely. Actually, to that point, I was once told in regards to parenting that it’s at times best to ignore what your kids say, to sort of turn a deaf ear. Now, the genesis for that was my brother, who was a military man, told me, “A good drill sergeant never lets his recruits be insubordinate, but he will close the barracks door at night,” and that is advice I’ve applied as a parent and a teacher. It’s healthy for students and kids to be given that space where they’re free to speak their mind.

Definitely. I know firsthand how important a club the Writers group is. Getting out of the classroom and being able to interact not just with other students but with proven members of the writing community is a wonderful opportunity, and to receive the sort of approbation and encouragement of those sorts of people is really impactful. That said, with all of the different students in the club, could you speak to the importance of the exchange of ideas that takes place there? Would you say it’s positive to have so many different students with different genres analyzing each other’s work?

No question. You and I can equally recall instances of people breaking away from the kind of writing with which their most comfortable. I remember a student asking me to read his prose, and being so familiar with his work as a poet, it was a shift I was very glad to see – and it’s been important from my perspective as well: some of the best work I’ve encountered has been from Hofstra Writers and it’s made me a stronger writer too. You know, getting into teaching I wasn’t aiming to improve my own work, but it’s been a happy and truly unexpected result. In being immersed in this world of writing as a professor, you look back and sort of flip it around and say, “Well, how could it not have made me a better writer?” because, in some ways, analyzing a student’s work when it’s more problematic is very helpful. Struggling with that student’s story and trying to devise a way in which it could be better, in which the problems could be solved, is in many ways more rewarding than reviewing stronger works, which you could just check off and hand back. So, it’s beneficial not only for students but for faculty as well.

Obviously I’ve had a very long association with Hofstra and I’ve long had a dream of working here as a full-time professor. It’s a very important place for me, so I would just like to include that when evaluating teachers at the University level, it’s important that we not only take full-time professors into account but adjuncts as well.

I never had the fortune of taking a fiction workshop taught by you, but instead I’ve gotten to know you through Hofstra Writers; and in talking to students who’ve attended your workshops and speaking with you personally, I can really speak to the impact you’ve had. And it’s true of Connie (Roberts) as well: you can really feel the admiration the students have for adjunct professors. So, I would just – to that end – like to thank you.

That’s very kind.

I would also like to thank you again for taking the time to do this interview with me, but if I could ask you one more thing: do you have any advice for parents of English majors?

That’s a very interesting question. You know, my son just entered his first year at college as a major in architectural engineering, so I understand how kids often go in different directions (than their parents). Over the years, I’ve encountered some really impressive work and, when that’s the case, I’ll ask for the student to speak with me after class fully expecting them to be Creative Writing majors; but what I often find is that they’re pre-law or pre-med. They’ll tell me that they wish they could study creative writing but worry about its practical applications; and I’m quick to tell them that I keep in touch with friends who have baccalaureate writing degrees and graduate writing degrees – some of my friends from Columbia, even – and they’re not always writing for a career. They’re doing a lot of interesting work in a lot of interesting fields. So, I guess my one word to parents would be to allow and encourage your children to follow what they’re passionate about, because when you’re deciding at age seventeen, eighteen, nineteen what you’re going to be doing at age thirty, something could come up and change your plans. Sooner or later life will force some compromises, but seventeen, eighteen, nineteen? It’s a tender time to neglect your dreams. Pursue your passion and if you need a fallback, so be it – I’ve certainly had mine: I’ve worked in aviation, I’ve worked as a teacher, as a journalist and a writer; so I would say that you should allow your kids to use their time in college to pursue whatever their passions may be.


Bill McGee is a contributor to Time and Consumer Reports among other publications. A former consumer advocate on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, his book Attention All Passengers: The Airlines' Dangerous Descent -- and How to Reclaim Our Skies is available for purchase online.  To reserve a copy please follow the link below.

 - Nolan Meditz, Graduate Assistant at the Office of Parent and Family Programs


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