Beyond the Farm: A Conversation with Donna Hunter and Wendy Goldberg
Wendy Goldberg worked for Stanford for 37 years. In addition to tutoring writing and teaching PWR classes on themes as diverse as consciousness and musical theater, she served as the assistant director of the Hume Writing Center. Donna Hunter worked for Stanford for 16 years. She also worked as Hume tutor and taught PWR classes addressing empathy, criminality, and identity. In addition, she served as the writing specialist in economics and history. They both retired from Stanford last summer. Sarah Pittock caught up with them to learn a little more about what they observed teaching in PWR over the last few decades and how teaching writing changed them.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sarah: Where are you at now?
Wendy: As many PWR old-timers know, for many years my husband, Jerry, appeared at Sweet Hall regularly with dinner and stories to share. Jerry’s 94 now, and it’s my privilege and responsibility to care for him. He’s doing pretty well. It's been just the two of us at home throughout the pandemic, and I’ve learned some nursing skills. I was nervous at first, but I found I could do what needed to be done.
I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that after 37 years I'm not teaching. I’ve been doing a little tutoring, mostly helping people with their Med school applications. And then working with somebody who's writing a book on organizing the home, ala Marie Kondo. I have my hand in a few things.
I’ve probably spent too much time of late endlessly evaluating what I've done or haven't done in my life, but I’ve concluded that I’ve largely stayed true to what mattered to me most: students, language, relationships.
Donna: I’m volunteering as a CASA, which is a court appointed state advocate that works with foster and justice-involved youth.
And I’ve been working on the campaign against Chesa Budin’s recall. One weekend I walked around a precinct and hung up flyers with a former student, which was super fun! I’m also doing contract writing for Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society, so I've been interviewing grad students and postdocs and I covered a recent lecture given by Jill Lepore. Writing for the Center means having to confront all of my writing anxieties. I'm supposed to be charging them by the hour, but if I did, no one would ever be able to afford me because I write so slowly. But like you, Wendy, it's nice to keep my finger in some intellectual pursuits.
That was the beauty of Stanford. Just being around smart people and actually getting paid to talk all day to people about interesting topics. We didn't get paid really well, but that was f-ing awesome. That's what I really miss.
Sarah: What are some of the most important changes you observed in the program during your time with it?
Wendy: There have been a lot of positive changes that I think are so important to acknowledge – made possible by generations of directors and lecturers who built the program and advocated for it. We have many more resources these days. For example, during my early years at Stanford, when program lecturers asked about support for our research, university administration responded with a resounding no and a curt reminder that we were not faculty. Now research is integral to the PWR job description. It’s encouraged by leadership and research grants are awarded annually.
Another thing that’s changed: in the past, you didn't know from year to year if you would still be here the next year or even if the program itself would be renewed. I mean things were that tentative and perilous that you quivered at the end of the year. While no writing program, I’m told, is ever entirely secure, PWR is now a well-respected, long-lived program, Hume is a Stanford institution, and we [career track lecturers] have meaningful job security, within limits.
When I think about changes, I remember how unhappy some instructors were – myself included, at first – when the program no longer relied on a literature-based curriculum. But I came to appreciate our rhetorical approach to writing and the incredible freedom of choice we have in what to teach. Yes, we all observe a common assignment sequence as the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, but we can really customize our courses and make them our own. It’s as though each course is this portal to a world of what matters to you, what you love, and then you share that enthusiasm with your students.
Donna: So in terms of changes, my experience was the opposite of yours, Wendy. When I came in as a teaching fellow, I was supposed to publish, so I was trying to write an article based on my dissertation that ended up being 44 pages. I sent some version of it somewhere and it was rejected and I finally stopped. I didn't want to write when summer came. I was done, I just wanted to be outside on my bike. I was chastised by a past director for not writing more.
The pay really changed while I was working in PWR. When I started in 2005, I was making $40,000. I took a pay cut when I left a nonprofit to work at Stanford! The fact that I retired making around $90,000 shows the work put in by the directors and associate directors to get PWR on the map intellectually and financially. The efforts to professionalize us shows in the number of conference presentations and how many people make time to publish. It’s great.
I even wrote a paper with Emily Polk comparing Black Lives Matters with Occupy Wall Street. (The only reason I finished this one was because Emily would say, “So, do you think that really fits the scope of this project?”) We also got a Faculty Learning Community grant to create Engaging Lived Experience Empathetically. With the grant we were able to create campus workshops that featured activist and FLI students, nonviolent communicator Roxy Manning, and language alchemist Alejandra Siroka. These workshops sparked useful conversations about communicating across difference.
Sarah: What’s already come out in this conversation is how many different types of work you did as lecturers, working on campus culture, teaching, and publishing gorgeous traditional scholarly articles.
Wendy: One of the singular beauties of PWR is the way it accommodates and supports such a wide range of work in the field. When John Tinker and I first assumed our posts as Hume Co-Coordinators, we were given this incredible opportunity to travel hither and yon to learn about writing centers and share accounts of developments at Hume. Most memorably, perhaps, in 2003 we participated in the inaugural, week-long IWCA (International Writing Centers Association) Summer Institute for fledgling writing center administrators in Madison, Wisconsin. Later on, as Hume evolved, we took our act on the road and made presentations about the Center at conferences from Palo Alto to Savannah, Georgia.
Donna: Another important change is that Adam [Banks] is the PWR director. I think it would have been really hard to be teaching in PWR in 2016 [due to Trump’s election and continued police violence against communities of color] and through several noose incidents at Stanford without Adam’s leadership. We needed to emphasize race and social justice to function at that time. He acknowledged racial injustice and we could count on him to tell the truth.
I want to add it's also been incredible to see the partnership between Marvin [Diogenes] and Adam.
Wendy: Yes. Such collaboration and mutual respect. And it’s clear that they’re friends as well as professional colleagues, that they “get” each other. I’ll always have special, valued memories of the way in which the two of them set the tone for the program each year at September Sessions, calibrating their comments to the moment, as you point out, Donna, with their deeply-felt, attuned remarks to us.
Sarah: I wonder if you have some memories about Andrea Lunsford’s leadership you'd like to share.
Donna: Marvin and Andrea were also a good team.
Andrea was fantastic. She was this shining light of intellectual profundity. I always describe her as Zeus with Athena popping out of her head. Even though she was big on revision, it was like she never f-ing revised anything—just boom!
When I got to Stanford, PWR2 was just beginning, which was basically another one of Andrea’s brainchildren, constructed with the help of a lot of people who were already teaching in the program. I just love her incredible investment in the students and rhetoric. She was always taking on new projects, such as teaching graphic novels, and was always deeply involved, despite leading the Program.
Wendy: Andrea urged us all to participate, to play a role, in the development of PWR. She didn’t hand the program down to us from on high. She was always inviting us to share our ideas – which flowed readily because she was truly inspirational. How is it possible, by the way, that one woman could succeed so often in making so many people, at Stanford and beyond, feel so personally, intimately, seen and heard? A feat, rhetorical and intensely human.
Sarah: Are there any specific memories of teaching that you'd like to share?
Wendy: Well, rather broadly speaking, a distinct memory for me is the radical transition that occurred in terms of program pedagogy and curriculum when the Program in Writing and Critical Thinking became the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. That was a huge adjustment, a new way of thinking and teaching for me, as I learned to look at the world, and writing in particular, from an explicitly rhetorical perspective.
Second – this isn’t a specific memory but a particular realization and personal touchstone: I learned that for me the key to teaching effectively was, in most every instance, meeting students where I found them, responding with individualized care and attention to their projects, voices, and lives. This made for a productive exchange that has yielded innumerable specific and in many cases indelible memories of teaching. In fact, I can be walking around my house and I’ll suddenly break out in a smile because something has sparked an association, and I can see a particular student as clear as day – hear their voice, recall a particular conference we had, a laugh we shared—or even a point of contention. They’re walking around in my head, the students are there. And I smile a lot.
Sarah: I know they smile thinking about you, Wendy. I remember Justine (our PWR post bac marketing assistant) saying she had archived all of your emails because they're so warm and eloquent!
Donna: I always remember one thing you told me, Wendy. I probably complained to you about having one disengaged student and you said, you will have 13 rapt people in your class, and you can only look at the one person who seems to be uninterested.
As much work as conferences were, I always loved them because I love people. So piggybacking on what Wendy was saying, being invested in the individual learner was key. The ability to have a conversation with a student and help them see what they already know is so fun.
I had no training in rhetoric before I was hired to teach it in PWR and had been out of an academic classroom for a while. My first quarter teaching I had 45 minutes in between classes, and sometimes I would literally redo my lesson plan because the first section had gone so badly. I would be thinking, oh my God, how do I solve this and I’d figure something out. After that I would always tell students, if you have the opportunity to take the second section, do it!
Wendy: Donna, I can well imagine (and am no stranger to) that frantic 45 minutes between classes—and that drive to make your class the best it can be. It's demanding what we do. Indeed, lecturers need to remember to take care of themselves, listen to their bodies; be sure to get exercise and rest. (One of my favorite ways of relaxing during my Stanford years was attending the performances of students in my Rhetoric of American Musical Theater class with Jerry. What a high!)
Donna: The other thing I would like to say is how much I enjoyed the collegial aspect of PWR. I initially left academia because it just felt so cutthroat and competitive that I went to work with young people in juvenile hall instead.
Overall, I learned so much from my colleagues even after I’d been teaching in PWR for a long time. I was struggling with PWR1 when Chris [Kamrath] was the PWR1 Coordinator, so I accessed and talked to him about his archived syllabi and his approach, which really improved my PWR1 course. So my advice is: Talk to the coordinators, look at what's online, mine your office mates and the Xerox machine.
Wendy: Great advice! The community meant so much to me, too. I feel the absence of that constant exchange now. People were so willing to share, and things often felt downright homey. Caring people, compassionate. We looked out for each other.
Donna: In terms of the student culture, it did seem to change over time. The whole techie/fuzzy divide was a real thing by the end of my tenure, and while I still had great students, it felt like overall, students were slightly less open to learning new things. Some seemed content exploring what they thought they were going to do for the rest of their lives and they really weren't that interested in learning something outside that box.
And that was a little bit sad. I felt really lucky because I always had social justice themed classes, so I always had a pretty strong cohort of students who were interested in life beyond their computers, but yeah, I think things changed. Stanford became more vocational.
Wendy: I found it fascinating over the years to read the culture through student responses to certain texts in my courses that were constants. There were vast generational shifts. For example, while students once applauded the very fact of Latino representation in the early film version of West Side Story, a decade later they were appropriately outraged by the routine sexualization of Puerto Rican women and the fact that the show’s Puerto Rican characters were mostly white actors wearing shoe polish. Even more recently – when Hamilton debuted, classes were initially wildly enthusiastic about its inclusiveness, innovative use of hip-hop, and tone of stickin’ it to the man. Later, however, there was a backlash; several student papers read the show as essentially a highly problematic celebration of white slaveholders. It’s all about the contemporary social environment and the cultural messages students were taking away from the shows.
Donna: I totally agree. My criminality class was like that, the demographics would change. The quarter after the Virginia Tech shooting occurred, I had so many more Asian American students in my class, because that crime made an impression on them. In 2016, when Larry Nassar was being tried, I had several female athletes who were researching the case. So as you're saying, Wendy, it's like you get a window into the culture when you’re teaching PWR.
Wendy: Teaching has helped me to become a stronger, more attuned reader of the culture and a better listener, a more active listener. How great is it that while teaching, we’re always learning. That's invigorating, it keeps you going. I don’t think we could do the work we do without that. You're active and feel alive.
Donna: I was just going to say that I'm really good at a cocktail party because I've learned so much from my students.