From Every Vantage
Becky Godwin’s journey to and through Bennington, recounted by her former student, Crystal Barrick ’11
“Up here, they let the student explore around, find out what she wants to do, and then proceed on the theory that since you can’t teach her everything anyhow, you should teach her how to learn under her own steam, and keep on learning the rest of her life.”
Becky Godwin invoked these early impressions of Bennington College, from Herald Tribune journalist Ernie Pyle, when she gave her 1998 convocation address to the students and faculty. There may be no better way to describe Becky’s own approach to teaching and learning. Her 23 years at Bennington have wended and surprised throughout, steam-powered by a drive to explore. She has seen this place from nearly every vantage point, moving deftly from writing desk to seminar table, even to podium and easel, as a staff member, faculty member, advisor, mentor, and student.
Even before Becky found Bennington, she had experienced “a checkered career,” as she describes it. She had worked in a steel mill and an ad agency, owned a real estate brokerage, gotten her master’s degree from Middlebury’s Bread Loaf School of English, and authored a group of short stories. But by 1992, she was looking for something new, something she could do part time while writing. A position in the paper caught her eye. “It was for ‘Writer,’” she says, “Just plain ‘Writer.’” She applied, and started writing for Bennington as a staff member that spring.
Her Bennington education began the way most do: with immersion and investigation. “I read every alumni magazine that I could find,” Becky remembers. “It was a fascinating place to immerse yourself in—and I was completely hooked.” As editor of the alumni magazine, her favorite assignment came early on: “We decided to do this story about the Pioneers, the first 11 classes of women, for the 60th anniversary of Bennington, and I also interviewed Martha Hill. Martha was a pistol, just great, just an inspiration. It changed me—to listen to her and think, while I was in my early 40s, that this was somebody 50 years older than I was, and she was this vibrant, this lively. She is this together. I all of a sudden saw life expanding out before me.”
Each alumna she interviewed had her own remarkable story to share. The original intent had been to publish only two interviews—the deciding criterion being that these women “still had to be doing new things”—but Becky couldn’t narrow it down. “Everyone I talked to was still doing new things,” she says. “It was amazing. At the end of that, my outlook on how life could be truly changed. One woman was taking up photography for the first time, in her 90s, and it was just a complete and utter inspiration. I fell in love with those women, with the concept of Bennington and this kind of education.”
By 2003, Becky had well-established herself as a writer —publishing two novels, Private Parts (Longstreet Press, 1992) and Keeper of the House (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995), and a number of short stories, and she was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—and she also had picked up some advisees and taught a handful of seminars in the MFA in Writing and July Programs. Former provost and dean Elissa Tenny and former literature faculty member Steven Bach encouraged her to step into the classroom full time, to join the ranks of April Bernard, Ted Hoagland, and Mark Wunderlich, among others. “Steven kept hounding me to apply for this literature faculty position that had opened up,” she remembers. “Every afternoon as I left the Barn, he would be waiting by the side door for me with a challenge. He would say, ‘Have you applied yet? Have you applied yet?’”
She started with two classes: Welty, Woolf, O’Connor: Life into Art (which she taught again and for the last time at Bennington this past spring) and Reading and Writing the Short Story. In both of these classes—and throughout all of her time at Bennington—she structured discussions around what she calls “the honcho system.” This technique demands that students lead conversations around each other’s pieces; one student, the “honcho,” takes ownership over a peer’s story or essay, guiding the critique and eliciting feedback on behalf of the writer. “It takes the pressure off of the writer somehow,” Becky says. “Nobody’s looking at you, and they’re not looking at me, either, which is nice. They’re looking at each other.”
This trust in her students and esteem for their writing has been a hallmark of Becky’s time here. In 2009, as founder and faculty editor of plain china, she took her regard for undergraduate writers to a national scale. She built a course around an idea: Bennington students would solicit, read, select, and edit writing and artwork from undergraduate journals across the country and publish a “best of the best” anthology each year. “I had felt that undergrad writing had been underrepresented and underrespected,” she said; that spring, a small class worked to change that. A statement of purpose from the inaugural year, written by Becky and the first group of student-editors, articulates the aim and heft of the undertaking:
We see plain china as a pioneering form of undergraduate-driven public action. Not only does the anthology enable Bennington students to engage with the world outside of our campus, but it also seeks to radically reform the way undergraduate work is showcased and valued in our country. It provides a forum for a national conversation among college students. The work of undergraduates has often been featured only at their respective institutions; with this anthology, we want to honor and connect young writers and artists, and to create a collective narrative reflective of and relevant to the undergraduate experience.
plain china has since featured writing and artwork from more than 700 students and 118 journals nationally, receiving more than 64,000 site visits from all 50 states and more than 150 countries. Quality was recognized from the get-go: The story originally selected for the Fiction Prize in 2010 was accepted for publication in The Atlantic; one of the 2012 essays appeared in Best American Essays 2013; a 2013 story received Notable status in the Best American Non-Required Reading series; and a 2014 essay was included in Best of the Net 2014. And Bennington students have held steady the helm. “This was [Becky’s] baby, but wow, did students drive this thing,” remembers senior vice president for planning and administration, David Rees. “She trusted students to be in charge, to be responsible, to be equal partners. From the naming, to the structuring of it, to the website, the whole thing. It was a true collaboration. She led it, but she was not heavy-handed.” Dean of the College Isabel Roche echoes that this approach broadly defines Becky’s pedagogy: “Becky, as a teacher, is all in, always. Students in her classroom learn, and learn, and learn—not only about whatever they are studying, but about how to do the work and what it means to work hard.”
Although Becky’s first job title at Bennington was “just plain ‘Writer,’” editor might fit better. When you trace her wending history here—and when you listen to her students and colleagues describe how she transformed not only their work, but their lives—you can tell that her knack for revising extends far beyond line edits. Becky examines, reimagines, re-envisions, and reinvents for a living. She cultivates, with compassion and conviviality. “She always is looking for the best in a piece of writing, a situation, or a person,” says Rees. “It’s not that she denies the less interesting or the darker side. She’s just not interested in it. She’s always looking for the finest—she does this in her work and in her demeanor. It reflects her values as a person, as an artist and a teacher. She doesn’t focus on what’s weak. She finds the strength in something, and uses that to bring it along.”
These traits reverberate in her students; they credit Becky for giving them the courage and capacity to become more attentive readers, writers, editors, questioners. “‘Everything’ is a poor placeholder for the continuously growing list of things I owe [Becky] for,” echoes Rebecca Nakaba ’13. “A few things on the list: asking me the right questions that made me ask myself the right questions; teaching me how to learn, and how to teach myself; teaching me the importance of revision, especially when I thought I was finished.” Wyatt Kirby ’10 captures the span of her influence succinctly: “I will keep this brief: if my time at Bennington had been limited to a single hour in Becky’s classroom, I would have considered it sufficient.”
In the spring of 2013, Becky had one more turn to take at Bennington—she became a student. During her sabbatical, she enrolled in two courses: Advanced Playwriting, with Sherry Kramer, and a drawing class, Markmaking and Representation, with Mary Lum. “It was fantastic,” says Becky. “And it changed me yet again, enormously.” She wrote her first play, based on Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and she did her first sketches and drawings. “I wanted to look at my material in a new way, and I found it terrifying. But it was a beautiful thing to be completely raw... I got to study with two amazing teachers, and it changed the way I thought about my students and my advisees—to see how much time a VAPA class takes, for instance, the way that you get lost in your work, the rigor of it. It opened up how I think about my time after Bennington, too.”
When she retires, Becky plans to keep on learning under her own steam.
“I’m going to go back to things I love and admire, and explore and play, and I’m very excited about doing all that. And reading again, closely, in the way I expect my students to read.
“I’ll take three or four months to do exactly as I please. And then I plan to immerse myself in the place I live, Edisto Island, South Carolina, and interview people, to hear their stories, so varied and powerful. And I'm continuing my naturalist studies, inspired by the observing I did, on a closer and slower level, in Mary’s class. My ideal is to stay open. Our natural tendency, as we get older, is to close down. And I don’t want that.
“I hope Bennington does that for everybody,” Becky says. “I’m just ‘writing a Plan’ for this year. But that whole paradigm: find a question, find the resources, make something, test it, make it again? That’s life. That’s how we do it in a class, that’s how we write an essay. That’s how I want to live for the rest of my life. Have a question. That’s where you start.”