Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Butterfly Man

When I knock on the door of Duncan Nelson’s University of Massachusetts Boston office, he is sitting at his desk, bent over a small pile of papers. The office is carpeted with a large couch and a window overlooking the campus. There is a book shelf almost filled to capacity with books, papers, magazines, and file folders; the walls are covered with pictures of family, friends, handwritten notes and bright-colored drawings done by his grandchildren.

Duncan lifts his head and turns toward the door. His signature look remains unchanged: ruddy complexion, neat white beard, safari hat. “Jillian Jackson,” he says, smiling. “Well, hello. How are you?”

We exchange greetings and I sit on the couch. As he sits across from me we begin to talk about his career. “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. My father was a teacher; I grew up around it, and at first I wanted to be a history major, but my grades were better in English,” he smiles and does a small shrug with his shoulders, “so I went into that instead.” Duncan taught at Harvard and MIT before settling in to a position at UMass Boston in 1967. This evolution reflects a change in attitude and academic philosophy for Duncan.

“When I first started out I gave a lot of low grades and wrote a lot of long comments, trying to prove how smart I was,” he says. “But there weren’t any results. The writing wasn’t getting any better. The kids weren’t improving.” After reflecting on his experiences with academia as both a student and a professor, he decided to switch tactics and focus on a method that would encourage students to really focus in on their writing and to think about what it means to write well. “It’s about more than writing. It’s about becoming better listeners, readers, learning what clean writing is, how to write quietly, and how to tell what happened,” he says. “It’s about taking out a lot of modifiers; less adjectives, adverbs.”

At the core of Duncan’s philosophy is a disdain for traditional “academic writing,” filled with long, elaborate words, written for the purpose of adding to the word count and reaching the page limit. “When someone is trying too hard to write the writing reflects that.” He has an endless supply of comparisons to explain his ideas. During our conversation he compares it to acting: “With truly good acting,” he says, “You don’t notice the acting. During the performance you don’t stop and say ‘oh wow that’s good acting;’ you get caught up in the experience. Good writing works the same way.”

We talk about what he wants his students to take away from his classes. He first summarizes by saying that he wants his students to improve their writing skills and to change their thoughts about what it means to write well. After this he pauses, then looks straight at me. “Well, actually,” he says, “I really enjoy listening to students tell me about their experiences with my course and what they get out of it. What did you think?” Duncan asks.

At first I’m not sure what to say. I tell him that I loved his class and that it was different from any other I’d taken at UMass. As I say this I find myself thinking back on what the experience was like: the many one-on-one meetings in his office, Duncan with a yellow-lined legal pad in his hands as we edit, questioning word choice (what if instead of “grabbed” I wrote “took?”), the process ending with everyone in the class sharing their stories. I tell him that the specific attention to the sound and feel of words together is something I still try to think about while I’m writing. He seems satisfied by this response.

Before ending the conversation, I can’t resist asking him about his first day of class routine. I’ve seen it firsthand: opting out of the usual word for word reading of the syllabus, Duncan instead enters the classroom donning a set of yellow and blue painted cardboard wings and recites a poem he has written called “Butterfly.” He laughs when I ask, but then explains exactly how the tradition works well to express what he wants his students to take away from the class: that the writing process can be transformative, that after the hard work of a semester and through the process of writing, “A beautiful thing emerges.”


  1. I remember freshman orientation; Professor Nelson got on top of a desk and recited a poem in front of an auditorium full of people so passionately. It was right then and there that I knew which college I wanted to go to. That was 11 years ago. Keep on inspiring students to learn Professor Nelson. That is what learning should be all about!

  2. After being away from school for forty years, his class was a calming and bright light in my quest for learning. It was in his class I actually learned to see what I was reading. He was a true inspiration to me. It's not everyday that you meet a Professor where you look forward to getting to the class, knowing that you are going to have fun and learn something as well. Bravo to Prof Nelson.

  3. My Freshman English class with Duncan in the mid-1980s was the most important class I had in undergrad, or later in law school. Writing with feeling and honesty is transformative.