Famous Last Words: Learning to Write
Marius told the class his policy was to read every draft a student submitted and comment on it—easy in the era of the typewriter, but a killer to fulfill when everybody had a computer.
The bell rang, class was dismissed and all the students beetled over to the library to look up what had been written about Memorial Hall so they could ace their first assignment.
Of course, this was long before the Internet and when the mother lode of all humankind’s knowledge was out there for the stealing.
Marius looked over his audience of alumni and broke into a mischievous grin. “Guess what,” he said. “There is nothing in the library about Memorial Hall. Nobody has ever written about it.”
To say the kids were flummoxed is an understatement. The range of emotions went from consternation to desperation. A line of dispirited students showed up at Marius’ office door. “What do you mean” they asked, “when you say you want a paper on the building? Tell me exactly what you want, and I will give it to you.”
“It’s up to you,” Marius told them. “Spend time in the building. Get to know it. What was the architect thinking? How does the building work? Does it fulfill its purpose? What was its purpose in the first place?”
Suddenly these bright, supremely confident 18-year-olds who had racked up 4.0 grades in high school were pushed to the wall—forced to do some conceptual, creative thinking and writing for the first time in their lives.
Marius and his students—with multiple drafts and much angst—put each other through sheer hell that first semester at Harvard. But those kids came out of that assignment knowing how to think—and write.
Alas, Richard Marius’ career was cut short; he died after a long bout with pancreatic cancer in 1998. He was 66. I felt very privileged to have heard him and regretted never having him for a teacher—or a boss.