For 20 years, Professor June Foley, who is the Senior Director of the Writing Program at NYU Gallatin, has been teaching an advanced writing class here at University Settlement. June has also been responsible for the editing and publishing of the Literacy Review, an annual collection of writing from adult education students throughout NYC. A new compilation of writing from University Settlement students, 20!, will be released soon and Friday, August 26, will be her last day leading her class. We sat down to talk with her about the past, the present, and the future.
Tell us a little about yourself…
I was born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey, into a working-class family, in what sociologists have called an “urban village.” I was the first of an eventual 40 first cousins, with dozens of relatives living within a couple of miles. I received my M.A. and Ph.D. in English and American Literature from NYU. My husband, Bob Stark (a native New Yorker) and I have been together for 38 years, and I have a 50-year-old son, Max Lindenman, from a previous marriage.
How did you first get involved with University Settlement and whose idea was it to start the writing class?
As the new Writing Program director, I was asked by the Writing Program chair to audit the first “Literacy in Action” (now “Race, Social Justice, and Adult Literacy”) class. The “volunteer work” the six students and two auditing faculty did was all at our first partner—University Settlement. Everyone else taught conversation, but I chose to teach writing. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
Can you describe the format of the writing class?
Though I facilitate the class, with two Gallatin undergrad student teachers, the class is student-centered. The students write on any topic, in any genre. The student teachers and I edit the works (minimally), each writer reads her work aloud during class, and the other students offer comments about both the content and the style. The students are inspired and encouraged by one another.
Any special memories of the writing class? Any memorable students?
To tell my special memories of the class, I’d have to write a book. Instead, I’ll quote from my introduction to 20!, our new book. In my introduction to one volume, I noted that almost all the original students came from China and many had survived Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Lisa Lee wrote that when she was growing up, many neighbors were so poor that “they sold their children to the rich”; Yuqing Gu wrote about being ordered, as a physician, to perform a forced abortion on a woman eight months pregnant because neighbors had informed the authorities that she already had one child; Biming Long remembered the Communist Party labeling a beloved teacher a traitor, hounding him into suicide. Many stories set in New York City described working many hours every week in sweatshops or restaurants. Nelson Feng described how his restaurant delivery bike was stolen, he was threatened with a gun, and a customer whose dinner cost $57.75 tipped him 25 cents.
There was joyful writing, as well: Ofelio Chen’s about his “first friend,” a calf on his family farm in China; John Cheng’s about meeting his father in New York City, after running away from home many years earlier in China; Wen Fei Liang’s whirlwind trip to Europe, using her wheelchair; David Chen’s about receiving two unjust summonses as a mini-pancake sidewalk vendor, writing careful descriptions of the experience, reading them in court, and having the summonses dismissed.
Over time, the class became increasingly diverse, with students from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern and Western Europe, and the writing also became more varied. Jackie Leduc’s brilliant introduction to the previous compilation, Remember, mentions the political issues of Bangladesh, passionately discussed by Afroza Yasmin and her son, Mahir Rahman; and the complex, frequently dark stories of the Brazilians Marilia Valengo, Vini de la Rocha and his wife Mariana Lemos Duarte. This year, we read Jennifer Alonzo’s love letter to her husband; Gabriela Robles’s story from the point of view of a Central Park bench; Annette Huang’s exhortations toward love and compassion; Grace Zhang’s writing about neighborhood tensions in Brooklyn; Fatima Sore’s fictionalized tales of women’s lives on the Ivory Coast, and much more.
Did you learn anything from your students?
Again, I could write a book. As I also say in my intro, they’ve taught me much more than I’ve taught them. I’m in awe of their intelligence, thoughtfulness, courage, resourcefulness, resilience, patience, determination, compassion–and their writing talent.
Can you describe the genesis of the Literacy Review?
LR started after I compiled that first little book of USS writing. The students were so thrilled to see their words in print that my class expanded. Soon I asked a few Gallatin students if they’d like to get together to create a book of the best writing from all NYC ESOL and adult education students.
What are some important things all writers should remember?
The writer Henry James said, “Observe perpetually.” In addition, I’d say never stop reflecting, reading, and writing.
What do you plan to do now?
I’ll be teaching one Gallatin course per semester in my field, the Victorian novel, at least for a year.
Who will take over the writing class and Literacy Review?
Allyson Paty, a graduate of Gallatin who has an MFA in poetry from NYU and has been the Writing Program associate director for a number of years, will succeed me as WP director on September 1st. Corinne Butta, who was the WP’s graduate assistant for two years, received her M.A. from Gallatin in May, and has experience as an editor, will take over the advanced writing class. They are terrific!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Many, many thanks to the director of the Adult Literacy Program, Lucian Leung; to Jon, the assistant director; and to Leanne Fung, program associate. You have all been so wonderfully supportive over the years. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to work with you at University Settlement.
Thank you, June! We’ll miss you!