Nancy Coiner Profile
Nancy Coiner (Oklahoma & St Hugh’s 1977) is currently Dean and Chair of the Humanities and English Departments at the John Dewey Academy, a non-traditional, therapeutic boarding school for bright yet troubled adolescents. She has previous taught on the faculty at Stanford University and Middlebury, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke Colleges. Nancy holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Stanford University, an MPhil from the University of Oxford and a BA from St John’s College, Annapolis.
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home now?
Nancy Coiner: I have three places where I feel happily at home these days. First is the home I share with my husband in Amherst, a town dotted by the houses of my friends, the many walking and biking trails, and the local library, art-house cinema, and coffee-shops. Second is Searles Castle in Great Barrington, which houses The John Dewey Academy, where I teach. (I spend a couple of nights a week there.) Third is the happiest—our tiny cottage on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, where my husband and I spend six weeks every summer. Those vacation weeks are slow-paced enough to let us spend slow mornings letting our imaginations wander and lazy evenings scanning the Bay for seals.
Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite author?
Nancy Coiner: Because I’m a bibliovore, I would feel vaguely disloyal to dozens of favorite authors if I choose a single one as “the” favorite. There are a handful of authors, however, whose books I teach again and again with pleasure: from Dante (one of the authors treated in my doctoral dissertation) though the great nineteenth century novelists (Austen for charm, Dickens for warmth, Bronte for romance, Eliot for moral wisdom) to Joyce and Woolf and on to Ondaatje. My (non-orthodox) idea of heaven is that all those authors are up there scribbling away, joined someday by the great BBC screenwriters and directors, and we’ll have an endless supply of brilliant new novels that are then converted into great television mini-series.
Rhodes Project: What was your first job?
Nancy Coiner: Like most middle-class kids, I had an assortment of random summer jobs in high school and college. The job that taught me most was working the night-shift at a plastics factory one summer. The combination of a Tulsa summer and the heat from the machines made the factory floor miserably hot—so hot that all of us who worked the machines had to swallow salt tablets regularly, so hot that most new hires quit on the second night. But by the end of the second week, I was training new hires and making about three times minimum wage, and that salary was funding my way to Europe the next year. The job that summer not only taught me how hard and draining manual labor can be, it also opened my eyes to what kinds of compromises people make for the sake of their children (several couples worked alternate shifts so that one adult could always be home to supervise the kids). Perhaps best of all, it proved to me that I was tougher than I’d realized.
Rhodes Project: What’s the best part of your job now?
Nancy Coiner: I am in my twelfth year of teaching at a therapeutic college-preparatory school for what we call “very bright f**k-ups.” Though there are many, many satisfying aspects of the job (excited students in small classes, autonomy in developing my curriculum, a beautiful old building), the best part is witnessing the moments when new kids catch fire. Angry (or despairing, or anxious) students suddenly stay after class to enthuse about a book or meet with me individually to make sure a paper really works or respond insightfully to another student’s comment in class. As they regain their love of thinking, their confidence in their abilities, and their ability to connect with others, these moments happen over and over again, and it’s magical. Perhaps the single most satisfying day is graduation, when the seniors each get up to talk about who they’ve become over the past two years. I always bring a handkerchief.
Rhodes Project: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Nancy Coiner: In my first years, I learned to roll with the punches of working at a small, family-like therapeutic school: students would arrive (or worse, leave) in the middle of a semester, classes would occasionally and unpredictably shut down while the focus shifted to full-time therapeutic work, and the Head of School led with a large heart and an aggressive, eccentric style. About five years into the job, the most challenging part became sheer exhaustion from teaching year-round with only a week off here and there between semesters. As I approached burn-out, I devised a plan that allowed the teachers to enjoy some sustained time for recuperation and regeneration while the students earned their full summer credits. Now, after twelve years of teaching at Dewey, I set myself a couple of new challenges every semester so that I can stay lively, enthusiastic, and engaged in the classroom. That mostly means creating new courses, with new themes and new books. Happily for me, even the disasters (like the first year of teaching Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in a not-so-readable translation) do usually turn out to be interesting . . . .
Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?
Nancy Coiner: As a bookish teenager, I naturally worshipped Jo March and Lizzie Bennett. In my twenties, Jane Eyre and Anne Elliot (of Persuasion) fought for supremacy. In my middle years, it was Dorothea Brook (of Middlemarch) and Clarissa Dalloway (of Mrs. Dalloway, of course). Recently I have been returning to the protagonist—not a heroine, exactly—of The Secret Garden, the book that gave me, as a chronically ill and bed-bound girl, a hopeful vision of the future. During the course of the book, the orphaned Mary, who is both ignored and spoiled, lonely and difficult, finally gets what she needs. She’s lucky to encounter those things, and so have I been.
Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite real-life heroine?
Nancy Coiner: There are many women whom I admire from afar—the Hillary Clintons and Helen Mirrens of the public world—and many whom I admire from closer in—my mother (the only mom of my acquaintances who got an advanced degree and worked full-time outside the home) and the various women professors with whom I have studied or worked. All of them, however, seem so much more ambitious, energetic, and extroverted than I am that I can admire them without needing to emulate them. The women who really stir my heart are the writers: Charlotte Bronte, Isak Dinesen, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Virginia Woolf, as well as many contemporary writers. They have taken the stuff of daily life and transmuted it via the imagination (or sometimes vice versa) into something beautiful, wise, and moving. While I don’t emulate them directly—sadly, my own fiction does not rise to their level—I do emulate their determination to have a rich inner life that expresses itself outwardly in my private life and in my work of teaching.
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