A Conversation with Mike Rose – PT I

Kirsten Ogden
November 2, 2015
Comments 1

The first interview in a series about the intersections of writing, teaching, & identity 

Mike Rose is the son of working class Italian-immigrant parents who settled in South Los Angeles in the 1950s. Rose, a long-time advocate for underrepresented students in higher education, is an award-winning non-fiction writer.

He is the recipient of numerous writing and educator awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English from NCTE, UCLA’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005, and winner of the Commonwealth Club of California Award for Literary Excellence in Nonfiction.

photo courtesy of Mike Rose  

He has written numerous articles, essays, and books about teaching and education, including Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared, his memoir about growing up in South Los Angeles and coming to an awareness of educational inequities in higher education. His latest book is Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education published by New Press in 2012, reissued in paperback in September 2015. He teaches in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and his essays and thoughts about writing and educational equity can be found on his blog: http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com

Kirsten Ogden: Your 1989 memoir Lives on the Boundary is such a well-known text, and it is widely anthologized for college composition textbooks. I love that book – it is so rich with detail, description, and the authentic experiences of you and your students; yet, that text is also seen as a groundbreaking educational text because it discusses the experiences of you and your students within the framework of research scholarship. It’s such a personal text though, and it really announces you as a writer. How did you first come to writing?

Mike Rose: I came to writing later than many writers do, and somewhat indirectly. My family was poor and beset with worries about health and money, worries that, naturally enough, affected me. I drifted through school, not causing any big trouble, but not particularly engaged either. Then in my senior year a young charismatic guy fresh out of Columbia shows up at our working-class high school to teach English, and his curriculum—Homer through the Existentialists—both kicked my butt and captured my fancy. I had never been challenged like that. I wanted desperately to do well, and worked like crazy on my stilted, stumbling papers. He made school mean something to me, and he encouraged me to go to college—something I’d only vaguely considered. It’s no exaggeration to say he created a life for me I couldn’t have had otherwise.

Kirsten Ogden: I think many of us who call ourselves writers and teachers can think back to an amazing teacher who really inspired us with a love of literature and writing. Your teacher got you to think about analytical writing as something more than just an essay for a grade. Why do you think you worked so hard on those papers?

Mike Rose:  I’ve thought about that off and on for years. What makes school click for a kid?

In my case, there were a number of factors that came into play. First, Mr. McFarland was obviously smart, articulate, and committed to his teaching and to us. He covered our papers with comments. He gave us whatever extra time we needed. Even the toughest guys in the class – and we had a bunch of them – respected him for that.

More personally, although I had my buddies and adolescent entertainments, I was a pretty isolated and interior kid. My father died the year before; I stuck close to home; I lived in my head. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to express it this way at the time, but Mr. McFarland was offering the chance to come out of myself, challenge myself, do something that was a little more public.

He was a tough critic. I was not at all prepared for his assignments, and I got my share of B- and C grades. But I was in the game, you see, not secluded in my sad household. And the more I tried, I gradually got better. I began to feel competent, feel some momentum, a sense of accomplishment. So writing, just old-fashioned, often-ridiculed, school-based analytic writing became intimately associated in my mind with a fresh life, with possibility.

This sort of thing happens with some frequency – with different specifics of course. A kid or an adult returning to school sees that school can make a difference. It intrigues me every time I witness it, for it can be so powerful, and have such consequence.

Kirsten Ogden: College really made a difference for you. How did college live up to that “fresh life” and “possibility”?

Mike Rose:  I went to a small college as an English major because I didn’t have much of a clue about other majors, and besides my teacher was an English major. So why not? I struggled through my freshman year, found some new mentors, got my bearings, and developed into a decent, if unimaginative, writer of expository prose.

I moved on to graduate school, only to decide after a year that a professional life of literary scholarship might be too cloistered for me. I went off and taught for ten rich and eye-opening years in a wide range of settings—kindergarten to programs for returning Vietnam Veterans—and returned to graduate school in education, a field that, at least in my mind, would enable me to take scholarship out into the world. I’ve been in education since.

Kirsten Ogden: That’s interesting because I know you’re in education, but I don’t often think of you that way; I always think of you as a writer. When did you really know that you were more than a scholar?

Mike Rose: During that year in English doctoral studies, I started writing poetry, really bad poetry, clichéd and sentimental as all get-out. But I enjoyed it, and it actually made me think in a different way about the poetry I was studying—Dickenson, Stevens—thinking about these poems as made objects, inert on a page now, but not always. People made decisions that resulted in the syntax and diction in front of me. I guess I became aware of craft. I continued writing during those ten years of teaching, trying to learn by reading everyone from Denise Levertov to Stephen Dunn. My poetry got a little better, still immature, still overwrought, but I was learning on my own a tremendous amount about image and rhythm and compression.

I finally got to the place where I was writing passable renderings of scenes in my neighborhood or events from the lives of my immigrant Italian forebears. I gave mimeographed packets of my poems to friends; I started publishing in the smallest of small magazines.

I’ll be damned – I was a writer.


In part two of our interview, Mike Rose discusses how he blends poetic and analytical styles in writing, and he describes how his identity as a teacher contributed to his development and growth as a writer.


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