On the evening of Dec. 4, the Asriel and Marie Rackow conference room in the Baruch College library building was filled with journalism department faculty members, writers and Baruch students. After chatting for half an hour and having plates filled with crab cakes and smoked salmon bites, the guests sat down at their round tables in honor of the 20th anniversary celebration of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.
In the fall of 1998, Sidney Harman, a successful entrepreneur and Baruch alumnus, funded the launch of the Writer-in-Residence Program as a generous gift to aspiring authors. For the past two decades, hundreds of creative students have participated in Harman workshops under attentive guidance of distinguished writers.
Among the 41 novelists, playwrights, journalists and poets who have taught the program over 20 years, there are six Pulitzer Prize winners, four National Book Award winners, two Laureate designations, and three MacArthur Fellowship receivers.
Bridgett Davis, a Baruch professor and writer, who has been director of the Harman program for five years, hosted the event.
“Those weekly writing workshops do really change lives. I know, I’ve seen it,” Davis said.
With the help of Harman writers’ recommendation letters, students have been accepted to prestigious programs and universities, such as New York University, Pratt Institute and Sarah Lawrence College.
“When distinguished writers are telling you that your work is strong, that your voice matters, that you have real potential, it opens possibilities that you may have never seen before,” Davis said.
She also expressed her gratitude for the Harman Foundation’s additional funding, which helps bring emerging writers to the campus, buy their books and sponsor cash prizes for program winners.
The next speaker was Roslyn Bernstein, founding director of the Harman program, who recalled precious memories of Harman himself.
Back in 1998, when the decision to launch the program was made, Harman had many questions about how it should be run, who would be the first writer-in-residence and how many students should be in the class. He was confident enough, though, that he had started this program for “humanists, deep readers and thinkers who fully comprehended the power of writing.”
One by one, the stage welcomed special guests — writers-in-residence from various years — that included novelists Susan Choi and Katherine Vaz, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips, followed by current Harman program students. Each of them shared their experiences of being a part of Harman’s literary salon.
Choi admitted that the 2006 Harman workshop was the best class she had ever taught. She had been surprised by the diversity of the class and the fact that most of the students were first-generation Americans who had mostly learned English after moving to the United States.
For some teachers, Harman students have become a significant part of their lives. Vaz, who taught the program in 2012, shared the memories of inviting the workshop students to her home in Manhattan.
“It was the best teaching experience, because it did not feel like teaching, it felt like these 12 people were united to help each other to create the art of who they were and what they had to say,” the novelist commented.
This semester, the guest writer of the Harman program is Jacobs-Jenkins, an acclaimed playwright, Pulitzer Prize nominee and MacArthur fellow.
“It is a pretty extraordinary experience. I’m very surprised by the quality and range of writing that is coming to me,” Jacobs-Jenkins said.
Over the course, each of his students wrote three plays. They went through a nerve-wracking experience of casting their classmates as characters and having their plays read out loud. During the semester, they received critical feedback from the professor and their classmates, which helped them significantly improve their storytelling skills.
“For me, it was always kind of like crossing your fingers — will he like it?” Shemuel Bacchus, a journalism student and a junior at Baruch, said in reference to Jacobs-Jenkins. “I am not disappointed in the playwriting class. Professor Jacobs-Jenkins is very brilliant and dedicated to his work.”
At the Harman workshop, students learn a lot about the writing process and the medium they choose for telling their story, whether it be a theater stage or a movie screen. When giving their speeches, current Harman workshop participants constantly repeated the idea that the program is a breath of fresh air and a safe space for aspiring writers, creating an atmosphere of care and empathy.
The next writer-in-residence will be British-American graphic novelist Gabrielle Bell, known for her surrealist, semi-autobiographical stories.