English Department update

Nat Hawkins discusses the department's focus on equity, and recent innovations in courses and teaching.  

May 1, 2020
Nat Hawkins

Nat Hawkins has taught at Exeter since 2007, serving four of those years as chair of the Department of English. His interest in literature was cultivated during his undergraduate years at Brown University and furthered developed in Columbia University’s master’s program. An independent school instructor for most of his career, he took a brief break to pursue a law degree at the University of Virginia.

Peruse names of noted Exeter alumni — a list including Pulitzer-prize-winning poets and journalists, best-selling authors, successful screenwriters and more — and a pattern emerges. “There’s a long literary tradition at Exeter,” says Hawkins. “We produce writers.”

Under Hawkins’ leadership, the department is nurturing the next generation of writers and thinkers who can intelligently spark and further conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. “Our goal is to maintain our curricular emphasis on writing and discussion and to normalize conversations about race,” says Hawkins.

There’s a long literary tradition at Exeter. We produce writers.”
Nat Hawkins

An example is English 320, a course for lowers, created in collaboration with the Office of Multicultural Affairs to sharpen critical thinking around race and identity. In class, students write their personal histories and explore themes of race in literary works, including Shakespeare’s Othello.

To better support student instruction, faculty are examining these issues as well. Georgetown University associate professor Ricardo Ortiz has led English faculty discussions about how to teach race-related topics in literature, focusing on the unintended effects of assumptions in curriculum and developing coursework around race, ethnicity and privilege. Over the summer, instructors work together to explore new materials and initiatives, such as a new anti-racist writing workshop. “Our teachers are learning along with [our] students, ” Hawkins says.

English Instructor Nat Hawkins in the classroom with students



Department quick takes

Visiting writers

More than 20 professional writers visit campus each year to deliver assembly talks or readings, and to meet with English classes. Recent visitors have included Pulitzer prize-winner and Lamont Poet Jericho Brown, whose readings and remarks electrified the assembly audience. Another speaker, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer prize winning author of "The Sympathizer," shared his experiences growing up in California as a refugee and immigrant. His challenge to students to tell their own authentic stories as Americans resonated, and the Department of English now offers an elective focused on Nguyen’s teaching. 

Faculty authors

Exeter’s literary tradition extends to its faculty. In class, students have direct opportunities to learn from instructors who are published authors and poets, including Erica LazureMatthew Miller, Alex Myers, Willie Perdomo, Ralph Sneeden and others. “It’s another way Exeter demonstrates its reverence for the written word,” says Hawkins.

Student writers

The department’s rigorous writing program culminates with Senior Mediations, an opportunity for seniors to share their personal narratives with peers and teachers. A selection of students are chosen to read their pieces aloud in Phillips Church. Having a voice in the community teaches independence and empathy. “We have expanded the Senior Meditation program into fall,” Hawkins says, to allow more students to partake in the experience. The collection of senior meditations is published into a book that is used by the English Department for class instruction.

Common read for new students

The English Department assigns to all preps and incoming lowers a book to read over the summer. For the first year of this program, they read “The Prince of Los Cocuyos,” a coming-of-age memoir written by presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco. “The Poet X,”  by Elizabeth Acevedo, was assigned the following year. The goal of the common reading is to create a sense of community and establish a foundation for discussion among students. Blanco spent a day at the Academy, visiting classes, speaking at assembly and meeting with affinity clubs as well as hosting a casual lunch conversation for students. Due to the pandemic, Acevedo will meet with students via Zoom.