A Five-Minute Interview: English Professor Don Gallehr

Posted: April 5, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Don new
Don Gallehr

English Professor Don Gallehr shares a milestone with the George Mason University. At the annual University Day Breakfast, Gallehr will be the first person to be recognized for 40 years of service to the university.

It is difficult to talk about Gallehr without mentioning the Northern Virginia Writing Project, which he helped found and has directed since 1987. For decades Gallehr and his colleagues have been inspiring teachers and helping them enhance their skills, as well as creating a community of educators. He also chairs the board of directors for the Virginia Writing Project and is a member of the National Writing Project’s board of directors.

For 40 years, Gallehr has been teaching writing courses at Mason. His research interests include learning beyond the cognitive and its application to the classroom, and he currently serves as a reviewer for NCTE’s Assembly on Expanded Perspectives on Learning.

Some of his articles include “Portfolio Assessment in the College Writing Classroom” in Process and Portfolios in Writing Instruction, “Wait and the Writing Will Come: Meditation and the Composing Process” in Presence of Mind: Writing and the Domain Beyond the Cognitive, and “What is the Sound of No Hand Clapping: Using Secularized Zen Koans in the Writing Classroom” in Spiritual Empowerment and Pedagogy.

What was your first job at the university?

I taught four classes each semester in my first year (1966). Usually two sections of English 101 or 102 (composition), and two sections of English 201, 202 (literature). In those days we were adding our junior year, so I eventually taught advanced undergraduate courses (18th-century British literature and linguistics).

We spent a lot of time writing course proposals and developing programs. We were building a university from the ground up.

Where was your office?

On the second floor of Finley Building. At the time, there were only five buildings–the four that surround the original quad (Finley, Krug, East and West), and the Lecture Hall. They built the [Fenwick] Library after I got here, probably in 1967 or 1968.

What kind of students were attracted to the university then?

Many of them were just like me–blond, blue-eyed, middle class. Most were local, from Fairfax and Northern Virginia. In each class, I had several students who had never been to D.C.even though it was only 15 miles away. Mason has always had wonderful students, even from the very beginning.

Do you have a favorite memory or story from your time here?

I think my favorite story was from 1968 when the students decided to do a sit-in in the chancellor’s office (located in Finley Building). There were sit-in’s in lots of universities in the late ‘60’s, mostly in protest to the Vietnam War. Remember, students were being drafted then, and some who went to war never came back. I had one student who spent 18 months in jail for ripping up his draft card. When he got out, he came back to Mason to thank me for teaching Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and thereby helping him to decide to resist the draft.

But back to the sit-in—the students were sitting in the Chancellor’s office, and faculty and students were standing outside wondering what would happen. The campus police were there, too, itching to storm the building and arrest the students. Then Steve Hitchcock, a Mason undergrad, walked up to the campus police and urged them to cool it—to let the students sit there for a while. They listened to Steve, and after a while the students felt as if they had made their point and voluntarily left the Chancellor’s office. What makes this one of my favorite stories is that it is about the wisdom of students.

Do you have a favorite spot on campus?

I love teaching. So for me, my favorite place is the classroom. That’s where the action is.

How did the Northern Virginia Writing Project come to be?

It’s a bit of a long story, but I’ll make it brief. In 1975 I designed, proposed, and offered the first Teaching of Writing course in the English Department. We wrote, shared teaching strategies, and read the scholarship and research on the teaching of writing. It was an enormously successful course.

I decided to keep in touch with the students after the course, and to my dismay discovered that many of them were overwhelmed by the curriculum of the local schools and school districts, so much so that after a year you would not know they had taken my course. I also taught the course in 1976 with the same results.

Then, in the spring of 1977, Betty Blaisdell, English Curriculum Supervisor from Fairfax County Public Schools, attended a workshop in Maryland led by Jim Gray, founder of the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP). Jim had just received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to set up dissemination sites of BAWP around the country, and he suggested to Betty that she get in touch with Mason to see if someone there might be interested.

Betty came to the English Department chair Mike Sundell, who came to me because I was teaching the Teaching of Writing course. I had heard of BAWP, but knew very little about it. With the prospect of setting up a site, I looked into it. I read the proposal guidelines, and in the summer of 1977 visited BAWP at Berkeley along with Larry Bowen, chair of the Education Department. Once I saw the BAWP Summer Institute in action, I was hooked.

Jim Gray had solved the problem I had with making a difference in the schools. I wrote the proposal, BAWP accepted it, and we held our first Summer Institute in 1978.

Gallehr black and white
Gallehr has been with Mason for 40 years

Looking back on 40 years, what was the high point for you?

There are so many highlights, but they all involve students. Just last week the National Writing Project held a conference in Washington, D.C. More than 300 people from National Writing Project sites from 38 states attended.

The keynote address was delivered by Patti Stock, past President of the National Council of Teachers of English. Her one-hour talk was riveting (no one blinked), and it focused almost exclusively on the Northern Virginia Writing Project and Matt Doebler, one of our teacher consultants. I was SO proud. As a teacher, I don’t work for my own glory, but for the learning and development of my students. When someone nationally praises the work we do, well, it doesn’t get any better.

Last year at Fall for the Book, you offered a seminar pairing meditation and writing. You have taught this kind of class several times. How did you come to pair the two?

My office mate (and early mentor) Bob Karlson came back from a Transcendental Meditation weekend, and on Monday morning said to me, “Gallehr, sit down. I’m going to teach you meditation.”

We spent twenty minutes meditating, and at the end he said, “Do that twice a day.” And I did. I liked what meditation did for me, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.

Then, in 1985, Peg Culley, one of our NVWP teacher consultants, suggested that we invite James Moffett to campus to talk about the common elements he saw in writing and meditation. Moffett was a major scholar in composition and also a meditator who had written an essay on it (“Writing, Inner Speech and Meditation”).

We had Moffett lead a ten-day retreat on campus in the summer of 1985 to explore the connections between these allied practices. Before that retreat, I had never thought of bringing meditation or any of its strategies into the classroom. After [the retreat], I used meditation whenever it helped students to become better writers.

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