In her golden years, English Department chair concerned with words, not numbers

Faye Moskowitz, newly-named chair of the English Department, was 35 years old when she began her undergraduate studies.

The trouble was, Moskowitz didn’t have a very good sense of direction. Even though American University was closer to her home, she enrolled at GW. She knew how to get there.

JARVISAn Unusual JourneyUnlike many academics, Moskowitz has not enjoyed the archetypal rise from teaching assistant to university department head. Married at 18, a mother at 19, Moskowitz began her adult life in Detroit.

In Michigan, Moskowitz worked for the Democratic Party. She became vice-chairman of her county, at that time the highest rung on the political ladder a woman could reach. Moskowitz claims she turned the county from Republican to Democratic.

In 1962, her husband got a job on Capitol Hill and moved the family to Washington, but Moskowitz didn’t find D.C. politics as interesting as local politics. Upon reflection, Moskowitz decided that “it wouldn’t be so bad to go to school,” and decided to take a few classes as a non-degree student.

“It became a goal to get my BA before I was 40,” she remembers. “And I did do that.”

Going to school as an adult was “sort of bizarre,” Moskowitz says.

“I was very self conscious, and terribly worried that I’d be stupid and wouldn’t remember anything, and the other students would think I was a freak,” she remembers. “And none of that turned out to be true. I made a number of friends, and I did real well.”

It was not until her senior year in college that Moskowitz took her first introductory creative writing class, because she had run out of other English classes for her major. She “got into” classes taught by Louis Schaefer, a professor who inspired her.

“It was Louis that really did it, not the class,” she said. “I found writing exciting, and I started publishing quite soon after.”

GW’s Rock Creek Magazine, an earlier version of Wooden Teeth, was the first to print Moskowitz’s work.

After that, she never looked back.

A first job, and a couple of books Moskowitz then published work in The Washington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Soon after, she went to graduate school at GW. She earned her Ph.D., and finally became a teacher’s assistant.

Moskowitz remembers the day she finished her Ph.D. She stood on the corner of 21st and G streets and cried.

“I had loved going to school so much, and I thought that was the end of my association with GW,” she recalls. “That was a logical thing to think of. I was graduating, and I never thought I would see GW again.”

Moskowitz went straight to work as a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher and director of the Edmund Burke College Preparatory School in D.C. It was her first paying job, and her first teaching job.

“I loved that age,” she says. “I loved teaching kids who were still young enough to be willing to learn something, and old enough to be able to really grasp a great deal about writing and about literature.”

During this time, Moskowitz published two books. The first was a collection of memoirs, A Leak in the Heart. The book has been in print since its 1985 release. She later released a collection of short stories, Whoever Finds This, I Love You.

A brief retirementMoskowitz taught at the middle school during the next 12 years. At that time, her four children out of the house, Moskowitz retired to write full time.

Her stint as a career writer lasted three months – she missed the classroom.

In 1988, Moskowitz returned to GW’s English Department and asked if she could teach a class. She was lucky – an unexpected retirement had left a hole in the faculty. Moskowitz joined the staff as a visiting director of the creative writing program. Meanwhile, the department was scrambling for a new director in a national search.

“Someone said, `Why don’t you put your name in?’ ” Moskowitz remembers. “I thought it was crazy to do that. I didn’t think I was going to get it. But I did get the job.”

In 1992, Moskowitz was promoted to associate professor, and was tenured the following year. She was 65.

This winter, Moskowitz says, she was “seriously thinking” about retiring.

“I thought it might be time to go and be an old lady in Florida,” she laughs.

But 10 years after her colleagues asked her to take the helm of the creative writing program, they once again urged her to take the lead, this time as chair of the department. She was elected last month.

“It was absolutely wonderful,” she says.

Madame Chairman”It never occurred to me that being a department chair was something I wanted to do, or was capable of doing,” she says. “I was stunned by the idea. I knew it was going to be an enormous amount of work, and I was frightened stiff about doing a good job.”

Finally, Moskowitz says, she asked herself, “Why not?” It was a phrase that guided her many times in her life toward projects that seemed impossible.

“I think someone else would have said, `No, I can’t do this, I’m not capable of doing this,’ ” Moskowitz says. “I would become capable of doing it. My age does not enter into the picture, I just don’t think about it.”

She notes that neither her age nor her gender have presented obstacles. When Moskowitz arrived at GW, she had never been taught by a woman. The increasing number of female faculty members, especially in the English department, has been the greatest change she has observed at GW, Moskowitz says.

“I think it is one of the things that made my becoming chair possible,” she says.

On TeachingMoskowitz’ teaching strategy is to get students, be they seventh graders or advanced in college years, to make a connection between what they read and their own lives.

Years ago, Moskowitz taught Our Town to an eighth-grade class. The play ends with Emily’s funeral, and the characters carry black umbrellas. A short while later, a girl from the class came to Moskowitz’s house to help prepare for a party.

It was raining that afternoon, and people carried black umbrellas with them. The young girl stood on the porch and said to her teacher, “Oh, it’s just like Emily’s funeral in Our Town.”

Moskowitz was thrilled. “The girl had connected something that she had read – and that I had help her read – to an image in her present life,” she explains.

“What I am trying to make students see is that their whole education, what they learn in all of their classes, is not a series of isolated things, but it is events, ideas and images that can be connected,” she says.

“I think that is terribly important.”

And she’s still writing…Moskowitz is now working on another collection of short stories and memoirs. She calls the mixture creative non-fiction.

“I think it is the best writing I have ever done,” she says.

Moskowitz does not know yet what will come of the book. When she first began memoir writing, the genre was in a flush of popularity. The trend of memoir writing is waning.

Moskowitz travels around the country – Memphis, San Jose, Portland, Charlotte – doing readings of her work.

In 1991, she published And The Bridge Is Love, another collection of memoirs. Moskowitz edited Her Face In The Mirror: Jewish Women On Mothers and Daughters, published in 1994. She has printed dozens of essays, poems and short stories in other publications.

“Clearly I have enormous love for the University,” she says, remembering her emotions when she was elected chair at a general faculty meeting a few weeks ago.

“I think it is just astonishing the way it all happened,” she says. “It’s not usually like this. My own sense is that they would want somebody younger.”

But if youth is zeal and love, it lives on in Moskowitz.

“Coming back to GW as a professor in the same department I had gone to school in was a dream come true,” she says.

“It was a beautiful thing for me.”

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