Each year, as part of the UCLA Extension Department of the Arts Outstanding Instructor and Employee Awards, the Writers’ Program has the privilege of honoring two deserving instructors. This year’s nominees—Samantha Dunn and Laurence Rosenthal—are both seasoned veterans who have inspired more than a thousand students over the years with their prolific experience, thoughtfulness in the classroom, and genuine personalities. Their achievements were recently celebrated at a luncheon on campus with distinguished UCLA Extension staff and guests.
As Outstanding Instructor in Creative Writing, Samantha Dunn has taught creative non-fiction classes for ten years. Linda Venis, Program Director of the Writers’ Program says, “Sam is one of our most versatile and creative teachers. One of the greatest things Sam gives to her students is accessibility?the knowledge that she shares their fears as a writer.”
This year’s Outstanding Instructor in Screenwriting is Laurence Rosenthal, who has taught feature film writing for fifteen years. “Laurence has a gift. His ability to excite and inform in a way that is relatable is unmatched… he’s super-articulate and funny too,” Linda shares.
Both reflect on their experiences teaching for the Writers’ Program—and the students who have equally inspired them as teachers.
Wp’: What does this award mean to you?
Samantha Dunn: I was sincerely dumbstruck when Linda called me to tell me I’d received this honor. I was thinking, “Wait, did she really mean to dial my number? Doesn’t she remember I’m the one who swears like a longshoreman and has people dance in class?” Several of my dear friends and colleagues have been past recipients. I can’t tell you how much I not only respect their talents as writers, but also their genius at translating the craft of writing—I’m thrilled to be considered among them. And I keep thinking there’s been some mistake! I can’t shake the feeling I’m getting away with something…
Laurence Rosenthal: Oh, this award is a big deal. I was not prepared for the level of attention this honor brought, from being seated next to the Dean, to being in the auspicious company of my fellow honorees, all of whose achievements felt extraordinary. And then to have my character as a teacher so thoughtfully considered and reflected through the lens of Dr. Linda Venis, that really touched my heart in a deep way and instills in me a desire to prove it wasn’t all a big mistake.
Wp’: What’s inspires you about teaching?
SD: Easy: the people who show up to the classes. I can’t quite believe I get paid to spend time with these incredibly engaged and intelligent people who share the most inspiring, amazing, shocking, enlightening life experiences with me and with each other. It never feels like work. I love the fact that you never know where people are going to go—what works they will create, or how their lives will change merely as a result of wrestling with getting words on the page, what lifelong friendships will form. It happened to me. I stepped into my first Writers’ Program class the year I moved to Los Angeles when I was 24. I didn’t realize it then, but it was the gateway to the rest of my life.
LR: Students. These people from varying backgrounds come into the classroom with hope in their hearts and spirit in their soul. They share that heart and soul with me and I have learned incalculable amounts from their honesty, courage, and nobility. They show me aspects of life through their stories and I am very often moved to expand the realm of my thinking through their influence.
Wp’: Is there anything that students should know most about your classes/teaching?
SD: I teach mostly memoir and personal essay, which comes out of life experience, of course. Writing from this place can be therapeutic, but the course is NOT therapy. (JaysusMaryandJoseph, you certainly don’t want me practicing without a license on your brain, let me tell you!) All of my students know this quote from V.S. Pritchett because I burn it into their skulls: “It’s all in the craft, you get no credit for living.” I am interested in creating literature—failing that, just a good story other people will enjoy reading. That is the first and only goal. Enlightenment is a byproduct. (I exaggerate, obviously. Well, maybe not that much.)
LR: There are two students’ comments that have lived with me throughout the years. One student wrote, “Rosenthal is like medicine. It’s not always pleasant when it’s going down, but it makes you much better” and “You laugh while you learn.” I like to hope that I advocate for students’ stories in a way that challenges them as writers and that I am able to do it with humor.
Wp’: What’s something important you’ve learned from your students over the years?
SD: Humility and bravery. Humility to say, “I may know a lot of other things but I don’t know this,” and bravery to try something new, to be willing to discover.
LR: That there’s no expiration date on a dream.
Congratulations, Samantha and Laurence, and thank you for everything you’ve brought to the Writers’ Program!