The Harris': a literature love story
Natalie and Peter Harris came to the Hill as American literature professors and currently teach creative non-fiction and poetry writing, respectively.
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Students often hear the tales of students who meet on the Hill and end up falling in love and staying together even after their time here is over; but how many stories are there of people meeting beforehand and arriving on campus together?
That’s exactly what Associate Professor of English Natalie Harris and Zacamy Professor of English Peter Harris did. The two met in graduate school at Indiana University, where they were both studying for their Ph.Ds in American literature—but it wasn’t until they shared a class in a Herman Melville seminar that they got to know one another on a deeper level.
“She kissed me on my birthday,” Peter recalled. “And that one kiss was all it took.” The two moved in together shortly thereafter, even though Natalie was a year behind in graduate school. “She was a star, and I was just a student,” Peter said.
After Peter graduated with his Ph.D, he was offered a job teaching literature at the College, and soon afterward the two wed, just a few days after Peter had started working, and they both remember the day fondly.
“I was teaching an evening class, and I had to end class 15 minutes early so that I could leave to get married,” Peter said.
“The ceremony was held at the Justice of the Peace’s house nearby with just a few friends,” Natalie added. “And then afterwards we went out for pizza!”
While Peter was teaching at the College, Natalie continued to work on her graduate school dissertation, and after she finished her work she, too, was offered a job teaching literature on campus. “I was very fortunate,” she said.
But their roles on campus would not stay this way for long. Many students on the Hill recognize Natalie and Peter as a sort of creative writing dream team, but neither of them originally taught, or studied, creative writing. The two teamed up to direct a study abroad program formerly offered by the College called “Colby in Cork” in southern Ireland, and it was during this trip that Natalie found herself at a crossroads.
“I realized that I didn’t want to do academic writing anymore,” she said. “While I was in Ireland I took a psychotherapy graduate course, and it made me think about what direction I wanted to move in. I began writing stories, and when I returned home, I applied for a Master of Fine Arts degree (M.F.A.) program at Warren Wilson.”
Warren Wilson is a popular M.F.A. program in North Carolina that offers tracks in both poetry and fiction writing. It is the same school that Associate Professor of English, Creative Writing Adrian Blevins attended and where Professor of English Debra Spark teaches. “The program is great for people with established lives and careers,” Natalie said.
After the program, Natalie began offering creative non-fiction and short fiction writing courses at the College, which had not previously been offered. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Carolina Quaterly, The North Dakota Quaterly and The Chronicle of Higher Education. One of her favorite essays she has written is about the cataclysms in her personal life—her kids and her dog—and how they connect with larger, uncontrollable natural disasters and how we respond to them.
Peter’s interests on campus focus on both poetry and English composition with a service-learning component. His work has been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares and The Virginia Quaterly Review, but his best work came out of a class he taught several years ago. “Colby Cares About Kids came out of a student proposal in a class I taught. It’s the most gratifying thing that has happened to me as a teacher,” he said. Peter also pursues an interest in Buddhism, which he describes as a “balance to the intellectual life.”
“My version would be yoga,” Natalie added.
“These interests have developed as we’ve developed as people,” Peter said. “First comes the intellectual, then the creative, then the spiritual—things you can do that are deeper than thinking.”
For Natalie, her greatest education has come not from the College but from her role as a mother. “It’s the most difficult and rewarding experience. I love the relationships I can form with my students on what they entrust to me and share with me through their writing, but because they’re not [my] children, I don’t feel entwined.”
Peter agreed, noting that, “When you teach creative writing, you’re teaching with whole people; you get to know their interior lives. It draws on our hearts, feelings, aspirations—integrating those things through creative writing is very fortunate.”
When Natalie and Peter are not teaching class or meeting with students in their offices, located across the hall from one another, the two enjoy their time here in Maine by hiking and cross-country skiing. Peter is an avid sailor in the summer months, and they recently spent Fall Break in Acadia National Park.
Natalie summed it up: “We used to play tennis, but now we mostly just jabber and joust.”