“What I tell my students is that you here at MIT have access
to great knowledge… more knowledge than 99.9 percent
of people who have ever been on planet Earth, and I think you
have some sort of moral duty to learn how to communicate that.
Knowledge is power; power shouldn’t be hoarded.”
— Ta Nehisi Coates, on teaching writing at MIT
For noted author and national correspondent for The Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates, the path to literary success began in a tough Baltimore neighborhood. When it was time for college, Coates went briefly, but dropped out to practice as a journalist. By 2008 his memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood was being critically acclaimed, and in 2013, his writing for The Atlantic earned him a National Magazine Award, the “Oscar” of magazine publishing.
How did Coates do it? “I started writing at a really young age,” he says. “When I used to get in trouble, my mother used to make me write essays.” Coates’ parents were both educators, and he was also a voracious reader. “I never liked the classroom, but I loved the library,” he says.
The art of learning
Coates came to MIT two years ago as a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), and he has taught MIT students essay writing and journalism the way he learned those subjects himself — by reading great writing, and by writing a lot.
Along the way, this self-described “awful, awful student” discovered he loved teaching. “It was a wonderful experience,” he says. “In my world, people are often very cynical about writing. So, to have kids who are desperate to learn and desperate to be informed is just tremendous.”
Coates asked his students to read a wide range of essays, including Jim Fallows’ “Why Americans Hate the Media,” Michael Kinsley’s “Mine Is Longer than Yours,” and George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” They were also expected to write and rewrite their own essays.
"Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most elegant and sharp
observers of race in America. He is an upholder of universal
values, a brave and compassionate writer who challenges
his readers to transcend narrow self-definitions and focus
on shared humanity.”
— Hendrik Hertzberg, of The New Yorker, judge for the 2012
Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism, awarded to Coates
Writing and the work ethic
Coates says the extraordinary work ethic at MIT ensured that most students were able to do quite well in his classes. “You have to work hard at [writing], which is why I think the kids here are suited to it,” he says. “If you know anything about hard work you can do well.”
Learning to write competently is a vital skill in all fields, including science and engineering, Coates says. “What I tell [my students] is that you here at MIT have access to great knowledge… more knowledge than 99.9 percent of people who have ever been on planet Earth, and I think you have some sort of moral duty to learn how to communicate that,” he says. “Knowledge is power; power shouldn’t be hoarded.”
While Coates’ own writing often centers on race relations, power politics, and social inequities, his classes have not specifically focused on racial issues. Yet, the perspectives he has brought to campus during his two-year stay at MIT have made a major contribution to MIT’s MLK program, which recognizes outstanding scholars and increases the presence of minority scholars at MIT.
“MLK is an incredible program,” says Coates. “I wouldn’t be here without it, and it’s important than I can bring a different perspective into the classroom that maybe [MIT students are] not always exposed to. Which isn’t to say I teach primarily African-American writing. I don’t. It’s more just the lens through which you see it, which is your life.”
Coates will wrap up his time at MIT this spring, and then plans to finish writing a nonfiction book due to come out next year. About the opportunity to teach classes at MIT SHASS in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, he says: “I’ve absolutely enjoyed it. I’ve loved it.”
It’s mutual, Ta-Nehisi. Thank you for two wonderful years! — MIT SHASS
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill