A longstanding professor in the department of English, John Glavin (CAS ’64), has impacted Georgetown in ways to which few faculty members can lay claim. During his time here, Glavin has personally mentored some of Georgetown’s most successful alumni and overseen the Carroll Fellows Initiative — Georgetown’s flagship program for undergraduates.
Glavin has earned a reputation as a challenging yet inspiring instructor. In class, the stern and bearded professor stands well above 6 feet, towering over students. He returns papers drenched in the red ink of his disapproval. Even worse than the pointed critiques are his one-word responses: scrawled, offhand notes that read “weak,” “unacceptable” and, occasionally, “no.”
Students who have taken his classes have heard the stories. Glavin taught screenwriting to Jonathan Nolan (CAS ’98), creator of the recently premiered “Westworld” series and one-half of the writer-director Nolan brothers duo behind critically acclaimed movies like “Memento,” “Inception,” “The Prestige” and the “Dark Knight” trilogy. According to Glavin, Nolan named John. G — the antagonist of “Memento,” which was based on an essay Nolan wrote for a Georgetown psychology class — after him. (Disclosure: Nolan was a Hoya staff writer.)
His personal tutelage has produced more than a few Marshall and Rhodes scholarship recipients, some within the past year. Working in his class is like being alone on a stage — students feel the microscope of his attention exposing all their inadequacies, the weaknesses they should have corrected.
“He gives you the platform to share your story. He will pick up on words and finds the things you need to highlight,” said Aya Waller-Bey (COL ’14), who did a series of mock interviews with Glavin during her ultimately successful application for the Gates-Cambridge scholarship. “I knew I was ready for the interviews. I was more intimidated by the mock interviews than the actual one.”
When asked about the rigor of his instruction, Glavin said it is all done with good intentions.
“I would say that I am more a coach than a teacher,” Glavin said. “I think one of the things a coach does is really say to somebody ,‘Perform for me and I will help you sharpen your performance.’… And that obliges me to use very high standards. I seem rigorous or demanding, it’s because what I really want people to do is become rigorous and demanding on themselves.”
By all indications, it seems students prize the guidance they receive from him. They return, again and again, to his office hours, which run on a strict 15-minute rotation with sign-ups sent out by email at the beginning of each month. All the slots fill up instantly.
Glavin is further revered among other faculty members for his commitment to developing students on an individual level, including Writing Center Director David Lipscomb, whose office last year neighbored Glavin’s.
“He does so much in so many areas to help students. His door is always open and there’s always a steady stream of students,” Lipscomb said. “He loves being a mentor. He really loves being a mentor for Georgetown’s brightest.”
Some of that drive to give back to Georgetown stems from Glavin’s personal experience. During his undergraduate years, Glavin was involved in the Georgetown community. He served as The Hoya’s editor-in-chief.
“One of the reasons that I’m invested in service at Georgetown is because Georgetown has been astonishingly generous to me,” Glavin said.
He credits the university for being patient with him through the early parts of his career. When he joined the faculty at Georgetown, he was not the stern mentor of student ambition. He had ambitions himself as a writer.
“I was a playwright,” Glavin said. “And I always imagined that I would actually leave teaching and become a full-time playwright once my ship came home. And for a long time I wrote plays, and plays were staged. And they were more or less successful. But I came to realize in an interesting moment that this was really what I wanted to do.”
That moment happened in the 1970s, when a major summer theater festival picked up one of his plays. Glavin was excited to kick-start his playwriting career, until his agent told him that its success depended on his leaving Georgetown for the summer and spending the season in Williamsburg, Va., where the play would be put on. Glavin refused to leave the university, and was promptly dropped by his agent, who told him he must realize he was not serious about a career in the theater.
Like the honest criticism Glavin doles out himself, his agent’s words galvanized change that ultimately turned out for the better.
“I became gradually much more interested in taking the kind of writing I was interested in and making it also the subject of my teaching,” Glavin said. “The result of that has been, over the past 20 years or so, the remarkable experience of teaching many, many people who have gone on to do really interesting work, especially in film.”
This year, Glavin is commemorating his 50th year of teaching and is no longer writing for the theater. Instead, he will ask a new class of Carroll Fellows and a fresh set of aspiring screenwriters to perform for him. Some will inevitably chafe against a man they see as cold and harsh. Others will embrace the opportunity to learn from a Georgetown legend. Neither group can deny that he hopes to bring the best out of his students. When his students achieve excellence, Glavin has been there all along, expecting it.
“They surprise themselves. I am never surprised by what my students accomplish,” Glavin said.
That is how Glavin works. Not harshness for harshness’ sake, but simply high expectations. And for 50 years, those expectations, along with Glavin’s continuous service, have shaped the students and institution of Georgetown.
Full disclosure: The writer is a participant in the Carroll Fellows Initiative.