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Professor John Glavin Studies Student Screenwriters

Professor Glavin is a mainstay of the English department at Georgetown. (Photo: Roland Dimaya)

By Kara Burritt

Forty-two years of teaching at his undergraduate alma mater does not find John Glavin in a rut. On the contrary, he enjoys reinventing himself and his work.

“Early on, by inclination, not by rule, I decided rarely to repeat myself,” he said.

This decision accounts for the colorful experiences that have made up his career as a professor of English at Georgetown: leading Shakespeare courses in Italy, succeeding professionally as a playwright, watching his students go on to Hollywood fame, and founding the university’s Carroll Fellows Initiative (CFI). Attributing his varied research and teaching pursuits to a fertility of imagination, Glavin even refuses to use a syllabus more than once.

Glavin credits his department and the university for allowing him to pursue his interests as they develop, beginning with teaching courses in Victorian literature at the start of his career and shifting to film and stage studies in the 1980s. Currently focused on leading CFI and teaching three levels of “Writing for the Screen” courses, Glavin was inspired by his students for an upcoming project, one that will also reflect a long period of interest in the stage that has come to bear on his teaching.  

He is planning a book that will consider the difficulty undergraduate writers have understanding and employing agency in their screenplays. Experience has shown Glavin that modern college students are consistently challenged by the notion of how fictional characters set and accomplish, or fail to accomplish, an agenda. In student screenplays, happy endings tend to be instigated by authority figures, while unhappy endings feature characters simply devoid of what they want. Protagonists do not act out of clear psychological reasons.

“Agency is a very vexed topic for contemporary undergraduates,” said Glavin.

This issue interests him because he considers agency to be a critical element of dramatic work. In film and on the stage, character, which is the vessel of agency, provides common ground for the written script and the acting. Questions of personal agency—such as what goals can I accomplish, what am I expected to accomplish, and what forces prevent me from accomplishing goals—propel dramatic stories. Done well, character should be an active process.

“I am going back to things that people don’t much emphasize in English classes but which remain fundamental to both the theater and the film business,” Glavin said. “Actors play characters.”

With Glavin placing character at the center of dramatic imagination, his book will approach undergraduates’ grappling with agency as both a cultural phenomenon and a pedagogical challenge. Uncovering the root of students’ struggle with agency would allow writing and film studies teachers to better educate students in creating dramatic forms.   

That undergraduates struggle with agency is an especially intriguing trend given the fact that Georgetown’s ambitious students should, but generally do not, naturally understand themselves as having agency. Glavin plans to employ a sociological lens to investigate what cultural obstacles may preclude students identifying agency in their own lives.

Glavin hopes to explore the idea of agency using the work of his own “Writing for the Screen” students, should future classes agree to participate. By juxtaposing student screenplays and class discussions with successfully produced screenplays from both iconic and modern eras, Glavin will approach the research from multiple perspectives.  

This project will not be the first time Glavin has drawn research ideas from his teaching experience. He recently completed a memoir about teaching Shakespeare’s Italian plays at Georgetown’s Villa LeBalze in Fiesole. Death at the Edges, written for a non-academic audience, features his students’ approach to Shakespeare as a means to demonstrate pervasive new forms of reading. For that book, Glavin’s students maintained their anonymity by selecting pseudonyms from The Great Gatsby.

Glavin long ago merged his personal pursuits with teaching. His success as a playwright in the 1980s demanded so much of his schedule that he was forced to choose between stage work and his longtime teaching career at Georgetown.

“The choice became clear,” he said, “I decided to take what I was interested in and make it happen at Georgetown.”

Since then, Glavin has offered a series of drama and adaptation workshops, film electives, and script-writing courses through the English department. He has seen some of his former screenwriting students go on to fame in Hollywood, yet it has been a struggle determining how to teach this unique form of writing.

Glavin explained, “It is a tricky kind of teaching, because you want to encourage people’s creativity, but you have to get them to understand also that it is working within a highly articulated form.”

Glavin strives for hands-off teaching. By facilitating a dialogue between his students and a film, he creates a context in which students can take ownership of their learning, much like when he was a playwright providing actors and directors with a script from which they independently produced a play.

Achieving this environment in his classroom rests on Glavin conveying to his students the essence of drama. Drama developed as a platform for countering the norms of human behavior that had been outlined by law and philosophy. As such, Glavin notes drama’s potential for exploring ethical questions in a non-theoretical way. Following a character’s anomalous actions in contrast to the behavior of rational society offers not only an interesting story, but also a way to understand human behavior.

“As drama gets reinvented, societies go back to ask and explore those questions narratively on the stage and, increasingly in our time, in film,” said Glavin.

While filmmakers largely follow these patterns of developing complex characters who behave contrary to the norm, it is critical for young scriptwriters to understand how film deals with human choice. With that in mind, Glavin plans to tailor future “Writing for the Screen” classes to focus more on the notion of character and observe the effect on student work.

Devoted to his scriptwriting courses and the CFI program, Glavin refuses to settle into a routine as an instructor or as a researcher. Where the trajectory of his work will go next depends largely on his interests. Yet, one thing is clear; Glavin’s professional reinventions are certain to yield fascinating projects long into the future.

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