Distinguished Professor Tracy Daugherty balances his writing and teaching lives.

Tracy Daughtery
Tracy Daughtery

Tracy Daugherty always knew he wanted to be a writer. Books like “Charlotte’s Web” and “Little House on the Prairie” came alive when his teachers read them aloud to their elementary school classes. Daugherty remembers reading the speeches his grandfather, an Oklahoma politician, wrote, and later hearing how they could capture a crowd. “Early on, I was impressed how language is communicative, that it’s a living, communal thing,” he says.

Growing up in Texas, Daugherty read as many novels as he could. He wrote them, as well, in the Ray Bradbury, sci-fi style that often captivated adolescent boys. “I was writing space novels, and they were terrible,” he says. At 11, he had yet to develop the strong sense of place that characterizes his mature work.

Teaching came later, when Daugherty was a Ph.D. student at the University of Houston. He knew he would have to couple teaching with writing to make a living, but at first teaching terrified him. “I had all these faces staring at me, expecting me to give them something, and I had no idea what to do,” he says.

But the terror didn’t last long. Soon Daugherty could tell he was making an impression on his students — their writing improved. “You can see that students are grateful,” he says. “They’re able to communicate things that they didn’t think they could communicate. And you can see that very tangibly.”

Daughterty’s longtime success in both arenas has earned him the title of “distinguished professor,” the highest honor a faculty member can receive at OSU. “Tracy’s impressive record in teaching, publication and academic program building deserved this kind of recognition,” says Distinguished Professor of American Literature David Robinson, who nominated Daugherty for the award.

Throughout his teaching career, Daugherty, who joined the OSU faculty in 1986 and now chairs the Department of English, has remained a disciplined and prolific writer. His fluid style and natural dialogue distinguish his eight books, 25 short fiction works and numerous essays, interviews and magazine articles. He won the Ken Kesey Award in 2005 for his novel “Axeman’s Jazz” and has earned the Oregon Book Award three times, among many other honors.

Daugherty was also instrumental in developing OSU’s Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, a process that took more than a decade at a university sometimes more acknowledged for science and engineering.

The program now attracts applicants from all over the country — more than 100 a year for only six spots. “The program is flourishing, and it’s a wonderful thing to have happen in an unlikely spot. We started out as underdogs, and we’ve come a long way,” Daugherty says. The students who seek Daugherty’s mentorship tend to reflect his varying and sometimes contradictory styles, from straightforward narratives to fragmented stories that follow their own non-linear chronologies.

As a teacher, Daugherty is dedicated to an atmosphere of extensive dialogue between professors and students, as well as among the students themselves, says Robinson. “The one thing that makes this program distinctive is that we work hard developing a very intimate, supportive community,” Daugherty says. He also gives his students plenty of his personal time.

“Tracy teaches in a way that inspires in students a true love for writing,” says Larry Roper, vice provost for Student Affairs and interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

Daugherty’s next book, “Hiding Man: A Life of Donald Barthelme,” in fact, is a biography of one of his former University of Houston professors. “Hiding Man,” which is due out next year from St. Martin’s Press, is Daughterty’s first excursion into biography and a trip he never intended to take. But when some of Barthelme’s work began going out of print and a different biographer had dropped the project, Daugherty decided to write about his old mentor.

Daugherty’s presence as a teacher comes in part from emulating Barthelme’s emphasis on rigor and tradition, as well as the older writer’s habit of making himself available to his students. “Teaching writing is a one-on-one proposition, really,” Daugherty says, “It takes a lot of individual attention. I saw Barthelme do that with students, and I do that with our students.”

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