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Luskin: A+ Student

10/11/12 5:55PM By Deborah Luskin
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(Host) Author, essayist and educator Deborah Lee Luskin is especially looking forward to the Brattleboro Literary Festival this year, because one of her former writing students will be there with his first book.

(Luskin) Three years ago, I received an extraordinary letter from Daniel Chamovitz, a man who'd been a student of mine at Columbia University, in 1982.

Now a professor of biology at Tel Aviv University, Danny teaches a class called "Scientific Writing in English for Ph.D. Students." When one of his students asked him how he learned to write, he remembered being assigned to my "Introduction to Freshman Composition," a remedial writing course designed to boost the writing ability of bright but inarticulate young men.

(Columbia was still an all-male college back then.)

As Danny remembers the situation, he was perhaps the only one in the class who wasn't on a varsity team. In fact, he was sure he'd been put in the class by mistake. He says that I told him, "Let's see how you do on your first composition."

In his letter, he writes, " After getting a C- on what was in retrospect a very pitiful piece of work, I settled in for the whole semester of your class (and then another semester of the regular Freshman Comp).

That C- was a formative moment in my career, as it made me take a deep breath and admit that maybe I didn't really know what good writing was.

Your guidance, coupled with 750 words a week, and the requisite journal-keeping, was invaluable in my developing my own style."

Danny credits his success as a scientist as much to his writing ability as to any scientific achievements.

His letter continues, "I find it rather funny that having been relegated to your remedial class, I now teach others the basic structure of composition, where my first challenge is convincing Ph.D. students that their problem isn't "writing in English," but constructing a coherent paragraph in any language!"

I don't know the exact nature of Danny's research into plant biology or how many languages Danny now speaks, but I know he can write informative and entertaining prose in English.

He's authored the book, What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses in Your Garden and Beyond.

What a Plant Knows is one of those gems of non-fiction, a book that explains cutting-edge science to the general public.

In the course of detailing how a plant perceives light, odor, sound, and touch, Chamovitz also recounts the intellectual history of plant science, revealing how human thought about biology has evolved. He explains how plant biology has enlarged the human understanding of cell function, knowledge that has potential human benefits, including medicine, agriculture and environmental science.

Perhaps even more than the good writing and the interesting science, What a Plant Knows reveals a truly curious and generous mind, which makes the book accessible and enjoyable for a non-scientist, like myself.

Lucky for us, then, that Danny Chamovitz will be one of the authors at this year's Brattleboro Literary Festival.

If Danny were still in my class, I'd give him an A-plus.
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