Excerpted and lightly edited from a journal file from April 22, 2006
I want to write about teaching. So much has been written about teaching writing, that I wonder approaching this subject what there is new from me for others to hear. Yet something to say. As I delve for words, I suspect it is not quite "teaching writing" that I want to talk about. It is about growing up more after growing up, and about interactions with other humans.
What did teaching writing mean to me when I first knew I wanted to do it and I first knew I was scared and I first knew I wasn't ready?
It meant I knew this:
Somewhere, in a classroom that is every classroom, a student who is every student hands in a story. The teacher who today is me will be the one to lead the class, one week hence, in a constructive critique of the story. Call it fiction; most likely, this is an undergraduate beginning fiction workshop, though it could fall under other names and genres. In the story, the narrator who is—officially—a character and not the author, contemplates suicide. Or perhaps it is a third-person story and it is the main character and she or he actually completes the suicide. Or perhaps it is a rape described. Perhaps, god forbid, the story is told from the point-of-view of a rapist.
Can one truly be ready to lead such a workshop? To be prepared for whatever may happen in the classroom... not to mention before or after class? No, I don't think so... no more than we can be ready should one of these or other traumatic/challenging/disturbing events directly touch us or someone close to us. But I think there is a certain responsibility, ethically, that one takes on in choosing to be a leader—especially the only leader—in a situation where such traumas are likely to surface. I liken it a bit to sitting in the exit row on a plane... the card in the pocket of the seat in front of you informs you of your responsibilities in the event of a crash—you can ask the flight attendant to switch seats if you are unwilling or unable to take those on. As unethical and dangerous as it is to sit in that seat if you don't think you can handle the "exit row" responsibility, I think it is unethical and dangerous to take on the teaching of a creative writing class without considering your sense of your ability to handle those sort of scenarios.
Do I really believe that?
Not exactly. Not for everybody.
But I knew that writing, for me, involved a lot of honesty on a lot of levels, and that I wanted to lead workshops where students were encouraged to strive for honesty, and realness, and emotional truth - to dig deeper into the lives they were writing about, fiction or non - and to be in touch with where their stories came from. I knew that in the kinds of classes I wanted to teach, I wanted an environment of safety and of trust, where students could write what they needed to write... and where students were held accountable for the effects of their words. (As to the latter point, I didn't want the experience of one of my college workshops where a student wrote a misogynist character that was written so as not to differentiate the character's views from the author's, and not have that misogyny addressed... and have other students in the class injured by the work, with no forum to discuss all that was brought up. And yet, I didn't want to set censorship rules either.) What I am trying to get to is that, while I hadn't figured out exactly how I was going to teach, I knew that the kind of teaching I wanted to do involved creating an atmosphere where these type of challenging topics might well come up, and I knew that their authors and their authors' classmates could be anywhere on a spectrum of preparedness to talk about the subjects at all, let alone discuss the success of their portrayal in individual pieces of writing. And I knew that if the "I am not prepared" signs were flashing so loud in my body, it would be irresponsible of me not to listen to them. Other people's lives were in my hands, in a way... there was a power dynamic to teaching such that emotional damage could be inflicted by even the most well-intentioned teacher. I'd experienced it and I'd seen it done. Here I make an analogy to medicine; as my friend Sara's doctor father told her once, "people die when there are new doctors," and yet we still need to have new doctors, still need to train people.... so what we do is try to train them really damn well and use different methods to try to minimize the damage and maximize the positive stuff. I didn't want to jump into the classroom without a creative-writing-teacher equivalent of medical school.
(So I gave myself a self-guided creative-writing-teacher equivalent of medical school. The syllabus for which I won't detail here.)
What happens if you are going to be thrown into a classroom and you feel unprepared, asking yourself "what do I have to offer the students?" and so on? I am pondering this because one of my students, at 24, has just been accepted into grad school with an offer of teaching two undergrad writing classes his first year. He's excited—and nervous—and talking to him a bit about it prompted me to put down some of these thoughts. What have I to suggest?
For starters, ask the questions—take a self-assessment. What is your comfort zone? Where do you think your strengths lie and what scares you? Figure out what's in your control; also figure out how you want to teach and what you believe—how do you ultimately want to teach and where do you think you are now.
I think a lot about two history teachers of mine in high school. They both made the subject fascinating and the classroom experience a positive one, but in very different ways. One lectured. He was a wealth of knowledge with years of teaching behind him, and he even included the "dirty bits" like Caligula the Roman senator sleeping with his horse. The other teacher was fresh out of grad school. He didn't lecture; instead he put three or four questions on the board at the beginning of class that covered the major themes and got us all talking. He didn't pretend to know everything—but he was confident enough to answer "I don't know" and offer "I'll find out for you" and he was humble enough to do so and come back to the next class with "here's our answer."
The key, I think, is not to fake it.... to be honest about where you are, set your boundaries thoughtfully and responsibly, care about your students, respect them as fellow writers, and engage them in the writing process. And to remember that as much as your approach might be "fellow member of the tribe," you do have experience and knowledge to offer and draw upon... hearing your voice and experience and opinion does matter to the students, even in a discussion-based primarily-student-centered classroom.
ABS :: draft date 11/18/2016
If this piece moved you or sparked thought, I'd love to hear it... by mail. Send me a postcard or a letter. I'll read it. (Though I may not respond promptly.) You can write me at Audrey Beth Stein P.O. Box 380426 Cambridge MA 02238.