Wednesday, August 25, 2010

As the classroom beckons . . .

A new semester starts tomorrow at my university. As usual, I greet this fact with equal measures of regret, excitement, and trepidation. While I'm wistful for the summer that is passing, and while full-time teaching (professors, even tenured ones, carry a 4/4 load at my university) certainly does stress one's time in many ways, forcing one into the familiar and maddening jitterbug between writing, teaching, and family (and dog) obligations, there are undeniable satisfactions to be found in the job. There are also real benefits to be had for our students, at least in the Writing Department at my university. Our students, like most of our faculty, get the connection between writing, research, and teaching. They do not argue for and would not accept the false mythology of a dichotomy between good teaching and good publishing. It's never made sense to me how someone who remains active in writing and publishing won't finally have some critical expertise to bring to the classroom, moreso than someone who writes little and doesn't care if he or she gets published at all. It's difficult to accept that the latter individual has as much to offer budding, hopeful, sometimes very talented, young authors as the former. The former has proven his or her commitment to the craft. The latter? While in the middle of a busy semseter it's easy to forget this, I hope I remember that my writing activies and teaching activities are--or at least should be--twins.

Another myth that I and others in our department find maddening, and I'm happy to say that we don't promulgate, is the idea that writing is a special act that should be undertaken by only a select, talented few while the rest would be better off not even trying. You, dear reader, may not share that absurd belief, but I promise you I've heard it expressed, sometimes from people who intend to go into teaching. Can you imagine a more ridiculous premise for a would-be educator to promulgate? What would happen to all those precious test scores in our country if math teachers decided that math was just for a select few, and the rest of the students shouldn't even try. Or how about history? Can you imagine walking into a history class and hearing the instructor tell you that understanding history is a special skill, so only a minority of students should just give up? How bad then would be the state of mathematical and historical knowledge in this country? You get what I'm saying. Should only those who plan on being full-time professional musicians try to learn an instrument? If that were true, how much joy would be lost by amateur and semi-professional players? How much good music would be lost by those who listen to them? Should only those fated for the NBA or the NFL take up basketballs and footballs? Of course not. Writing, believe it or not, is no different. There's not a single person in the world who won't find important skills honed, as well as their lives enriched, by exploring and developing their creative natures. Will all creative writing students become famous novelists? Of course not! But that's not the point of the creative writing course. What most of them will become is more stylish, more articulate, and more demanding communicators, and I've never heard anyone say that communication skills, both written and verbal, are less than priceless in the 21st century world.

I'm also proud to say that neither I nor my colleagues feel it's our duty to decide who will or won't "make it." For the uninitiated, let me stress that there certainly are teachers out there who think it is their duty to decide this. And not only decide it but declare it openly. I can't imagine a greater offense against a student. Anyone who's taught even for a few years has seen those brilliant, prodigious, seemingly unstoppable talents who, strangely, don't in the long run amount to much, while sometimes it's that quiet figure in the corner--that solid talent who you perhaps respect more for her work habits than her product--who surprises you ten (or twenty, or forty) years down the road by making it, maybe even making it big. The fact is, that we the teachers don't know who will "make it." How can we? We're not gods; we're not wizards. All we can do--all we should do--is work our damnedest for every student in our classrooms, and then let them show us who will make it and who won't. Some of them are sure to surprise as, and nearly all of them will have something to teach us, just as certainly all of them will have something important to teach themselves--while hopefully all of us have a blast along the way.

(Picture note: It may or may not fit my entry, but I thought the image was a hoot.)

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