Friday, October 22, 2010

Is it a Job or an Honor? Or Are They the Same Thing?

Alas poor career, I knew him well.

I’m not going to address whether creative writing should be taught in higher education. That is an old debate, and I don’t want to jump back into it. Instead, what I’m thinking about is how those who do teach conceive of their teaching.

More specifically, how do people who teach creative writing (poetry is what I’m thinking about mostly, though the genre probably doesn’t matter [or perhaps it does?]) define their relationship to what they do. And if those conceptions change much about the way they conduct their classes.

What got me thinking (or thinking again) about this is reading Julie Carr’s “Teaching: An Improvisation” in Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, ed. by Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Yes, I’m posting once again on this book. And yes, I will post several more times on this book. It contains 99 micro essays, most all of which bring up some issue worth thinking and talking about. Like this one. Carr writes this:

“People often say that teaching is an honor. I agree with this, and I add that it is also a way of honoring other people. Teaching provides opportunities for a kind of abstract affection, circumscribed by precise rituals, thriving within very particular walls. When I am teaching I do not imagine that I am turning nonwriters into writers. Rather, I am attempting to look through whatever obstructions present themselves in order to discover the expertise of any person in the room. This requires a constant humility: For if I cannot see what the person is doing, or what the poem is doing, then it is not the fault of the writer, but of myself. If I am rushing, or too absorbed by my own preoccupations, I will miss it. And that will be my loss. I will be the one who has, in failing to recognize another’s perfection, failed to create something meaningful out of the time available.”

This is why I’m asking myself if our different way of conceptualizing what we do manifests itself in the classroom in some large way or not. Because, well, my thoughts about teaching and the texts we produce in a creative writing class is about as different from Carr’s as it can be. First, I don’t feel honored to be a teacher. It’s a career that I mostly like, but I imagine there would have been others I would have also liked. I’m happy with it, but honor is a word that would never occur to me to say in regards to it. Thinking of myself as feeling honored by teaching is as alien to me as if I were to try to think of myself as honored by any other job I’ve had. I like teaching, and feel that it’s a rewarding career, but I don’t feel this sense of honor that others often talk about feeling. Am I in the minority?

It seems to me a healthy mindset, to feel honored to have the job you have. I can see how teachers could feel that way. Librarians. Police officers. Lawyers. It’s just that I guess I find my feelings of honor other places. Or perhaps I’m missing something.

It takes all kinds / It takes the kinds that fit.

But, to move to my second reaction: I also don’t think of my classes anything like the way Carr does here. Talking of “abstract affection” and that I might be at fault when not finding something in the work in front of me places me in a relationship to the students that I don’t want to have. With affection comes a closeness and sense of responsibility, and this idea of personal failure makes me feel I’d probably be feeling guilty all the time, knowing me. Rather, I think of creative writing students as people I talk with about art, people who are also artists, and we all owe each other the attention of the class, and a commitment to be there and to bring our attention with us.

This is why I’m asking if such conceptions as Carr’s might manifest differently in the class than my conceptions. If they do, which they very well might, that makes me want to investigate in what way they do. What I’m hoping is that such differences in conceptions are mostly semantic, and though they infuse one’s beliefs about the act of teaching, that they have little effect on what goes on in the classroom itself. That these conceptions are how one sees the class, and that students would see it however they see it. I ask this, because when thinking about actual things to do in class, the ways of talking into and about and from the work at hand, what Carr is saying in her essay sounds fascinating, and perhaps like things I am doing or trying to do.

In other words, does it matter how we see what we’re doing?

When Carr writes, “…when I’m teaching, I assume the poem in front of me is already masterful. It is my job to support its mastery. Sometimes that mastery is hidden,” perhaps that’s not so very different than when I’m teaching, though I’m teaching I’m assuming that the poem in front of us doesn’t matter much at all, instead, what matters is the possibilities in the poem in front of us, the possibilities of further texts, or alternate shades.

This is my thought for myself this week. I don’t think I’ll come up with an answer.
If you could spend all day hitting the bull's eye, would you?


At 10/22/2010 12:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is how I think of it: I am trying to help students become the best writers they can be, to the best of my ability to help them. I am very honest with students, and talk to them the way I would talk to any of my writer friends. I don't know if I think of it as an honor to teach, but I do feel happy to be able to talk about writing with other writers.


At 10/22/2010 3:42 PM, Anonymous chris salerno said...

I used to wonder about this very thing, but new circumstances have shed some light on it for me. I also have this book—I love it! It’s essentially a bunch of “Teaching Philosophy” statements that I suspect were in most cases plucked from the dossiers of several of these poet/profs.

Rather than honor, I feel more of a sense of obligation (positive) to serve my students. I also feel pride for having reached a station that allows me the ability to reach other people, and for occasionally reaching them. But any honor or pride I feel (and I feel some right now) stays outside of the classroom. Inside the classroom I fall into a self-evaporative mode, and that usually involves mostly instinct, and the attempts to structure a fruitful give-and-take process with my students.

With “honor,” do we confuse teaching with TEACHING? I ask this because I can think of a dozen “teacher’s discounts” I’ve been excluded from over the years as a university “teacher.” I mention this first because “traditional” TEACHING is the profession on which honor is usually bestowed.

Honor is (emotionally) complex. Doesn’t it fade so quickly? I’m in the first semester of my first tenure-track job after NTT teaching for ten years at an institution that, during that time, moved me into the basement, in the dark, and whose creative writing program never once expressed interest or value in my ability or potential for teaching creative writing, no matter what I did. So, the fact that another university would put out a search and have me for an interview and offer me the job makes me feel this incredible honor. But i've noticed that it goes away the minute I step into the classroom. I wondered if I would feel different as a teacher in this new place. I don’t. One can’t simultaneously TEACH and feel honor.

At 10/22/2010 7:16 PM, Anonymous Cathy Day said...

It's good to find another person talking about teaching creative writing. Thanks for these thinking these thoughts outloud.

At 10/22/2010 7:17 PM, Blogger Cathy Day said...

Please excuse my typo. Thank you for thinking these thoughts out loud.

At 10/23/2010 5:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, Great piece. I think it does matter how we think about what we do, but I think that what and how we do it matters more.



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