How I learned to write (and teach)

Conferences today (I’m writing this from my office); USC’s Writing Program requires instructors to do one-on-one conferences with each student once per assignment, of which there are 5. I’m basically, then, the one professor my students really connect with to some real degree.

I like that. It opens it all up to remind everyone that my class isn’t about the room it’s in.

It’s hard, some days, to pinpoint what it’s really about; writing is hard to teach. I’m teaching freshman composition/rhetoric, and it’s exciting and challenging, but I also find it extraordinarily difficult to teach because it’s made me realize I haven’t a clue how I learned in the first place. I know I’m pretty good at it (some days better than others), but the how?

I was a sophomore in college when I took a seminar in theology with Robert Kennedy. We mainly watched videos during lectures, but the real meat of the class was our own thought-time; we began the course in Genesis, and each week we tackled something new (following Biblical chronology). I was, by then, already lapsed in both Christianity and Wicca, and just starting to explore Buddhism, which made Kennedy perhaps a perfect teacher at that point in my life; he’s a Jesuit priest ordained in the White Plum lineage of Zen, and he wrote a book called Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, concerning questions of where the two intersect.

We finished the Bible two weeks into the second semester. We still had four months to go, and so we moved on: Hobbes and Dante and Joyce (oh, my!). Yeah, James Joyce in a theology class.

The real thing I learned most was how connected everything is. We’d watch a lecture, after which I’d go across to the library, max out my library card with five books, read them, and then come up with a compelling argument. He didn’t teach us how to write our papers, how to analyze the texts, how to support our own arguments.

He only listened.

That first semester I pulled a 3.5 after starting with a couple C+s.

The second, I earned a 4. It’s the single college grade of which I’m most proud, because it really did reflect how much I learned.

But how to teach that?

I’m still learning. Some days I struggle with it. I challenge my students to be bold and to really own their own ideas. Some think I’m too harsh a grader, others feel they earned what they get.

The thing is, the writing process is hard to teach. I’ve been writing for fifteen years, and I’m still learning every day. In a goal-oriented society, it’s hard to really convey the idea that some processes won’t end until you’re dead (and then, who the hell knows? There’s probably even more after that fact). Some of my students note that they still have trouble with it, and each time they do so I smile and I say: “Welcome to writing. It doesn’t get easier, but sometimes you do get better.”

4 thoughts on “How I learned to write (and teach)

  1. ALMA

    Working as a writing consultant in Regis’ Writing Center was probably the hardest job I’ve ever had–and the most rewarding. It was a major reason I decided to become a teacher. I loved it because of how it challenged me as a person and as a writer. Good writing has little to do with things you *can* teach. You can master the mechanics of writing and still lack writing skills. You can have passion for it and still be awful. Good writing is more or less a lesson in being human and finding a way to articulate what that is for you.

    Two of my favorite professors taught me that. One was an anthropologist and was my very first professor ever. She taught me everything I know about writing that is precise without being unemotional. She taught me to turn things over and examine every angle. Funny thing is–she never taught a lesson about those things. It’s just part of who she is, and I caught on that I might want to be that way too. The other one was a Jesuit priest who taught Asian history. I was terrified of him. He was super-smart–razor sharp smart–the kind that sees through all BS. He was also generous with his stories and amazingly kind. He still scared me. He always seems to hear and see everything. He helped me see the big picture as well as the minutia–to give people the benefit of the doubt and to take my time in supporting the hows and whats and whys. I think Jesuits are very adept at being models of learning rather than dictators in the classroom. They recognize that everyone has much to learn and much to teach. I love that about them, and I hope I too can be more like them one day.

  2. LISASURA

    “Welcome to writing. It doesn’t get easier, but sometimes you do get better.”

    Heh.

    I actually heard this a lot when I first entered parenthood.

    “In a goal-oriented society, it’s hard to really convey the idea that some processes won’t end until you’re dead (and then, who the hell knows? There’s probably even more after that fact).”

    There’s a laziness in people that really irks me. There are so many processes that have already been perfected to some degree, and many are happy just working with those rather than brainstorming new ideas.

    I think the reality is so many people would rather just do their job and hope their seniority kicks in along with raises. To many people aren’t interested in actually learning, and working, and improving (just do what the boss says). And I’m not speaking of just a professional level, but also an intellectual level.

  3. KRISTEN

    One of the best classes I ever took was a critical reasoning and writing course. I’d been putting off taking it because I wasn’t looking forward to the “critical reasoning” aspect of it; up until then, I’d taken mostly creative writing courses. When I finally enrolled in the course, my fears were in fact realized: the curriculum was outrageously challenging, my writing ability was pushed to limits it’d never seen before, and I dreaded going to class every day.

    It was terrible, believe you me. And out of all the college courses I’ve taken thus far, it was the one I took the most away from.

    I think one of the keys to being a successful writer is to tackle what you dislike most. In addition to argumentative essays, I used to loathe writing short stories; I always felt like I couldn’t develop the plot and characters to a satisfactory level. In retrospect, the problem wasn’t developing said plot and characters – it was that I needed to harness my loquacious nature.

    People always want to know what the “secret(s)” to writing is, and I think it’s really very simple: read avidly, push your limits, and write as often as your fingers will allow.

  4. GOTHAMGIRL

    A teacher said this once to me, “The journey of a tousand miles begins with one step, but it dosn’t have to be a very good step.” We’ve all heard the first part of the quote, this secound part was new and encourageing though. This was the only good peice of information I ever recieved from him.

    I have some suggestions for you class and they may seem down right strange but I want you to give them serious thought.

    1. Have you class come dressed with hellmets and body armour and have them fight out in the fireld with foam swords. How are they to write about battles with out participating in one? Then have them each take turns giving a speech and grade them on their ability to rally the troops.

    2. Don’t take off points for spelling. Like Ever.

    3. Tell the class to make up five word with their own definitions then tell them to see how quickly they can be introduced to current culture.

    4. Assighn commuinity service to the class. Commuinity service builds character. A writer makes characters. A writer with alot of character can write better characters.

    5. Tell every student to pick a accent and for the rest of the week they have to talk in that accent. Every read a book where the accent sounded fake? this will teach them.


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