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.”