After eighteen years on the faculty of Southeast Missouri State University, I was honored last spring with an award for “outstanding teaching.” There was a ceremony like the one they have for the Oscars: the nominees were assembled, their names were read aloud by our dean, and the winner (yours truly) was announced. Horrified, I stood and walked to the podium, where the dean handed me an engraved plaque. We shook hands and posed for a photograph, the flash bouncing off our bald heads. I approached the microphone to deliver my acceptance speech, but the dean held me back while the awards for “scholarship” and “service” were presented. As it turned out, I never was allowed to say anything. So this, without further ado, is my acceptance speech:
Esteemed colleagues, students, parents, and friends: thanks, but no thanks.
The best teacher I know was certain from childhood that she wanted to teach, was a straight-A student herself, and has a doctorate in education. She loves to design courses: selecting texts, devising assignments, planning schedules down to the last day. But most important, she enjoys being in the classroom, where she is articulate, energetic, and entertaining. She is blessed with the confidence of someone who believes that what she is teaching is worth knowing, and that her students can learn.
I, on the other hand, never wanted to teach. In fact, I remember telling myself in college that there was one thing I knew I would never be — a teacher. I wanted to be a doctor, a real one, with a white jacket and a stethoscope around my neck. Or else I wanted to be a great writer, like Flannery O’Connor. In short, I had the typical ambitions of a young man of my generation, class, and temperament. That I have not realized these dreams has not left me bitter, I am happy to say. With the years has come the (also typical) realization that not all dreams should be fulfilled. We do not always know ourselves. Some dreams are as foolish as we are.
Yet, oh, how I yearned to attend Johns Hopkins University. I wanted it more than anything else in the world. To an aspiring premed student such as myself, the name Johns Hopkins was more magical even than Harvard. I swooned over pictures of the campus like some adolescent over a centerfold, grew starry-eyed over a photograph of Hopkins’s Alumni Memorial Residences in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I spent so much time imagining myself on the Hopkins campus that, when I was finally admitted and arrived there to begin my freshman year in 1963, I felt as if I were still dreaming.
In chemistry lab, I would stare awestruck at the scientific apparatus and think, This is Johns Hopkins. Back in the dorm, I wrote to my high-school biology teacher (on stationery printed with the Hopkins seal), bragging that my chemistry and math professors had written their own textbooks. Our chemistry text was even used in the honors course at Princeton, I wrote.
Our first lab assignment was to trace the paths of atomic particles by the trails they left in the condensation on the underside of a petri dish, like frost on a windowpane. I made an A. After that, however, my performance in lab and on exams declined precipitously, and I managed only a D in the course. Rather than acknowledge my inability to understand chemistry, balance an equation, or even use a slide rule (I only pretended to use one during exams), I signed up for Chemistry II. By midterm I was copying someone else’s homework, or simply scribbling some numbers on a page so that, when the instructor collected our papers, I would have something to hand in. I was lost, but dropping the course was out of the question. That would have meant admitting publicly — to my parents, my sister, the people in high school who had voted me “most likely to succeed” — that I had failed. So I continued, against reason, to maintain the baseless hope that I would not fail. Surely, that would not be allowed to happen. My instructor would not do that to me. But, in fact, I received the F I deserved and was placed on academic probation at the end of my freshman year.
I went on to graduate from Hopkins with a B.A. in English and then an M.A. I earned my Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1979 and am now a full professor at a midsize public university. Who cares that I flunked freshman chemistry? What does it matter now? My experience was common enough. I was young. But from the distance of thirty years, what seemed at the time an admirable ambition — to attend the most prestigious university possible (when I could have attended my hometown university on a full scholarship) — looks selfish.
I was not a good student, even after abandoning science. In Creative Writing, a course I threw myself into wholeheartedly, I earned only a B. Eager to redeem myself after my disheartening freshman year, I wrote more than anyone else for the first assignment. The instructor even acknowledged my effort in front of the class. But I had missed entirely the purpose of the exercise. The instructor had told us to write about an incident from two points of view. Assuming that two people would see the same event the same way, I had merely repeated, word for word, many descriptions, such as the image of some spaghetti wound around a fork. After all, the physical image of the spaghetti would be identical on each person’s retinas, right?
Wrong. As any writer knows, points of view are different by definition. No two people see things exactly the same way. But I didn’t know that then. And nobody had bothered to tell me.
There was an older student who received an A in the class, and my professor referred to him almost apologetically as he tried to explain to me why I had not received an A as well, despite my hard work and dedication. “His answers on the exam were exactly what I wanted,” my professor said, almost squirming, “whereas your writing lacks . . . facility.”
My professor’s candor wounded me deeply and threatened to undermine my confidence. But the truth was I didn’t fully understand what he meant. So I would eventually dismiss his comment, my twenty-year-old ego intact, my confidence undiminished. And yet . . . there was a problem with my writing. It was not top quality. So what was wrong? And what could I do to correct the problem?
If my own students’ writing is any clue, I suspect my problem was one typical of that age. I approached writing as primarily a matter of wording. Like the beginning pianist who focuses on the notes rather than the music, I thought of writing as a matter of choosing and arranging words in such a way as to sound impressive, or intelligent, or amusing, or touching. I had not reached the point at which writing becomes an end in itself, a means of discovering meaning. Nor had I developed an appreciation for the mystery of life. It was not just that I lacked experience — I lacked reverence for experience. I had not yet lived enough to be aware of time’s passing as ineluctable, irreversible, and intolerable. Writing had not yet become a defense against oblivion.
In the meantime, I continued learning, but only when I was ready, and often in unexpected places. In Art History, for example, I learned an important lesson about writing. The assignment was to visit the Walters Art Gallery, select an object on display, and write a brief paper describing it. I chose a Greek amphora. Describing the vine decoration around the vase’s neck, I wrote, “The artist’s brush made the leaf-shapes.” In the margin beside this sentence, my instructor wrote, “All by itself?” Well, of course not, I thought, indignantly. The artist did it. The artist took his brush and applied the tip to the surface of the vase, making the shape of a leaf. But, as my instructor had pointed out, that was not what I had written. What I had written was absurd.
In 1967, as a student in the graduate Writing Seminars at Hopkins, I was required to write a thesis. I had never before written anything longer than twenty pages. How was I going to do it? I began by making a sketchy outline of the plot — based on my experience as a counselor in a summer camp for handicapped children and adults — and then set aside two hours each day to write. I wrote the first draft in longhand on the cheapest paper I could find — the kind bound in children’s tablets, which was like newsprint. This forced me to write fast; otherwise, the ink would blur on the cheap paper, turning my words fuzzy and illegible. To help me write swiftly, I decided not to indicate paragraphs; I could do that later, when I had it all down. For the moment, I would press forward, format be damned, my sole purpose to fill pages. If I hesitated, if my momentum flagged, I would start the next sentence with and, as if it were a question to myself: “And. . . ?” I was going as far as my memory would take me, knowing that I could always cut or revise later.
The pages piled up, and I eventually completed my thesis. (I called it a novel, but it was actually a long essay on “how I spent my summer vacation.”) From this experience, I learned something about self-discipline, but, more important, I discovered the fecundity of memory, that my mind had a mind of its own. Each digression, though it may have appeared irrelevant, was in fact a piece of the larger “work” that was myself.
I would feel much better about this hard-won insight if I could say that my thesis was well received. But it wasn’t. My professors accepted it — which was the main thing — but they didn’t have much praise to offer. Even worse, they couldn’t tell me what to do to make it better. “There’s something missing. . . ,” one of them said. But what?
The following year, still dreaming of becoming a writer, I took my first teaching job. I didn’t want to do it, but my parents could ill afford to support my educational pursuits any longer, and the alternative was Vietnam. I landed a position as an English instructor at Maryland State College. I walked into the first class of my career, faced the students, and said, “Believe it or not, I’m your teacher.” A boy slouching in the front row smiled and said, “Believe it or not, I’m your student.”
The only training I had received was in the form of a textbook handed to me three days before I began: McCrimmon’s Writing with a Purpose, fourth edition. I had rented a ramshackle apartment on the edge of town. Grass grew through cracks in the concrete floor, and mice left droppings in my underwear drawer. I tacked a calendar to a cabinet in what passed for a kitchen and crossed out the days like a prisoner doing time. Without TV or radio, telephone or phonograph, I spent every spare moment studying the textbook, reading each chapter at least three times so that I would be prepared to answer any questions that might come up in class. I was conscientious to a fault, and that probably bought me some respect from my students.
I had been exempted from freshman composition myself, so everything was new to me: the criteria of good writing (“unity” is the only one I remember), the structure of paragraphs and essays (it was important to start each with a “topic sentence” or “thesis statement,” respectively), the types of syllogisms (“categorical” and “disjunctive,” to name two), the nature of coherence (a matter of sentence structure, pronoun reference, and conjunctive adverbs, if you must know). Still, I understood the subject and could diagram a sentence with the best of them.
But my students couldn’t write worth a damn. They seemed unable to produce more than a page at a time, and what they came up with was invariably tortured, deformed, and riddled with errors. One day, out of frustration, I told them to take out some paper, start writing, and keep at it until I told them to stop. “I don’t want to see those pencils leave the page,” I said. It was probably the best (perhaps the only) lesson they learned from me — that you don’t learn to write from a textbook; you learn to write by writing.
Well, yes and no. That’s an oversimplification, for writing can indeed be taught, as I learned at the University of Iowa, where I began doctoral studies in 1972. In fact, writing is being taught a lot these days. Here’s a quick summary of current thinking in my field: Having learned from the mistakes of the so-called current-traditional paradigm (represented by McCrimmon’s Writing with a Purpose, for example) and having recovered from the excesses of the “expressivist pedagogy” of the sixties and seventies, well-informed teachers of composition today adopt a “social-constructionist” perspective. That is, they regard all writing as ultimately “collaborative.” Knowledge, they believe, is not divined from within, but rather arrived at through consensus, and the writer, rather than slaving away alone in her garret room, functions as part of a team that includes peers, teacher, and an “internalized” reader. Writing is revising in response to “feedback.”
To this end, the character of the classroom has changed. Classes are divided into small groups for peer criticism, and the teacher, abandoning her or his role as dispenser of knowledge, assumes the roles of coach and counselor, among others. In the writing center where I tutor students twenty hours a week, my job is not to talk but to listen. My students write, and I respond. In short, I play the “dumb reader.”
I teach better than I was taught. Because I was not the best student in the world myself, I can better tolerate my students’ weaknesses. I remember what it was like to dream foolishly and fail miserably, to go through the motions of getting an education from teachers who seemed distant and removed, to go along, part lamb, part lemming: polite, respectful, aimless, lost.
But I will not, ladies and gentlemen, take credit for teaching anybody anything — especially writing.
My own checkered past as a student is evidence enough for me that learning is unpredictable and as much a matter of readiness and timing as of the quality of instruction. And, of all subjects, writing is one of the hardest to teach, given its connection to the emotional life of the student. In fact, I harbor a deep suspicion of formal education in general because it presumes so much about the intellectual development of human beings. For education to pretend to be a science is ridiculous. Lastly, there is something in the heart of all writers that positively resists formal instruction. And this resistance is vital.
One of my best students in Advanced Composition dyes his hair blond on one side and black on the other. He has a scraggly beard and wears combat boots and pants cut off below the knee. He has constructed his own Web site called “The Church of No Religion.” He refuses to put punctuation inside quotation marks because, he says, “I don’t like it that way.” But he writes brilliantly, with “facility” to spare.
I, by contrast, am a stereotypical professor: meek, mild mannered, soft-spoken, conservatively dressed (khakis, tweed sport jacket, and tie). My hair is graying, what’s left of it. I wear glasses with wire frames. People tell me I look intellectual, “like a professor.”
Actually, I am like Julian in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” who “wants to write” but is “selling typewriters until he gets started,” his mother says.
In 1973, the author John Cheever was on the faculty of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. His office was on the top floor of the English building; mine was on the bottom, four flights below. Sometimes, if I was working late and thought I was alone in the building, I would take the elevator to the top floor and stand at Cheever’s door. I never encountered him there; his door was always closed. But I would stare at the handle that bore the prints of his hand. And I’d think, I work in the same building as John Cheever.
Then I would take the elevator back down to the basement and continue writing comments on my students’ papers late into the night.