A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: The Trouble With Teaching

The central paradox of teaching is that you have to get your students enthusiastic about something that you always thought was interesting.  It’s not surprising that the embittered, apathetic teacher stereotype exists in popular culture (a version of which is shown above).  Think about something you really love in and of itself: a hobby, a movie, a regular activity.  Now imagine someone tearing it down, insisting that everything about it is stupid and not worth doing, and having to not only defend, but promote the merits of this activity in the face of an implacably hostile skepticism.  Now imagine doing it every day to fifty different people, and your job is to make them proficient in this activity.  That’s teaching, or at least some days, that’s what it feels like.

Teaching writing is especially difficult, because the skill you’re trying to teach has become so deeply ingrained that it’s often difficult to explain how you write. I’m sure at this point my fellow grad student instructors are tired of hearing me reiterate what I should be saying to my students at the beginning of a semester.  “Learning to write is pretty easy- you start by learning to read, then you read at least one novel every month of your life.  If you’ve stuck to that up to now, you’re probably write pretty well.  If you haven’t, you’re fucked.”  So much of writing involves absorbing the basic forms of communication, working out proper sentence structure (grammar can help if it’s taught and understood properly, which is why it so often doesn’t help), and gaining a vocabulary of tens of thousands of words.  If you haven’t put in the time beforehand, it’s going to show.  In fact, I’ll go against the first sentence in this paragraph and say that other subjects probably have it just as bad:  if you didn’t memorize arithmetic equations for math, or the periodic table of the elements for science, you’ll probably struggle in those as well.  A calculus class requires the teacher to explain incredibly complex concepts, and you won’t understand those concepts if you’re still wrestling with the concept of adding numbers in your head.  The real problem with English, I think, is that the students don’t realize how little they have those basic concepts down.

Multiple times this year I’ve found myself up in front of the class, wondering what the hell I can tell these kids about writing.  I can’t teach them rules, because I don’t think of writing in terms of those rules, and probably haven’t since I was about twelve.  If I try to teach them rules, I’m going to misapply the rules, or forget to come back to them every time I need to.  So maybe I should just tell them to write, focus on putting one word in front of the other.  But I don’t feel like I’m doing my due diligence in those cases, and often the material I get back bears these suspicions out.  The students don’t know the basics, and while hours and hours of truly diligent writing would probably eventually improve their skills, they’re not going to be diligent.  They’re going to jot down whatever comes to mind, stop halfway through, look at the clock and sigh.  And no matter what, I’m going to get papers riddled with embarrassingly basic errors, in both reasoning and writing conventions.

But any time I try to consult my own repertoire of rules, I find a blank page.  What are my rules for writing?  Say what you need to say in as few words as possible, as forcefully as possible.  Be clear.  Some other platitude.  Don’t be boring, that’s an important one I’m beginning to violate. Every guideline I can think of for writing is so damn normative that there’s no way to teach it that would be helpful.  Well, there’s the elementary school method of showing a bunch of “good” sentences and a bunch of “bad” sentences, but even if this didn’t go against my department’s standard pedagogy, and even if I were confident my students could appreciate the difference between the “good” and “bad” sentences, and even if this were guaranteed to be an effective teaching strategy, I don’t have the time to whip up a few dozen sample sentences that would effectively show the lessons I want to teach.  I’m not even sure what those sentences would look like or what they would teach.

Or take analysis.  I need to teach my students rhetoric.  How do I begin that?  With the definition of rhetoric, I guess:  “Rhetoric is using words to accomplish a specific goal or purpose.”  Then rhetorical analysis:  “Rhetorical analysis is when you look at a text and try to explain how it is using rhetoric to accomplish its goal.”  Maybe backtrack to rhetorical situation:  “The goal the text is trying to accomplish, the context in which it is trying to accomplish its goal, the audience to which it is trying to accomplish its goal.”  Then I’d better start talking about how we actually try to explain how it uses rhetoric to achieve its goal.  Notice that I used “how” twice in that last sentence?  That means that my thinking is getting iterative, or maybe just moving in circles.  But fine.  This passage.  How does it make us feel?  (Silence) Does it make us feel anything? (Silence)  Oh for fuck’s sake, you’re all adults, are you seriously telling me I’m going to have to spend thirty minutes bucking up everyone’s self-esteem until they’re comfortable enough to talk about their reaction to a text?  Okay, so we’ve done that.  Now how does this make us feel?  Yes?  Okay, it makes us feel “good.”  So what about it makes us feel… okay, I can’t do this anymore.  I can’t repeat this same sad parody of a conversation every single time I try to work my way through the basic elements of one of the most basic fucking ideas you’re ever going to encounter in college.  Oh, and now everyone is looking resentful and bored.  Well, I really want to teach you now.

The more I teach, the more I find myself in these cul-de-sacs of thoughts that never get anywhere useful and make me feel lost in my own subject.  Do I even know how to write?  Did I ever?  How was I ever excited about this?

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This entry was posted on 19 April 2013 by in Life and tagged , , , , , .
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