Tuesday, September 23, 2008

NYT: The Effect of Teaching on Writing (Commonplace Book)

Poor Mojo put this up on his blog a while back: David Gessner in the New York Times on the effect of teaching on writing.

I know we have a lot of teachers around here and I thought this would be good for debate:

Here is what Gessner said:

In the early, dark days of creative-writing programs, say, 30 years ago, many writers treated university positions not as jobs but as sinecures, and the university itself as a kind of benefactor. I attended graduate school at the University of Colorado in the early 1990s, and only one professor there ever learned my name; the rest, most of whom were granted their positions in the 1960s after the publication of a chapbook or two, approached their jobs with all the liveliness and enthusiasm of members of the Politburo. Iowa, of course, set the standard for the genius approach to writing in which the great man or woman allows the eager young to gather round, where they are to learn by osmosis. That was during the early outlaw years, when administrators, like cautious scientists, were first seeing if this thing, creative writing, could survive within the walls of the university. But times have changed, and these days teaching creative writing is more of a job, with all of a job’s commitments and a job’s demands. And those demands often crash up against the necessary fanaticism of the writing life. “Death by a thousand cuts” is how a colleague of mine described the academic life. Papers, students, classes, meetings, grades. They come all day like electric jolts, making it hard to be a good monk.

What, other than a romantic conception of the writer as creative monomaniac, is lost by the fact that many of us now make salaries almost on par with entry-level accountants? I think it is legitimate to worry that writers pressed for time will produce work that is more hurried; that writers who hand in annual reports listing their number of publications might focus as much on quantity as quality; and that writers who depend on bosses for their employment might produce safer, less bold work. Another thing that is undeniably lost is time spent reading great literature and communing with writers of the past. While the effect of teaching on writing may be a matter of debate, its effect on reading is undeniable. That is because there are only so many hours in the day, and those hours are used up reading our students’ work, which is, by definition, apprentice writing. Energy is finite while college students seemingly are not, and after teaching for a while you begin to feel as if you are in a “Star Trek” episode, lost on a strange planet made up of a thousand pods of need, all of them beaming out at you, sucking your energy, and all of them, invariably, asking you to read something. Since the reading life feeds the writing life, since we are what we eat, this can wear you down, to say the least.

The novelist Mike Magnuson puts this sentiment more bluntly: “What teaching has done for me is make me not want to read anything, written by anybody, for the rest of my life.”


Streebo said...

Geoff - Are you trying to tell us something about your new job?

Geoff Klock said...

No. But I do know we have teachers around here and I thought it would be good for debate.

Streebo said...

My comment should have been followed by a *lol* or something but I hate using those things unless I have to.

I'm not a teacher - but my thoughts are this - I think reading lesser works and offering guidance is just as important as reading great works. Doing both keeps the mind working. In my limited way - I apply this concept to my film watching habits. I can;t always watch Citizen Kane. Sometimes I like to watch some really dreadful trash like The Demon Lover. Identifying the flaws is just as important as being inspired by the perfection of other works.

scott91777 said...

I just finished grading my first set of papers for my 101 class this semester. All in all, not bad :)

Seriously though, those of us who teach Freshman Comp. classes have it much worse, to an extent, than those who teach 'creative writing'... those who take those classes have some aspiration to be good writers. More often than not, we're dealing with students who don't even want to write, period!

I think I balance things quite well, I do plenty of my own reading. Just last week I was reading Flannery O'Connor in between teaching classes. In my case, I consider myself less of a writer and more of a teacher and I am not in a position (lowly adjunct that I am) where publication is a priority. I teach 4-5 classes a semester and, quite frankly, I like it that way.

I must admit, however, that, after a while, I defiantly have begun too notice that I pick up some of there bad habits in my own writing (get it?)

However, occasionally, you do get that one student that can put a smile on your face; a sample from a paper I just graded today from a student who was writing about coming from the more urban (urban being a relative term hear) area of Woodbridge, Va to the very rural Radford, Va, "With McDonald's resturants being a key indicator of modernization, it dawned on me that as I moved closer to my destination that I was leaving behind the civilizationn I had grown up with in favor of a more rudimentary, Hardee's based community."

Sometimes (most times actually), I love my job :)

Geoff Klock said...

Streebo -- that is a good point

scott -- that student comment is hilarious. A collection of hilarious student comments would make a good post or series of posts. Lets keep an eye out out for them.

One of my favorite moments in class was when i showed a clip from the mckellen macbeth and then later told them patrick stewart was doing macbeth on broadway. "So both Magneto and Professor X have been Macbeth?"

Geoff Klock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoff Klock said...

that was me repeating a comment

Voice Of The Eagle said...

The world just hates English majors, doesn't it?

scott91777 said...

Here's a great clip on 'The Impotence of Proofreading'
Perfect for 101 (Freshman Comp) classes.


Geoff Klock said...

Scott -- I think we are now co-writing a post where we play that video first and then call for hilarious student mistakes.

scott91777 said...


The intentionally funny ones or the unintentionally funny ones?


scott91777 said...

Sounds Good to me!

Timothy Callahan said...

First of all, you fancy college guys don't know a damned thing about bad writing until you see what my "comprehensive" 9th graders produce. I guess I could look on the positive side and say that at least they don't write very long stories or essays. Getting them to go on to page two is a struggle.

But even with my AP kids, my brain does turn to mush after reading a seemingly endless amount of student writing. Oh, the cliches! The passive voice and the reliance on weak verbs and flabby, indefinite nouns!

Teaching writing classes makes you a better writer in theory, as you explore literature closely and focus on the techniques of good sentences and story structure. But reading student writing is bad for a writer, for sure.

angela said...

I always assumed that when I start teaching, I'll be so nauseated by my students' writing that I'll cling to Coleridge and Shelley as an aspirin of sorts. The thought of being sick of reading, one day, is scary, though a little more realistic now that I've been sentenced, by two different classes, to read Clarissa and Evelina at the same time. Good thing I'm not really much of a writer to begin with, but I guess time will tell what the kids do to me.

Christian said...

Well to be honest, I doubt most 9th graders give a shit about creative writing. For school at least. God knows, I didn't care about it whatsoever. Then again most of pre-High School sucked the fun out of everything from sports to art.