Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Importance of the Right Teacher

Hello, as your writing teacher for this semester I want you to understand a little about why I teach the way that I teach. Not every student responds to my teaching style and I want you to understand what you are getting yourself into while there is still time to take another class.

I am a big believer that people learn from doing and trying and pursuing their own investigations. I can’t teach you (very much) – but I can help you learn (a great deal). Teaching does not equal learning.

I have spent my professional life writing but I still remember a time when I thought the ability to write well was a gift that some people possessed – and that I did not. I know better now but I still secretly (and sometimes out loud) suspect that everyone else writes better than I do. What saves me from quitting is the knowledge that I know that many people who are better writers – and make their living from writing – feel those same doubts. Maybe that makes me a lesser person but it comforts me nonetheless.

I have learned that the best way to become a better writer is to write, get some feedback (including my own), think about what I’ve written and that feedback, then write some more. I have learned this the hard way in newsrooms and slaving away at magazine articles and novels and I am still grateful to the many writing groups who helped me improve my craft.

Each of these beliefs shapes the kind of teacher that I am and the way that I teach. What does this mean for you?

Believing that people learn by doing means that while I will deliberately present you with learning challenges in an effort to drive your learning experience, I will not give you an instruction manual, recipe, or formula. Rarely is there one magical perfect way to do something so why would I make you learn that way? I’d much rather you work out the best way for you. This is difficult for many students – especially those who want a recipe for getting an A. Another important aspect of this belief is that I rarely answer a question right off the bat. I’ll meet you halfway, but I expect you to give as well as receive. This means that I don’t want to hear that you are confused. I want to hear what you do understand and at what point you got confused as well as what you think/guess. I will never penalize you for thinking, but I do get frustrated when you don’t think and sometimes when I’m tired and cranky that frustration shows.

I never believed I could be a writer. I totally get the fear of writing that many of you possess and the bone-deep knowledge that you will never ever be a writer because writing is easy for other people. Let me clue you in. Writing is hard – for everyone. There are days when I wish I could be back hauling kegs of beer and boxes of chicken parts because that work would be easier and grease burns less painful than banging my head on my desk. Yes, there are days when my writing goes well but that is not because I have a gift or talent (or secret formula), but because I have a lot of experience and practice. I know how to prime the pump to get the words flowing and I know a number of tricks to help me when the flow stops. There will be a number of writing assignments that don’t result in a grade or have a word count – just an expectation – because I am teaching you some of those tricks so when the time comes to draft a paper it won’t be as painful as it has been in the past. This is not meaningless make-work but it might feel like it at the time.

Finally, I’m going to ask you to engage in a level of thinking about your writing that you have likely never engaged in before. This is not simply giving the writing process a wink and a nod. This is not going through the motions of peer review. This is honest reflection about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what you need to do to become a better writer. The key here is not what you need to do to earn an A or whatever goal you have set for yourself, but what will make you a better writer. Grades come and go but improving yourself is forever and that is my goal.

Ultimately, you have to decide if you want to really learn how to be a better writer and start working on that goal or if you would rather take a safer and more straight-forward writing class.

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