I am not teaching this semester. I miss it.
The recent absence from the blog was because I purposefully scheduled a vacation to coincide with the start of school in order to tamp down my anxiety over not being in the classroom this semester. It worked, and I find myself far more comfortable with not teaching than anticipated. Being busy with defined projects with specific deadlines helps, and yet…
It’s easy to articulate some of the surface reasons I miss teaching, the benefits of structure and routine, the day-to-day classroom interactions with students, the sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself. Teaching often feels like a mission in ways writing doesn’t, or maybe it just feels like a bigger mission than successfully landing a blog post or finishing a manuscript chapter.
But I’ve been missing something bigger, or perhaps deeper, and a recent essay by Paul Thomas of Furman University helped me see it.
Thomas writes about the experience of “Seeing the Essay Again for the First Time,” a teaching experience I think many may recognize, where even as much of the engagement with students is familiar, an epiphany may still arrive.
With 34 years of teaching writing behind him, Thomas reports a fresh understanding birthed by what he sees as the same old struggles as usual in his students’ essays, “The essays I read demonstrated to me that these very smart and genuinely engaged first-year students, admitted to a selective college, have almost no real conceptual understanding of sentence formation (and variety), paragraphing, and worst of all, just what the hell an essay is as a form.”
This observation is followed by an inference: “That itself is not anything new, but what is new, for me, is that I can argue very directly that the root of what my students do not know and often badly misunderstand is the template used to teach students in most K-12 settings. Further, I now believe that teachers using those templates are also misled about their students’ concepts of sentence formation, paragraphs, and essays because the template and prescriptions mask the lack of understanding.”
I like this because it reflects so much of my own thinking about student writing. Over time, I’ve become more and more convinced that in an effort to drive students towards “academic” success, we’ve cut them off from the big picture of what their work might mean. We have substituted techniques for deeper understandings.
If students don’t have a conception of what an “essay” is and can do, what and who it might be for, how can we expect them to write a good one? No amount of prescriptions – Strong thesis! Good transitions! Structure! - can overcome this lack of coherence. We’re asking them to build a house without ever allowing them inside of one to see where we cook, eat, and sleep.
I like Prof. Thomas’ essay even more because it also illustrates one of the deepest pleasures of teaching, and the part I am missing most, the perpetual sense of revision and renewal made possible by experiencing the world through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time.
Like any instructor, I have lamented the shortcomings of my students over the years, wondering why they were not arriving with the attitudes/knowledge/experiences that I believed essential for success in the class.
But over time, as I moved past this frustration and interrogated it I realized each semester, each course, each assignment, each class period, could be a vehicle through which I could increase my understanding of how we write and how I wanted to go about teaching writing.
In many ways, this mirrored the act of writing itself, endlessly iterating piece to piece, story to story in a quest for mastery, never to be fulfilled, but nonetheless endlessly interesting. This is not Sisyphus and his rock, rolling up and down the same ground, but an endlessly right scrolling game with new challenges on each screen.
Notice Prof. Thomas’ phrasing here: “My students have taught me that our traditional urges to start with parts and build to wholes is flawed; students often need to have the whole in mind so that the parts make sense.”
My students have taught me…
Please don’t mistake this as a call for some kind of Pollyannaish “Whatever students do is okay because we don’t want to crush their spirits, blah blah blah” attitude. Recognizing that students have something to teach is recognizing that the responsibility for learning is on the learner, who just happens to be the instructor in this case.
Observation, inference, implication, repeat experiment, observation, inference, implication, repeat experiment.
To some, maybe this sounds terrible, but for me, it’s what I’m missing most about not teaching.
I have not forgotten the physical and emotional toll a full slate of teaching responsibilities takes during the semester, but for the moment, I am missing its spiritual balms.