My Long Journey to Student-Centered Learning
Student-centered learning isn't just a buzzword.
When I first tried my hand at writing fiction, I was working under the spell of writers like Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Ford.
I was amazed at how they could make such amazing stories out of such ordinary events. I read their stories and wanted to see if I could write them.
For longer than I’d care to admit, I was under the impression that these stories that so moved me were the product of something intangible, some kind of genius, and as they worked, these writers simply poured the words, fully-formed, from their heads to the page. My frustration at my inability to do the same was sometimes acute and crippling. If I couldn’t achieve genius, what was the point?
Experience and hindsight has shown me how wrong I was, that those finished products were the result of many hours of trial and error.
Deeper reflection has revealed some additional things about how we orient ourselves in the world, and how that orientation might impact our learning.
For my first attempts at writing, I put these fully-realized texts at the center of my world. They were a target to hit. The problem was that I had no real sense of what I needed to even take aim and let fly, let alone strike home. I had no tools at my disposal, and the results were scattershot at best.
During the next phase of my development, rather than putting the text at the center, I replaced it with the writers themselves.
Because I’d started an MFA program, this was easy to do. I hawked the writing behaviors of my fiction professor, and sought to emulate them – his method of outlining his books, his aesthetic, his habits.
This helped tremendously. I developed better discipline when it came to writing, getting to it just about every day, rather than waiting for fickle inspiration to strike. I was also now armed with an aesthetic framework to assess the work of myself and others.
Occasionally, that aesthetic felt restrictive, a size 40 jacket when I needed a 42, but at least it was something, and the work improved and some of it even met my mentor’s approval. Still, the competence I had achieved putting a mentor at the center of my practice was not particularly inspiring to me, or editors, or audiences, which were non-existent.
It wasn’t until I finished my graduate education, and I returned to the world unemployed and unpublished that I could start to become myself. Separated from any potential source of approval, without anything in the center, for the first time I had to discover my own deepest desires.
And that’s when the work went, at last, from better, to good enough that at least a few other people wanted to read it. It also barely resembled the work of those writers that I once, and still revered.
After years of writing seriously, like nine of them, I’d at last reached what I now think of as a learner-centered space, a self-directed program of exploration that allowed me to pursue my best and most interesting work.
I may lack some measure of talent to achieve genius, but I also know those shortcomings are as irrelevant as they are apparent. The work is the work, and it’s all mine.
I’ve gone through a similar evolution as an instructor. In my early TA years, the textbook was the unquestioned authority. My favorite response to a student question was, “Let’s check the book.”
Later, I placed myself at the center of my students’ journey, a pied piper, only not the wicked kind (hopefully), leading them along the path to an enlightenment I’d already achieved. I offered prescriptive lessons by the pound, marking up drafts with editorial marks, and trusting the wisdom would be absorbed.
The weakness of this approach eventually revealed itself as well. My students were and are extraordinarily good at following directions, which as I see it, is exactly the problem when it comes to their own learning.
By putting me at the center, they are in an undoubtedly comfortable place, but it is a place non-conducive to growth.
To jar students from these patterns, I’ve had to force myself further and further into the background of their work. I try to create an atmosphere of excitement around writing well, and then set up challenges for students to try to conquer. In the composition classroom this takes the form of the good old rhetorical situation – writer, audience, and subject – and asks them to problem solve around a particular audience’s needs, attitudes, and knowledge. I introduce them to many tools of writing, but give them only limited instruction on how and when to employ them.
This can and does cause great frustration on all sides. I often straight up refuse to give them a straight answer to a writing-related problem, and instead ask them questions that encourage them to continue to reexamine the rhetorical demands of the assignment. While I refuse to provide answers, I am more than willing to keep letting them know that they haven’t solved the problem on their own yet.
My creative writing classroom is much the same. I want students reading and writing their brains out, but I want them worrying very little about whether or not their work will please me, specifically. I don’t withhold judgment, but I cannot fix something that I didn’t break.
Frustration may not be the writer’s friend, but it is their inevitable companion, and more and more, I think it is perhaps my most effective tool in the writing classroom, provided students really do have access to the tools to help them move past it.
And when they do move past it, I’ve witnessed something that sometimes seems rare in the college context: joy.
When a student knows that they have achieved something they didn’t think they could do, it really is the best, and it’s only possible if I'm on the sidelines, rooting them on.
 Robert Olen Butler, who has recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his amazing collection of stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.
 My editorial work at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency was also instructive here. Because I was teaching full-time even as I was editing the site full-time, I didn’t have time to do extensive line-editing and polish of pieces, so my feedback was often of the “more cowbell” variety, and I think the work often benefitted as the original authors solved problems in ways I never would’ve seen.
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