- I like them.
- They demonstrate something about writing that students need to know.
- Addonizio just does a terrific and generous job of showing how to write a poem....
- Your poetry assignment is usually six poems. You can write as many as you want in the writing assignments, etc....
- I do.
- But—not necessarily autobiographical. Just something you see/hear/touch transformed into a—story.
- Flannery O'Connor once said that by the time a person is 17 years old, they have experienced everything there is to experience in life. (Think about if that is true...).
- Go read some writers from @ 120 or so years ago—someone walks into a room and there's page after page of room description.
- Yeah. No. We don't see the world like that anymore.
- Your protagonist walks into a room. What do they see? What do they see that's important?
- Focus on what's important.
- Where? There's no "One World" literature.....
- What is success, anyway? As far as the US goes....Gatsby was out of print when Scott Fitzgerald died. Moby-Dick was forgotten when Melville died. They both died thinking they were failures.
- Me, History can look after itself. I try to live in the near-future....
- Some cases of Writer's Block are a form of depression and can be treated with SSRIs. Most (way the most) cases of writer's block are merely the voice of the writer's internal editor telling the writer that they are not good enough. We all have that voice. The trick is--to slip past it and get work done....
- We can discuss "how-to" as the semester progresses.
- For anyone interested in this subject (and I get questions about writer's block all the time), I highly recommend The Midnight Disease, by Alice Flaherty. The best book on writing....
- You don't. At all.
- Once a story (book, poem, whatever) leaves your hands it's not yours anymore. It belongs to whomever reads it.
- And—they might not like it. You have no control over this.
- What you have control on—total control—is the text itself.
- Write for yourself.
- Nope, no prescribed topic.
- The cw teacher and novelist John Gardener once said that there are only three basic stories: the romance or relationship story / stranger rides into town / hero sets off to find their fortune
- So...you'll end up writing one of those stories. You'll be fine!
- Nope. In fact, I wish more students would write horror.
- Me, I'd just read the whole thing. It's short....
- Yep, you do the readings and writing assignments outside, on your own. For Thursday meetings we'll be talking things over—the readings, these questions, stories, poems, weather, whatever....
- There are indeed reasons for this—very good reasons, to my mind. But it's easier to explain orally than in writing—we'll go over this Thursday.
- Thanks for asking this question!
- The revised edition is fine!
- I usually ask for six poems as part of the poetry assignment....
- But you can write as many as you want (and probably should...).
- Yes—our class is a little literary community. And we Venn Diagram out into the larger Literary Community....
- You sure can! Start a conversation! Express yourself---
- That's a good thing!
- My office hours will be on Tuesdays. Shoot me an email saying that you want to meet up, and we can decide on a time that suits both of us....
- Then—we get on zoom--
- I'm pushing you more towards free verse. But if you want to write a sonnet or a villanelle, that's fine....
- It's always good to see other people when you talk to them, and see the occasional cat or dog wandering by....
- But if you have a problem with it, that's fine. Put yourself first.
- (Last semester a young man zoomed in from a hot tub. He won the semester).
- Sure—every text has multiple audiences. Here are some that you will have:
- The other people in this class
- An ideal audience that you would like to write for
- Keep all of them in mind. At the same time, write something that reflects your own heart.
- It's tricky!
- In our zoom meetings, I'll go over these questions and answer some of them at length, and maybe I'll go over a story or two or we'll look at some slides or whatever....
- Basically, we'll talk about writing. That's my teaching method....
- It might be nice to read it before class, but not required....
- I sure hope so! But people are individuals, and will react individually to different things.
- Maybe an appreciation for the complexity of this beautiful and fascinating and tragic world...?
- My fave part changes every semester. My favorite film in this class is "The Big Lebowski," which we'll close the semester with....
- Nope. We will press on relentlessly.
- The pandemic teaches us to be flexible and resilient. If we have to cancel a class meeting...we'll find a way to get around it....
- Usually a work set in the Southwest. Or maybe about characters from the Southwest doing things elsewhere....
- But usually—almost always—setting....
- Where we live affects how we live. A story set in the gloomy rainy forests of the Northwest will have a different feel from a story set in the arid Southwest...And the characters will be doing different things and have different priorities....
- Just do the work.
- I often get this question in my creative writing classes. My usual response is, "You don't have to 'like' something to learn from it."
- (That said—it's more fun when you "like" something. Try pretending to "like" something).
- You can also make the class into a game, to keep yourself amused. (This is how I got through grad school).
- One of the cool things about teaching a class is that I get to choose books/movies I like....
- But as the course proceeds you will see, I think, that there are thematic connections between them....
- Oh, yes. For one thing, we're online instead of face-to-face. That makes a big difference in how we relate to one another.
- And this has caused some changes in material. For example, I use far less visual art than I would ftf. Less emphasis on music and food....
- I teach Texas Lit occasionally. There is some overlap between the two courses, since Texas is partially in the Southwest. But part of Texas is also in the South. And while the Panhandle is part of the Southwest, it is also part of the Great Plains....
- So—in Texas Lit, I try to represent all regions of the state....
- We are going to cover the books faster than I would like (or you would like, probably)....
- But the readings slack up toward the end of the semester....
- There are a lot of places that have used copies of these books—so, shop around.
- As I think I said upthread, I think you will see themes emerges. The texts talk to one another....
- I deal a lot with writer's block—both as a novelist and as a teacher. Most of the time it is merely a writer's Internal Editor telling the writer that what they are writing is not good enough.
- I am here to tell you that what you are writing—will write in this class—is good enough.
- The trick is to find a way to believe that and integrate it into your writing/studying practice.
- We can discuss in more detail going forward.
- One of the best classes I had as an undergrad was "Art and Photographic History of the American West." It was great! And then I got a nice summer gig as a research assistant for the prof, Dr WIlliam Goetzmann. (Here's his book, The West of the Imagination (Links to an external site.)).
- My fave form—painting, probably. Though photography is great, too.
- In class I just run some slides past you....
- It's pretty basic—environment, violence, race, family, gender. How do these elements work in the texts we cover...?
- The region we're looking at was once part of Mexico, and there are plenty of Latinx people living in it and telling stories....
- So, sure--
- The University Writing Center helps everyone. They are really good.
- I got interested in SWLit back when I was the Dobie Fellow—I got stranded out there for five weeks—the low-water crossing was flooded, so I read a pile of books by Dobie and his friends....
- Books that speak to me. Books that speak to the diversity of the Southwest. Those are the main criteria....
- Grading is the least favorite part of teaching! It's WORK!
- What makes grading difficult is knowing that so many students place a high priority on their grades....
- Basically, go north on I-35 until you hit Wichita, Ks. Then hang a left and keep going west until you hit the Pacific Ocean. Everything to your West and South is the...Southwest.....
- At one time Tennessee was the Southwest. (Ohio was the Northwest!)
- But you can see how this was formed, right? By someone standing in Boston or New York and looking...West....
- How did the people who lived here conceive of where they were....?
- Write a (good) short story.
- And you definitely want to pay close attention to the Christine Granados book….
- This is a tough question! Every writer we read will have an individual style....
- I'm a Southwestern Writer....and I'm an academic who is interested in Regional Literatures....
- Don't be a perfectionist.
- Nothing is more deadly to a writer than perfectionism.
- Know that whatever you write will be flawed because ALL TEXTS ARE FLAWED.
- Accept that, and work to making your text better.
- And, most of all: KEEP—MOVING—FORWARD
- They are all available at the library. You can also find cheap used copies.
- Believe it or not, they are all faves in different ways—they all speak to different aspects of my personality and writerly being....
- "Write what you know" is a convention that privileges experience. It's not totally wrong! (Or wholly right).
- There are different ways of knowing. (Physical, emotional, etc).
- You can write what you learn. Creative writers do research!
As always, BYOQ....
Very early in the semester students become aware that I usually begin almost every class by saying something like:
“So—what’s going on today?”
I ask this question with the hope that a student will speak up and tell me something they have done since class last met. Maybe the student will have had an adventure—gotten arrested or fallen in love—or maybe they will have done something as mundane as taking out the trash. If no one volunteers a story I’ll usually ramble on with a story or three of my own.
Every semester there is a student or two who are very annoyed by this in-class storytelling. They really do get mad! I can see it in their eye-rolling in-class faces and I can really see it in their end-of-the-semester class evaluations.
I find their annoyance both amusing and sad.
I find it amusing because these students are apparently unaware that the class will last a mere 50 minutes no matter how many stories get told.
I find it sad because these students are apparently unaware that stories are at the very heart of what we do in class. Whether through poetry or prose, this class is devoted to increasing our individual and collective understanding of the world we live in. And stories are one of the most important ways we gain this understanding.
Remember this at all times: You have a voice. Your voice is unique. No one knows the stories you know.
Time is limited. Time is running out. Someday, sadly, you will be dead and your untold stories will die with you.
So: seize every chance you get to tell your story....
In my Craft of Fiction class last week we were discussing the prescriptivism of textbooks in general, and of our textbook in particular, and what the implications of prescriptivism are for us as learners and writers. And I thought back to Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
What you’re supposed to do in most freshman-rhetoric courses is to read a little essay or short story, discuss how the writer has done certain little things to achieve certain little effects, and then have the students write an imitative little essay or short story to see if they can do the same little things. He tried this over and over again but it never jelled. The students seldom achieved anything, as a result of this calculated mimicry, that was remotely close to the model he’d given them. More often their writing got worse. It seemed as if every rule he honestly tried to discover with them was so full of exceptions and contradictions and qualifications and confusions that he wished he’d never come across the rule in the first place…A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phaedrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to work the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it sounded right, and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculation, because that the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn’t pour. But how’re you supposed to teach something that’s not premeditated? It was a seemingly impossible requirement. He just took the text and commented on it in an unpremeditated way and hoped the students would get something from that. It wasn’t satisfactory (156).
How do you avoid being a “stuck-up Eastern ass” and still be coherent? How do you “teach something that’s not premeditated?” I think we’ll be discussing this more as the course progresses….
Last Tuesday I conducted a 22-Minute Draft in my general literature classes, as a warm-up for the upcoming midterm exam. I commented about my class on Facebook (you all need to friend me, you know? Then you'd know about this already), and several people asked what a 22-Minute Draft was/is…
So. The 22-Minute Draft is an exercise I came up with the first semester I taught composition at Texas A&M. I later wrote about it in an essay I wrote for a grad-school pedagogy class….
…The students I identified as resentful (and, really, I kind of identified with those students, too) seemed to be all hanging in there, and the more-willing participants actually seemed to be having fun, but still there was stress and anxiety over the upcoming major assignments. Students asked about them in class, and a few even came by my office, and the questions were all pretty much the same: “What should I write about? How should I get started?” Our required text had an elaborate series of steps students should take, a complicated process of pre-writing and outlining that to me seemed nothing more than absurd and obsessive. I couldn’t in good conscience tell them to look to the book. Nobody sane writes like that.
Robert Pirsig writes:
… (H)e became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculating premeditation, because that’s the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look (156).
On a Sunday night I came up with an idea…I went into class the next day and told the students that they were going to write their paper in class-- right then. I told them to get out six sheets of paper. I had them ponder their topics for a couple of minutes. Then I set them to writing for twenty minutes straight. Every three or four minutes I had them turn the page and continue writing on a fresh, empty sheet of paper. The object was to get six pages of writing done in twenty minutes. I yelled at them if they slowed down. I told them to go faster, and faster. I told them that the object for them was not to think but to write.
The results of this were—and always have been—positive. About two-thirds of the students use what they produce in class as an elaborate outline for their formal papers. The other third seem to lose interest in their topics, and that’s a positive thing, too, I think: the students realize that their topic won’t hold up as the basis for a decent paper, and so they have to go looking for another, stronger topic. As this exercise evolved, I’ve expanded it from the original and totally arbitrary 20 minutes, to 22 minutes. I break it down to 5 minutes for the first and last pages—for the introduction and conclusion, and 3 minutes for each of the middle pages. (We take extra time later to go over citations and quotes and other necessities.) The basic thing this exercise stresses is to get words down on the page, words and ideas that can be happily jumbled and confused and completely ephemeral. Once there, the words can be mulled over and revised, and turned into something worthwhile.
My method has changed a little since I wrote that essay. I now run the exercise in 22 minutes and four pages--6 minutes for first and last, and 5 minutes for second and third.
And the thing is, it works. I’ve even started using it in my own nonfiction writing—I write for 20 or so minutes straight, then take a break for the rest of the hour, then write again. It works. The words come--still, often happily jumbled and confused. But still they come. The words won't desert you.
One of the things I’ve been doing recently—one of the many things I’ve been doing—as this semester winds down, and my time at Texas A&M winds down, is saying goodbye to the classrooms I’ve taught in over the years.
All these rooms have ghosts, right? Memories. These were rooms full of good students and rotten students, nice students and rude ones. Sometimes I did some good teaching. Many times education happened!
The first classroom I ever taught a class in was Blocker 105, and I’ve written elsewhere about that first day—how I stood there, going over the syllabus for my composition class, and I looked up and out at the back of the classroom, and there was this—stain—on the wall. Stains. Big damn grease stains from where the heads of bored, sleepy students had been bumping and staining the wall—for years. A feeling of futility filled me right there and then! All those generations of bored students! But as I thought about it, I decided to be a teacher whose students weren’t all bored and falling asleep. And I sort of think I have been….
At any rate, the Blocker 105 was remodeled a couple of years ago, and the grease stains were painted over—and now, I guess, the grease stains are ghosts, too.
During a break a student came up and asked for help with his novel. He was stuck. Of course. I’ve been expecting people to get stuck in their extended narratives. It’s a long semester, and I’m asking the students to do a lot of work. Everyone’s bound to get stuck at some point.
“But what can I do to get unstuck?” he asked.
“Weed!” a girl said.
“No,” I said. “Don’t tease. Be serious….”
“Jack Daniels!” she said.
“That won’t work, either,” the stuck student said. “I can’t have booze in the dorm….”
I was thinking—a laborious task for me, sometimes.
“Well,” I said, “there are several things you can try….”
And I told him a few things. Tricks, maybe.
Like having a door open and a new character come through it. What conflict will result from the new character?
Like skipping ahead in the outline to another scene, bypassing the resistance of the current stuck scene.
I’ve used both of those in my own writing. They can work. There’s no telling if they’ll work for my stuck student or not. I kept thinking. Came up with nothing immediately useful.
Then, on the way home, in a moment of academic esprit d’escalier, I thought of Robert Pirsig. He spends a lot of time discussing stuckness in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Chris brings out the paper again. "Now help me," he says.
"Okay," I say. I tell him getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all. Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.
"Like what things?" he asks.
"Well, what do you want to tell her?"
"About the trip."
"What things about the trip?"
He thinks for a while. "About the mountain we climbed."
"Okay, write that down," I say.
He does. Then I see him write down another item, then another, while I finish my cigarette and coffee. He goes through three sheets of paper, listing things he wants to say.
"Save those," I tell him, "and we’ll work on them later."
"I’ll never get all this into one letter," he says.
He sees me laugh and frowns. I say, "Just pick out the best things." Then we head outside and onto the motorcycle again.
So, basically, we’re back to the outline again—or, perhaps a new and updated outline. A list of places you might want to go—but not an itinerary, a list of places you have to be at a certain time—rather, a list of possibilities. A “list of all the things you want to say in any old order.”
And part of that, of course, could be having a new character walk in through an open door, or skipping ahead in the old outline.
The first [problem] is stuckness, a mental stuckness that accompanies the physical stuckness of whatever it is you’re working on. The same thing Chris was suffering from. A screw sticks, for example, on a side cover assembly. You check the manual to see if there might be any special cause for this screw to come off so hard, but all it says is "Remove side cover plate" in that wonderful terse technical style that never tells you what you want to know. There’s no earlier procedure left undone that might cause the cover screws to stick.
If you’re experienced you’d probably apply a penetrating liquid and an impact driver at this point. But suppose you’re inexperienced and you attach a self-locking plier wrench to the shank of your screwdriver and really twist it hard, a procedure you’ve had success with in the past, but which this time succeeds only in tearing the slot of the screw.
Your mind was already thinking ahead to what you would do when the cover plate was off, and so it takes a little time to realize that this irritating minor annoyance of a torn screw slot isn’t just irritating and minor. You’re stuck. Stopped. Terminated. It’s absolutely stopped you from fixing the motorcycle.
This isn’t a rare scene in science or technology. This is the commonest scene of all. Just plain stuck. In traditional maintenance this is the worst of all moments, so bad that you have avoided even thinking about it before you come to it.
The book’s no good to you now. Neither is scientific reason. You don’t need any scientific experiments to find out what’s wrong. It’s obvious what’s wrong. What you need is an hypothesis for how you’re going to get that slotless screw out of there and scientific method doesn’t provide any of these hypotheses. It operates only after they’re around.
This is the zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It’s a miserable experience emotionally. You’re losing time. You’re incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take the machine to a real mechanic who knows how to figure these things out.
It’s normal at this point for the fear-anger syndrome to take over and make you want to hammer on that side plate with a chisel, to pound it off with a sledge if necessary. You think about it, and the more you think about it the more you’re inclined to take the whole machine to a high bridge and drop it off. It’s just outrageous that a tiny little slot of a screw can defeat you so totally.
What you’re up against is the great unknown, the void of all Western thought. You need some ideas, some hypotheses. Traditional scientific method, unfortunately, has never quite gotten around to say exactly where to pick up more of these hypotheses. Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination... "unstuckness," in other words...are completely outside its domain.
So: Don’t force yourself through the stuckness. Don’t think yourself through it, either. Instead, feel your way through it.
Feel. Okay. But—how…? And what?
Easier said than done, right?
ZMM had an incredible impact on me when I first read it as a morose 16 year-old, and then again when I was in graduate school and teaching composition for the first time (it’s often overlooked that the whole middle part of the book deals with teaching comp). I think Pirsig might have useful things to say about stuckness/unstuckness for our creative writing class, and perhaps we’ll explore that a bit next week and see what happens....
Things to look for:
Someone put all (apparently) of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance online, here.
But you know what? It's always better to read the actual book! Buy it here....
And here is a website devoted to Pirsig and his work....
At this point in the semester, we’re getting into the heart of the class—writing and workshopping.
At my university the creative writing classes are large—25 in the intro class, and 19 in the advanced class. This makes using the traditional workshop a bit difficult. Because of their numbers, students simply don’t get as much feedback as they would if they were in a smaller class—their work gets discussed twice a semester, if they’re lucky, and usually only once. And, in the classes I’ve observed, only a handful of students actually seem to do the reading and then participate in discussion.
Since I began teaching creative writing some five years ago, I’ve tried to work around the class size problem by having students work in small groups. It’s been pretty successful, I think. Students get into groups of three and each reads her or his work aloud to the others, who then comment.
Still, I’ve changed the workshops around a little this semester. The classrooms have projectors in them, so each week I take the work-in-progress of two students and put it up on the screen. The student reads their work aloud, and then talks about their intentions for the work, or problems they’ve been having, or anything else they want to talk about. Then the class comments, and then I say a few words. We do this on Monday in my intro classes, and on Wednesday in the advanced class (it’s a three-hour class).
Then in the next class session, students break up into their workshop groups and go over their work. I also then call up students for individual conferences. If my scheduling goes right, all the students will have their work discussed by the whole class at least once, and will meet with me individually at least once (of course, they can meet with me as often as they want during office hours or before or after class), and will discuss their work in groups about ten times.
So far—it’s working.
Below, Catherine Wright's novella-in-progress, "Deviant," up for discussion on the classroom projector....
When I worked at the IRS I learned to be flexible. There were many times when the Section Chief would suddenly erupt from her office and rumble across the floor and announce that production on the programs for 1040 or 1040-A or prior years or whatever was falling behind and had to be kicked up and shifted, and so we managers would scramble around reassigning work to the transcribers, setting up new quality review schedules, listening to the transcribers complain…it was a lot of work, and it changed all the time. We had to improvise. We had to be flexible.
That was a long time ago. Yet flexibility came in handy here at the beginning of this semester at Texas A&M. I was scheduled to teach four sections of composition, a class I’ve taught many times before, and I had my syllabus prepared and my books ordered and I was ready get in the classroom do some educating.
But when I got down to campus on the first day of classes, everything changed.
One of our colleagues had been hospitalized the day before, and was out for the semester, and I was suddenly assigned to teach his classes. So three of my comp sections were taken away, and I was given two sections of intro to creative writing and one section of advanced creative writing.
It was time for me to be flexible, to improvise. The two sections of intro weren’t much of a problem—it’s a class I’ve been teaching now for about six years, and I know what to do. But I’d never had an advanced class before.
During a job interview last winter, the chair of the search committee at a nice SLAC asked me how I would teach an advanced class. It was something I had given a little thought to, some vague thought, but not hardly enough vague thought. I heard the question, and had a quick flashback to my own undergraduate education in creative writing. Back in the day I had the same professor for the intro to fiction writing class, and for the advanced workshop. And you know what? It was the same class! We read the same book, we had the same assignments, we used the same damn syllabus with only the course title and the due dates changed! In retrospect, that kind of sucked.
And there I was on the phone for a job interview, holding my phone in my hand, a wave of sadness and regret washing over me. I suddenly wished I’d had better classes as an undergrad. I felt cheated. I said to the search committee, “Well, I guess an advanced class should be different than an intro class….”
It was a horrible, vague, mumbling answer--a moment when I wasn't able to improvise!--and of course I didn’t get the job.
But, now, on the hectic first day of a new semester, I was suddenly given a chance to do something new.
Most fiction classes at the college level, intro or advanced, concentrate on short stories, which makes a kind of sense: classes are always constrained by time, and so if you concentrate on short stories you can read a variety of works by a variety of writers, and students can produce several stories in a semester. However, this traditional approach disregards the truth that the short story is a difficult genre with a tight, restrictive structure, and that students can become frustrated by an inability to master it. Also, the traditional approach ignores the fact that literature is more than short stories.
So, faced with a new class to put together and having only about a day to do it, I decided was to do something different. I decided that we would write “extended narratives”—novellas or short memoirs, the beginnings of full-length novels or memoirs, or perhaps a series of tightly connected short stories. I set students the goal of writing 20,000 words over the course of the semester. At the end of the semester, students will revise the first 15-20 pages of their extended narrative and submit that for a grade. I’m also giving them an outlining assignment, and they’ll give presentations on the readings.
The full syllabus is here on my teaching page, along with my comp syllabus and my intro to cw syllabus and a few other documents.
Two weeks into the semester, I’m pleased with this class. I think it’s going to work out well. I’ll certainly be posting updates….
Things to look for:
Novelist/Professor Cathy Day is teaching a novel class this semester at Ball State University. You can read about it on her personal blog, The Big Thing, and on her class blog #amnoveling. She’s doing thoughtful, important work.
A wonderful book on flexibility and improvisation is Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. Essential reading for all teachers and writers.
I had a job interview last year that went weird quite unexpectedly.
It was a phone interview, and the email confirmation said that the search committee would call between 8:00 am and 10:00 am CST. (“AM”—that’s the morning, right?) So I got up in the morning and got my job materials all ready to reference, and I waited…and waited. No call at 8:01 am, not at 8:30 am…9:00, 9:25, 10:00…no call at all! At 11:00 I sent them a polite email: “Perhaps you lost my phone number”…Still no call. In mid-afternoon I called the school and got voice mail.
Late afternoon I went to my class at the prison, and when I got out, just before 8:00 pm, I got into my car and headed home. As I was driving through the gate, at just after 8:00 pm, my phone rang. Yeah, right.
But all that’s background, and only moderately weird. They were mixed up about the time. Very mixed up. Or crazy. I guess it happens.
So I pulled over in front of the prison and talked to the two members of the committee. They asked basic interview questions—about my dissertation, about how I teach composition, about my writing, about my work at Callaloo.
Then one of the interviewers asked, “So, tell me, how do you know when your students are learning?”
I talked about assessment, about the rubric I put together for creative writing…I don’t know, I talked about…learning things.
When I finished the other interviewer asked something or other, and I answered.
Then the earlier one asked, “I want to go back to my previous question. How do you know when your students are learning? I mean, how do you really know?”
I was parked in front of a prison in the dark. Cars were going down the street. Headlights flashing in my eyes. This is the weird part. Much of my writing is based on the idea that people are very mysterious—that you never know what’s going on with another individual, you never know what’s going on in their mind or in their heart. Never! Yet here was that question challenging that idea—I was being asked how I knew something perhaps essentially unknowable. I found that really…weird. I had a strange image of hanging around a dorm room with a bunch of stoners: “Dude, how do you REALLY know if somebody knows something? I mean, REALLY?”
I started to say something—then I stopped, and started to say something else. Then I was silent for a second. Then at last I was honest: “Uh…I guess I don’t know.”
I didn’t get the job, of course. (A sad loss for that department, since I’m a damn good English teacher).
But—after I gave it some thought over the next few days, I had an esprit de l’escalier moment, and I figured out what I should have answered.
How do I know when my students are learning?
I know when I see them change.
I know when I see them think.
I know when I see them put into practice the concepts we’ve covered over the course of the semester.
I know when ideas become action.
The Young Scholars I taught this semester at A&M reached this level over the past couple of weeks. It was remarkable to watch—and fun, and moving. They led discussions, they gave presentations, they turned in outstanding writing. They changed. They learned—we all did.