This post is in response to this paragraph from Darryl Pinckney’s remembrance in the New Yorker of studying with and learning from Elizabeth Hardwick:
She told our class that there were really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge. She told us that if we couldn’t take rejection, if we couldn’t be told no, then we couldn’t be writers. ‘I’d rather shoot myself than read that again,’ she often said. The fact that writing could not be taught was clear from the way she shrugged and lifted her eyes after this or that student effort. ‘I don’t know why it is we can read Dostoyevsky and then go back and write like idiots.’ But a passion for reading could be shared. She said that the only way to learn to write was to read. Week after week, she read something new to us: Pasternak, Rilke, Baudelaire, Gogol.
What a nightmare of a teacher.
There’s a grift at work in Hardwickian teaching (unfair to name it after her, as she wasn’t the first creative writing teacher to inspire and teach from idolatry, and won’t be the last). It’s a lot like the lies of the GOP. Hating the way good governance gets in the way of profit-growth and white supremacy, the GOP needs to convince folks not only that government itself is bad, but (here’s the grift) that the best way to fix the problem is to elect people with open disdain for good governance.
Hire termites to build your deck. Hire the Beastie Boys to chaperone the school dance. Hire a teacher who doesn’t believe writing can be taught to teach writing. What feels like Outside The Box thinking will soon lead to your ruin.
In Pinckney’s case, his bad teacher happened to (a) have direct ties to the New York Review of Books, and (b) take him under her proverbial wing, inviting him to her apartment every week to talk about writing and books. So the actual damage Hardwick was doing to him and his classmates is glossed over in this piece that focuses instead on their intimate friendship.
Would that Pinckney found some classmates to interview. How many would-be writers never came to be because of Hardwick’s characteristic shrugging?
Teaching like this drives me up a fucking wall. I want to get to the bottom of why, and to start we’ll need to look more closely at what ‘teaching like this’ is, and what’s so bad about it.
People who don’t love comedy like to claim that there are certain things you can’t make jokes about—rape, the Holocaust, child abuse, etc.—and then expert comics come along and write very good jokes about those things. (And inexpert comics come along and write very bad jokes that seem to prove the claim.)
People who don’t know—or, more importantly, care—about teaching like to claim there are certain things you can’t teach. It’s another kind of lie that reminds me of GOP grift. To believe that Some Things Can’t Be Taught is like believing that Some Billionaires Are Self-Made. It seems deeply unreasonable to suspect that people come up with their ideas, knowledge, ability (or, in this analogy, money) out of thin air. What’s known, what’s practiced, has to be learned, and if you believe in learning you can’t not believe in teaching.
Teaching is the art and science of getting somebody to learn something.
If you don’t think writing can be taught, you don’t believe in teaching. Or, you believe that writing is in some special category outside of all other forms of knowledge and ability.
Either way, you shouldn’t be allowed in a classroom.
Later in the piece, Pinckney paraphrases mathematician Alfred North Whitehead: ‘You cannot learn unless you fall in love with the source of learning.’
I want to think closely about this line, because it points to acts of seduction, and there’s something so seductive about Hardwickian teaching—for the student, as we see in Pinckney’s piece, but also for the teacher.
I would love, LOVE to teach this way. It’s what I imagine the job of food competition show judge being like: waltz in, get fed food you neither prepared nor paid for, talk about what you like and dislike, and get paid. Claim your authority and let it make you charming by how scrupulously you hand out favor. (Paul Hollywood, I’m looking in your handshake’s direction.) My job would be so goddamn easy.
If there’s a hard part of this job it seems to be the Falling In Love part: being the right sort of selfish teacher that makes students swoon. Likely this is easy, too, in that the institutional setting has engineered much of the romance for you. Students arrive vulnerable and needing, open to new ideas. Maybe your class has been tough to get into, a line of applicants you get to pick from like chocolates in a box. Thus your students feel chosen, special. Each of them secretly hoping they’re your favorite.
I mean what could go wrong?
One more example, and then I’m going to try to play some devil’s advocate. In grad school, a teacher I swooned for was the writer Robert Olen Butler, who came a couple of years to the Nebraska Summer Writers’ Conference. I didn’t know his work, I only knew his accolades. (The Pulitzer Prize!) I didn’t get to take a workshop with him, because they filled up with paying members quickly, and I was a lowly volunteer. But I did take time to attend a panel at another conference that I recall being Butler and four of his former students, all talking about what they learned from him in grad school, and how it fed into their fiction.
At any rate, the key word with Butlerian teaching is ‘yearning’. Butler has decided that ‘fiction is the art form of human yearning’, and the student panelists talked about how, in class, he’d ask them to read from their story and stop them the moment he couldn’t hear any yearning on the page. That’s when they knew they had some revision work to do, and they knew exactly what to revise for.
Call it Theory Of Everything teaching. Marilynn Robinson at Iowa reportedly used to allow only realism in her workshops, because it was the only fiction she found worthwhile. In TOE teaching, the teacher—the authority in the room—demands that art stay continuous with what they have read and known and believed in. The teacher approves only what’s familiar to them. In such a rubric, what chance does any art have to move forward?
What art has ever moved forward in a classroom? It does seem foolish to assume that students’ growth and breakthroughs happen from what’s learned in the classroom instead of against it, outside that space, in students’ own time and minds. Which brings to mind another story I’ve collected about bad teaching, this one from David Foster Wallace’s ‘E Unibus Plurum’ (which I imagine Butler et al had never read, or had and found ways to dismiss its arguments that TV has changed literary fiction in ways the latter better soon catch up with):
In one of the graduate workshops I suffered through, an earnest gray eminence kept trying to convince our class that a literary story or novel always eschews ‘any feature which serves to date it,’ because ‘serious fiction must be timeless.’ When we finally protested that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about in electrically lit rooms, drove cars, spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English, inhabited a North America already separated from Africa by continental drift, he impatiently amended his proscription to those explicit references that would date a story in the frivolous ‘Now.’ When pressed for just what stuff evoked this f.N., he said of course he meant the ‘trendy mass-popular-media’ reference. And here, at just this point, transgenerational discourse broke down. We looked at him blankly. We scratched our little heads. We didn’t get it. This guy and his students just didn’t imagine the ‘serious’ world the same way. His automobiled timeless and our FCC’d own were different.
Before I started teaching, I feared ever being such a clueless teacher. But after I started teaching, I eventually became okay with being such a teacher. If something I say or insist on in the classroom annoys or even reviles a student, leading them to write something against my teachings (there’s Hardwick’s revenge motive for you), haven’t I still taught them something? I don’t ever want to write like Dave Madden is, in its way, a useful thing to learn about yourself.
There’s a different kind of arrogance behind the teaching I favor—i.e., meeting each student where they are, assessing their knowledge and goals, and giving them applicable tools to achieve those goals. It’s an arrogance about how I’m not only able to be the best teacher they have, but the sole teacher they have. Put another way, I’m playing out a fantasy where my course is some kind of culmination of my students’ learning, rather than one class amid a long education, one that begins before and continues after they enroll in our program. I’m likely deluding myself about the influence I can have on one student in 15 weeks.
Another point worth making: I’m teaching from my insecurities as a writer. I have publications, sure, and I’ve won a tiny amount of awards here and there, but I don’t have the kind of career others notice and discuss, like Butler and Hardwick did. What I Think Writing Should Be And Do has not been publicly sanctioned in the same way.
Without the literary success that could enable me to become a Hardwickian inspirer, with hard-and-fast opinions delivered openly (I am tenured after all), I hold onto teaching know-how. My dilettanteish reading into how learning happens in the brain. (And my publications on the same.) If I feel I can’t be an inspiration to students, then I’ll try to be the smartest guy in the room.
Which brings me back to Pinckney’s luck and privilege. He was enrolled at Columbia after all. No discussion in the piece about the costs of that education, or who paid for it, or what kind of student loans he graduated with. Hardwickian teaching is a dream for students whose lives are fully committed to learning and scholarliness.
When your students are spending tens of thousands of dollars for a writing education, and working hard to fit that learning in amid their full-time jobs, their family obligations, etc., Hardwickian teaching isn’t just bad, it feels like a kind of abuse. Imagine admitting someone to your class, then telling them their writing isn’t very good.
Then again, I might also imagine a student more resilient to bad teaching. From Pinckney’s piece:
[Hardwick] didn’t think I needed to burden myself with trying to be a gay novelist.
‘Sex is comic and love is tragic,’ she told me. ‘Queers know this.’
She said that I didn’t yet have the experience for what I was writing about, and that the writing itself was immature, because I was imitating her, which, she could assure me, was a dead end.
‘Better stay away from gay lit, honey.’
As much as he learned from Hardwick, kudos to Pinckney for knowing when not to learn from her, too.
- In classic New Yorker fashion, turns out this isn’t a magazine piece or essay he’s written, but rather a publicist/agent–landed excerpt from a forthcoming book.↵
- These are the kinds of panels conference organizers used to approve. God, I hope they’re not still doing it, just with more inclusive faculty.↵