On Failing as a Writing Teacher

I.

I once taught John McPhee’s Oranges to graduate students in a class I called Canon Nonfiction. The idea was to teach myself a ton of books I hadn’t ever read, and also (I hoped) to talk critically about the canon and who got to make it. For each book we read, students had to write 1-page double-spaced response papers, because I didn’t want to read anything longer, and because I found (and continue to find) it a more useful exercise to ask students to make a smart, thoughtful argument in under 300 words than it is to ask them to fill 3 to 5 pages with ideas.

If you haven’t read Oranges, some of the book follows McPhee’s travels in Florida to understand the orange juice industry. He’s vocal throughout about his desire to drink pure orange juice, not from concentrate—this in the mid-1960s, when frozen concentrated orange juice was a somewhat new technology that had so taken over sales in the U.S. that it turned out, in one of the book’s ironies, to be everywhere in Florida, too, even with all those fresh oranges around.

One student (that I remember) hated the book. They took issue in their response with McPhee’s disdain for concentrate. The student had grown up in poverty real enough to make frozen orange juice the only juice their family could afford, and argued that McPhee’s language and attitude toward this style of orange juice betrayed his classism and ignorance, and thus rendered the book a failure.

I think this is what we’re now calling Cancel Culture.

I read their response, and I was very irritated. They had found one small aspect of McPhee’s narrator-self that they disagreed with and refused to engage with anything the book was up to craftwise. This was the basis of my comments on the response paper. I may have even written, in so many words, “In the future, I’d like to see you engage more in a book’s aims or formal design.”

After that, they stopped contributing to our discussions in class. At the end of the term they eviscerated me in their comments: “Dave seems to have old fashioned ideas about nonfiction. Maybe he should stop teaching and get out of the way of the rest of us.”

II.

Recently, I taught a class I titled Nonfiction Theory & Technique. My thinking is that if you’re going to take seminar-style readings courses in creative writing, you only need two of them: History Of Genre and Techniques Of Genre. You need a “What’s come before me?” class and a “How might I go about putting my stuff together?” class. This was the latter.

I taught Didion’s “The White Album” (the essay), which covers what for her is the end of the 1960s and the winds of paranoia and semantic disconnect that blew through it. One section takes Didion to Oakland, where her portrait of Huey Newton shows him to be a soundbyte-spitting robot, given the words from a group of handlers to keep the brand alive.

More than one of the students hated the essay, chiefly for this portrait. It was irresponsible for a white writer to dismiss Newton’s importance to black liberation in this way, to render him as substanceless, all message. Was the word “racist” used? I can’t remember, but in one way or another the point was made that it was racist for Didion to take of Newton what she wanted, and it reeked of enormous privilege for her to insist that her feelings about her end of her 1960s had something to say about The 1960s.

I felt frustrated, finding myself in this conversation. I felt the frustration of other students. I said this, as a way to redirect the discussion, “None of us in this room are going to live Joan Didion’s life and develop a mindset or habits of life that she did. We don’t have the ability to become or avoid becoming her, so what can we learn about writing by talking about her as a person?”

It was a similar message to the Oranges student: Can we please just talk about form and technique?

III.

Here’s where I’ll tell you that, in both of the above situations, the critical students were from marginalized communities—one student in a community I count myself among, the others not. Also: the straight, white folks in both classes didn’t, from what I could tell, share in these criticisms of the straight, white writers at hand.

And here’s where I’ll spell out my failures, if they aren’t already apparent.

In your head right now, or your heart, you might find some counterarguments. Here’s one: Contemporary politics surrounding the affordability of orange juice are too removed in time from the world McPhee is writing about to bear in any way on the text’s construction. Or you might ask what Didion, writing many years after every story about Huey Newton had already been told and retold, was supposed to write that could be worth reading? Or you might argue that if we can’t separate the artist from the art, then MFA Programs need to develop students’ characters as much as they work to develop their technique, and who among us is trained to do that?

Here’s one of my failures: I, too, had counterarguments, and I used my position as Teacher to correct my students’ thinking. Is how I thought of it. Unequipped, or unprepared, to participate in the discussion of these texts, I policed them as out of bounds and steered us back in bounds.

In other words, I shut students down. This was a failure.

It’s not that students are always right. Students are often wrong. Students often assert that the thing about the 2nd person is that it creates a feeling a closeness to the story, even though no one has ever said that the 1st person or the 3rd person makes us feel too distant from the action when we read it. (As though I would’ve identified more as a child with the character of Alice if “You” had fallen down the rabbit hole.)

I’m equipped, though, to have discussions about the effects of POV choices, and more importantly I’m comfortable asking students questions to get them thinking aloud together about POV choices to talk out something of their effects.

I’m not comfortable talking about class or race. Every time I walk into a classroom I know I’m outnumbered and I used to think if I showed any weakness or ignorance I would lose students all together.

Or make them rebel. That was my other failure, thinking that the only way I could help students learn was through the dissemination (I used the word mindfully) of my expertise.

IV.

This post is already too long, but I should mention here that it was originally titled “Adapt or Die” until I heard the neo-liberal techy Darwinism behind it.

In the face of student criticisms about representation, I could decide I Am Right And They Are Wrong, or I could decide This Isn’t Craft And Cannot Help Us Glean Lessons On Writing From This Text. And both of these would be deadly (bear with me) choices to make.

As much as I was able to dismiss my first student’s indictment against me in their evaluation, as good a laugh I got out of it in conversations for years after, it hurts now because I can see how they were right. If I can’t adapt and make room in the classroom for conversations about writing (and representation, and race) that I’m not immediately prepared to sound authoritative in, I’m going to stand in my students’ way. I’ll become not just bad at my job, but useless.

Again, it’s not that students are always right and we now have to just follow their lead on everything. It’s that a student’s rightness or wrongness in this way have very little use in the art classroom. The only wrong thing is not making art. The only wrong thing is not being given room to speak your voice, because I’m not training debaters or (god help me) politicians. I’m training artists, and an artist without a voice is like a dancer without rhythm.

What I should’ve done is ask these students to talk more about representation. I should’ve asked what we expect from an author, and what we can know about that person through the text, and what we learn elsewhere, and what our responsibilities are, then, as artists. I should’ve asked what aspects of their own (author) selves they disclose in their writing, and what they keep in mind when they construct narrators tasked with presenting this self to an imagined reader.

There are all kinds of ways to turn an unexpected comment into a conversation everyone can enter into. I’ve since learned to do this, and so I’m still alive, so to speak.

I’m reminded of something I read once about Wolfgang Tillman’s teacher (which I hope to get to again in a future post): the only reason, he argued, to make art is to put in the world the art you’re not seeing elsewhere, to fill a vacancy, one that makes you mad, with your singular vision.

If I believe that, and I think I increasingly do, how can it help a young writer to tell them, in so many words, that their visions, their stories, their opinions, their views are wrong or misguided or not worth discussion? It’s a deadly way to teach people, because, unless they thrive through a contrarian Fuck You spirit, it runs the risk of killing off a budding artist’s budding.

My Law Library Rival

Most mornings I write in the Law Library on campus, because it’s quieter than the central library and I mean here’s the view: 

Go ahead and click on it. I get there right at 8am, when the library opens, because that’s also when Mass begins at St. Ignatius church across the street, which is always the signal that it’s time to stop my praying and leave, because it’s hard to pray over the sound of the service. 

I’ve been doing this for years, but not consistently. I like the far back table in the southeast corner of the third floor, because again the view out the window and also what I face is a wall, so I don’t get distracted by the other students filing in to study.

And everything was perfect until my Law Library Rival showed up last term.

My Law Library Rival used to have Kenny G’s haircut, but over the holiday break he shaved it all off. He used to wear a suit and tie, but I haven’t seen him in anything but casual pants and a track jacket in a long time. Most mornings he shows up right at 8am, the first person through the door (whereas I, once Mass begins and I make it across the street and over to the library get in around 8:02), and heads where?

Directly to the far back table in the southeast corner of the third floor.

I originally said “he heads to my table,” but I know I don’t own it. I know it’s the library’s table.

But here’s the thing: He sits with his back to the wall, facing the room, and he doesn’t even raise the blinds.

This post is me taking my case to the court of public opinion, as we’re in a Law Library, after all. I understand that the Law Library is foremost for law students. There are restrictions about who is allowed in (faculty get in anywhere), and during Bar Exam Study, the entire third floor is reserved for law students only, and I dutifully write for those weeks at the far back table in the southeast corner of the second floor, where the view’s all right.

Exhibit B or whatever: my Law Library Rival stays for an hour, hour-and-a-half tops, whereas I’m there for 2 or 3 hours at a stretch. So he doesn’t even need the table for as long as I do!

And I just need to reiterate that he doesn’t raise the blinds next to the table and as far as I can tell—staring at him, as I do when he gets the table, from two tables north of the far back table in the southeast corner, where the view is mostly blocked by trees—he never even glances at the window.

Sitting at the FBTISCOTF, if you will, and not looking out the window is like housesitting for Jim Belushi with the security cameras off and not once peeking through his underwear drawer. It’s like, What are you even doing there?

I submit that I deserve the FBTISCOTF more than my Law Library Rival does, even though by doing so I understand that I deem the work I do here (like this blog post, which I’m writing while gazing out the window on a gloriously sunny day) as more important than his work.

His work of trying to become another lawyer.

Members of the jury, I ask you not to take into account that I’m a 40-year-old man in a turf war with an innocent kid nearly half my age. And do not take into account the fact that my university provides me with An Office I’d Rather Not Write In because when I get there It’s Just Like Too Much, With All My Work Stuff Around, You Know?

And do not take into account the 2 or sometimes 3 days a week I don’t even write on campus, or that fact that if my sabbatical gets approved for next year I won’t be writing in the Law Library at all.

Forget all of this and decide the suit in my favor and tell my Law Library Rival that he doesn’t need to sit at the FBTISCOTF and therefore ought never to, and make him stop shooting me smug looks when he gets the table before me, and grumpy looks when he does not, and I will promise to stop doing the same.

Thank you.