Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Write to Teach?

You know, when I gripe about faculty at Askesis U. who haven't picked up a book in their field in 20 years, or who want to base their promotion to full professor on the article that they published 16 years ago in order to be promoted to associate, it's grounded on the fuzzy idea that in order to be an effective faculty member, you have to be in touch with how your field has evolved, and with the shifts in academic thought in general. Over the past year, however, I'm beginning to see a different compulsion for faculty research and publication: compassion.

I've had two upper-division classes this year, both of which require a big ol' research paper. And because I've been working closely on a number of projects with Yogini (writing teacher extraordinaire), I've been spending a lot of time scaffolding assignments that help the students get to the final product. Let me say what we already know: the big research paper? Intimidating. Scary. A Project with no Clear System of Approach. The Measure of Your Worth as a Major and perhaps as a Human. I don't want to put words in my students' mouths, but when I joke around with them about the paper, these are the ones that I use. I also find myself saying, over and over again: "Don't Panic." and "Come see me." and "let's think about how to adjust the assignment to fit you, rather than adjusting you to the assignment."

And where does all of this warm fuzziness come from, when we have plenty of evidence that I'm often a cold hard bitch of a grader? (True confessions: I called myself "a hag for close reading" in class yesterday.)

As any reader of this blog knows, I am not a confident or effortless writer. Pick any month from the archive and you'll see my predictable reaction to any writing task, which includes the words "paralysis," "self-flagellation," "procrastination," "self-doubt," etc. etc. Last week, a student showed up for her conference in a hairshirt---all, "my problem with research is that I have to read everything or else I'm not really true to the ideas," and "I've got so much information I don't know what to do with it," and "I have all of this stuff to say that I can't get it out."

When I said the word "paralysis" to her, she looked at me like I had just explained her whole life.

If the injunction to doctors is "physician, heal thyself," for academics it might be "professor, become your student." I certainly don't want to project my difficulties onto my students, but I see their struggles in a whole new light when they so closely mirror my own. Maybe somewhere out there, there's a professor who has no problems writing---her shit just writes itself. But for the rest of us, it's a useful reminder that we may have some significant, personal insight into the question "why can't she just write the paper?"

Of course, we can only have that insight if we've struggled, ourselves, with the difficulties of argument, of organization, of projected expectations of how our peers will judge our work. All of a sudden, the necessity of an actively researching faculty at a teaching institution is not just to mimic the expectations set by R1 schools; it becomes a pedagogical exigency. To really teach students to write, you have to write too. (And then you have to be able to see that you're not all that far away from your students, I suppose, but that's another post entirely.)

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2 Comments:

Anonymous The Bittersweet Girl said...

"To really teach students to write, you have to write too."

(((Applause)))

This is one of the mantras I have repeated to myself as I slogged through many a painful writing project -- if I want to train my students to write (and especially my grad students to write publishable prose), I better know what I'm talking about!

Wish that made it less painful, though.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 9:30:00 AM  
Blogger kfluff said...

Hooray---it's not just me! (Pedagogically speaking. But also with the writing-as-suffering.)

Monday, April 27, 2009 7:37:00 AM  

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