How to be a Great Writer

How to be a writer. Not just a writer; a great writer. Two easy steps.

  1. Sit on your butt.
  2. Write.

Beverages and music allowed.

That means you don’t dodishescheckemailmakecallsbalancethecheckbookpaybillsdochoreswatchtv or blog.

I’m writing this waiting for the tea to boil, so I’m claiming the beverage exception.

Don’t tell me how busy you are. It implies I’m not. I am. If you want it, you make the decisions you need to make.

But yes, sometimes you need to stop to clear your head, and yes, once you’ve written, trying to sell that writing kills your writing time. That’s truly the worst.

Tea’s done, time to stop.

P.S. Vinyl is better than CDs.

Reflections on Twenty Years of College Teaching, Part 2: Pedagogy

The most important question you can answer for your students, not just after the fact, but from the beginning, is why?

Things I wish I’d learned my first year of college teaching that would have made me a better teacher:

First, the subject matter you’re teaching is indeed important. I already knew that. But you know what else is important? In fact, just as important to your students’ education as the subject matter itself? The instructor’s answer to the why question: why do I have to take this class?

I’ve spent enough time teaching non-majors that I simply accept the need to sell gen ed classes to my non-major students. Why do first year writing classes matter? Because oral and written communication skills have been among the top ten skills desired by employers in all employer surveys conducted over the last twenty years, usually in the top three. More immediately, because you need the skills you’ll develop in those first year writing courses in your upper division courses.

Why do your literature courses matter? Because you need narrative in everyday life: you need narrative to sell yourself to graduate programs and employers, to sell a product or service to customers, to explain the importance of a treatment to a patient, the guilt or innocence of this person, the history and intent of this contract. And you need character study as well for similar reasons. In addition to the fact that literature is virtually a lab for the study of the diversity of human experiences, feelings, and ideas, literary study teaches you that not everyone is like you. In other words, literary studies approximate real life: you’re observing people’s words and actions without being told what they mean, but you still have to make sense of them. You have to collect and construct evidence into a coherent argument about these very things. Welcome to everyday living in your personal life and in business and professional environments.

More of the why has to do with the purpose of college classes. Now more than ever, students and parents tend to think of college courses as job training, which is an understandable reaction to an environment of economic depression. But they can never completely be that. No college can update its curriculum to keep it current to the minute with the actual practices in any given industry, and if they tried, they’d have a schizophrenic, incoherent curriculum. The best a program of study can do is provide the background needed to make a graduate trainable in the current environment.

But even more than that, college studies develop student cognition. They expand the range and type of thinking available to students, which is vital to critical thinking, problem solving, and future educability. Arts and sciences curriculum especially serves this goal: math and philosophy expands student capability in abstract reasoning (of different kinds); art in visual literacy, creativity, and just helping you to see; music in creativity, audio literacy, and just being able to really hear; history in the construction of narrative out of disparate, incoherent arrays of facts; literature in many of these, often a combination of them, along with creativity. All of these are brought into upper division, more vocationally-oriented studies and into all future vocations no matter what the field.

But moving past the why into nuts and bolts? Just as important as teaching the subject matter is establishing the following connections:

What is being taught –> how you’re being assessed –> why you got that grade.

Yes, a student who has really learned the material knows why they earned the grade they did. Grading, or assessment of any kind, is as important a part of the learning process as the initial presentation of the material. It’s not an annoying institutional afterthought. In a sense, caring about these connections and making them clear is answering another kind of why question: why did I get that grade? Rubrics matter, actually. They narrow and focus the purpose of your assignments and should be used to direct student attention. You really aren’t teaching everything with every assignment. What’s the purpose of this assignment? The more narrowly and specifically you can answer that for each assignment, the better your assignment design is, and the more you can link assignments into coherent course goals, the better your course design is.

How would I sum all of this up? The most important question you can answer for your students, not just after the fact, but from the beginning, is why? Why am I doing this? Take the time to answer that question up front.

Reflections on 20 Years of College Teaching

least for students, as it should be, but still the real world.

It recently occurred to me that this semester starts my twentieth year of college teaching, all told — from my first freshman composition class as a grad student to my current teaching assignments.

If you do the math, my first semester of teaching was the Fall 2001 semester. I was teaching at a small, private college in a small New Jersey town with a train station direct to Penn Station in New York City. So yes, 9-11 occurred during my first semester teaching. On top of that, I had assigned essays by Salman Rushdie and Edward Said — two Muslim authors — for our reading the first class meeting after 9-11. I had planned this weeks before. On top of that, our reading by Edward Said was from his book Orientalism, which describes how western cultures misrepresent “oriental” cultures (a term that covers the Middle East to the farthest point in Asia), and how those misrepresentations serve western economic and political ends. And on top of that, some of my students had relatives who had died or were missing after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

From anywhere on campus we could see the smoke rising from the tower site for weeks after the attack. Literally weeks.

So, talk about walking a tightrope. My students were shocked and traumatized. We all were. I sat down at the front of the class and asked them to talk. I let them talk. Then, somehow, we moved on. I covered the reading as carefully as I could. I didn’t register any particularly negative reactions at the time.

This is teaching. It’s what we do as college teachers. College is the real world: somewhat insulated, at least for students, as it should be, but still the real world.

Since that first course during that first semester teaching I’ve moved on to teach at other institutions. I’ve served as Program Chair three times at two different institutions and designed dozens of courses from the freshman to the graduate level. I’ve designed undergraduate and master’s level curriculum. I’m the guy who designed the program that trained your kid’s high school English teacher. I found I could picture an entire curriculum in my head, seeing how the courses work together, putting all the pieces in place for students who worked through it, designing the program of study to meet their most likely professional goals for the program. I’ve also published creative and scholarly works since then. I have five books out and two under contract and a number of poems, book reviews, short stories, creative non-fiction works and, while they’re not publications, almost 30 conference presentations.

I did this with almost zero institutional support. In 20 years of teaching, I’ve had one sabbatical that lasted one semester. Two of my terms as Chair were under a 4/4 load with ongoing publications and conferences, usually three conference presentations a year. One term was under a 3/3 load, but I was working on two books simultaneously at the time, plus conferences and other publications.

I’ve been busy.

What I’m going to say next is advice for college bound students and their parents. It may also be useful for graduate students.

First, most small, private, liberal arts colleges are far overpriced. Their faculty mostly lack meaningful accomplishments (they could never get jobs at state universities). They say that they’re so dedicated to teaching that they don’t have time to publish, but the truth is they can’t write and don’t have anything to say. I’ve only met one such faculty member who actually dedicated himself to the study of teaching instead of publishing, and he did in fact have a book. Just one, but he did it. I’ve spent most of my career being evaluated by people who haven’t published, some of whom were less educated than me. What does that tell you about how much these colleges value education? What educational quality are you or your child going to get from that institution?

Furthermore, most small private colleges are functionally racist, including their English departments. By functional racism I mean that the institution is more focused on an image than on its function as an educational and research institution. Small private colleges tend to fall into three categories: sports camp, vacation Bible school, or resort for rich kids. There’s another grouping, the business and professional private college, but they’re to be considered separately. In all of the first three cases, their educational mission is completely subordinate to their other identities, and faculty are expected to accommodate these secondary identities and, additionally, to conform to the image expected of college faculty by their student demographic. These expectations produce a fundamentally anti-diversity mindset that they justify in job searches with the word “fit.” This functional racism isn’t a “white only” kind of racism, but a “certain kinds of colors in certain places” kind of racism. So the department might hire one African American faculty member, but that person will always eventually leave for a state university. They won’t be comfortable there long term, very rarely. They’ll hire Asian and Indian faculty because they’re “whitenorities,” but only one each at most, and they generally won’t hire hispanics, because they’re “the help.” Hispanics clean their homes, not teach their college students.

There’s one more detail I need to add about teaching after 9-11. I was observed that day by the director of composition. It was that person’s job to observe me teach the class, give me feedback, and mentor me as a possible future college teacher. She told me after that class session that she wasn’t going to write up the class session and then never observed me again. Looking back, after serving as Chair a few times, I know why. It wasn’t because I didn’t do a good job or wouldn’t benefit from the feedback. She had no interest in helping to advance my future college career, and she had no interest because I didn’t fit the profile. Choosing not to write up that class session is understandable. Circumstances were unusual. But never scheduling another observation again? There are no good reasons for that.

I’ve done many class observations, been on many hiring committees, and led hiring committees. I’m very familiar with faculty observation. It’s usually clear what’s really going on. I had one member of a hiring committee advise against even interviewing a candidate because of the spelling of her last name. Yes — this faculty member just looked at the candidate’s last name and assumed she wouldn’t be able to speak English well. Racist much? She was yet another faculty member with no accomplishments but was deeply ingrained in the institution. She grew up around there. She fit the profile.

So my first advice is to send your children to state colleges and universities. Faculty are typically held to more objective standards for hiring and promotion and the institution usually has to pay more than lip service to diversity. The race issue matters. Every racist educational institution is anti-educational. It’s doing the opposite of educating students. It is hindering them. We are not living in a world where we can afford racism.

But, a caveat. Are all private colleges the same? No. Were my experiences entirely negative? No. I had some great faculty members who did support and advise me, and I’m grateful for them. But I have accurately described broadly observable patterns across the private college spectrum.

I have to further complicate matters. College teachers teach to the middle. They teach to the perceived middle of their student population in terms of academic ability. So it’s not true that college classes are the same everywhere. A highly ranked institution with a low acceptance rate has high performing students, so the middle is going to be at a higher bar than a lower ranked institution with lower performing students.

That means as future college students and their parents you should be concerned about the ranking of the college. Sorry, it’s true. Especially the college’s acceptance rate. Students need to get into the best colleges they can. They want to be somewhere that they’ll be in the middle or toward the top. If they’re too far beyond their peers, they’ll be undereducated. They should go to a better institution. The class valedictorian at a low ranked private college made a poor college choice. That person should have transferred to the flagship state college. They wouldn’t be valedictorian, but they’d get a much better education.

And here’s where we return to thinking about small private colleges. If the small private college is ranked in the top 100, seriously consider it. But be sure to consider the financial decision you’re making: look at the real cost of attendance after scholarships. Return on investment matters. You don’t want to pay $40,000 a year in tuition to get a degree in Education. Or even $20,000 a year in tuition. Do you want to graduate with $50,000 in student loan debt and then only get a job that pays $30,000 a year? Or even $40,000-$45,000? It’s much smarter to get your ed degree from a state university that only charges $8,000 a year in tuition. We need educators, badly, but high debt for a low paying job is a poor decision no matter what the field.

I have more to say. My next post will be about teaching.

Line and Poetry

20821239I read a few pages of Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses (2014) this morning — which is very enjoyable, by the way, pick it up if you can — and while reading recalled an experience I had publishing one of my own poems in a small journal. The poem was a little gimmicky. Titled “Liber Abaci,” it was based on the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers in which each number is based on the sum of the two preceding ones: 0+1=1; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8; 5+8=13; 13+8=21, etc. The sequence was discovered by Leonard de Pisa in 1202, later known as Fibonacci, and is historically and mathematically significant because it’s so often found in nature: tree branches, leaves on a stem, bracts on a pine cone, fern leaves, and on and on.

I wrote my poem so that each line had a number of syllables corresponding to each sum in the sequence. 1, 3, 5, 8, 13, and then 21. The poem was six lines long ending with a twenty-one syllable line almost too long for the page, and it compared objects in nature to a woman waking up in the morning and not wanting to get out of bed. I used words like “stone” and “mountainous.”

Now I’d like to describe publishing in the United States: there’s real publishing, and then there’s poetry publishing. In real publishing, publishers allow authors to see proof copies and make corrections before the book goes to press. If the publisher edits or changes your work, you know about it, and you know how and usually why. In poetry publishing, at least most US poetry publishing, you don’t see your poem until you get it mailed back to you in the published work, you may not have even been told your work was being published, and often they — whoever they are, but they’re everywhere, you know them — do whatever they want to your poem without telling you.

In my case, the published product was eleven lines instead of six, none of the line breaks were followed, and of course that ridiculously long twenty-one syllable line was broken up into at least three lines. The editor of the collection didn’t understand the main conceit of the poem, didn’t understand the placement of the line breaks, and was only reading the poem for imagery and nothing else. In all fairness, it’s a weird and unexpected conceit, but the poem looked weird enough that s/he might have thought to ask first. I would bet, though, counting syllables doesn’t land on the editor’s radar, but even if it did in this case, the pattern may not have been identifiable.

Either way, I initially wanted to title this post “The Unbearable Stupidity of Poetry Publishers,” but somehow (and in the end only partially) restrained myself. To be honest, I’ve collected a number chapbooks and poetry collections over the past couple of years, and aside from the big publishing houses, what I find is very inconsistent. Some of it is very good, but quite often poetry publishers and editors seem to care only about what is being said with no attention to how, or how well, and the results are often juvenile and embarrassing. Poetry publishing follows the basic US business model: selling a lot of stuff cheap will make you rich, so don’t sweat the details or worry about quality. Save time and money and just get it out there, especially if you can get a bunch of people to pay you to publish their work. The product itself doesn’t matter.

So I’d like to start on the ground floor about what a poem is. A poem is a written creative work characterized by attention to…

  1. rhythm
  2. sound
  3. imagery
  4. metaphor/metonymy
  5. originality in its use of all of the above

Notice what I’m not saying: “meaning” and “emotion.” It’s not that meaning and emotion don’t matter, but that meaning and emotion don’t make a poem a poem. Prose works, both fiction and nonfiction, convey meaning and emotion. Paintings and sculptures do. Movies do. Facial expressions do. Hand gestures do. Almost everything does, but not everything is a poem. What makes a poem a poem is attention to rhythm, sound, imagery, and metaphor/metonymy, not meaning (in a big sense — imagery and metaphor are a kind of attention to meaning) and emotion. Poets who know what they are doing certainly convey meaning and emotion, but they do so by paying this kind of attention, by paying attention to the craft of writing a poem.

Rhythm and sound don’t necessarily mean fixed rhyme and meter, as in a sonnet. Free verse pays attention to rhythm and sound too, and employs it deftly to create emotional and other effects. It’s not that free verse doesn’t follow any patterns of sound and rhythm, just not fixed patterns of sound and rhythm. Free verse creates its own patterns and its own effects. But I think this brings us to a fundamental truth about poetry: what makes a poem a poem is its attention to line.

How poems divide up their lines controls their rhythm, sound (whether or not they’re using rhyme), metaphor and metonymy (as words at the ends of lines will be implicitly linked), and the poem’s arrangement of white space, which can also convey meaning. In other words, the poem’s use of line, more than anything else, is what makes a poem a poem. There is one exception: prose poetry, which runs its lines from one margin to the other just like prose, but that’s a lone exception. Otherwise, you know that a poem is a poem just by looking at it because it is broken up into lines, even if you don’t know anything else about poetry, or in other words, if you’re like most poetry publishers.

So mungling up a poem’s line breaks is a cardinal sin, and not paying attention to where you put your line breaks is a sign of ignorance in poetry writing. Amateur poets pay attention, and use line more or less effectively (as do professionals), but a complete lack of attention means you haven’t written a poem but a sentence with line breaks. And no, a sentence with line breaks is not a poem. It might be a greeting card, or a song lyric, and it might get you laid, or published, or both, but it’s not a poem.

So, if you like reading poetry, and want to try writing poetry, and especially if you’re publishing poetry: pay attention to line. Start there. Write the whole thing out as one sentence and then break it up into lines again and ask yourself: what changed? If you noticed a difference, that’s a poem.

 

How I Learned to Love Bad Student Papers

I read once that J.R.R. Tolkien came up with the idea for The Hobbit while grading student exams. Bent over a desk, grinding away scoring exam book after exam book, he finally came across one with a blank page at the back. He was so relieved by that short break from grading that he wrote on the blank page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He wrote the novel The Hobbit to find out what hobbits were.

After eighteen years of teaching college English, during most of which I’ve taught at least one section of first year writing (often more), I’ve come to appreciate how Tolkien felt. Grading papers is one of the worst parts of the job, and I’ve heard that from quite a few fellow English teachers as well. I could quote from my Facebook feed right now.

It’s partly the tedium of grading paper after paper that’s performing the same task, and it’s partly that student papers are always very much early works: students seldom have the time to fully revise, some students don’t attempt to write well at all, and others just don’t seem to have been taught. After spending years in graduate school reading literature, great writing, the best writing, it’s hard to spend that much time reading writing that’s often the opposite.

But then I started listening to myself.

I’ve been telling my students for years that writing is an acquired and then developed skill, like playing a musical instrument or a sport. You can’t shoot free throws at over 60% without standing on the line and practicing shot after shot. You can’t really play guitar or the piano without hours of practice, a lot of it boring: scales. And you can’t learn to write well without writing a lot and without reading a lot. Those two skills — reading and writing — are intimately related.

In other words, I’ve started telling my students, you only learn to write well by writing badly, and by writing badly a lot. And on top of that, even though I’m years past my Ph.D. now, and even though I’ve been publishing since about 1991 (my first poems appeared in a student-run college literary journal, The Valencian), and even though I’ve been reading constantly and like crazy since I was a kid, I still write badly. Sometimes, not all the time, but still sometimes. Even just this year.

At one point I looked at a batch of student papers, some of which were remarkable (in either one direction or the other), and I told myself. . . this is them trying. This is them doing the work of becoming good writers. This is my students following my advice and writing. . . badly, or well, they were still writing. Some of them were on training wheels, some of them were riding wheelies down the street with their hands behind their heads, but they were all on the bicycle, moving forward.

So when I listened to myself, finally, I learned that I loved bad student papers.

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