Rare Talent, Imperfect Art

September 16, 2013 | 5 books mentioned 10 14 min read

570_Teacher Eval

I am trying to recall when I first became aware that I don’t like teaching. Not what teachers — or at least college teachers, as I am — usually mean when they say that they don’t like it: the students who don’t read, and don’t care; the endless piles of papers to be graded, or in my case, drafts of stories or poems to be read and commented on. What I do not like, I gradually began to realize, was the actual time in class. The song-and-dance, as I came to see it, of trying to keep my students focused and engaged. What felt, to me, like the performance I had to ready myself for, each and every time.

For years I taught in the same classroom, on the third floor of one of the buildings at the small liberal arts college where I teach. It’s a relatively small room, and by the second class meeting the twenty or so students in my fiction writing class or introductory creative writing class would know to lug the cumbersome desks into a tight circle around the perimeter of the room. It was a fine classroom really, if a little too small, with latecomers forced to squeeze into a desk positioned somewhere to the side and slightly behind mine. There were high, arched windows, and little in the way of technological tools, save a dusty, bulky old television set and DVD player/VCR set-up, housed on a rolling cart that was crammed in the corner and that usually didn’t work. There’s an elevator in that building, but I never took it. It was slow, and if I took it, I knew, I’d have to share that long ride up two floors with several of my students. Instead I opened the door to the long, sterile stairway and trudged up the two flights two or three times each week, filled with dread.

It seems to me now that I didn’t recognize that dread for a number of years. But surely it was there. I’m still teaching, and it’s still there; I’m aware of it, now, as I approach whatever room I’m teaching in. In recent semesters I’ve been assigned to other classrooms, and even when I’m walking down one flight of stairs to the one in the building that also houses my office, there’s time for the dread to settle, somewhere between my stomach and my chest. I find myself muttering fairly empty words — half prayer, half mantra, something along the lines of “Please let it go okay, please let it go okay” — every single time.

What is this about? I’ve been teaching for nearly twenty years now, in a few different contexts early on, but for the last sixteen, at the same place. And every course I’ve taught has gone reasonably well. So why the need to pray, half-consciously, before every single class, that everything goes okay?

I suppose it could be linked with the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. Surely every college-level creative writing teacher felt at least a bit of unease after the revelations that shooter Seung-Hui Cho wrote a number of violent and disturbing pieces in the creative writing courses that he took before the day that he opened fire in a classroom. In the years that followed that tragedy I eventually moved on from such half-conscious worries about my own students, particularly after a disruptive student who cast himself in hostile and aggressive roles in virtually everything he wrote for the multiple classes he took with me finally graduated. But then came Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords and twelve others in Tucson in January 2011, and who had a history of disruptive behavior at Pima Community College, from which he was eventually expelled. And then, of course, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, students at Bunker Hill Community College and the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, respectively. Every shooter or bomber was surely someone’s student at some point — though maybe not in a creative writing class, where despair and desperation are, perhaps, on more immediate display.

And so from time to time the niggling questions, about my students, about their writing and their apparent appetite for violence, return. After all, every college-level creative writing class, in my experience, has at least one student who kind of scares me, or at least worries me; there’s always at least one surly girl, or someone shifting restlessly throughout the class and walking out (to use the restroom? to take a phone call or respond to a text? I never know) at least once during most class sessions. Someone who writes adoringly about guns. And always — always — at least one student, usually male, who writes delirious accounts of blood and gore and destruction.

Please let it go okay. Please let no one get shot.

Mostly, though, if you worry about these students, you worry more about the harm they seem to be thinking of doing to themselves. Some creative writing teachers I know have established a “no suicide stories and/or poems” rule for their classes. I’ve never done it, but I’ve considered it. A few years ago I saw countless accounts of car accidents, many involving drunk drivers. Recently there have been a lot of characters who are addicted to prescription drugs.

When you teach creative writing to college students, you can learn more than you ever wanted to know about the culture of American youth. Mostly I just found it all vaguely interesting, and also a little sad, until I had a daughter of my own. She’s now on the cusp of adolescence, and I suppose that could be another reason that I seem to be unnerved by the prospect of facing yet another roomful of twenty-year-old Americans, and yet more pages of the particular obsessions that surface in their creative work. The heartbreak, the eating disorders, the cutting, the Aderall and Vicodin, the poems written as loving tributes to their warm, comfortable beds, which they desperately wish they never had to leave.

“I have become a cartoon of myself for an audience of strangers,” wrote novelist Lynn Freed, in an essay titled “Doing Time: My Years in the Creative-Writing Gulag” that appeared in the July 2005 issue of Harper’s. That line resonated powerfully the first time I read it, in the spring of 2006, when I wrote it down in my journal. (Though these may have nothing to do with anything, I have to note here the two bumper stickers I’d also seen — on the same car — and recorded on the same page of my journal on that April day: “I used to have superhuman powers until my therapists took them away,” and “Fuck with me and you fuck with the whole trailer court.”) At that point I was nearing the end of my first year of teaching after a year’s sabbatical, during which I’d cut myself off from all contact with students and colleagues at my college and worked steadily on a new novel. I seem to recall feeing energized, at first, when I entered the third-floor classroom again at the beginning of that post-sabbatical academic year. But by the end of the year my journal entries had dwindled to a sour trickle, mostly angry, sarcastic quotations, like the one from Lynn Freed, and the bumper stickers.

The last sneering lines I wrote in that journal for a while came a month later, when classes had ended. “From my Spring ’06 Fiction Writing course evaluations,” I wrote at the end of May: “‘Instructor is very emotionally attached to ideas sometimes.’” After that I taped in a scrap of paper on which I’d written that line from Lynn Freed yet again (apparently forgetting that I’d already written it only a page or two earlier): “I have become a cartoon of myself for an audience of strangers.”

“And so I am caught,” Freed continues in that essay, “in the teacher’s trap — the trap of wanting to be liked.”

Judging by the online reactions to Freed’s essay, she needn’t have wasted time wanting to be liked. “Lynn Freed, you are a piece of shit,” went the title of a July 2005 blog post by graduate students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who identified themselves as “Iowa Mafia.” “Lynn Freed was, hands down, the worst teacher of any kind I have ever had,” wrote a responder on a Chronicle of Higher Education forum. And writer Mark Pritchard satirized Professor Freed in his lengthy — and very funny — “Secret Diary of a Prisoner in the Creative Writing Gulag,” one entry of which concludes “Then I learned that what I thought was good behavior — doing my work, exercising my rare Talent — was in fact dooming me to more hard labor. Now I have to read twelve stories by next Thursday. If you want to call them that.”

I do not teach graduate students, and while I sometimes pine for the company of other writers in the academic world that I inhabit — and also for students who take themselves, and their written work, more seriously — mostly I think that’s a good thing. There’s a freshness, even an innocence, in most of the undergraduates I teach; in many there’s also a youthful exuberance for literature and for creative work. Most aren’t yet entertaining fantasies of lucrative book contracts and thousands of adoring fans, as I imagine many graduate students are (I did after all; in fact sometimes I still do). But this isn’t to say that they want nothing from me. While Freed’s students might have expected her to somehow launch them on a career comparable to her own, my students seem mainly to want me to notice them. To pay close attention to everything they’ve written. To take them seriously. And sometimes that’s simply exhausting.

I like Lynn Freed’s essay on her time in the “creative writing gulag.” I think her critics, those who see her as nothing but a contemptuous snob, are not reading the essay closely, or are perhaps — understandably — so incensed by the complaints of someone who’s secured a number of great teaching gigs in the last fifteen to twenty years that they can’t quite hear all that she’s actually saying. She seems to me to see, and to articulate eloquently, and often hilariously, the conflict between teaching and their own writing that many creative writing teachers experience. She is also refreshingly honest about her own limitations as a teacher. “The happiest teachers,” she writes, “are, perhaps, those who are most comfortable in the role of parent or mentor. I am not.”

I don’t, however, find much to encourage or sustain my own teaching in Freed’s essay. It’s interesting to note the kind of “parent or mentor” she seems to have in mind. For Freed, the job of creative writing teacher requires “the language of injunction” — a language that ruins her “for the real work of a writer — listening, writing, listening…” She is convinced that such language — of injunction, analysis, correction — is what her unformed students most need. Yet as the semester progresses, and she becomes “Lost…in the language of injunction, lost for the real work of a writer,” she also becomes, she says, “both too clever and too stupid to write. What I am suffering — this cleverness, this stupidity — is the creative equivalent of an autoimmune disease.”

The writer, forced into the classroom, ends up attacking her own writer self. She becomes “a cartoon of myself.” “Too clever and too stupid to write.” Each time I read those words, I wince in painful recognition.

Of course, there is another kind of parenting, less about injunction than about nurturing, less concerned with correcting than with listening and, perhaps, gently nudging. Call it “attachment teaching” maybe. And yes, I’m aware of the attendant risks implied by such a term — and I’ve experienced them, with, for example, the student who showed up every week during office hours with several new poems, long after he’d completed my course.

But many things, besides my own lack of time and energy, mitigate against such a model, the model of teacher as caregiver. On many, if not most, college campuses, success as a teacher can brand you, in the eyes of colleagues (and also of tenure and promotion committees), as an intellectual lightweight, someone who is more engaged with students than with the weightier, and more meaningful, work of academic scholarship.

“Teaching, we implicitly say to our graduate students, is not as important as scholarship; you will get a teaching assistantship based on our assessment of your potential as a scholar.” So wrote literary scholar Judith Fetterley, in an essay published the Winter 2005 issue of American Literary History. “Of course, if we think you are really hot,” Fetterley continues, “we will give you a fellowship, and then you won’t have to teach at all!”

And how can success in teaching be measured anyway? The most widely used tool for such measurement is student evaluations, maybe the least-respected instrument of faculty evaluation there is. To take student evaluations seriously is to take students seriously, to cede to them some awareness of what has happened in their classes, and some authority in reporting on that. But for the most part, we don’t cede them any of that. Also, everyone knows that high numbers on your student evaluations mean your students think you’re an easy grader. Or so the standard wisdom goes on my campus.

Who knows what actually goes on in most college classrooms, or any classrooms for that matter? Students, presumably — at least the ones who are awake and reasonably alert. But if we aren’t going to look to them for answers as we try to understand good teaching, where else can we look? Certainly not to media images of teachers. As Elizabeth Alsop notes, thanks to television shows and movies ranging from Mr. Holland’s Opus to Breaking Bad, viewers “are now all too familiar with certain tropes of teaching yet all but unacquainted with anything like the real thing.” This, Alsop contends, could explain our often unrealistic perceptions of teachers themselves. “The fact that we see teachers in such extreme terms — as angelically good, as horrifyingly bad — may in fact be an indication,” she writes, “that we don’t see them at all.”

But as any parent can tell you, there’s nothing dramatic or sexy about caretaking and nurturing. There’s mainly a lot of spit and shit and spilled food, all of which somehow morphs into slamming bedroom doors and threats to take away her phone. With, yes, many transcendent moments in between, such as the rapturous experience of watching your child while she sleeps, which is something I never tire of doing. But the transcendent moments are of course fewer than the mundane ones. Just as with teaching creative writing, there are, frankly, a lot of really mediocre, or worse, drafts of poems and stories and essays — some of which actually get better after some sessions of attachment teaching.

covercoverThat kind of teaching, like the day-to-day moments of caring for a child, doesn’t make for particularly good TV, and if there’s any group that’s even more overlooked than teachers, it’s probably caregivers: the people, for instance, who look after our preschool-aged children, or our aging parents. One of the best discussions of this oversight that I’ve seen came in Meghan Falvey’s 2007 review of the last rash of books about over- and under-employed upper middle class women. We’re constantly in the throes of another wave of cultural obsession with things like “the mommy wars,” of course, but at that point it was books like Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? and Caitlin Flanagan’s To Hell with All That that Falvey was discussing when she wrote, “Care of others hampers self-development — at least, development of the kind employers require,” and concluded that “Care is long-term, it strives to create security, and it requires personal sacrifice.”

The writer — forced into a seemingly endless series of student conferences and reading a seemingly endless pile of student poems and stories and essays — sacrificing herself. The “creative equivalent of an autoimmune disease.” Maybe there’s no getting around the exhaustion part of it all. But let’s be honest: we all know that the vast majority of writers, in this age of free content and the free-for-all that the world of print publication has become, have to make a living doing something else. And it’s probably going to make us tired. At least, maybe, we can be tired but respected. Tired, but not also objects of contempt — because of our favorable teaching evaluations, because of the part-time status that is the likely fate for many of us. “It is feminism,” Falvey says, “that offers the best solution. For feminism’s most important unfinished work lies precisely here: in a redefinition of our attitude toward care and care workers, and in securing for them social recognition and material support.”

In his 2012 NEH Jefferson Lecture, “It All Turns on Affection,” Wendell Berry makes a similar argument for the value of care and care workers. Our notion of “culture,” or more specifically of the “arts and humanities,” needs rethinking and revitalizing, Berry says near the end of that soaring speech. Our habitual understanding of culture as “high” culture “actually debases it, as it debases also the presumably low culture that is excluded: the arts, for example, of land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking” — a list of arts to which I would add the difficult and, often, low-status job of teaching. Particularly teaching as caring.

“We denigrate teaching,” Judith Fetterley writes, “as a form of self-protection from the pain of failure.” I have felt like a cartoon of myself in front of an audience of strangers in various classrooms throughout the years. Like a stand-up comic whose routine is hopelessly out of date, or a grinning, sweating tap dancer, dancing my heart out even though no one’s even watching. (“Instructor is very emotionally attached to ideas sometimes.” That still stings, I’ll admit it, and it still makes me defensive. You think a writer is supposed to be detached from ideas?)

Wanting your students to like you — to find you smart, or funny, or charming, or somehow relevant to their lives — is dangerous, I’ve found. Especially as I’ve grown older and they, remarkably, have remained young. It’s dangerous because a good number of them inevitably won’t like you, and it’s easy to turn that failure to be liked into the thinly-veiled contempt that, for example, Lynn Freed’s “Doing Time,” for all its clever self-awareness, is dripping with. But, as Judith Fetterley notes, “There is no place for contempt in the classroom. Occasionally, anger is necessary and healthy, and disappointment is inevitable, but contempt poisons the enterprise. Contempt breeds nothing but contempt.”

Just as it’s impossible for me to stay furious at my daughter, I find that it’s impossible for me to be contemptuous of my students and their writing once I’ve gotten to know them, once I’ve talked with them one-on-one, once they’ve explained what they’re trying to do in, say, that tenth poem about their insomnia or that fight with their best friend last year.

Or in that story about the girl who keeps sleeping with losers until one day she gets a diamond from a really nice guy, the story that infuriated me, that made me want to throw up my hands and say “I give up!” — except I couldn’t, because she was due at my office any minute, and though a part of me kind of hoped she wouldn’t show up, I knew that when she did, there would soon be a way into talking about this alarmingly naive story of romantic redemption, a way into talking about it that would reveal that she wasn’t, in fact, as naive as the story made her seem. And I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the way into talking about it would only appear if I just sat and listened a bit, to hear what she really wanted to say, and once I’d done that, then — and only then — could I have a real conversation with her about how to make the story better.

Of course, this doesn’t happen all that often. Most students don’t want to come for conferences with me; they’re content to have me read what they’ve written and assign it a grade. And I don’t want most of them to come for conferences with me either. Conferences take a lot of time, and by the time I’ve prepared and taught my classes, and read and evaluated my students’ assigned work, I have precious little time left, and that’s time I’d rather spend doing something else — like writing, for Christ’s sake (“exercising my rare Talent”), or like being a mother to the girl who actually is my child.

And so I must acknowledge that though I know Judith Fetterley and others are right about what I should be doing as a teacher — though I’ve had enough experience with students through the years to recognize that what they say is true — I’m capable of slipping, in a heartbeat, into the caustic voice of Lynn Freed, and of many other writing teachers that I’ve known. I began by saying that I’ve recently admitted to myself that I don’t like teaching, and in many ways that’s true. But this is probably mostly because I am, in many ways, an anxious and introverted person, which means that beyond the simple peevishness that so many of us feel about not being able to make a decent living from our writing, there is, for me, this additional thing, this discomfort in the skin of a teacher. It will probably always be difficult for me, but maybe no more difficult, and probably more rewarding, than I would have found other forms of paying work.

I’m trying to hold on to the wisdom of writers like Grace Paley, who said it was simply “interesting,” this never-ending effort to balance everything — an everything that, for her, included not only writing and teaching and a family, but deeply engaged political activism as well. Or like Scott Russell Sanders, who said in a 2008 Writer’s Chronicle interview, “Like any writer, I struggle to preserve the mental space necessary for creative work. But I’m not willing to abandon the students and others who depend on me…So I go on struggling to make my imperfect art in the midst of relationships and responsibilities.”

Bitterness creeps into my voice — into me actually — when I’m not writing, when I’m feeling overwhelmed by my students, or my family, or some combination of these and other things. Bitterness, and self-pity; angry, mocking one-liners taped into the pages of my journal, and nothing else written there for weeks. I recognize it; it’s been there for a long time. It’s the voice of the anxious, defensive me — the me, probably, that realized I wanted to be a writer. Back in college, as a matter of fact, at a small school rather like the one where I teach now, where some important teachers took me seriously. Back when I first realized that literature, and writing, could save me from the paralysis of a growing bitterness, a sense that I was alone in a world filled with people who did not see the world — the strange, ridiculous, and sometimes beautiful world — in the way that I did.

Literature, and writing, have saved me countless times since then — as I know they’ve also saved a number of my students. How important, in the face of that possibility, is the sick feeling at facing yet another pile of student stories or poems; the barb of a less-than-stellar teaching evaluation; or the sinking feeling between my stomach and my chest as I walk out of my office, down some steps and over some pathways, up some other steps, and into the classroom one more time? Surely I can handle it, at least for a little longer.

Please let it go okay.

Image via riaskiff/Flickr

is the author of two novels, Stranger Here Below and In Hovering Flight, and a collection of short stories, Tell Me Everything and Other Stories. She is the Cohen Chair for English and Literature at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA.


  1. Well said. It is a confounding task to articulate the complexities of teaching, the dread, the exhaustion, the emotional investment in each new group of strangers. These complexities, are, as you write, often absent from protrayals of the profession, and are so relevant to an understanding of what it means to try to be a writer, and a teacher- a care giver- day in and day out.

  2. this was interesting, and made me feel guilty. I’m a college teacher, and I never worry about things going okay. I know it always will, and it always does. I think college teachers wildly overestimate the impact they have on kids’ lives. I can’t even remember the name of my writing teacher in my first year of college. Nothing. We like to make ourselves feel important, but really, the kids don’t care at all.

  3. Students don’t remember mediocre teachers, and most teachers are mediocre. Good and (even rarer) great teachers have an enormous impact, and are never forgotten. So I guess it just depends on your values as a teacher.

  4. The best teachers I had (in that same small liberal arts school) were the ones who were emotionally attached to their ideas. It clued me in that they were happy being themselves and felt confident in their convictions. I had a history professor who cried on the first day of class, and a writing professor who admitted halfway through the semester, “I know it seems like I’m making this all up on the fly…and honest to god I am.” I looked up to these people, and it never occurred to me that they might actually be worried what I thought of them.
    I remember–it being not long ago that I was a creative writing student–the kind of raging hormonal and emotional and chemically-mediated experience it was to be nineteen years old, living “on my own” on campus, and trying to navigate the world and be clever enough to put it on paper without sounding like everyone else before me. What I took away from that experience was not sitting through the lectures or getting a grade on the essay; it was the process of learning about myself as I wrote. Isn’t that the point of creative writing? That we all become emotionally attached to our ideas?
    People must get so weary of pretending that they don’t feel anything. Don’t take too much stock in the students who fill those ranks.

  5. Believe me, I never intended for this piece to make any teacher feel guilty! I appreciate all these comments, and particularly the wonderful specificity of your memories–from the midst of that difficult nineteen-year-old space–Sarah W.

  6. I enjoyed this thoroughly, even though I couldn’t connect with it so much. You see, I also teach in a small college, though not creative writing, just plain old English, and some of it as a second language. I feel differently about this, I am sure, because I started writing more ‘seriously’ after I began teaching. In that context, I consider this teaching gig an absolute blessing, pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me, precisely because it’s the only career I can think of that could provide decent middle-class living with wife and kids and afford me all the free time I need to be a struggling writer. I mean, just look at the numbers: I teach a maximum of 12 hours a week for 30 weeks out of the year. If I don’t procrastinate, I can deal with grading and correcting exams in around 10 hours a week, perhaps a bit more during midterms and finals, considerably less in between. Add in a bit of prep, a few committees, but all in all, I never work more than 25 hours a week, 30 weeks out of the year.
    This might also be relative to your own social circle, but I am, by a big margin, the least busy person I know. If I was less of writer I’m my own head, and more of a writer in the real world, financially speaking, I would just teach less, to free a bit more time.
    Still, I don’t think I love teaching. It’s not something I am passionate about. I feel ok in front of the classroom most of the time, but I would do less if I could. In the end, I’ve pondered long and hard the alternative possibilities, and there are none that come close to matching the benefits of the teaching path. For creative types who aren’t superstars, teaching college is, in my own opinion, the best case scenario. It’s important to keep that in mind whenever we get cynical or feel blasé when we’re about to enter the classroom.

  7. Thank you for this great piece. I have done a lot of sessional (contract) teaching in the past, but have found myself through circumstance and necessity at home with kids, and up until their recent deaths, looking after aged parents. I always truly appreciate other writers writing of their struggles to balance the need to make money and care for family and write, because the writing field is so often dominated by the stories of great singular success that I know will never be my story. I struggle to remember the collective, communal act of writing and of making art, and have often felt lonely instead of connected, so thank you again for writing this.

  8. Teacher evaluations should count for nothing. The students don’t know what they need.

    As long as we listen carefully, painfully, to them, we should.

    And there has to be a moral element in what we say: don’t hurt yourself. don’t hurt other people. don’t let yourself be hurt, except when you have to.

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