Thursday, June 30, 2011

TEACHING IN BLACK AND WHITE, PART II


I received some kind comments and email responses to my last post that were thought-provoking. I'm very thankful for them. And I feel I should respond a little more to what I wrote just a couple of days ago.



The courses I taught at the University of Washington ranged from black American literature to workshops on literary craft, from critical theory and aesthetics to advanced essay writing, from children's literature (once) to independent studies on a wide range of subjects (the philosophical novel in general, Eastern philosophy and the Novel, screen-writing, etc.) Students didn't need to know my past or biography (except for my professional credentials, i.e., who I studied with, what I'd published on the subject of the course they were taking, and so forth); rather, what they needed to know was, say, what Ralph Ellison meant on the pages of his novel Invisible Man (and perhaps his biography as it relates to that novel, his short fiction and essays); they needed to know objective content they would be tested on (they certainly weren't being tested on me), and to do well enough on their exams and term papers and dissertations for me to give them the "A" grade they wanted, then later for me to be able to write for them a glowing recommendation on precisely what they had mastered in my workshops on writing craft---letters of reference they would use for graduate school or employment. 


Every day that I taught for three decades, I checked my personal life outside the classroom door. I didn't bring it into the classroom because the students weren't paying their hard-earned money to hear about my personal problems or my political views. As their professor, I naturally had to listen to and be open to their personal problems, and to provide assistance---emotional support, when they needed that. (Outside class, in my office or elsewhere, I felt it was appropriate to share, if need be, my personal experience if that would help an individual student; I did not feel class time should be used for that since not every student would be interested in hearing it, or even need to hear it.) One old phrase that people once used for faculty is in loco parentis, "in the place of a parent." That's how I saw and still see a professor's job----we, the faculty, are there to serve our students as their own parents would while they are under our care in the classroom and on campus.


My own "conditioning" in the classroom during my student days was this: in undergraduate and graduate school in the late 60s and early 70s, I had professors who used their classrooms as a private stage, and who regarded their students as a captive audience for their cranky opinions, professors who made their classes as much about their egos and ego-needs as the actual content of the course. I much disliked the experiences of those classes and I promised myself that if I ever became a college professor, I would never do as they did. I always felt my writing workshops should be a labor-intensive "skill acquisition" courses, emphasizing the sequential acquisition of fiction techniques and providing the opportunity to practice them. For those who might be interested in a full description of how I taught my workshops, please read the article, "A Boot Camp for Creative Writing," which originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 31, 2003), and was reprinted in Writers Digest (January 30, 2009). The link for the latter is:
 I hope some of the above clarifies a little bit and expands on that recent post.

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