My career as an educator began in an eighth grade classroom with predominantly African-American students from an economically depressed region. What I learned in that room has stayed with me ever since and informs my approach to all learning and all teaching. First, I realized the enormous benefit to both my students and myself of developing an open rapport. By taking student comments seriously, I found that they were more willing to take risks in their approaches to a text or an assignment. Second, I learned quickly that different students with very varied learning styles required different approaches when attempting a new skill or concept. Some students learned through the use of visual aids, others through listening, and still others through writing. For this reason, I try to incorporate as many learning styles as possible in my instruction. Third, I discovered that students will succeed when they are expected to succeed. I never shy away from a text, an idea, or an assignment because I think it too difficult or unwieldy for my students. Through trial and error, I have found that any concept may be learned if two practices are in place: 1.) The teacher expects her students to be capable of learning the concept, and 2.) The teacher is willing to try alternative methods of instruction if at first she does not succeed in getting them to learn. Finally, I developed a personal concept that effective instruction is instruction that allows for mistakes. It is a standard policy in any course I teach that students may revise their written work after it has been graded. After all, the purpose of any assignment is to not only evaluate what students have learned but to also give students the opportunity to learn through evaluation.
After three years in the secondary school system, I began teaching freshman composition at Bowling Green State University where a large number of my students were first generation college students from small farming communities in the Ohio region. Fifteen years after teaching my first freshman composition course, I find that my approach to this specific type of writing remains rooted in process. Students in my composition classes find themselves writing the same essay multiple times – I require two distinct drafts of a paper before a final draft may be submitted for a grade. Further, students are also asked to assist their peers in the drafting of their essays because I believe that many skills are best learned by teaching them, and also because I understand that different students will have different strengths and can offer new approaches to problems encountered. The composition class is a working class; yet, we work together – as professional writers do – we ask others to proofread our essays, we take troublesome sentences or paragraphs and put them on the board so that everyone can assist in working out the best way to revise and make it work, we read expository essays by professional writers and dissect them, looking for the secret to the essay’s effectiveness. We work hard, but we work as a team.
During my time at The University of Mississippi, I began teaching more advanced writing courses and designed one, in particular, that centered on the study of autobiography. Students read a work of fiction and an autobiography for each of two authors: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. We had one question for the semester: what is autobiography? In our attempt to answer that question, I assigned selected readings by Freud, Rousseau, Barthes, and Derrida, among others. A colleague, on reading over my syllabus, told me that my students would never be able to comprehend the readings or the question with which I wanted them to struggle. In some ways, he was correct. On several occasions that semester, if you peered into our classroom, you would have seen teacher and student, our hands in our hair, struggling to grasp some idea. But you would also have seen students engaged in the process of working through difficult concepts. You would have heard students shouting out incomplete sentences – only the first part of a thought that is just beginning to materialize – and seen a teacher furiously writing their shouted thoughts on the board. The desks would be out of their orderly rows. Not everything I attempted worked in that class. For one, I assigned more reading than the students were physically capable of completing, and I underestimated the amount of time we would need to discuss the works we were reading. But I had learned from my eighth graders to pay attention to the needs of my students, to be aware of what worked and what didn’t, and to change my methods accordingly: some items fell off the syllabus. I learned a great deal in that class, and my approach to the teaching of advanced composition and literature has been impacted by both the successes and failures of that course.
I also have had the opportunity of teaching creative writing in both introductory courses, which cover fiction and poetry, and in more advanced workshop environments. As a poet, I understand the needs of creative writers differ from those of literary scholars. In both introductory and workshop courses, I ask my students to not only create new poems and short stories but to read a variety of models in the genre – from the severely structured to the experimental – as well as to become very familiar with the work of writers they respect and admire. It is not uncommon to find members of my workshop sitting outside, closely examining the bark on a tree or a flower bud, or walking through the student union blindfolded. Students are also expected to give a public reading of their work, and poets are asked to memorize and recite their favorite poems. Assignments are varied to incorporate both freedom of expression and technical practice and multiple revisions are expected. At the end of the semester, I ask students to submit a portfolio of the work they’ve completed in the class, along with a letter defining their personal aesthetic, their strengths and weaknesses as writers, and their goals for their writing. In describing one such class, one student said it was the hardest class he’d ever taken, and it was the most fun. The study of creative writing, however, is more involved than the simple drafting and workshopping of new poems. Students must be familiar with the tradition of writing that precedes them, with the writing of their contemporaries, and with the technical elements and theories of writing within their chosen genre. Students who not only read and write poetry but who also give public readings of their work, practice the art of editing, and become familiar with the world of publishing are much better positioned to becoming not only successful writers who contribute to the literary tradition but advocates to the arts who can support and provide for that tradition as well.
I believe in a truly liberal education in which students are actively engaged in discussion and academic inquiry. As a teacher of students seeking a liberal arts education, it is my job to choose materials, texts, and literature that allow students the opportunity to grow intellectually in many different directions. One of my responsibilities as their teacher is having a solid basis for choosing the materials and setting the stage for student learning. Once that stage has been set and expectations discussed in general, then my role changes. As a member of any class I teach, I see my role as facilitator of discussion, as one who raises questions – not as one who gives answers, or as one who expects specific responses, but as one who gives more fuel to the fire that I hope the study of literature and writing has started. I believe in allowing students to locate their own intellectual and creative interests and that, through open discussion of a variety of approaches to a single text, we can come to see any work of literature in multiple lights, as through a prism, and therefore come to understand ourselves, our society, and our world more intimately.