Saturday, July 05, 2014

Writing, Teaching, and Vulnerability

As a writing teacher, I often place myself in a vulnerable position. In providing an example, whether it is a sentence or a string of sentences, I often choose to write about something that is in my head at the time; that is, a topic of interest or one I am passionate about. I expose some of my thinking about that topic, and thus I am susceptible to verbal or emotional attack. I must do this, as I am the model for the routines of the class.

I ask my writers, each week, to lay before us, the entire class, their most private and personal ideas in essays written about topics they care about. They read aloud their thoughts (which often have been placed on the paper as raw, absolute-zero drafts, perhaps from a free write during the previous class) as we all listen intently. This is the routine: reading aloud, listening intently, writing down some responses and listening and contributing to a discussion of each essay.

That routine is the core of the class. That kind of listening, applied to each student’s writing, leaves them vulnerable, so I can certainly spare a few sessions that involve my own vulnerability when we are working on sentence construction; that is how we fill any time left after everyone has read their weekly essay. By exposing my own thoughts and being willing to accept their suggestions for improving my sentences, I model what they must be able to do with their own sentences, paragraphs, and essays.

As the second and then the third week of such careful reading and listening go by, the practice takes on a ritualistic feel, so I must train carefully from the very first session. The sacrament of sharing our essays is not easily given up. Indeed, when I have on some few occasions split them into smaller groups to share their essays, it was always less satisfying, both to writers and to listeners. At the end of the semester, students cite the reading aloud and the listening, both from that position of terrific vulnerability (who wants to be the one to say where some cloudiness occurred, where something could be added?) as the single most helpful practice. They like to workshop sentences, too, but the reading and listening and discussing is where they learn best, or so they tell me.

And so I continue to refine the design of my writing class to center on that feature and marginalize all else. They write weekly essays, read and listen, turn them in to get my individualized comments, then revise each one. At the end of the semester, they have written pages and pages, all subjected to revision, especially at the level of sentences. They take three of the essays and revise them further at the end of the semester when they have learned the most. Centering my course on an activity that makes them all vulnerable means I have to acknowledge that and build in supports for it and think carefully about what I will say to each writer and to each listener who comments.

Comments must be observations that any of us might notice. They can not be judgments about the quality of the writing or of the ideas. Listeners must use their observational skills to say what they noticed about the effect of the writer’s words on their own listening mind, not to say what judgment they might pass, if they were the “teacher.” They are not taking on the role of teacher, but rather the role of listener and responder, one who is in dialogue with a writer.

We all feel the vulnerability of putting out our ideas and observations during a discussion of some topic. It is not any easier when we are in a group, a class for which we will receive a grade and some credit toward our next degree. It has become easier for me, but I still experience a twinge when I place some sentence on the board for analysis.

The issue that creates vulnerability is that I do not know what we will all discover. The writer cannot know, before listening carefully to her own and other’s words, where those sentences will take us. Writers bring essays to us which morph into different essays as we discuss them. The authors come to realize, by sharing and listening, where they really want to go with their words, or at least to understand that they did not go where they intended.

When I typed the word, “vulnerability,” at the top of this page, for example, and began to think and write, I did not know that I would end up here. This place, though, is valuable, and I now feel an interest in refining the raw ideas I have generated. The same happens to my younger writers. I must demonstrate that metamorphosis to them again and again if I expect them to realize what revision is about. I must let them see it happen with material they care about. And I must provide for the experience of dialogue about ideas and rhetoric if they are to understand that writing, as a system of communication, is dialogic.