Thursday morning a student asked, “Ms. H, do you teach 102 in the fall?”
“Summer session,” I said.
“Why not the fall?” the student asked.
I said, “Tenure-track and full-timers have priority. I could teach eight o’clock.”
Another student said, “I’ll register for that class if you’re teaching.”
I grimaced. Why did these students keep following me from remedial, freshman composition, to introduction to literature? I had students in past semesters do the same. I’d encouraged them to try another instructor, get a different writing perspective.
Yet, many, at least 15% continued registering for my class, and showing up enthusiastically, despite my strict rules, tough grading, and excess writing assignments. It was as if we had a continuous relationship.
I confess at the beginning of each semester my introduction goes something like this: “This is a sixteen week relationship. You’ll check out my style of teaching, I’ll check out your style of learning. You will either like what happens in this classroom or despise it. Either way I don’t care. It’s possible you’ll think I’m crazy. I am. Just to clear things up, I’m weeding out the deadbeats; I dislike all my students equally. However, if you are unhappy with my technique, withdraw and withdraw early, so you can get your money back.
Later Thursday night, I metamorphosed into a student. The professor and I walked across campus chatting about the AWP Conference while heading toward her office to discuss my manuscript critiques.
One the first day of this class, Building the Novel, five out of nine students had sat under the tutelage of Elizabeth Elasmi, author of Bone Worshipping, last semester. I refused to another class with the same instructor. What more could she teach the second time around? However, nine weeks into our student-teacher relationship, Elizabeth, aka Liz, had challenged my craft, pushing me out of my comfort zone. When I pushed back, she did, too, gingerly.
As an instructor, when students pushed back saying, “I didn’t learn that in high school.” I leaned in, not so, delicately. “Learn or stay where you are. Every class should take you to a new level.” And many rose to the task using language, crafting sentences, and researching topics they had moaned about. Simultaneously, as a postgraduate I emulated the undergrads hungry for more, energized with each comment the instructor placed on my paper. How can I improve? ( Note: this hunger applies to a small percentage.)
Liz and I convened in her office. She opened the manila folder and discussed three pages of notes regarding my manuscript. “Good structure, great tension. Description of food leaps off the page.” She talked about my characters in real time, explaining what character fell to the background, needed more development and were magnetic.
“Angela, normally a first draft lacks structure; however, your novel has structure. I suggest revision focus on craft like the pieces you’ve crafted in class.”
Her genuine interest in my project, in my skill titillated me. Previously, I’d wrestled with boredom in writing workshops anxious to bolt out the door. I enjoyed studying with Liz, I told her so. I had planned to enroll in one more class with her in the fall.
I guess this is why at least 15 percent of my students follow me from class to class. I care about how their writing extends beyond the classroom into every day life, future projects and other classes. I tell them so, honestly and truthfully. “It’s important to know how to communicate in writing.” I do not burden them with busy work, every assignment links to another assignment. I don’t teach what i think they should know, but what they don’t understand. I lift their spirits after placing a D on their essay, saying, “Next time slow down, proofread.” and asking, “What stumps you in the writing the content or the mechanics?”
When I think of them and how long I’ve wrestled with writing, I laugh at God’s sense of humor. In the fourth grade, I dreamed of living in a log cabin and writing novels, yet, I did not plan, hope or desire to stand in front of a classroom and teach. Perhaps, this is my learning method: to teach and learn twice.
God knew I needed a double dose, after all Proverbs 16:3 and 9 states, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans,” and “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”
Do you trust that God knows what’s best for you?