Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Tell me about your teachers

As I prepare to head out to another summer workshop, I am thinking a lot about what I want the week to be: what I want to learn, what I'm willing to put forth, what I have to bring. I've heard from multiple sources that Carl Phillips is a very good teacher, so I think I've got a great week to look forward to.

Anticipation, as it so often does, makes me look back as well. I'm thinking about some of the writing teachers I've had over the years. Since I haven't (yet!) done an MFA, these pretty much fall into two groups: those who taught me when I was an undergrad English major, and those who've taught me in summer (mostly one-week) workshops.

I'll be the first to admit that I had some pretty terrific teachers as an undergrad, and that I did a pretty piss-poor job of taking advantage of their gifts. I was probably not too different from a lot of other twenty(ish)-year-olds in that one of my biggest goals, in each poetry workshop, was to prove that I was talented. Maybe part of that was the phenomenon of being graded, and being the Good Student who wanted to maintain her high GPA. But that attitude got in my way so big time -- I was reluctant to take risks that might not work out, to go out past my comfort zone, to fail productively. Plain and simple, I didn't want to look bad. I would have learned so much more if I'd been willing to risk looking like a fool sometimes.

I've had some pretty terrific teachers since then, in summer workshops, too. Most have been at least good; some have been amazing. I love the intensity of a short one-week workshop. I love the challenge of going into a room full of strangers, and having to almost immediately drop a lot of defenses, take risks, put myself out there, make myself vulnerable. At its best, it is exhilarating. At its best it changes me, often in ways I don't begin to understand for weeks or months after the fact.

That necessity of walking in and almost immediately making yourself vulnerable, instead of having a few weeks or class sessions to ease into it and get to know your fellow poets as you do in a longer workshop, means that it's absolutely essential for the teacher to create an atmosphere in which it is safe enough to do that. This means in part: discouraging snark, discouraging show-offiness, encouraging risk-taking, demanding & offering honesty, demanding & offering respect. It also means, sometimes (and here's where some people will probably beg to differ), making an effort to find anything to praise -- and sometimes, acknowledging a student's failure. Both can be difficult to hear. Both can be difficult to trust. (And trust is so key here.)

The best teachers I have had, and I'm thinking of two in particular, have managed to say to me in so many words that I had talent, that I was doing very good work -- and to say it in such a way that it terrified me, made me feel like throwing up. Because what I got from the praise was that I was holding something alive and powerful in my hands, and that I had a responsibility to do something about it. They told me that I had a lot of hard work ahead of me, and knowing how hard that kind of hard work is, the prospect was (and is) daunting.

And that's my favorite praise of all time, the kind that makes me feel like throwing up. The words from those two teachers are the ones that I hold on to and come back to when it does get difficult, the tapes I replay when it's dark inside my head. Because I trust that that praise is real. It's not just blowing sunshine up my ass. As a summer-workshop student, I'm wary of praise; it would be easy, I think, for a teacher just to sit there and tell their students how wonderful they are -- knowing that after the week is over they may never see those students again, and knowing that, frankly, that's what some students want to hear.

People will pay good money to go to summer workshop after summer workshop and be told that they are amazing. I don't want that. I want to be pushed towards places that scare me. If at some point during the week I feel like crying or I feel like throwing up, that's probably a good thing. I want to be asked to work harder than I would ask myself to work. And I want to be given an environment, a temporary community, in which I feel safe enough to do that, in which I know my effort will be respected and taken seriously. If I can have that and also some good hard laughter and some silliness now and then, even better.

Yeah, I don't ask much, do I?

Bear with me here for a moment while it gets weird in here: It's kind of like sex. You put yourself in this position of vulnerability, where you could very easily get hurt -- and sometimes a little bit of pain even makes it better. The power of the experience comes directly from that vulnerability and openness. Also: attentiveness to what the other person(s) may be experiencing is important, the cues (verbal and nonverbal) they give you. And faking it doesn't do anybody any favors.

So that drifted away a bit from thinking about teachers to thinking more generally about the workshop experience, but of course it is usually the teacher who has the most responsibility for setting the tone of the workshop experience. And even though you may get valuable feedback from your fellow students, it's usually the teacher you want most to hear from, their words you're paying for.

I think, too, of my sensei, back when I was a serious martial arts student. There were days when she pushed me so hard and so far past my comfort zone that I hated her, and that was an important part of my growth. I think that happens more in a long-term teacher-student relationship, and there isn't necessarily enough time to reach that point in a one-week workshop -- but I can think of at least one teacher about whom I have thought, if I worked with you for long enough I'm sure I'd hate you at some point, and then thank you for it later. (And I find myself wishing that I could have that opportunity. I am so weird sometimes.)

And so, a request. Tell me about your teachers. (Name names, or don't, whatever you are comfortable with.) Do you respond best to a Paula Abdul, relentlessly pointing out the positive, cheering you on, believing in you even when you suck? Or does a Simon Cowell help you more, not mincing words or putting up with any of your crap, dishing out the tough stuff you end up thanking him for later? Or are the best teachers maybe a little of both? Does some praise help and some praise hinder? Are there aspects of the teacher-student relationship that interest you, that I haven't touched on here? I am fascinated by this dynamic, if you hadn't already guessed.


Radish King said...

This is an interesting post. Maybe because I don't believe in the concept of talent, maybe because my education has not been of the literary sort. When I was 16 a nun wrote a comment on my poem in an English class that kept me going for many years. She wrote You make me remember what it's like to be a girl. Other than that, I've learned what I know about writing from entirely different sources that have little to do with writing. Music, painting, watching people (carefully), and developing a personal philosophy of bravery, a need to step out of the drumline and dance, to see things differently, to obsess, to cultivate perverse desire, which, after all, is the thing that keeps us going.

firstcitybook said...

I don't mean to seem negative, but one of my teachers (who now teaches at U of Arkansas) once said to me, when I was looking around for a MA program in English, that "a poet especially should be ready to free [her]self from human influence after a certain point and prepare [her]self to listen to the gods."

One other teacher of mine, when I was earning a PhD, said that the most important part of being a poet is to figure out what keeps him or her writing. If you can answer the question, "What makes me write?" the rest becomes easy.

Having had twelve teachers of creative writing, both poetry and prose, sometimes for only a month-long tutorial, I have to say that some teachers are genuinely concerned about their students. If you can find a good teacher who takes you seriously as a writer, who offers the kind of encouragement that one needs occasionally, and who doesn't need someone to stroke his or her own ego, you are extremely lucky. Too often, workshops become competitive with the students vying for the teacher's attention and praise. Afterwards, that competition shows itself in whose name gets circulated among magazine editors and who gets the awards and accolades. I hate those kinds of things, but I'm not the best person to talk to about workshops and teachers.

Lyle Daggett said...

I've had some great teachers. I find I respond best with teachers who have a light touch, for lack of a better way of putting it -- not necessarily cheerleading, not pushing me relentlessly either, mostly keeping hands off with an occasional comment or suggestion here and there.

My first poetry teacher, poet John Caddy, one summer when I was in high school (summer 1970), gave us lots of writing exercises to lead us to our physical senses -- close detailed observation of plants and flowers, eating an orange with our eyes closed, attempting poems in "voices" far removed from human (animal personae, mythical or phantasmagoric creatures, objects, etc.). I was, I think, too scattered in my own head to really get what he was doing then, but much of what we did in the class has stayed with me over the years.

I was in a poetry writing class for nine months (senior year in high school, 1971-72) that met five mornings a week in a large old house in Minneapolis, with two teachers, Wally Kennedy and Gary Isensee. Most mornings one of them would bring in a writing exercise of some kind -- again often something to lead us to our physical senses -- and we would scatter to some room or corner in the house and write, then come back and read what we had written. There was very little discussion of the poems; we mostly just read taking turns, as we felt moved, with the poems surrounded by attentive silence or maybe a very brief comment by someone. I mostly remember the intent silence of the class sessions, an alive silence, not a repressed one. I found after a while that the particular character, the subtleties of the silence, could give a clue to how people were reacting to a poem. The silence wasn't empty.

Many years since then, I've been in shorter poetry workshops (a week or 10 days) with Margaret Randall, and Olga Broumas, and Sharon Doubiago. All were wonderful.

Margaret Randall gave an equal amount of time to everyone in the class to read our work and then we talked about it; she commented herself when she felt moved to, though didn't in any way try to "lead" the class other than setting up the basic "everybody gets a turn" plan. Most of the people in the class had been writing for at least a little while (it was at the Port Townsend Writers' Conference), and I liked how the class moved.

Olga Broumas (also at the Port Townsend Writers' Conference) seemed to guide us with a little more defined structure -- some days she gave us writing exercises, some days she brought in books of poems by poets she liked and she talked about their work. We read a lot of poems in the class. She talked some about her ideas of what it meant to live the life of an artist. I found myself provoked by some of her comments, and pushed myself in directions I might not previously have gone in poems.

Sharon Doubiago taught (at the Split Rock Arts Program, in Duluth, Minnesota, at the time) a week-long class on Writing the Epic Poem. It was a small class (seven "students" and Sharon), and all of us were working on long poems or poem sequences (whether or not they qualified as epics might be a separate discussion). Sharon shared many strong ideas about poets and poetry. We did much writing in class. I found her immensely open and open-minded about all manner of approaches or "styles" of writing.

I'd known one of the teachers for a long time as a friend, before taking the class. In the case of another of them, we became friends during the class and have stayed in touch since then.

For me all teaching and learning is profoundly political in character, and whenever I've been able to I've sought out teachers who are as democratic and non-hierarchical as possible in leading their classes (or whatever other teaching they're doing). With poetry teachers I've had some very good luck.

Anne said...

Interesting comments, all. I think I've been very very fortunate with the teachers I have had. I'm fairly allergic to competitive atmospheres, and for the most part I've been able to steer clear of them.

Lyle, your comment about teaching and learning being profoundly political has got me thinking. I think you are 100% right, and it's something I want to think about further.

Pamela said...

My two best teachers have been polar opposites--one very strict, who taught for the mind; the other very encouraging, who taught for the soul. I had them back to back. Both of them pushed me hard, which I really needed.

My worst teachers taught neither for the mind nor the soul, but only for the adoration. I've never had a worse experience as a student.