Student-Centered Horseshit

I’ve been thinking a lot about creative writing and composition pedagogy since I started this new program–where they intersect, how methods from one field can be applied to the other, etc. Workshopping and peer editing, for instance, are now big deals in composition–but they’re dressed up for the academics in terms like “student-centered pedagogy” or “collaborative learning,” and intellectually justified by “decentralization of power in the classroom”–whereas creative writers are more likely, both informally and in print, to call them what they are: ways not to teach. (When I have time, I’ll look up a citation for an article I just read in the AWP Chronicle archives that amounted to “How to do the bare minimum to hold a teaching job while not really caring about anything but your own writing.”) (Update 2/11/06: That’d be “Surviving the Trip from Adjunct to Professor: How to Keep Writing through an Overload of Teaching,” by Sally Shivnan, in the Feb. 2006 AWP Joblist.)

The irony is, I’ve learned so much more from creative writers who fully admitted they were looking to lighten their workload than from cutting-edge theorists who really believed these things were the most effective teaching methods–precisely because those creative writers weren’t looking to “empower” me. They believed their advanced degrees and publication credits did indeed confer authority on them, and they taught as if they bloody well knew more than the novices in front of them–ergo, a workshop was not solely about student critiques, but also about the experienced writer in the room drawing larger questions and themes from those critiques, explaining problems common to beginning writers and strategies for addressing them.

In certain composition circles, that attitude is scandalous–the student only needs help discovering what she already knows! “Workshopping” in that context means breaking students into small groups, telling them to discuss each other’s work, and walking around to check that they’re not actually discussing each other’s weekends instead. Being a creative writer, I’m inclined to describe this with a metaphor–something like, oh, I don’t know… the blind leading the fucking blind? (“Cliche!” cries the creative writing workshop member.)

A couple weeks ago, my Teaching Writing (i.e., comp) prof asked for pros and cons of the small-group workshop method. One main pro was, “It lets the students know that other people are struggling the same way they are.” So I jumped in on the con side with, “That might be helpful for the average writers, but what about those on either end of the spectrum? The weaker writers are most likely humiliated and just have their ‘failure’ reinforced by peers as well as the prof. Meanwhile, the stronger writers learn nothing except that they don’t have to work very hard to get an A.” The prof, in a moment of candor I–and I alone, apparently–found shocking, said, “Well, that’s true about the weaker writers, but you just hope they’re learning by example. As for the stronger writers, well… I don’t really worry about them. I mean, if I have a kid who already gets it, maybe she doesn’t really need my class.”

But she’s in your class. The might only be because the university requires it–as my current school does for undergrads–but still, her money’s just as fucking green as the average students’, and since she’s an 18-year-old freshman and you’re a PhD, there is probably something you can teach her. Except we’re not supposed to look at it in those terms. If you’re operating on the premise that students already know how to write and only need to access their own knowledge, a student who “gets it” has already achieved the objective. So, you know, fuck her.

When I was a sophomore at a not-very-competitive small liberal arts college, I had a Modern American Fiction prof who was recently out of grad school and extremely committed to “collaborative learning” methods. He would even take the time to explain his pedagogy to the class–always referring to us as “inexperienced readers,” which drove me bonkers, even if I now realize it was true–thus setting himself up as unassailable. “This is what we’re going to do, and this is why it will work. Oh, wait, it didn’t work? Well, I told you why it should, so you’re just resisting alternative learning strategies.” Seriously, he said that shit to us. He had us draw pictures of what we thought Brett Ashley looked like–by committee, natch–then told us we were too old-fashioned and linear when we politely mentioned that we hadn’t learned dick from that.

My friend Meg and I took that class together, and on the rare occasion when there was a large-group discussion about a book, we talked. As we do. And because we were 19-year-old “inexperienced readers,” we talked a lot about what a misogynistic fuckface Hemingway was, for instance. In retrospect, I’ll grant that those contributions weren’t necessarily helpful to anyone’s appreciation of literature (least of all ours)–but a prof with control over his classroom would have gently cut us off and steered the discussion elsewhere. (And maybe even helped us understand why Hemingway was so much more than that–something I didn’t figure out for myself until years later.) Instead, he stood there looking annoyed while we talked and no one else did, sputtered that we were wrong, and Hemingway was a classic for a reason–he just never mentioned what reason–then told us one day, in front of the whole class, to see him afterwards.

He dragged us into his office and read us the riot act. We were “dominating class discussions” and “intimidating the other students.” He might expect that from “a couple of big football players or something” but not from us, i.e., not from a couple of five-two girly-girls. Somewhere around that point in the convo is where my head exploded. (Since when are big football players known for their strong opinions on modernist fiction?)

When he saw that that tack wasn’t working, he tried flattery: we needed to understand that the other students weren’t as experienced as we were (we’d both transferred in from more competitive schools, where we’d tanked because of depression), didn’t grasp the material at the same level we did. “Isn’t that why you’re here?” we asked. But… but… his methods didn’t allow for bringing the others up to speed! The whole point of collaborative learning was that students like us could help draw things out of the slower students, could facilitate their learning! It was effective pedagogy, dammit! Yeah, for them. For us, it was $17,000 a year to experience no challenges except to our personalities.

Meg and I went to the chair of the English department, a man we both adored, and had a little chat. He was tremendously sympathetic, but nothing changed immediately. Come evaluation time, the guy they sent in to oversee the anonymous evals actually had to wrest mine from my hands a couple minutes after the time was up. A month later, I was hanging out with a professor from another department, and she casually said, “So, you really hate Professor X, huh?” Me: “How do you know that?” Her: “I was on the committee that read the evaluations.” Me: “They’re anonymous.” Her: “Please. I know your writing. Everyone knows your writing.” Oops. Sort of.

Judging from his absence among the current faculty at that school, Professor X was denied tenure. I have no idea what role, if any, Meg and I played in that. Regardless, as an aspiring professor, there’s a part of me that wants to feel bad for him now–but I don’t. I regret many, many instances of shooting my fool mouth off at 19, but that’s not one of ’em. It’s one thing to acknowledge that, as a teacher, you will never be able to reach all of your students equally; it’s another to state openly that you’re not even trying to engage particular students. That asshole deserved what he got, and despite the karmic gamble I’m taking in saying it, I hope I’m a large part of the reason he got it.

In theory, I’m just as irritated by profs who fully admit that they’re not trying very hard to teach at all, that they’re eating up class time with peer conferencing and group presentations so they can work on their novels instead of preparing lectures. In practice, those are some of the best teachers I’ve had, because they never tried to justify it as anything else and thus never lost sight of the fact that a professor does have power in the classroom, no matter how uncomfortable we may be with that idea. They never thought the best learning came from that horseshit–they just thought enough learning came from it for them to get by–so they still felt an obligation to supplement it by offering us some of the experience they were hired for. Did they have a significant impact on every single student? No. But they didn’t actively, consciously marginalize anyone, either. There weren’t any students they “just didn’t worry about,” even if they didn’t worry about any of us a great deal. They fucking taught.