Sometimes, insightful students ask me what the hardest thing is about teaching writing. I think a lot of things about it can be pretty challenging, but by far the most difficult thing to deal with is not the volume of reading, the red ink expended, demystifying style manuals, explaining what the deal is with split infinitives, or any of that stuff. It’s undoing the damage that thoughtless teachers left behind.
These days, I mostly teach adults: either grad students or folks returning to school to finish their bachelor’s degrees after something of a hiatus. Most have real jobs, and a lot of them are pretty successful. People who work full time while getting master’s degrees and having families and lives and stuff don’t tend to be slouches, you know? They’re sharp, they’re motivated, they work incredibly hard, and may be mastering time travel as we speak. Here’s the thing: usually, more than half of any given class thinks of themselves as lousy writers.
The hell of it is, they’re not. For most folks, getting the hang of writing graduate term papers is simply about learning the form, and it takes a little practice when they’ve mostly been writing business reports and memos for a while. It’s a different style and a different rhythm, but it’s all based on more or less the same stuff, and they’ve already shown a blinding competence for other kinds of writing. So where does the lousy writing stigma come from? Turns out, it’s invariably because somebody told them, somewhere along the line, that they were lousy writers. That, my friends, truly smokes my cachongas.
For one thing, writing is a procedural skill, like throwing a baseball, making a pastry, or overhauling a carburetor. Anybody can learn it and do it competently. Nobody seems to get stigmatized in quite the same way by being told he or she is a lousy shoe tier, or a lousy bowler, or even a lousy kisser. Instead, people just get some more practice and get better at it, or they don’t worry too much about it. With writing, though, they’ll carry that mark of shame around for decades, and maybe for their whole lives.
More importantly, though, teachers should NEVER be in the business of telling students what they can’t do, or that they’re lousy at something. Seriously, who the hell am I to limit somebody’s future, particularly when the human spirit and psyche have boundless potential? It’s certainly okay to tell students what you think they would have to do in order to accomplish their goals and let them decide for themselves whether it’s worth the hassle. It is absolutely NOT my call to make, though. I don’t have to do the work, or live with the consequences of the decision — once I outline a possible path, I’m out of it. Only the person trying to achieve his or her goal has the right to decide whether or not he or she is up to it. I’ve had students who were not especially good writers when they came into my classes, and became excellent writers over time and with practice. It’s all about the student’s own commitment, and that is not something for me to mess with.
Furthermore, anytime you look at what someone is doing now and try to extrapolate what he or she could be doing in the future, you’re just guessing. You can’t really know what he or she might have to do to accomplish that same goal in a year’s time, or a decade’s. She could get luckier than you were and not have to walk the same overgrown, brambled path. The trajectory of his life could change radically, and by the time he gets back to this goal, he could have acquired skills and contacts he can’t even anticipate now. How can I possibly pretend to have the authority to place limits on anyone’s future skill acquisition? It’s ridiculous.
The human psyche is the ultimate stream you can’t step in twice. Tomorrow, that student will be a slightly different person for the experiences she has today. This time next year, she will have framed proudly on her wall the degree she is working toward today, that will change her head about achieving her goals, she will accept certain positive notions about the likelihood of her own success, and that will change the course of her life forever. Seven years from now, every cell in her body will have been replaced, and no physical remnant of the being sitting in front of you will remain.
The teachers from my students’ pasts who told them they were lousy writers did us all a disservice. As a teacher, it is my job to help students find out what is possible and to raise their expectations of themselves. It is that raising of expectations that suddenly makes a myriad things possible that weren’t before, and that opens up a world of new choices. I think of the millions of human psyches that have been limited away from discovery by careless, tired, or antagonistic teachers, and I wonder how much humanity would be enriched by now by the otherwise emerging talents of those they discouraged. Hey, one of them might have invented a time machine I could then take back to the moment just before her teacher said she was a lousy writer and say, “Don’t do it, mac.” I do believe I have the authority for that.