TITLE: Hemingway on Teachers, While Teaching AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 14, 2016 10:55 AM DESC: ----- BODY:
Ernest Hemingway sitting on a dock next to his boat, Pilar, in the 1930s
Early in Arnold Samuelson's With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba, Papa is giving an impromptu lecture about writing to two aspiring young writers. (He does that a lot in the book, whenever the men are out sailing and fishing.) This particular lecture was prompted by what he thought was bad advice in a book by a successful pulp fiction author on how to get started as a writer. An earlier session had focused on the shortcomings of going to college to learn how to become a writer. Toward the end of his discourse, Hemingway tells the young writers to do daily writing exercise and generously offers to read read their work, giving feedback on how to get better. This offer elicits a few more remarks about the idea of college writing professors:
"They ought to have me teach some of those college classes. I could teach them something. Most professors of English composition can tell the students what's wrong with their pieces but they don't know how to make them good, because, if they knew that, they'd be writers themselves and they wouldn't have to teach."
"What do you think of the life of a professor?"
"All right for a person who is vain and likes to have the adulation of his students. Well, now, do you fellows think you can remember everything Professor Hemingway has told you? Are you prepared for a written examination on the lecture?"
Teaching computer science must be different from teaching fiction writing. I have been teaching for quite a few years now and have never received any adulation. Then again, though, I've never experienced much derision either. My students seems to develop a narrower set of emotions. Some seem to like me quite a bit and look for chances to take another course with me. Other students are... indifferent. To them, I'm just the guy standing in the way of them getting to somewhere else they want to be. Hemingway's "have to teach" dig is cliché. Perhaps the Ernest Hemingways and Scott Fitzgeralds of the world should be devoting all of their time to writing, but there have a been any number of excellent authors who have supplemented their incomes and filled the down time between creative bursts by helping other writers find a path for themselves. Samuelson's book itself is a testament to how much Papa loved to share his wisdom and to help newcomers find their footing in a tough business. During all those hours at sea, Hemingway was teaching. Still, I understand what Hemingway means when he speaks of the difference between knowing that something is bad and knowing how to make something good. One of the biggest challenges I faced in my early years as a professor was figuring out how to go beyond pointing out errors and weaknesses in my students' code to giving them concrete advice on how two design and write good programs. I'm still learning how to do that. I'm lucky that I like to write programs myself. Writing code and learning new styles and languages is the only way to stay sharp. Perhaps if I were really good, I'd leave academia and build systems for Google or some hot start-up, as Hemingway would have it. I'm certainly under no illusion that I can simulate that kind of experience working at a university. But I do think a person can both do and teach, and that the best teachers are ones who take both seriously. In computer science, it is a constant challenge to keep up with students who are pushing ahead into a world that keeps changing. ~~~~ The photo above comes from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. It shows Hemingway sitting on a dock next to his boat, Pilar, sometime in the 1930s. The conversation quoted above took place on the Pilar in 1934. -----