TITLE: Good Teaching Is Grounded In Generosity Of Spirit AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 27, 2016 10:26 AM DESC: ----- BODY: In My Writing Education: A Time Line, George Saunders recounts stories of his interactions with writing teachers over the years, first in the creative writing program at Syracuse and later as a writer and teacher himself. Along the way, he shows us some of the ways that our best teachers move us. Here, the teacher gets a bad review:
Doug gets an unkind review. We are worried. Will one of us dopily bring it up in workshop? We don't. Doug does. Right off the bat. He wants to talk about it, because he feels there might be something in it for us. The talk he gives us is beautiful, honest, courageous, totally generous. He shows us where the reviewer was wrong -- but also where the reviewer might have gotten it right. Doug talks about the importance of being able to extract the useful bits from even a hurtful review: this is important, because it will make the next book better. He talks about the fact that it was hard for him to get up this morning after that review and write, but that he did it anyway. He's in it for the long haul, we can see.I know some faculty who basically ignore student assessments of their teaching. They paid attention for a while at the beginning of their careers, but it hurt too much, so they stopped. Most of the good teachers I know, though, approach their student assessments the way that Doug approaches his bad review: they look for the truths in the reviews, take those truths seriously, and use them to get better. Yes, a bad set of assessments hurts. But if you are in it for the long haul, you get back to work. Here, the teacher gives a bad review:
What Doug does for me in this meeting is respect me, by declining to hyperbolize my crap thesis. I don't remember what he said about it, but what he did not say was, you know: "Amazing, you did a great job, this is publishable, you rocked our world with this! Loved the elephant." There's this theory that self-esteem has to do with getting confirmation from the outside world that our perceptions are fundamentally accurate. What Doug does at this meeting is increase my self-esteem by confirming that my perception of the work I'd been doing is fundamentally accurate. The work I've been doing is bad. Or, worse: it's blah. This is uplifting -- liberating, even -- to have my unspoken opinion of my work confirmed. I don't have to pretend bad is good. This frees me to leave it behind and move on and try to do something better. The main thing I feel: respected.Sometimes, students make their best effort but come up short. They deserve the respect of an honest review. Honest doesn't have to be harsh; there is a difference between being honest and being a jerk. Sometimes, students don't make their best effort, and they deserve the respect of an honest review, too. Again, being honest doesn't mean being harsh. In my experience, most students appreciate an honest, objective review of their work. They almost always know when they are coming up short, or when they aren't working hard enough. When a teacher confirms that knowledge, they are freed -- or motivated in a new way -- to move forward. Here, the teacher reads student work:
I am teaching at Syracuse myself now. Toby, Arthur Flowers, and I are reading that year's admissions materials. Toby reads every page of every story in every application, even the ones we are almost certainly rejecting, and never fails to find a nice moment, even when it occurs on the last page of the last story of a doomed application. "Remember that beautiful description of a sailboat on around page 29 of the third piece?" he'll say. And Arthur and I will say: "Uh, yeah ... that was ... a really cool sailboat." Toby has a kind of photographic memory re stories, and such a love for the form that goodness, no matter where it's found or what it's surrounded by, seems to excite his enthusiasm. Again, that same lesson: good teaching is grounded in generosity of spirit.It has taken me a long time as a teacher to learn to have Toby's mindset when reading student work, and I'm still learning. Over the last few years, I've noticed myself trying more deliberately to find the nice moments in students' programs, even the bad ones, and to tell students about them. That doesn't mean being dishonest about the quality of the overall program. But nice moments are worth celebrating, wherever they are found. Sometimes, those are precisely the elements students need to hear about, because they are the building blocks for getting better. Finally, here is the teacher talking about his own craft:
During the Q&A someone asks what Toby would do if he couldn't be a writer.
A long, perplexed pause.
"I would be very sad", he finally says.I like teaching computer science, but what has enabled me to stay in the classroom for so many years and given me the stamina to get better at teaching is that I like doing computer science. I like to program. I like to solve problems. I like to find abstractions and look for ways to solve other problems. There are many things I could do if I were not a computer scientist, but knowing what I know now, I would be a little sad. -----