Scholarship and Practice

Hattery: The Many Roles of a First-Time Teacher

Sean Robinson

On the first day of class, half-way between the parking lot and the brick clock tower that houses what will be my classroom, I stop. The building is backlit, campus is quiet. It hits me that in mere minutes, there will be students—paying students—who will enter the class and expect someone to teach them something. They’ll expect me to teach them something.

I have never taught before. Not in the way professors teach: in front of a classroom, with twenty sets of eyes watching their every move. I am—I decide, standing on the walkway—a great many things. I am an alumnus of the university. I am a writer, a student, an artist. I am—absolutely—not a professor.

Yet, three days before, I was having coffee with the chair of the English Department, and yup. Yes. I accepted a position as a Teaching Lecturer at my alma mater. Three days before the beginning of the semester. And I have never taught before.

I decide that I will just have to pretend to be a teacher.

It’s strange as the students filter in. I am in the same classroom where, eleven years before, I began my own academic journey. In Composition, with Patrick Armstrong teaching the class. Like me, he was an adjunct teacher, and like me, he held a MFA in creative writing. I wonder, as they sit, if he was ever as nervous as I am. I decide that he probably was, and that if he can do it, so can I.

I shuffle papers—the syllabus, the assignments—like some sort of academic Tarot and wait for class to begin.

***

So, how does a person who has never taught before make a meaningful contribution to the students? How when that person is—at heart—a fantasist? I have more in common with Tolkien’s elves than I do the Analytical Essay that serves as a backbone for the Composition course at my university. How do I do it when I have three days to do it?

Like any story, you start at the beginning, and make up the rest.

In writing there is an adage: write what you know. With this in mind, I gathered my trusty resources, and forged into battle.

In building the course—indeed in teaching the course—I looked to three books. The first, On Writing by Stephen King. In it, King tells the writer that they are a mechanic accompanied by a tool box. The second, Anis Bawarshi’s Genre and the Invention of the Writer, tells the writer that they are a performer, acting out the parts assigned by genre. And in Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, it offers that the writer might be many more things—including a cook. But never, ever, a teacher. Instead, Elbow espouses two writing processes: growing and cooking.

With these three perspectives—tenets, perhaps—the course was designed. In it, I hoped to drive home three goals: the first of which was the emphasis of real-world application for the skills used in class. The second was that the students understand and appreciate that in academia (and in life, probably) sometimes process is as important as product. Lastly, to introduce them to practitioners of writing—folks who write as part of their professional lives.

On that first day in the clock tower classroom, the first thing we do is introductions and this is where, in reflection, another hat becomes clear. I am going to need to be a facilitator. The students—all first year students—do not want to speak. But when prodded, they share their names, their majors.

Once a week we do a check-in. The first time we do it, I tell them it will be the most important thing we do in class all semester and their heads snap up from their smartphones and toward me all at once, like mind-controlled villagers in a horror movie. They rate their weeks one-to-ten and share something about themselves.

I listen to all of them, and as the weeks progress, I make it a point to celebrate with the ones having great weeks, and offer encouragement to the ones who aren’t. College is tough.

But on day one, we begin the process of learning. Section 7 Composition was designed (in three days) to speak to the writing perspectives offered by King, Elbow, and Bawarshi.

In On Writing, King offers the metaphor of a tool box as the repository for the skills necessary of a writer. He says “The toolbox was what we called a big ‘un. It had three levels, the top two removable, all three containing little drawers as cunning as Chinese boxes” (King 1999). King goes on to explain what goes into the tool box: “Common tools go on the top. The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary,” “You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your tool box.” Further on, King discusses style: the creation of paragraphs and the use of adverbs.

Beginning on day one, we start going through these drawers.

But first, we start with effectiveness—to see how the tools in the metaphorical tool box are used to their best effect.

I ask students to complete an essay describing a piece of effective writing. It’s there where the first surprise comes to me as an educator. The essays are thoughtful, interesting. Three students choose “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, but find it effective for different reasons. One talks about his past history as a drug dealer. Another discusses how going to a college out of state was unexpected. He’s a football player and he writes that he’s scared of college, being far from home.

They’re scared of failing.

Even half-way through the class, I’m scared of failing, too. I tell them that, because we’re all in this together.

And it’s then that I realize that in some ways, my job is more complicated than I’d imagined when I sat in the coffee shop and became a college instructor. If I have to wear the hat of a carpenter, of a cook, of a gardener, I must also wear a hat I don’t have a name for. Confessor. Confidant. Anonymous lurker in the comments section of their lives.

But then again, it’s the hat of a teacher.

***

We move forward from there.

There are readings: Ann Lamott’s “Writing Shitty First Drafts” where they students don’t want to say the title out loud. We talk about word effectiveness—analyzing the poetry of Robert Frost (“The Road Not Taken”, an activity shamelessly taken from Patrick Armstrong when I took Composition in the same classroom a decade and more before) and the spoken word of Tupac Shakur. We discuss why writing matters and slowly, so slowly I almost don’t realize it, they start opening up.

One student shares a free write after weeks of awkward dead air when I ask if anyone wants to. Another talks about wanting to beat a state record in running. More importantly, they start talking to each other about what makes writing good, or bad, or effective, or why we write.

Writing needs to find a happy medium between too simple, and too complicated. The topic has to be engaging, even if the reader isn’t interested. Waiting to the last minute to write an essay produces something less effective than one that has gone through drafts.

They buy into the idea of writing as a process, and something worthwhile.

As we roll into research essays, there’s a young lady who gathers information of American made pick-up trucks. She provides data and independent analysis. When I tell her she’s done the most interesting research essay in the class, she tells me that she’s not a writer. Another—probably the most skilled writer in class—completes a reading of Thoreau’s Walden using two sources. But in those two sources, he wrings seven pages of philosophical analysis, offering it up with clean words and, if I listen, an echo of how he—the student—looks at the world. And the world’s a pretty good place. Even at 8am for Composition.

When I mention it to him, he says that he doesn’t think he did the essay right.

This parallels what Peter Elbow offers up in Writing Without Teachers. In the “Growing” section Elbow discusses how writers generally believe that writing must be tightly controlled and that as a writing student grows, they begin to interact with the written world differently (Elbow 1998).

Further, Elbow goes on to state that this previous idea is backward—that the

“meaning-into-language” process is counter to the act of writing. He writes, “Writing is, in fact, a transaction with words whereby you free yourself from what you presently think, feel, and perceive. You make available to yourself something better than what you’d be stuck with if you’d actually succeeded in making your meaning clear.” (Elbow 1998)

The student who wrote on Walden never quite believed that he was a good writer, instead focusing on how to become better—as a writer, as a student athlete, as a person. During our correspondence following the course, in the years since he graduated, he cites the Walden essay as his proudest.

While the growing shown in these essays and in the course may not quite be what Elbow is describing, I believe they represent a necessary growth for a burgeoning writer, academic, student, or person.

In this, perhaps, the writing professor must also wear the hat of a gardener. They must believe in our students and their limitless potential. If nothing else, a gardener believes that the garden can grow, should grow, must grow. So too, our students.

***

Two-thirds of the way through the course, one of the quietest students stops coming. He’s the one who writes well, and doesn’t have to work for it. He’s also the least likely to laugh when I make a joke, and be on his phone when he doesn’t think I’m paying attention. When I email him, he says that things have been stressful for him emotionally, mentally and physically. He ends it saying he appreciates my concern. No mention that we crossed paths on the Quad: me leaving the class he’d skipped, he avoiding eye contact. Or that his grade is suffering his lack of attendance and participation with his peers.

In Writing Without Teachers, Elbow highlights the need for participants sharing their work to avoid arguing or attempting to make meaning out of one another’s work or attempting to reach a consensus. Rather, he suggests that each person bring their own experience to the table, to share with the author. He also suggests (which I think inherent to anyone who is sharing their work with other people) that they demonstrate bravery. Which he defines as “Willingness to risk.” He also goes on to say that there is a need for “participants to feel a responsibility toward the other members of the class” (Elbow 1998).

Elbow says that a writer must learn from fellow writers, rather than an almighty professor. Since I am neither almighty, nor a professor, we workshop. For each of the five essays Composition writes over the course of the semester, they share with a small group. They comment on each other’s work.

This is where, on reflection, I might have done things differently.

In Patrick Armstrong’s Composition course, we workshopped exclusively. We read each essay out loud in class under a pseudonym, and only took ownership of our work in public once the critiquing was over. As a writer (who also went to a MFA program) this has always been my preferred method of working. But for the students in Section 7, we go about it a little differently.

On the first workshop day, they pull out their piles of papers, the critique sheets I’ve asked them to fill out to add some structure to the conversation. They get to work. Ten minutes later, each of the groups is back on their phones. There hasn’t even been enough time for me to make my way to each group, let alone for each group to talk about each of the essays.

It is probably a good thing we only do this a few times. Better, is that when we discuss the workshopping process, folks talk about being unsure of what to say, or how to say it. They want to be supportive of one another, not mean. We discuss strategies on how to approach an essay someone’s written. We talk about responding as writers, and inch-by-inch, the critique and peer-feedback becomes better.

In the anonymous evaluations at the end of the course, many say that this was the best part of their learning experience, and helped them hone their skills.

The skills they learn are things that can be worked on. Put into the toolbox.

Concurrent to King’s toolbox and Elbow’s garden, Anis Bawarshi discusses that genre defines and creates the writer, and that the classroom should model that crucible of creation.

He says, “genres are [also] instruments and realms—habits and habitats. Genre are the conceptual realms within which individuals recognize and experience situations at the same time as they are the rhetorical instruments by and through which individuals participate within and enact situations” (Bawarshi 2003).

On the day we begin discussing genre, there are ten (of twenty) students in the class. It’s the worst attendance we’ve had, ever. But we forge on. They’re broken up by academic discipline into five, unevenly populated, groups. It’s not ideal, but there has been a surge of would-be Nursing majors since the University offered it as a program. There is a group for Psychology, one for education, a third for health science, and a multi-disciplinary group containing an artist, a computer scientist, an environmentalist, a meteorologist.

In these groups, I hope that the students will begin considering the larger framework and context that their future writing will grow in. Bawarshi suggests that “To begin to write is to locate oneself within these genres, to become habituated by their typified rhetorical conventions to recognize and enacted situated desires, relations, practices, and subjectivities in certain ways” (Bawarshi 2003).

While complicated, this passage can be summarized to say that a writer must follow the rules of the genre they’re writing in. Their first activity as genred groups echoes this:

I ask them to debate the superiority of their academic discipline, in an echo of what happens—perhaps in a more friendly manner—in academia. By the end of class, they have laughed and challenged one another. They have begun to think about their disciplines as discrete entities beneath a greater academic umbrella. As the course comes to a close, they will complete independent research and put together a “Writing in the Disciplines” essay.

This is the assignment they struggle with the most. In it (running parallel to the genre exercises suggested by Bawarshi) they are asked to look at their academic discipline and identify what sort of writing goes on in it. Afterward, they’re asked to look at peer-reviewed journals and periodicals, and share what current trends are in the field. Lastly, they’re asked to speak with someone who’s employed in the field, to see their perspective on writing day-to-day.

In my mind, it is the perfect synergy of the three perspectives in the class—the real-life practical application of King’s Tool Box, the peer-centered Kitchen of Elbow, and the theoretical Genre Land of Bawarshi.

Panic ensues.

***

Two students send rough drafts my way that discuss the importance of writing, which is not the assignment. Some try to explain how a research article is constructed—also not the assignment. The worst is from an English major who says, pointedly, that writing about writing makes no sense, and is a waste of time.

So much for perfect synergy.

In the classes that follow—including a short extension—I get us back on track. I wear each of my many hats: the expert, the cheerleader, mechanic, and taskmaster to get there, but we do. The day before Thanksgiving break begins, they submit these essays with a sigh of relief.

I think, in many ways this embodies some of what Genre and the Invention of the Writer says about the genesis of writing. “Invention takes place at the intersection between the acquisition and articulation of desire” (Bawarshi 2003).

By the time the essay is submitted, the students desire to be complete with the project and thus, the project is articulated.

On the last day of the course, we engage in the time-honored tradition of English classes everywhere when the semester is wrapping up: we watch a movie. And when the short films give way to Saturday Night Live skits, I ask them to tell me why the skits, or the film (a reboot of the Power Rangers franchise, laden with profanity, blood, gore, and action) are specifically effective.

The artist, who has written essays on Australia and the use of unicorns in art, says that it wasn’t effective. She quotes the Aristotelian Triangle, saying that the film required Pathos and it didn’t connect to her as a reader. Another—the oldest in the class, a wrestler with a bum leg—says that the skits were effective because they have a good hook; pulls the viewer in.

Conversation spirals and turns. Some think they’re particularly effective, others don’t. There is good-natured banter, while talking about what makes writing effective, perspective. They use the tools we’ve put in their tool boxes throughout the semester, and they do it while I watch on, adding in when it seems appropriate.

This is probably my favorite hat I wear in class: the hat of an observer, a watcher. Perhaps King would say that the role is that of the tool-box maker, or Elbow would say it is the hat of a gardener. It doesn’t matter, because when the end of class comes, they’re laughing and learning.

When the dust settles, the videos are over, and the students leave the classroom onward to the next semester, I read their last assignments. I asked them to complete a reflection where they comment on what they’ve learned, where they’ve grown, and what they still need to work on. It’s in this that I have succeeded. Maybe. Hopefully.

One student writes, “This class gave me a safe space to comfortably express my emotions and express what I was thinking without being judged.” Five years later, they’re a political activist, working on presidential campaigns. Another, now an athletic trainer at a local school says, “I believe in the question for knowledge and masterization. That even when you struggle in something, there is no reason not to get better at it because you never know when a mastered skill will come in handy later on in life.” The third, a student who doesn’t continue at the University, and has fallen off the map writes, “This class has given me more inspiration, more hope for my future.”

It’s this that the first class ends on. Whatever hat we wear as a teacher, an instructor, a professor, whatever title, and all the hats we wear, we must provide safety, support, and an environment of growth for our students. So they can find hope and inspiration for their futures.

That’s the most important hat we wear.


References

Bawarshi, A. (2003). Genre and the Invention of the Writer. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Elbow, P. (1998) Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.

King, S. (1999). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.

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Voices of Practice by Sean Robinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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