March 03, 2005

Today's topic: teachers who suck

Today's topic is a tangent spinning off a post over at One Good Thing which I read via Pilgrim/Heretic, the blog that embraces riffraff.

Teachers Who Suck the Creativity out of Students

In college I had this creative writing teacher who didn't like the stories I wrote. He thought my techniques were fine, but he didn't like my subject matter. I wrote a short story in which the main character was a pregnant woman who was thinking about getting an abortion. This was the early 1980s and abortion was still a hot topic in the media, in the circle of feminists and environmentalists who were my friends, and in the circle of conservative Roman Catholics who were my home community. I didn't know what I thought about the topic myself - I was only eighteen years old and still felt pulled in all kinds of ways by the people around me. So writing a short story from the perspective of a pregnant woman was one way for me to try to work my own way through my conflicting thoughts and emotions.

The character in the story didn't come to any conclusions. That's one of my favorite things about writing fiction, incidentally. You can just end the story and not come to any conclusions.

My teacher hated the story. He said that writing about abortion was "opening a can of worms." (This was right after he told us not to use cliches.) He said that no one would want to read about a pregnant woman because pregnancy was not a universal experience. Universal, in this case, meant white middle-class male.

He said that I couldn't possibly write a story from the perspective of a pregnant woman because I had never been pregnant. He on the other hand seemed to be an absolute authority on pregnancy because his wife had one time had a baby, and he went through the story circling paragraphs in which I had described the way the woman's body felt, telling me that the details were wrong.

Years later, when I was pregnant with my first child, I got out the old story and realized that my descriptions were, in fact, right on target. I suspect that this accuracy came about because I was socialized as a woman: even before college, I had attended many women-only gatherings such as baby showers and had heard women talking about how their bodies felt. I had been exposed to a wealth of information about pregnancy. It's likely that I knew far more than my arrogant male professor.

Of course, sitting in the classroom, listening while the professor ripped my story apart, there was nothing I could do. That was the rule. The professor handed out copies of the story, which were supposed to be anonymous, and everyone was encouraged to jump in with criticism. The writer was supposed to remain silent. The students in the classroom for the most part just followed along with whatever harsh criticism the professor was dealing out. I'm not sure what these workshops were supposed to accomplish, but what they did for me was to kill any desire to write.

The only piece of encouragement that I got was from another student in the class. He was two years older than me, a senior, and an incredible artist as well as writer. What I admired most about him is that he just wrote whatever he wanted and ignored the teacher altogether. He never said anything aloud in class. Anyhow, one day in class, while the teacher was again ripping apart one of my stories, this time about a pregnant woman who lives in a futuristic culture in which she is being forced to have an abortion because of the government's population control mandate, I notice him quietly circling phrases and starring paragraphs. After class, he handed me his copy of my story. "I know it's supposed to be anonymous," he said, "but I knew it was yours. I went through and circled all the stuff that told me it was yours. You have a very recognizable writing style. I think you are the best writer in the class."

Looking back, I am grateful for that older student and his intuitive way of encouraging me. And I wonder how much of the writing I've done over the last ten years was fueled by a stubborn desire to prove that teacher wrong. That teacher, by the way, never did get anything of his own published. In the meantime, I've published poetry about pregnancy, childbirth, sex, breastfeeding - well, just about any bodily experience you could have. All of it written from the perspective of a woman. Because I am a woman. And I think being a writer means I should not be silent.

13 comments:

Anastasia said...

go you. I would very much like to publish poetry before I die. I really enjoyed reading this.

Ianqui said...

You go, girl. I'm glad you didn't let him discourage you.

The only related experience I've ever had is when I was trying to learn C++. In grad school, I had a teacher who'd been given the class, but didn't actually know C++. He could program in C, but the point of C++ is that you could go far beyone what you can do in C. He regularly gave us assignments that were way too hard--assignments that we basically cheated on by asking a programming grad student friend of ours to help us with. I didn't learn a thing. And to this day, I detest programming and haven't learned to do it, even though it would be helpful to me on a daily basis.

Argh.

timna said...

great post. I'm so glad you've succeeding in publishing.

PPB said...

In high school, my creative writing instructor told me that my stories were "insipid little girl scribbles."
After finishing that tortuous class, I never took another and was grateful to test out of college English. My stories might have been insipid little girl scribbles, but it would have been nice to have been allowed to come to that conclusion on my own. I think writing teachers that suck have issues.

Yay for the older, wiser student. He's kind of a boddhisattva,eh? Sorry, I've been reading a lot of Buddhism.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Ah, jo(e). What a great piece. I'm struck, by the way, by the teacher's assumption that you'd never been pregnant. I can only guess that he assumed any woman who had a pregnancy before the age of 22 would walk around for the rest of her life with a great big scarlet "A" tattooed on her forehead.

I should have guessed that you are a published poet. One more reason to want to be you when I grow up. Do you have trading cards?

Scrivener said...

To whatever extent it is true that you've spent the last ten years writing to show that professor how wrong he was, I say three cheers for clueless writing professor! Even if he is a rat bastard. And four cheers for you for figuring out that you may not have been able to control that classroom dynamic but that you could control your own response to it--that you could go ahead and show that rat bastard writing professor what a clueless dolt he really is.

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

Well put! As always, jo(e). We could probably start a whole blog devoted to the ways that we, our colleagues, our disciplines, and our institutions discourage creativity, honest thought, and the possibility of possibility.

melancholic said...

Having been in grad school for, well, a damn long time, I no longer wonder where bonehead professors come from: all I have to do is look to my right, and look to my left (and I'm in a strong program). Even as we speak, we're building bonehead professors for the future.

LisaV said...

I had a prof. in a research methods class read my paper out loud, stating it was the best written paper she had read in her 17 year career. She gave me a 90.

Then in a fiction class I had a prof. whose only stipulation about writing was that we could not write about our children because he found that boring. I wrote a story about a serial killer and he loved it. I wrote another about a woman who was committing suicide, it mentioned her son in one paragraph, and the rest was about her depression- he said it was a "mothering" story and panned it. The rest of the class gave me lots of positive feedback. It really was a better written story, just not as an exotic subject matter.

Maybe we should start an online creative writing workshop.

Dr. H said...

that teacher totally sucked... but good for you for rocking on!

jo(e) said...

LisaV: I think blogging *is* an online creative writing workshop. For me anyhow. And the feedback is postive and encouraging ....

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Hey wait, didn't you mention on my blog that you are an SLU grad?

Why do people say that you have to write on themes that are universal? Are you supposed to expect everyone on earth to read your work?

jo(e) said...

Rob: Yes, this happened at SLU. The professor I'm talking about was there for only one year and did not get hired back.

I'd like to add that I had many really wonderful experiences at SLU -- and they made going to college possible for me by giving me a full scholarship, so I am grateful to the school. That one professor was an exception but so often it is the bad experiences that stay with you ....