Teaching phil

(Spillover from a job app. Why am I putting it here? Someone might be curious? And, I was having fun with the pilcrow.)

Teaching Statement

The more I write and teach the less I know. In my writing, most of a poem now is found in the moment at hand, in what senses, breath, and mind, each attuned to each, have to say. In that same spirit of unknowing, though, I am less prone than I was, as a young teach­er, to think my process a template for my students. More and more they teach me how to teach them. I teach revision as re-vision, deep new seeing. Some students see newly by reworking one body of words: with each pass they come closer to what they meant, or might mean anew. For others, revision means turning the page; rework­ing one piece, they worry it to death. So I have students try it both ways, and work with them in conference as they come to a sense of their own practices. My workshops emphasize non-evaluative feedback. I find that peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when praise and advice are set mostly aside. This ap­proach has a downside—the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not—but I find most students come to prefer it before long. I emphasize the “writ­er’s antennae”—the capacity for close attention to the texture of your moment-to-moment experience of your own writing. I find that faithful attention to those tingles of excitement, those pulses of boredom, guides composition and revision more reliably than any creative writing precept or external feedback. And I believe everyone has that capacity, though it’s often obscured by self-doubt or anxiety. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel. All the methods I use in the classroom—peer critique, small group work, class discussion, wacky writing prompts—are meant to foster that process of clarification. Many also ask students to negotiate differences of background and temperament they might have with their peers. For instance, I often put students in pairs to restore line breaks to a poem I’ve set as a prose para­graph. One is to make sure that the line breaks are expressive, the other that the line itself has integrity. Each has to contact her felt sense of the poem’s language, and to feel through how new lineations will create new patterns of energy. And each has, as she articulates her perceptions, to accommodate the perhaps quite different values and priorities of her partner. In this way, the sort of difference a line break is, brushes on the sort of difference another person is.

POSTSCRIPT. Reading about the pilcrow in Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Good fun and some neat finds. But dreadful editing. Dangling modifiers so thick methinks I need a machete. Come on, Norton, you’re better than this.

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I write draw teach blog in and from the Pacific Northwest of America.

2 thoughts on “Teaching phil”

  1. So valuable to see this, Chris, and not only (but, okay, partly) because I’ve come to many of those realizations, too, particularly that the students teach me how to teach them. I still can’t let go of the evaluative aspect of feedback, but you’ve made a persuasive case here. And I really like the idea of the pairings for the lineation exercise. We did such an exercise in my intro class just last week and I wish, now, that I’d thought to approach it this way rather than solo, not only because it gets students working together meaningfully on craft but because it underscores the constant need for attention to and balance between competing goals and impulses in the writing process.


    1. Yeah the non-evaluative thing isn’t for everyone. I took to it in my grad program immediately bc it got my hunger for praise and my fear of disapproval out of the way almost entirely. I found I could just listen to what folks had to say much more attentively.

      A way I put it to students: If you slow the response process way down, you’ll find that words come in, they create perceptions that come together in an experience, that experience is pleasurable or neutral or unpleasant, and we judge it accordingly.

      Asking “what did you like about the piece?” goes to the judgement part of the process. Asking “what did you notice about the piece?” goes to the perception part of the process. Which is earlier, and more open, and more closely tied to the words on the page. So describing a perception gets you pretty directly to analysis of the text at hand.

      The approach does cause some difficulties though. Sometimes I want to be able to say this or that was really well done. And I’ve made it harder to say such things because I seem to have ruled them out of the conversation. So there’s a bit of sleight-of-hand involved … some of my feedback (e.g., grades) involves evaluation, but I want it to feel of a piece with our non-evaluative work in workshop. No one’s ever called me on it, but I’m waiting for someone to, and that’ll be an interesting discussion.

      Thanks Steph for jumping into the compost pile …


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