Teaching phil (expandated)

Go figure. Work on another teaching statement for another job app snagged my active engaged interest. Results here. Wary be, some loftiness ahead. And still enamoured of the pilcrow.

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 as they come to a sense of their own practices. My workshops emphasize non-evaluative feedback. I find 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 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 work with differences of background and temperament they may have with their peers. For instance, I often put students in pairs to restore line breaks to a poem I’ve set as a para­graph. One is to make sure 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 against the sort of difference another person is. The values I’ve set out here, self-aware­ness, self-inquiry, empathy across differences, have meaning beyond the creative writing classroom. They are, to my mind, crucial to any humanistic education, and have something real to offer the business major, the nurse in training, the nascent physicist. And creative writing has ways of eliciting these values maybe not to be found elsewhere.  But far fewer of a given school’s students will take a creative writing workshop than take a general education course. So it’s important to me, in my general university courses, which at Western are capped at 60 or 75 students, to carry over all I can from my practice as a creative writing teacher. I rarely lecture for more than two or three minutes at a time. My mini-lectures are usually impromptu—offered as our conversation seems to warrant. I make a point of learning everyone’s names, and make getting a student’s name wrong a point of fun at my expense, to model that I’m learning, too. Really a pretty small expense. I use small group work so everyone can collaborate in their own education. And I give assignments that draw on both creative and analytical faculties—per­form­ance projects, formal debates, journal assignments that ask students to write a soliloquy in blank verse or a scene in the post-apocalyptic creole in which the novel we’re reading is narrated. My hope is that, through activities like these, students will draw their creative, intuitive, emotional, and analytic faculties closer together, and they will be more available to them in their other coursework, their careers, and their social and spiritual lives.

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

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