One of the most difficult things I have had to learn as a teacher is how to work from a place of not-knowing. This is also one of the most important things I have had to learn as a teacher. I believe, very deeply and firmly and with great passion and with whatever other adjective or abstraction is appropriate, that learning is an essential process that needs to — no, must – continue outside of the classroom, outside of the school, outside of formalized education, period. I also believe very deeply and firmly and with great passion and etcetera, that it is my job as a teacher not only the teach the information I must teach but to teach the process of learning about and processing said information, and that said process and processing is important and essential and etcetera and needs to — no, must – continue outside of the confines of my classroom. I feel it is important for me to show my students that even though I may be the one who sits at the front of the classroom and keeps the dry-erase markers with which to draw on the board, I’m still, in many (important and essential ways) in the same position they are: I am a learner. I am still learning. I try, therefore, to work through the process with my students, to dig through texts and ideas and learn as they’re learning.
And my learning curve in terms of doing this has, indeed, been a steep one. From my humble, bumbling and confused start in the college classroom eight years ago, I found this easy enough in my Composition classes, and even in my literature courses. My time at Sarah Lawrence did a lot in terms of instilling in me the importance of learning as an on-going, unending process. I perhaps most treasure the discussions I had with my don, who was then beginning her study to become a Jungian analyst, about Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. These talks were a rare and wonderful experience, as my don allowed me to join in her learning process, to watch and talk with her as she herself delved into and dissected Jung’s ideas. However, my time at Sarah Lawrence did not so much prepare me to teach introductory literature classes — canon? What’s that? — or Composition courses — Composition? English 101? Wait, your classes have numbers and levels? And grades? Oh, dear. I recognized from my first step into a Comp classroom as an observer that my learning curve was going to be very steep indeed, but I’m incredibly grateful for this; over the years, I’ve written and revised, planned and re-planned, learned and re-learned lessons about written and visual rhetoric and how to read and write argumentative texts and how to teach the reading and writing of argumentative texts. I’ve had a lot to learn, and I have loved learning it, and hope that I’ve passed a glimmer of that along to my students.
But my creative writing classes? That’s been a different story altogether. A very different story. I thought I’d be most comfortable in these classes, most willing to go out on a limb and teach and learn new things. However, I initially found myself with a death-grip on the steering wheel, turning these classes sharply and narrowly to Things I Know A Whole Lot About. I wonder now if this has something to do with the fact that when one teaches creative writing, one cannot help but be aware — and very, very much ever-presently aware — of the assumptions people have about creative writing classes, to the idea that they are “easy A’s” or that they are places to goof off that won’t take much work or require the constant development of appreciable skills. Not in my classroom. Absolutely not. And I think I steered the classes so tightly, in the beginning, because I felt the need to constantly and loudly defend myself and the study of creative writing. I wanted to be on my feet, on solid ground, at all times. I wanted to be — or, at the very least, to seem to be — every bit as large and in charge as a Chemistry professor laying down the laws of stoichiometry or a Calculus professor leading the class through second derivatives.
It’s taken me quite a while, but I’m very proud to say that I’m finally lightened my grip on the wheel a bit, and allowed myself to learn along with my class. And I’ve learned that while I once saw such a process as instant and painful embarrassment and death for a creative writing instructor, it’s actually and absolutely essential. Not only does this allow me to model the way a writer thinks about writingly things, but it forces me to keep myself up-to-date — or, at least, more up-to-date — with what’s going on in the writing world.
And good Lord, was I ever getting out of date. I chose this semester to teach ecopoetics for the first time, and, as I started reading through aesthetic theory and ecocriticism, I felt a little bit like those giant antique wind-up toy robots who, when they get going, shoot sparks out of their mouths and look really awesome. But I just couldn’t get going. I felt as though I’d gotten mercilessly behind and could never catch up, because I wasn’t an ecopoet, and I don’t write about place, so how can I possible get it? But I kept reading, and thinking, and suddenly something shifted within me. I realized that I do write about place — one can’t help to. And I realized that the poem itself is a political construct, no matter what, and that no matter what, a poem makes a statement about ecology. A poem is a statement about man’s place in the world, no matter what. And I learned, and began to re-think my approach to teaching and writing and poetry and, well, everything — though that will have to come in part two …