When you’re tired and your heart aches and you think, “I don’t know what to do,” do something for someone else. Let your students know they are safe in your classroom, at the very least. It doesn’t cost much, and it could mean the world to someone who is having a horrible day, week, month. Writing classrooms, especially, need to be places where love reigns and safety is the first order of business, because it’s collaborative, because we share our thoughts, because we are so vulnerable when we write. The professors in basic writing classrooms are overcoming years of discomfort and distress–so they must be understanding of student fear and help allay in all ways possible–including posting signs or including statements like this in their syllabi.This image is a bit fuzzy because it’s a screen shot from Facebook, but why not create one WITH your students FOR your students BY your students and YOU.
The best writing comes from a place of vulnerability. Don’t be afraid of that. Embrace it for your basic students. They already know how vulnerable they are: being graded, assessed, evaluated, judged. Help them understand that in your writing class, they are vulneralble but safe: no one will hurt them with words of pure anger, hate, bitterness. And if anyone is dares such an incursion into your classroom, you must promise to jump in immediately to insist it stop, ask why, push for answers, and have a conversation. Such a thing might be the hardest work you ever do, but you cannot let such behavior pass if your students are to believe you are the creator of the environment in which they can and will flourish.
We live in some really difficult times, no matter your political persuasion, but the one thing you can do is be entirely open and honest about what you’re doing as a professor. And what matters to you and that is always ensuring your students have a place to flourish in your classes. Human flourishing is called eudaimonia, a Greek work that means… human flourishing (more than that, but that’s all I’m dealing with at the moment).
Human flourishing is the point of higher education–not to be an expert in pharmocology, or English, or history of the year 1859, or physics. Sure, you can become specialized, but the point of the core classes and a LIBERAL ARTS base is to stretch the brain beyond one small area of certainty. The way we do higher education (at AUM) is about getting multiple patterns of learning into your life and head and heart so that you can flourish and keep on flourishing–always–as you choose in ways you choose in fields you choose. You. Choose. And best yet, you can always choose again because You know how to learn. Higher education isn’t an end game. It’s the starting point for creating a fulfilling and happy life. Maybe it’s about earning money, but that cannot be all it is, because when the money goes, what have you?
And we enter into this college thing vulnerable as babes. Professors of Basic Writing need be especially nurturing to help the students on the brink of non-flourishing to pull themselves in the right direction to keep going. It’s a lofty and noble profession that few folks call that. But ask any student who’s started in BW (or a similar math) about their experiences in getting over this hurdle. It’s like the cow jumped over the moon.I like to show three videos to students as they try to figure out how to manage in college.
One is by Brené Brown, a sociology professor at University of Houston. It’s a TED talk on the power of vulnerability. It’s now been viewed over 28 million times. 45 of those are me. She’s become an important voice since 2010 when she first gave this talk–a voice for facing our fears, for daring to try, for understanding how shame can drive us, and the importance of knowing creativity comes from vulnerability. My students have loved this and changed the way they see themselves because of her words.
Another video that is wonderfully powerful to share with BW students is this one by Elizabeth Gilbert. She dispels the myth that every writer needs to wait for a muse or a bolt of lightening to charge down from the heavens directly into their fingers so they can write. Writing is work. The more you work, the more you have to say–whether that’s thinking of your own things to write about you or doing research so you have something to say about a lot of other people’s ideas–the more you can write. It ain’t magic, baby, it’s thinking in your brain, on paper, through conversation, through drafting, through BW classes, through writing together and alone. Writers write and it’s hard work. This one’s been viewed over 12 million times since it was published on the TED site in 2009.
Another of my favorites is by Sir Ken Robinson about whether schools kill creativity. And the answer is yes, some schools do. My BW students recognize this and are angry and Angry and ANGRY when they see what’s happened. Then we back up and figure out a way over this hurdle–the cow jumps over the moon. How does the cow do it? The cow believes it can.
So we need to change the way we think of what’s happened to us and start thinking about how WE (profs and BW students) can use higher education to start us on our journeys to jump over the moon.
You cannot teach people to write who are afraid to write a word, say a word, be in a classroom. You need to recreate the place where they work, see themselves differently, see the work in a new way.
You thought your job was teaching Basic Writing, but it’s really about revising how writing happens, how beginning writers see writing, how they see themselves.
Just like writing is so much about revision, teaching writing is so much about revision.