My Teaching Philosophy, Rediscovered

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Recently, while combing through the files (and files) on an old computer in order to see what's worth taking with me to a new hard drive, I came upon three points toward a "teaching philosophy" that I forgot I had written several years ago. Things haven't changed....

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Teaching Philosophy


The most successful, enduring learning happens in and through relationship. Any classroom presents a teacher with as many different opportunities for relationship as there are students in the room. With the motivated, already-skilled, eager students, the relationship often builds through the work, through the material and a mutual desire for engagement, and learning is deepened by the increasingly sophisticated questioning that the relationship allows. But with the student whose fundamental skills and understandings require more attention (practice, reinforcement), the relationship is of more immediate importance; its development is crucial for surmounting the obstacles of low self-confidence and motivation. I also believe that a teacher's relationship with his or her students can be as much the foundation for future learning as are the specific skills or understandings attained. My aim is for my students to see me and to remember me as uncommonly challenging and also unfailingly approachable, to see that the tasks I set before them may be difficult, but that support is available.


Training for any special skill demands consistent attention to the fundamentals, and writing is indeed a special skill. Few can do it well—that is, clearly, coherently, persuasively, engagingly. I often ask at the start of a new course for a volunteer to tell me of a particularly developed skill he or she has. Usually, I learn about a student’s refined artistic or athletic ability. I then ask what the fundamental skills are that must be mastered before one could dream of attaining that special ability. My purpose is to shed light on the often overlooked basics, and on the process of building from them. More specifically, my purpose is to begin emphasizing reading as a special skill.

I purposefully use the verb “master” above: the traditional master-apprentice relationship, through which a newcomer to a skill learns by observing, greatly informs my teaching. The apprentice painter or dancer or pianist or carpenter or plumber can watch the master at work, noting precisely what he or she does at various stages of creation or revision (or repair), or in particular emergent predicaments, and then can imitate to practice and progress. Having taught for nearly a decade at an arts-intensive high school—a school for talented high-school-age dancers, actors, visual artists, musicians, and writers—I am often reflecting on this time-honored approach to learning, and in doing so confronting the distinctly different situation in which the striving young writer finds herself. Unlike the apprentice sculptor or ballerina or actor or violinist, the apprentice writer does not learn much of anything (aside from quiet perseverance, perhaps) from watching the master: a writer at work is not very instructional. What the young writer must do is make the page the master, which requires developing the ability to read closely and sensitively enough to see the master’s moves in the phrasings, the sentences, the paragraphs.

A student in the literature class or the creative writing class must learn how to read profitably, and in my view the best teachers for such classrooms are the ones able to model productive reading practices delightfully, and, in turn, to demonstrate the relationship between such reading and skillful, effective writing. When with enough practice students begin to recognize the art in the individual sentence, they begin not only to read more perceptively but to write with heightened attention and specificity, and they soon find themselves with more to invent and to argue on the page.


To not know is a very fortunate starting point. I am influenced here by oft-quoted words from John Dewey's How We Think: "Genuine ignorance is ... profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with a varnish waterproof to new ideas." Students begin to see, to observe—to notice for themselves—when they feel comfortable encountering the new, or when they cannot convincingly claim to know about the object under study. I strive in my classrooms to make plenty of room for not-knowing (and am helped when my material can't be "known" quickly). I encourage students not to escape ignorance but rather to get familiar with not yet having enough information. Only from there can well-earned discoveries be made, and discovery is the first step to a sense of ownership over an idea. On a related note, I feel more and more commitment to teaching patience, whether with an object for analysis or in the drafting of a scene for a short story. "It's not that I'm so smart," Einstein is reported to have said. "It's just that I stay with problems longer."

Teaching With the Most Unteachable Things

"I realize that to encourage a perspective on words as unfixed, individual, moveable things, and to sustain a playful motivation to keep words in experimental movement, is of particular interest not only because students often find it very difficult to revise, to pick up and reposition words they've already set down. My interest has also grown from my observations of my own young (not-yet-writing) children at play."

Read More

"It is not our ambition to fill museums; we are gathering experience.”

The everyday experience of working artists is that they routinely fail to hit their mark, to draw the best line, to choose the stronger word, to sound the right note, and these are the stakes that make success in art so satisfying. The admission of this fact can and should liberate the artist-in-training to play the harder and thus learn the more in an atmosphere of passionate experimentation.

Teachers of writing: Hit refresh now by clicking over to Daniel Bosch's "Cover Letter," at 3:AM Magazine

"Moving along the endless coastline of human experience"

Verlyn Klinkenborg on “The Decline and Fall of the English Major”:

"In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.

"They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.

"That kind of writing — clear, direct, humane — and the reading on which it is based are the very root of the humanities, a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language."

Read more.

SxS: The Space Between

I have just finished rereading Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story” and am happy to be reacquainted with the reasons I’ve considered it one of my favorite stories. (An additional reason, I’ve discovered, is not on the page but asleep in her crib as I write.) My admiration of the whole work — character, voice, structure, and more — makes my consideration of the interplay of two quiet sentences feel terribly insufficient. I’m going to delight over just a couple of small trees (well, there’s really only one tree, as you’ll see) and feel beholden to the extraordinary forest.

But Dubus wrote the sentences; he made them, and put them side by side, and put them in the story. And so on I go with my chosen task and my magnifying glass, offering the barest in narrative context … 

The wind has been blowing all night, until now:

I looked at the still maple near the window, and thought of the wind leaving farms and towns and the coast, going out over the sea to die on the waves. I smoked and gazed out the window.

Unremarkable these sentences seem, but the more time I spend with them, the more I admire what Dubus has done, even without reflection on how beautifully they operate in the story.

See how stillness — of the maple tree, first, and of the narrator with cigarette (Luke Ripley is his name), second — surrounds movement in this excerpt. (The repetition of “the window” makes this framing clear to the ear.) Now notice how the landscape of Luke’s thought expands from “farms” to “towns” to “the coast” to the open sea; there are no barriers for the departing wind. There’s a lovely tension here between not only stillness and movement but also internal and external spaces, and that includes the imagined (internal) image of the wind, or where it blows, and the concrete (external) looked-at object, that maple tree.

Let’s zoom in on where the first, longer sentence ends and the short second sentence begins. From a construction of thirty-one words organized in three balanced parts (see the placement of the commas) we enter a seven-word sentence whose only punctuation, the terminal comma, we reach promptly. Now hear the song in the final phrase of the first sentence — “over the sea to die on the waves” — and how it runs into the prosaic, factual, conciseness of “I smoked and gazed out the window.” Picture that free-flowing wind crossing vast open distances, and then the cigarette smoke collecting inside. Luke Ripley stands still in his smoke, looking through the window at that maple tree that also stands still, wind-less.

The trapped longing, even helplessness — the sense of being no greater than human — that I feel operating in this small sample fits the story, certainly. It also prompts me to envision the next time I will teach the story. I often make model sentences big by projecting them on a screen so that my students can join me in feeling closer to the functioning parts, and in turn more aware of the small but significant choices a writer has made. I imagine that the next time I teach “A Father’s Story” I will put my finger down on the space between these two sentences and say, “This is what we’re after.” Precisely here, in this absence that is transition, in this quiet movement from the internal life to the external reality, is evidence of the empathic imagination at work, the sensibility that a fiction-writer must practice in order to render character compellingly and authentically.

I need a word for the space between sentences.

A Course in Being an Accomplice

There is a writing course I would like to design and teach whose title I would lift from Virginia Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?” and in which we, the students and I, would not write — at all. The purpose of the course would be described pretty well by this excerpt from Woolf’s essay (recently featured here):

Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.

Doubtless, there are writing teachers out there with this opportunity, or something like it. (I would like to know of them, please!) In my course I would successfully redirect the urge to write into reading, into practicing reading as sensitively, responsively, and accurately as possible, both in performance (aloud) and privately, as silent observers of language and its effects. I’ve always liked Zadie Smith’s comparison of a reader to “the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own hard-won skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.” (See “Fail Better,” published in The Guardian, 1/13/07.)

In other words, I would give much more room, all available room, to what I teach, in various ways but always first and foremost, when I teach any writing course. In this ideal environment, I would feel no pressure to move students toward their own crafting on the page. We would work mostly on the air, from the eye through the voice to the ear. We would together discover and come to understand — come to know through our various senses — the materials with which writers work, or have worked, and be able to discern how they succeed with these materials. And we would compile a mental library of instructional moments, instances of successful crafting that we have committed to memory.

Along the way, for support and sustenance, I’m sure I would revisit the experience Francine Prose describes in her very useful book Reading Like a Writer:

I liked my students, who were often so eager, bright, and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had in reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously, I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writers’ origins, their racial, cultural, and class backgrounds….

No wonder my students found it so stressful to read! And possibly because of the harsh judgments they felt required to make about fictional characters and their creators, they didn’t seem to like reading, which also made me worry for them and wonder why they wanted to become writers. I asked myself how they planned to learn to write, since I had always thought that other learned, as I had, from reading.

Responding to what my students seemed to need, I began to change the way I taught. No more general discussions of this character or that plot turn. No more attempts to talk about how it felt to read Borges or Poe or to describe the experience of navigating the fantastic fictional worlds they created…. I organized the classes around the more pedestrian, halting method of beginning at the beginning, lingering over every word, every phrase, every image, considering how it enhanced and contributed to the story as a whole.  

(As for being an author’s “fellow-worker and accomplice,” consider this.)