Favoring My Private Self

I learned to write at UCLA. In the early 80s. First in a small Remedial English composition class filled with future professional athletes, and later, in history course after history course. One of the myths we erroneously tell ourselves at places like my employer, a smallish private liberal arts university, is that personalized learning can’t happen at large public universities. I’m living proof that’s not true. Sure, often, those history course discussion sections were lead by doctoral students, but they were outstanding and demanding beginning teachers.

Like marathon training, there are no short cuts in learning to write. Defying conventional wisdom about large, public university professors, my teachers and their assistants bled all over my papers. I paid close attention to their feedback and quickly caught up to my peers. And then continued improving quarter by quarter.

One memorable day in my sophomore year, in a large class on Central America, my professor, E. Bradford Burns, read my name and the title of my essay and said it was one of the three most outstanding in the class.

Stunned is putting it mildly. Wish my dad had been there.

After watching me skate through high school the first eighteen years of my life, he thought I should skip college and go to work for him sweeping floors in the Los Angeles factory he ran. Or join the military. If those harangues were reverse psychology, they worked. To succeed I knew I had to apply myself, and I did.

Another leap forward as a writer came exactly one decade later when, thanks to the encouragement of a young innovative mentor from Stanford, I wrote a 324 page doctoral dissertation in novel-like form. In it, I told the story of an International Studies magnet high school in Southern California. I was the very rare doctoral student who enjoyed the vast majority of the dissertation research and writing process.

As a professor, I’ve published quite a bit, but have not found academic writing gratifying. The whole tree in the forest thing. If only a handful of other egghead professors read it, is it worth it? For better or worse, a decade ago, I cut back and started the humble blog.

Which brings us to the present. My E. Bradford Burns booster shot of confidence has faded a bit. Sometimes I think, if I was a good writer, the humble blog would have a larger readership. In fact, I might have to stop referring to it as the humble blog. More important than assessing how well I write or not is the incontrovertible fact that I enjoy it.

One thing I like about it is that it’s difficult. In particular, I struggle with how to engage people without revealing at least some of my inner landscape. For example, right now, apart from writing a semi-autobiographical novel, I can’t figure out how to meaningfully explore and explain what I’ve been thinking most about—motivation, or what causes us to do the things we do, or more to the point, what causes me to do the things I do, without compromising other people’s and my privacy. I’ve struggled with that since the beginning, and doubt I’ll ever master it. I error on the side of maintaining others’ and my privacy.

That means there’s way more unspoken content between blog posts than within them. When I go four or five days without posting, sometimes I’m out of interesting ideas, but other times, I’m just favoring my private self.

I doubt I’m unique in this regard. Isn’t there more to your thinking than you typically let on? Aren’t you semi-transparent at best? Don’t you struggle with being vulnerable? With trusting others with your innermost thoughts? Aren’t we all icebergs of sorts, with much more going on below the surface than anyone realizes?

Or maybe with you, what you see, is what you get. In which case, I am unique.

 

 

 

 

 

There Should Be A Medal

The most extraordinary, ordinary thing happened to me recently.

A former student, a career changer, early fiftyish former draftsperson, wrapping up his third year teaching English/Language Arts at a local high school, contacted me.

After a long school day in the middle of May, he tucked his students’ essays under his arm, got in his car, and instead of driving home, headed to my university office. He wanted my help better preparing his students for college level writing. He admitted he wasn’t doing a good job teaching writing and didn’t really know how to improve.

He deserves a medal of some sort for a trifecta of positive attributes that are a powerful formula for self improvement writ large. Not just self improvement, a foundation for strengthening the common good.

1) Self-compassion. His starting point was the essence of this NYT essay:

‘I’m an imperfect human being living an imperfect life.’

2) Selflessness. He cares deeply about his students. So much so he wants to increase their odds of success in college, and in turn, life.

3) Initiative. 999 out of 1,000 high school English teachers are content not really knowing if they’re doing their best to prepare their students for college level writing. They have lots of other, more pressing things to do after work.

self-compassion + selflessness + initiative = personal growth

We had a great conversation despite my being distracted by two things. First, I was struck by the fact that college writing is a topic I know a lot about. That was a nice realization, because like most people I suspect, sometimes I wonder if I have any expertise.

Second, I was distracted by the realization that I don’t do what my fellow educator was modeling so powerfully. I have a lot of acquaintances and friends who are way more knowledgeable about and/or skilled in areas I’d like to learn more about and/or improve, yet I never ask them if they’d be up to teaching me.

Why is that? There are lots of possibilities. Maybe I’m not secure/vulnerable enough to embrace my imperfections. Or maybe I’m too lazy a sad sack (how’s that for self compassion). Or most likely, despite how much I enjoyed helping my former student, I just don’t want to impose on them.

I’m not alone. Most people pay experts for specialized knowledge and skills or watch “Do It Yourself” YouTube tutorials. The person who asks a friend or acquaintance to teach them something they don’t know is the wonderful exception to how most of us approach life.

 

The Cold, Hard Reality of Teaching’s Artificiality

Yesterday a colleague said she thought about “just canceling everything” this week, the last of the semester before final exams. “I thought I’d just tell them we’re through. That’s it. That’s all there is.”

That brought “I feel you” laughter from others. So when I told another colleague that today was the last class session of the semester, she said, “I bet you’re happy about that.” “No,” I explained, “I’m going to miss this group.”

My thirteen first year writers this semester were amazing. They were from Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon, and different parts of Washington State. They were funny and kind and they listened to whomever was speaking. They thoughtfully embraced the questions inspired by the course theme, “The Art of Living”. They shared their differing perspectives on the need for a philosophy of life; on gratitude and empathy; on money’s relative importance; on friendship, family, and romantic love; and on spirituality’s relative importance. They liked one another, they liked the course content, they tolerated their teacher.

Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve had a group of randomly assigned students gel with one another and me in unexpected ways so I have a feel for what our future holds. I’ll see them in a few months or years somewhere on campus, probably walking across Red Square. And a fair number will pretend they don’t see me. I have a sophisticated phrase for this phenomenon, “That was then, this is now.”

I remember the Good Wife experiencing this her second or third September of teaching. Much to her dismay, her third graders whom she had poured her soul into, quickly bonded with their fourth grade teacher. She was lucky to get sheepish hand waves when she wanted hugs of continuous gratitude. Their subtle head nods conveyed “That was then, this is now”.

This semester I instituted a social psychology experiment of sorts. Mid-semester, after bonding with my thirteen writers, I explained the “That was then, this is now” phenomenon. Of course they didn’t need it explained, but my figuring them out brought smiles of appreciation.

Then, occasionally, I would begin class by reporting on brief interactions with former students elsewhere on campus. “Saw three students on my way to and from the pool at lunch yesterday, two made eye contact and said ‘hello’.” They enjoyed my scorekeeping.

So today, my parting words were a request, “When you see me on campus, don’t look past me, say ‘hello’.” They said they would, but I’ll settle for subtle head nods.

 

 

 

 

My Teaching Best—What’s It Look Like?

Last Thursday around noon thirty, teaching the first year writing seminar on the second floor of the Admin Building, I was flat out teaching my arse off. Had you been visiting this is what you would have seen.

Sixteen* first year students and I sit around computer tables arranged in a large rectangle. Eight of them are presenting papers they’ve just written comparing and contrasting ancient Greek notions of love with those most often depicted in Western popular culture. More specifically, they have to explain whether they agree or disagree with Roman Krzarnic when he writes:

“The idea of passionate, romantic love that has emerged in the West over the past millennium is one of our most destructive cultural inheritances. This is because the main aspiration—the discovery of a soulmate—is virtually impossible to achieve in reality. We can spend years searching for that elusive person who will satisfy all our emotional needs and sexual desires, who will provide us with friendship and self-confidence, comfort and laughter, stimulate our minds and share our dreams. We imagine somebody out there in the amorous ether who is our missing other half, and who will make us feel complete if only we can fuse our being with theirs in the sublime union of romantic love. Our hopes are fed by an industry of Hollywood screen romances and an overload of pulp fiction peddling this mythology. The message is replicated by the worldwide army of consultants who advertise their ability to help you ‘find your perfect match’. In a survey of single Americans in their twenties, 94 percent agreed that ‘when you marry you want your spouse to be your soulmate, first and foremost.’ The unfortunate truth is that the myth of romantic love has gradually captured the varieties of love that existed in the past, absorbing them into a monolithic vision.”

After the fourth presentation, I pause to ask if anyone has questions or comments for the first four authors. I wait. Eventually Lauren starts things rolling:

L: So Christie you think God has created one person, a special soulmate for you. So does that mean you wouldn’t commit to anyone that wasn’t a Christian?

C: Yes, I want to be with someone like me, someone with a sincere, foundational faith.

L: But what if you meet someone with similar values? That wouldn’t be sufficient? Isn’t that kind of limiting?

C: No. I think I’m going to end up being a missionary in a developing country so it will be important for my partner to be equally as excited about that. We’ll need that shared foundation.

Sean: Yeah, I feel similarly to Lauren. I want a partner who is not just physically beautiful, but spiritually too. Spiritual beauty means she’ll have an intense love of God as reflected in her words and actions. For me, God should be at the center of our relationship because through God, our marriage will flourish in the purest way possible. While I don’t expect to have everything in common with her, I suspect that there is a girl in the world who is destined to be with me.

Others jumped in. The more secular students respectfully and smartly challenged the committed Christians. I didn’t say anything. Even if I had wanted to, I don’t know if they would’ve let me. I was in the teaching zone because they had forgotten I was there.

Decker Walker nailed it when he wrote, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.” Teachers are almost always doing things to students. Especially interrupting their thinking by filling every quiet moment with more words. Always more words.

If you were visiting last Thursday you probably wouldn’t have realized I was in the zone because of conventional wisdom about teaching excellence. In fact, you probably would’ve wondered when was I going to assert myself and start earning my salary.

But leading discussions is like flying kites. Sometimes you have to let out the string. I let out the string last Thursday at noon thirty and then a few students grabbed the spool. It was a great discussion because it was theirs. They didn’t need an intermediary. They can read, think, write, and then talk about their ideas all by themselves. That was the day’s most important lesson.

* “Sixteen students,” my public school teaching friends just said to themselves, “shit, anyone could kill it with sixteen students!”

Write Like Lincoln

Like all writers, my writing students struggle with vagueness and wordiness. Inevitably, wordiness is built into our initial drafts because they reflect our speech, and when we speak, we routinely spin our wheels.

As we eliminate written words that don’t contribute to phrases, phrases that don’t contribute to sentences, sentences that don’t contribute to paragraphs, and paragraphs that don’t contribute to the whole, our ideas get traction, and readers better understand what we’re communicating.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, in ways that people still marvel at, only needed 270 words and just over two minutes to reiterate the principles of human equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence, proclaim the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union, and espouse the principle of human equality for all citizens.

Wordiness is a by-product of laziness. Seven score and ten years ago, it would have been far easier and quicker for Lincoln to write a longer address.

If one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history is the length of this post*, why do I routinely take two or three times as many words to communicate much less lofty things? Because I don’t always make time to, as one Kalispell Montana high school English teacher puts it, “put every word on trial.”

Word limits, whether imposed by one’s self or others, are one of the best ways to learn to write more concisely. Once we learn to write more concisely, we can turn our attention to vagueness. I’d elaborate on that challenge, but I’m out of words.

* a tribute to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this post is exactly 270 words

What College Writing Students Get Wrong

Recently, I did a mid-semester check of how things are going in the first year writing seminars. I asked my students to complete the following phrases: I like. . . . I’ve learned. . . . I wish. . . . Things seemed to be going well, so it was nice that most of their feedback was positive.

About one-fifth of them said something to the effect of “I wish it was clearer what you want”. My syllabus is detailed, and I think, quite clear. The writing prompts too. And I teach what my colleagues and I hope to see in student writing. But sometimes I also say, “There’s more than one way to do well on this paper.” And this annoys some of them who want me to cut to the chase and tell them the one way to be successful. You’ve heard of “paint by numbers”, some students want to “write by numbers”.

The students most disappointed with what they earned on their first two papers are the ones most prone to say,”Just tell me what you want so I can give it to you.” The irony is, by thinking that it’s far less likely they’ll succeed on future papers. Why? Because excellent student writers embrace complexity and delve into the subtleties, nuances, and ambiguity inherent in most every topic.

I wish every high school teacher in the country taught writing by plastering this equation all over their rooms and schools—subtleties+nuances+ambiguity=complexity. The more complex one’s ideas, the more imperative it is that they communicate them clearly. So the challenge for writers is two-fold—1) to embrace subtleties, nuances, and ambiguity to the point that interesting insights bubble up, and 2) to clearly communicate those complex insights in writing.

The first of those challenges requires repeated close readings of other writers who embrace complexity. Discussing ideas with others equally or slightly more adept at critical thinking helps immensely too. The second challenge requires learning how to illustrate complex insights with specific examples.

Every first year college student struggles with both of these intellectual challenges to widely varying degrees. Some get it very early in the semester, others struggle with both until the semester’s very end. Those who struggle the most think the second challenge is most important and they’re convinced they’d turn their “C’s” into “B’s” if their professors would just describe the required formulas more explicitly.

In actuality though, the first challenge is most important. Until students learn to embrace complexity and communicate complex insights clearly, there’s not an explicit writing formula in the world that will help them engage, inform, or move readers.

Minimize End-of-Life Regrets

Writing faculty at my university get to choose their own seminar themes. When I chose “The Art of Living” for my first year writing seminar a few years ago, I wasn’t sure how it would go. Was I crazy to think that eighteen and nineteen year olds might find Epicurus, Seneca, and Stoicism almost as interesting as me?

I knew very few of their K-12 teachers had asked them to think about what they most want out of life. And psychologists say they have a sense of immortality. Why bother with how to live if you’re going to live forever?

One month in, I’m happy to report, they’re actively engaging with the reading material (primarily William Irvine’s The Guide to the Good Life and Roman Krznaric’s The Wonderbox) and one another. I love how comfortable they are disagreeing with our authors and one another. My greatest challenge is staying out of their way.

Some have experienced loss—one’s mother died a few years ago from breast cancer, another’s from a heart attack, and still another travelled to Winnipeg last week to attend her aunt’s funeral.

The first unit was on “philosophies of life”. More specifically, I asked the students to agree or disagree with Irvine’s thesis that to avoid major end-of-life regrets, everyone needs to have a grand goal of living and specific strategies to achieve the goal. Irvine argues most people have regrets at the end of their life because their primary pursuits—wealth, social status, and pleasure—are in the end, unfulfilling. His grand goal of living is to maximize tranquility and joy by reviving Stoicism for the modern era. Few people experience much tranquility, Irvine argues, because materialism, social status, and pleasure conspire against it.

The larger question we’ve grappled with is how intentional should we be in our day-to-day lives? What role, if any, should spontaneity and serendipity play? What’s the right balance?

The students fell evenly across the “intentionality/spontaneity” continuum, some quite certain that people need life goals, and associated philosophies with specific strategies for achieving them. Others pushed back saying, “Are you kidding? How can anyone expect people with our limited life experience to put forward grand goals for living let alone specific strategies for achieving them?” They thoughtfully argued that life would present unforeseen struggles and opportunities. For example, one said she never would’ve have fallen in love with French if she had been correctly placed in the middle or high school Spanish class for which she had actually registered.

When some of them argued for intentionality, I couldn’t help but think they’d have to recalibrate their specific goals and strategies (for example, to have a large loving family) if and when they commit to a life a partner with their somewhat different visions of the future.

What about your life? According to Irvine, your life is most likely an argument for spontaneity because our culture offers us an “endless stream of distractions” that keeps us from clearly identifying, and planning how to accomplish, what we most want out of life.

Be less distracted this week, and thanks, as always, for reading.