Neither Showing Nor Telling: Practicing Patience with Student Selves

“As teachers, we should spend less time telling our students what they should do when they write, and more time showing them who they can be.” -Bizzaro 234

If you really stop to think about it, the very act of writing is itself a kind of miraculous reaching out in faith. A person writing performs a highly symbolic act of transmitting ideas from the brain into words, whether to communicate her ideas with an imagined audience or a real one. Writing something, taking concepts and opinions and thoughts and somehow making them into a textual artifact, requires a laying aside of the complexities, a temporary trust that the vagaries of self-expression can be adequately subdued even if only for a time. One can think of this as foolhardy denial or naive self-delusion, but I prefer to see it as a necessary faith. It’s imperative to defer doubt and forge ahead with an experiment in expression, trusting that the way forward and through one’s self will give rise to interesting insights for oneself and hopefully for others.

Teaching writing, then, is another act of faith. For while the Burkean parlor with its ongoing conversation of humankind posits a communal discourse around a constellation of topics, it also presupposes individual selves who are already able to listen, contribute, comprehend the ideas of others.

This is a major presupposition; while some advanced students may come to the writing classroom with a sense of personal identity, purpose, and self-knowledge about their writing and reading processes, I believe that most of them do not. For many decades, student writers have been treated as novices who must be brought in line with writing expectations in university discourse.

However, with the social and affective turn in writing studies, instructors are increasingly theorizing how we’re teaching writing as a whole intellect project, not just as a cognitive exercise in inculcating that core tenet of humanistic education, critical thinking.

To truly critique and improve our writing pedagogy and bring it to service of the actual human beings in our classes, it’s vital to realize that our beliefs about what we do and why we do it in the classroom is actually “one kind of theory,” even if we aren’t cognizant of it as such (Ostrom, xi). This self-reflection about motivations and priorities, which I personally struggle to find time to do while actively teaching a course, seems to me to be central to the task of teaching.

In his introduction to Colors of a Different Horse, Ostrom argues, using Jung’s concept of the “Shadow” other, that the very things we reject or deny in others can provide us with valuable insights into our own teaching. By stretching to think “playfully” about our shadows, to allow them to creep in to enhance our writing and teaching, we can bring our multiple selves–identities, practices, roles, paradoxical elements, emotions, histories–to bring wisdom to our pedagogical practices.

The first time I taught first year composition, I lacked the sophistication to invite those multiple diverse selves–mine and my students’–into the classroom.

In fact, I was deeply invested in the idea that there should not be a course theme, that we should privilege writing as the course topic. Because I was a brand new composition instructor, I hung my entire teaching ethos on this conviction. Looking back now, I can see that I did not yet, as I outlined as a goal in the first paragraph of this essay, trust in myself, in my students, in the writing process itself. By enthroning “writing” as the dominant “thing” in the classroom, I neglected the much more human-centered approach to which I now adhere.

That first time I taught, I operated from a position of filling the class schedule with writing time and writerly concerns. I had not yet discovered the fraught and rich complex ground in which writing can take place. In a way, I had created what Bizzaro calls a “prison of apprenticeship” (243); by positioning myself as an “expert” academic writer, I held on tightly to the goal of helping introduce my students to writing for college, to equip them to enter the Burkean parlor.

However, because I lacked faith in the process–not having yet developed a pedagogy of patience–I was fixated on telling my students what they could do in their writing. It is only as I’ve grown more centered myself and discovered the vast and varied valid approaches to writing pedagogy that I am spending “more time showing them who they can be” (Bizzaro 234).

So what does that look like in practice?

It depends on the day and what the student writers express as their current needs. It might be practical, explicit instruction about a particular aspect of drafting, researching, revising. Or it might be an open discussion about what challenges are coming up for them as they write.

I want the writing classroom to be a place where writing is never viewed as finished product. By trying to avoid the trap of responding to student writing and the nature of the classroom as a necessary hierarchy, I want to help my students reconceptualize themselves as writers not merely as students. My desire for this outcome relates directly to the question of in-class focus: should it be on craft or on something else entirely?

Although I am deeply invested in helping my students learn the craft of writing, which Haake defines as “writing habits, rules of thumb, helpful tips” (184), but I see as more important the much harder to define “coming into being” aspect of writing (185). And this is where my pedagogy of patience and faith (both sounding like biblical virtues, but I promise they carry great weight even stripped of religious valence) engenders that “coming into being.”

As a teacher, I strive to offer a safe and open space for students to explore their shifting and varied selves both in discussion and composition, because I believe that exploration to be the necessary step for students to claim their own authority.

I continue growing as a teacher and a writer, both experiencing in my own writing practice and helping to inculcate a habit of self-reflection and trust in the process of writing as an instructor, and to do so, I need to better embody the practice of authority: as Bizzaro says, not the authority of knowing the “right way” to do something, but authority “on how to disperse authority” among the many other writers and thinkers who inhabit the classroom community (243). I am committed to this approach because a true writing community is not about a teacher making little writers like him or herself, but about a faith-based interaction, an exchange of ideas among those who dare to connect through language.

Works Cited

Bizzaro, Patrick. “Reading the Creative Writing Course: The Teacher’s Many Selves.”

Colors of a Different Horse, edited by Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom, NCTE, 1994, pp.234-237.

Haake, Katherine. “Creative Writing.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s), edited by Bruce McComiskey, NCTE, 2006, pp. 153-198.

Ostrom, Hans. “Introduction.” Colors of a Different Horse, edited by Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom, NCTE, 1994, pp. x-xxiii.

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