Still a romantic

Still a romantic

I really like being able to meet and interact with some of the adjunct teachers. There are some odd side-effects though. I find out how little I agree with most of them. Reading and reviewing some pieces today, as we were discussing grading strategies, there was one piece that really made me feel weird.

It was a piece about photography, written by a 17-year-old, that everyone else just loved and gave an A. Mechanically, the piece was quite good, with only a handful of errors. There was strong evidence of metacognitive reflection in a few sections, as the writer explored the infinite possibilities of photography. But it was flat. It jumped from one scene to another with no real development or arc with little conception of a strategy for conveying the ideas. It was just a long ramble that failed to reveal much in the way of feelings, and it stopped just short of some very powerful ideas. I gave it a B-, or maybe even a C+. The other teachers were shocked.

My justification was that it was in dire need of revision to be a coherent and interesting read. The spark of creativity that was shining in the thing was just buried by its lack of motive or direction. One of the other teachers found the “story” aspect of the essay most significant. Because it was a creative tale, she thought that the effort alone was worth the reward of a high mark. She noted several questions on the draft, aimed at drawing out “the writer’s voice” and increasing the depth of description. She explained that because she was from a creative-writing track, she felt that things like plot and development were not as important as helping writers “find themselves.”

I choked back the response I wanted to give. Most of the current praxis in pedagogy rejects her stance as “romantic.” It is out of vogue to think that a teacher’s job is to promote “individual expression.” I agree with this, in a limited and qualified way. However, it is because I am at heart a romantic. Romanticism did not glorify and promote the individual. It promoted vision. But it also believed that vision cannot be taught. It can however be recognized, and facilitated. The vision, in the case of this essay, was not in the telling of events from the writer’s personal life. It was in his reflection on photography as a larger thing, capable of infinite choice, and ultimately and agent of persuasion. These things occupied only two paragraphs of the long and rambling essay. The writer’s “voice” actually obscured the valuable content and lesson to be learned from the essay. If you learn to see into the soul of writing, voice takes care of itself.

This doesn’t mean that I’m insensitive to the issues of voice, just that I think that it is far more important to see the big picture at work. If you can’t form a coherent whole when you write, you stand no chance of finding a voice to speak with. I think it is the job of all people to find themselves, and define themselves in relationship with the world. It’s not a teacher’s job. It is a teacher’s job to transmit the skills which can help this process along. The student has to do their own work, when it comes to defining themselves, and I think it is pretentious and meddlesome to intrude on it. I critique the writing, not the writer.

As a person, yes, the writer was an A student. As a piece of writing, it barely rated a B to me. I am not seduced by creativity alone. Creativity does fools no good at all, if they cannot express themselves clearly.

Being a romantic, for me, means wanting to climb to the top of the tornado. To take the flight of imagination to its fullest height. It takes wings to get there though. Coddling people seems to me to be a great disservice. The writer finds his own voice. A teacher should be an intelligent reader and coach, not a psychotherapist. The writing teacher, to me at least, should teach writing— not personality.

Social constructivists claim that teachers do teach world view and help construct personalities. I think this is bull to a large extent. A small grain of truth, with a bunch of crap wrapped around it. Yes, I’m sure that teachers have influence on these things, but I don’t feel it should be center-stage in pedagogy. Skills come first, as far as I’m concerned. If you have the tools, you can construct your own world. Can creativity be taught? I don’t think so. That’s up to the individual’s effort. But skills can be increased by recognizing creativity when it happens, and moving to strengthen it rather than just reward it.