Monday, February 11, 2013

The Heartache and Privilege of Teaching Writing

I learned again this week why I am teaching writing at a community college. It isn't about semicolons.

Community colleges are strange places, or such has been my experience. I am a part-timer here, as are most English instructors. Budgetary constraints being what they are, I share a desk with seven others, each of us holding our office hours there for two hours per teaching day, and then moving on so someone else can have the desk. Sometimes I see another instructor in passing, but I know the receptionist far better than anyone else in the department. Still, I am bonded to the place. Why? My students.

Students at CCs are often those who have not prospered in traditional educational settings, but find they must pursue an education -- or at least a certificate -- in this degree-glutted job market. Many students are ADHD, suffer from depression or bipolar disorder, fall somewhere within the autism spectrum or are recovering from the ravages of a misspent youth. There are also ESL students, this term Chinese, Russian, Korean, Viet Namese, and African: halfway across the world from what they know, strangers in a strange land.

Combine these hurdles with the fact that community, despite the "community college" moniker, is as scarce for students as it is for instructors. I teach on one of several campuses connected by a shuttle system. Students migrate around the city in search of credit fulfillment as no one campus meets all their needs. Whatever bonds they might form in the classroom grow small on the horizon as they embark on the journey to another campus and further isolation.

When we teach writing authentically (that is, allowing students to write about and explore issues of personal importance) we often end up as one of the few in their circle whom they trust, in whom they can confide. By the end of the first month of the quarter, the vortex of emotion swirls about me and most students who approach me do so to confide.

On my way to class on Wednesday, a student came up to me and said he wouldn't be there because he was getting the flu, but he wanted to check before he left campus to see if his idea for a paper was all right. "I'm going to write about addiction," he said. I asked if he had narrowed his topic. "Well, it's really about my addiction. I'm an addict."

Later, as we were brainstorming topics for the paper, one of the very quiet ones approached me and said, "I want to write 'Leaves of Grass' -- my version of it. Can I write a poem for the first paper?"  I had told them to write what needed to be written. Could I say no? No. "Just let me know how it's going," I told him. "You can change if you want." Another told me, "I want to write about the last time I saw my father."

At the end of that class, one of my African students came up  to apologize for missing class. She had written to me two weeks earlier about a vague family emergency. I asked her if everything was all right and the tears started to roll down her cheeks. "My uncle was missing," she told me. "We didn't know where he was. In my country it is not the same as here. He was politically active and now we have learned that he was kidnapped and tortured. We learned they cut his head off. Now my father wants to go back to Africa and I am trying to stop him. I don't know what to do."

My head and heart were spinning. There was no response, no words, no frame of reference. All I could do was try to be of comfort.

I have reached an age where I am trying to fulfill my job on earth, not necessarily the one I've been contracted to do. If I am to be a teacher, what is my curriculum? Not, anymore, finding and correcting errors, or binding student thought with rigid parameters for expression. No. I think my job is to help my students tell their stories and to listen in the way the story requires, to create a space where ideas can open onto paths that lead to right action, where the first response is thoughtful rather than angry.

I don't know what my African student will write, whether she will take on this recent horror, or soothe it by exploring something else. Regardless, it will be shared in a safe space by those whose job it is to listen. The semicolon will take care of itself.


  1. In my retirement, I am in a similar situation to you as a part-time instructor. I don't have to busy myself with discussions about program assessment and the future of the department. I'm free to teach, nothing else, and listen. I've always listened, but my listening is much more unimpeded now that I have retired from the business of the department, retired from the business of our profession.

  2. Wow, very powerful and very sad. Please let them know that they are in my prayers. Mary, there is something about you that makes people feel safe and comfortable, around you and when talking to you. Thank you for your writing it is very thought provoking.

  3. Connie, as someone who's always been proud to be Mary's friend and academic "sibling," I'll say YES. Mary, SEND THIS TO THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION!! You describe CC students so precisely: their “migration,” not only from somewhere else to the American Community college, but around the system itself, no small feat of knowledge-building. And as always, with eloquence and wisdom, you speak for so many of us--no matter where it is we teach. I am a regular, teaching professor at a large university that values writing, and our students (both teachers of writing and students who write) need to learn to tell their stories and stop worrying about their semi-colons, too. Only when they ask “what’s this story REALLY about?” and get a chance to explore, in the safe circle of fellow writers, will we really be teaching EVERYONE how to write. Yay for you, Mary. I’m so glad you sent this to NCTE.

    1. Thanks, Bonnie -- it felt very liberating to write this. Age has its rewards, among them being able to say whatever I believe. Too often in the past I've been forced to couch my opinions in the language of theory, etc. No longer necessary. I'll check out the Chronicle and see if they have a place for this little piece.

  4. broke my heart, good writing on writing classes. let's start our own! let them jump off the page, get excited, and break each other's hearts!

    1. Yes, let's start a class! Maybe the Universe will reward us :)