This week, I have been re-reading John Barth’s The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction, which is John Barth’s ninth book (and first book of nonfiction, though the subject throughout is fiction).
The Friday Book, along with Barth’s story collection Lost in the Funhouse and Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions, were the books about which I wrote my critical thesis as an MFA student nine or so years ago, and this current re-reading is the ninth stop in an (aforementioned here) reading (or, in some cases, such as this one, re-reading) of Barth’s entire bibliography, an effort that has now lasted several years (due to [also aforementioned] all of the side roads that those readings/re-readings have suggested exploring) and that (among many other things) I have “written into” my current metafictive work-in-progress.
In the introductory remarks to one piece in The Friday Book, Barth recounts a panel discussion on teaching creative writing, at which Wallace Stegner was a panelist and during which Stegner, in occasionally equestrian terms, gave the following description of teaching, or approaches to teaching, paraphrased by Barth and numbered by me:
“The writing teacher, Stegner declared, can be (1) an authoritarian who breaks his colts with a two-by-four; or he can be (2) a rebel who by his unorthodoxy tries to stimulate originality in his charges…; or he can (3) abdicate responsibility and let go the reins entirely, admiring everything his students do and being correspondingly loved by them; or (4) he can really teach, declaring his principles and stating his standards and obliging his students to demonstrate that any innovation they make is better than what they give up to make it.”
I’ve been a teacher for twelve years. Not a newbie but by no means a veteran. I’m somewhere in the middle of the labyrinth, still making my way, appalled at the flawed navigational decisions I made upon entering, each turn around each corner now simultaneously producing greater understanding of where I am and where I’m going but more questions about the same.
At various points in my twelve-year career, I have been each of the four teachers described above, some more often than others, but, after a couple thousand days in the classroom, each often enough.
My observation, though, is that good teachers (despite a protean nature day-to-day, mostly early in the career) will tend toward the fourth type—toward “really” teaching.
I believe (and hope that my belief is true) that I am mostly (nearly completely) the fourth type.
I used to teach night classes part time for University of Phoenix. At their twice-a-year general faculty meetings, they would give awards to the teachers who gave the lowest grades while getting the highest student reviews. U of P was (is, I suppose) a somewhat ridiculous institution, but I thought that that measurement had merit.
I get along reasonably well with my students, including with (sometimes particularly with) those who struggle the most in what I believe (and hope my belief is true) is a rewardingly difficult class.
There are teachers whose students love them despite rigid expectations and rigid adherence to those expectations, and then there are teachers whose students love them precisely for the lack of such standards, or for the inability to adhere to any.
It’s important (I think) to always be honest with students (brutally honest, when that is called for).
And establishing unmovable principles and standards and applying them with the rigor they demand is a type of honesty.
And to not do so is not only dishonest, according to Stegner (according to Barth), it is not even really teaching.