It’s been a week and a half. I’ve taught exactly three classes, and on Thursday, I’ll be teaching about audience and purpose in the narrative essay. (Here is a post from the Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric that beautifully sums up what the narrative-essay portion of our first-year writing program is all about. Even though we are not Dartmouth.)
I haven’t taught college students in any capacity in about ten years, and I’m continually surprised at what I learn about mine. Things I’ve learned about my students so far:
- What they do (or don’t) say in class is rarely related to what they say in their papers. My students this year are a uniformly quiet bunch, but in their writing, most dive right in – talking about themselves, their passions, their holy-crap-college fears, the stuff that makes them who they are. They’re a great group, and so far I think every one of them (or at least the parts of them I’ve been introduced to in their writing) is awesome.
- College freshmen are not grad students. This should have gone without saying, but I had forgotten what it was like to be eighteen, in charge of my own schedule, and coming from a lifetime of being taught to sit still with eyes forward and write five-paragraph essays like a good little automatons. I expected the grad-student approach to Socratic questioning, which is Never to Shut Up, but my students are still working on “it is cool not to raise your hand every time you know the answer to one of the teacher’s endless freaking questions.” (Also still in progress: “it is cool to respond even if you have no idea what the teacher thinks the answer is supposed to be.”)
- The good news is that all of them are better writers than most of them think they are. The bad news (for them) is that I’m going to make them do the same amount of writing I would make a batch of less-good writers do. If they’re this good in the first week, I want to see how much better they can be.
A couple have chosen to open up about some pretty heavy stuff in response to the first few writing prompts. I was nominally prepared for that, and I’m honored that they trust me enough to do that in the first week and a half of class. (I plan to do my damndest never to violate that trust.)
What I was not prepared for, however, was the effect some of these stories would have on me – because in some of them, I recognize echoes of my own past traumas. I did not take into account that at times, teaching should come with its own trigger warning. This isn’t something I want to load onto my students – the last thing I want them to worry about is “oh crap, did I just break the professor?” But it is something I’m going to have to learn to manage for myself.
It makes me think that perhaps I need to do more writing about my own dark places. I’m a big believer that there is nothing like writing for exploring what we really think. Until this week and my students’ writing, however, I didn’t see the corollary: that never writing about a thing can be a really good way to avoid thinking about it. And not-thinking about some things is not healthy in the long term. If my students find writing about their heavy stuff valuable enough to write it out and give it to me, they’re probably on to something.