Teaching Creative Writing Shouldn’t Be An Xtreme Sport

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty members invariably tell me  behind-the-scenes stories.  The tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, and ridiculous vendettas make great raw material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series.

But I’ve also heard stories from students that aren’t funny, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. These teachers seem to enjoy badgering and browbeating students as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

Creative writing is one of my passions and I’ve heard of professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or “That’s crap.  Stop reading.”  This behavior is abusive and inexcusable.

I’ve heard of some creative writing professors who are so intimidating that they make students shake with fear. Others I’ve been told about play favorites and don’t let everyone read work aloud. In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a community, not a cage match.  Why do any professors believe they have a right to make their students suffer?

I teach the way I was taught by an amazing creative writing teacher at Fordham University who became my mentor and model. She ran her writing workshops with good humor and warmth. She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was. She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites. She encouraged us all with grace and good humor. I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way, too.

Teaching isn’t combat, especially teaching creative writing. We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses. Our role should be to help them grow as writers, identify what they do best and where they need to do more work–without tearing them down. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply: “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.” Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches at Michigan State University and on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Betsy DeVos and Winston Churchill?

Dana Milbank just quipped in The Washington Post that every time our Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks, “it feels as though the sum total of human knowledge is somehow diminished.” There’s a gravitas about that witty put-down that sounds Churchillian.

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

Clement Attlee 1945My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one above. She also credited Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

When I looked for the source, the brilliant line didn’t show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a cinematic connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

The line’s political lineage extends further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit.

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. He put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers for its wit and one-liners. You can find them on Amazon.

 

 

 

In Praise of Passionate Professors

I did an MFA in Creative writing and English at UMass/Amherst when it was rated the third best writing program in the country–not that I picked it for its status. I wanted a school that was close to my New York home but not too close, which ruled out many other programs.

dubois_pond_chapel_620x305UMass was where I got my start as an author because I published my first story while still a student, in Redbook, which had 4.5 millions readers at the the time.  This was after having won second prize in the department’s writing contest my first year, and first prize my second year.

Each semester I had a writing workshop, but some of my favorite professors were actually literature teachers (we had to do thirty credits of lit classes). I still think about them years later because they passed on the most precious teacher’s gift of all: excitement. They were so passionate about the writers they taught that they set off fireworks in my mind that still glow whenever I think about those writers or read them.

Paul Mariani was a Hart Crane expert and while I’d read a biography of the doomed poet and some of his letters before signing up for Mariani’s Symbolist poetry seminar, Crane’s work seemed inaccessible to me, arcane and closed. But Mariani made the poems intimate, open, immediate, and I still quote lines from “Voyages,” “Chaplinesque” and “The Broken Tower” today. Crane feels like an old friend and I re-read his poems more than any other poet’s.

white buildingsThe late Ernest Hofer taught Contemporary British fiction and brought over English paperbacks for his students because we couldn’t buy them in the U.S. in those pre-Amazon days. Under his tutelage I read writers I probably wouldn’t have found on my own: Iris Murdoch, Susan Hill, Alan Sillitoe, Anthony Powell. Hill’s Strange Meeting is still one of the best WW I novels I’ve ever read. Hofer was also a Henry James expert and he let me co-teach a James class with him in which I also supervised an honors student. That gave me even more teaching experience than I already had.

susan hillCynthia Griffin Wolff was just about to publish her psychological biography Feast of Words about Edith Wharton which would change Wharton scholarship forever. Her seminar was rigorous and exciting. She knew Wharton so well that she never consulted her manuscript or any notes.  Even though I was already in Wharton’s thrall, I left Wolff’s class with a deeper respect for Wharton that led to three books of my own connected to that author.

feast of wordsEach of these professors was dedicated, focused, patient, good-humored–and in love with their subjects. You can’t fake that last quality.  It’s why I try my best to only teach books and classes I’m enthusiastic about now that I’m a guest at Michigan State University.  My hope is to pass on some of the gifts that were given to me in those formative years with such grace and generosity.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to historical fiction.

Teaching is Not a Blood Sport

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories.  Properly disguised, they make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas–all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t as amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do.  Teachers who aren’t at all bothered by shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

teacher as coachCreative writing is one of my passions and I’ve heard of professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse.  I’ve never done that.  I do stop students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to say something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished.  And sometimes I just start laughing if the work is really funny.  As for dissing a student’s work, seriously, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say.  I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud, but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment.  In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and model.  She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth.  She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was.  She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites.  She encouraged us all with grace and good humor.  I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way, too.  Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing.  We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses.  Our role should be to help them grow as writers, identify what they do best and where they need to do more work. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply: “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.”  Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.