Teaching Philosophy

While the content of my courses varies widely, I see my role as a teacher of creative writing and as a teacher of analysis and literature as fundamentally the same. In both kinds of courses, I strive to open my students’ minds to new ways of engaging with literature. Whether they are writing critical papers about novels or writing short stories, I want them to see themselves as active participants in a vast and dynamic colloquy. As critics, they are not receptacles of information that books might fill. As writers, they are not writing solely to record their own therapeutic truth. They are participating in a crucial and vast collective project. Culture is participation in society itself. Reading and writing, whether critical or creative, are the only path to that greater conversation.To the extent that a teacher can, I have also acquired a motto: “No praise. No punishment.” This phrase originally came from the way I teach students to critique each other in creative writing workshops, but it has come to encapsulate the way I think about teaching more generally.

We all want praise. We write to bridge the chasm between our subjective inner life and the wider world. Praise for our work validates that connection. I get that. And yet, my goal as a writing teacher is to keep people writing. Both praise and punishment stop them in their tracks. Nothing stops a writer from editing a sentence, or touching a paragraph, like the belief that it’s perfect as is. What I call punishment also shuts people down. Punishment is distinct from “critique.” I model and define critique as a method of giving specific feedback that reflects the writer’s own goals. I describe useful critiques as literary-critical mirrors. Neither praise nor punishment mirror the author, they are often motivated by some need in the reader.

Students (and sometimes teachers) want to write either “Great!” or “No!”, “I love this!” or “I hate this!” on each other’s work. Instead, I ask them and I ask myself: “What’s working and why is it working?” Punishment is: “This makes no sense,” “I don’t like your writing,” or even “This is just confusing.” Instead of saying something is confusing, I ask for theories: “This means either X or Y. Here is exactly what I need to know in order to understand…”

In fiction writing, I ask my students to have radical empathy for radically different people, because their normative comments can also be a form of punishment. Statements like “An 8-year old wouldn’t know that word” or “a speed boat mechanic wouldn’t like that” reflect the critic’s personal beliefs. Sometimes those beliefs are hard won, even largely true. But eight-year olds, like college students and speedboat mechanics, are as varied as humanity. I ask my students to welcome unexpected characters, and to accept that character is action. This character is an 8-year old who used the word “enigmatic.” This character is a mechanic who wants Louboutin shoes. Accept and empathize. Then try to articulate: What kind of information do you need to help you understand not all 8-year olds, but this particular character? Accepting the character on the page plus specificity equals no punishment.

Across all my classes I ask: “What specific information do you need to bring the author’s vision or argument into focus?” My primary goal is to keep my students coming back to the blank page, whether as critics or creative writers. Many writing instructors and some students (but not those at Whittier College!) see teachers as gatekeepers where part of their duty is to discourage the untalented or unfit. This is not how I see my role. I disagree profoundly with the idea that there are “too many writers,” and we certainly don’t have too many readers. Many students lack the experience or the socioeconomic status to make them feel entitled to be heard. I hope to create a space where students can practice raising their voices.

“No praise, no punishment” began as my philosophy in the creative workshop, but the more academic work I do, the more I apply my own creative habits to that work. The electric, associative state of mind that leads to real analytic insight is creative. I try to help my students feel both better prepared and more entitled to speak up, both by work-shopping academic work and by designing classroom exercises that elicit their initial reactions and feelings about novels and critics. I remain very influenced by the work of progressive educators who encourage teachers not to focus on eliciting behavior but on engaging complex human beings. Praise and punishment can modify behavior, but there is ample research to suggest that fear and prizes don’t actually motivate most people over the long haul.[1]

In my academic research, I have had occasion to read behavioral economists. While I am skeptical of some of their assumptions, they have found, across the globe, that people tend to do poorly on cognitive and creative tasks when promised a large cash reward. The promise of cash functions like praise: It makes people focus on getting it or not getting it. It makes them feel they are performing the task for the reward (notice, a cash reward can increase adrenaline, so this doesn’t hold for quantitative tasks. Cash can make you better able to run up and down a hill many times fast, but not better able to solve a tricky problem).

If what you want is insight or creativity, praise and punishment are often counter-productive. People do their best work when they do it not for the reward but for a sense of connection to some larger purpose, for a sense of mastery or ownership of the work.

In practice, I try to get students invested in the idea that it is their class and they must take ownership of it. I front-load my classes with un-graded writing, demanding serious work and revision before there is any threat of recorded evaluation. I continue to look for better ways to have students workshop each other’s analytic insights. A real portion of each grade depends on doing the reading, asking questions and taking intellectual risks. I repeat, ad nauseum, that first drafts are not mistakes, and I often hand out Anne LaMott’s essay on “Shitty First Drafts.” I try to work out systems where if grades go up reliably over the course of the semester, I will not count the first or lowest assignment. Some students, of course, take advantage of my incentive structures by not putting much effort into the first drafts. But I find that those are usually the students who probably wouldn’t put much effort in no matter what I do. I know my students can tell when I’m excited about their work, but I actually refrain from saying things like “good job.” Instead, I try to ask enthusiastic further questions. All of these are methods of avoiding praise and punishment. Instead of having students think they are “wrong” because punished or “done” because praised, I seek to model curiosity and intellectual engagement.

There are no magic bullets, in teaching. For me, the no- praise, no-punishment philosophy creates more space for the leaps that my students sometimes make. Those leaps are unpredictable and, occasionally, glorious. I’m honored to be around for them. For the most part, I don’t believe I can take credit for them. It’s hard and important work simply to create the boundary conditions that make learning possible, given everything else going on in people’s lives.

This philosophy may seem like it is mostly about creative writing, but hopefully I have made clear that I believe that at root, teaching creative writing can’t be separated from teaching literature, which in turn can’t be separated from teaching rigorous critical thinking and sustained inquiry into a topic. All are connected to a practical need to teach with a sense of larger purpose. There are no formulas for good writing at the college level because it is through writing that we encourage participation in the grand conversation that makes up the historic tradition of the liberal arts. Teaching writing and literature are always entangled with civic engagement, discipline, patience and radical empathy, none of which can be reduced to a worksheet or a bullet point.

[1] I have been influenced by the work of progressive educator Alfie Kohn. See, for example, “What Does It Mean To Be Well-Educated?” Principal Learning, March 2003. http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/welleducated.htm