from A Year of Morning Thanks
That it's not just a job
End-of-term means I spend most of my days reading student papers—yesterday, short stories. Read one last night, written by a very good student, a second draft that still had major problems. Sent it back to him last night, full of comments, and this morning I found his long reply in an e-mail, a note that carries more than a little defensiveness. That's understandable. Good stories don't just come from the head; they come from the soul, and the soul doesn't take criticisms easily.
I happen to be among those who believe that the sheer weight of assignments for college students these days is excessive. I'm not about to call the work we expect of them excessive--we could probably expect more than we do. In fact, I often fear I'm too easy, especially when it comes to grades.
It's been 25 years since the landmark study, A Nation at Risk; yet, it seems, little has changed. Grading scales are way up there in the soprano range. Today, students--and, likely, more importantly, their parents, demand a level of day-to-day accountability that would have been unheard of 40 years ago, when I was a college student. Hence, more assignments, even though I'm sure the risk of failure was much higher back then, the grading sale vastly lower. I'm not sure more assignments make for better education.
Imaginative writing--like a short story--demands something of them that other classroom responses--research papers, for instance--do not. Imaginative writing comes, mostly, from the inner resources of heart and soul. Many other courses--and I'm not criticizing--are head games. The fact is, one can't create a scene or character from a reference book; "felt life" emerges only from the heart of one's experience, even when that experience is imagined. What I'm saying is that I think I understand why I got blitzed this morning from a student's reply to my criticisms--the source of the story itself is the student's heart, not just his brain. His defensiveness is understandable.
Students believe, I think--many of them anyway--that writing short stories will be easy and fun, even if they’ve never tried it before. When they discover that it’s not just fun but hard work, that it taxes parts of their character that other homework doesn't touch, they get frustrated easily; and that's not fun. Really, writing stories should be fun--what we're creating, after all, is recreation. Only English teachers and book reviewers read professionally. The rest of us do it on free time.
What's more, what confuses them is that there's all-too-often an inverse relationship between time spent on a story and the success of what results. Some kids hammer out a story in hours, and the story works. Others spend endless hours trying to craft something that has meaning and unity and sense, only to end up with a nest of hooks. I tell them over and over that success in imaginative writing isn't necessarily a finished product. I want them to learn how to do it, what it demands, what it takes to write fiction. Another thing they don't understand is that results are always mixed. I've had some successes, but tons of failures is something they don't understand. In school, most of them are accustomed to winning.
Anyway, today I'll read more of their stories, and I know I'll find some that thrill me, often from students who I may not have expected to turn out things that good. Always happens.
And when I do, I'll suffer mood swings that might well threaten to propel me into schizophrenia. Comes with the territory.
But there are no winners or losers in this class--not really, not unless there are quitters, and I've got none of those this semester. This morning, I’m at the edge of the Slough of Despond when I read over a note that's full of barely concealed injury. This afternoon, I'm sure, I'll be amazed at the talent of my students. It's an old merry-go-round I get on every year, end of term.
I’m thankful to have a job that' s more than a job. I'm thankful for profession and a calling that matters deeply to my soul.