When I was in my early thirties, I discovered a slender but well-worn paperback book in an attic in London. Titled Letter To A Teacher, it was written collectively in Italy by "The School of the Barbiana," a small group of peasant boys whose work very much anticipated Paolo Freire's now well-known Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I copied a passage for the wall above my desk: "In Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, in southern Italy, in the hills, in the fields, even in the cities, millions of children are waiting to be made equal. Shy, like me, stupid, like Sandro: lazy, like Gianna. The best of humanity." I had to leave the book in that London attic, and have never found another copy. Sometimes I think I dreamed having read it, but it did inspire me with the idea that teaching mattered, perhaps more than anything, and so I have devoted most of the past twenty years to this vocation. Edwin D. Reischauer, Professor of History at Harvard, is among those who have influenced my approach: "While the world is becoming a single great global community, it retains attitudes and habits more appropriate to a different technological age.... Before long, humanity will face many grave difficulties that can only be solved on a global scale. Education, however, as it is presently conducted in this country, is not moving rapidly enough in the right direction to produce the knowledge about the outside world and the attitudes toward other peoples that may be essential for human survival within a generation or two."
As a Professor of English, teaching literature and creative writing, my pedagogy demands dedication to teaching as a "question of justice" rather than a "search for truth," and further demands that I resist characterizing it as "a transaction that can be concluded, whether with the giving of grades or the granting of degrees." (Reading, University of Montreal). I recognize teaching as my implication in a network of obligation, without orientation toward the quest for autonomy which underwrites the privileging of the teacher's authority, the student's consumerist choice, or the knowledge to be transmitted. I am dedicated to holding the classroom open as a space for critical and creative thought.
On the first day of my first semester of teaching in 1974 and without any pedagogical preparation, I found myself before a classroom of what were euphemistically called "remedial" writing students. They were mostly minority students, who had been bussed to rural, white Bowling Green University from the ghettoes of Chicago and Detroit, under various programs designed to "integrate" the student body. The policy was called "open admissions." Anyone with a high school diploma or its equivalent could enter the university, according to liberal principles of equal opportunity. The students were given attractive financial aid packages. What they were not given were the skills to remain academically viable. Most of them had passed through high school without acquiring the ability to read or write standard English. I was to teach them the rudiments of essay writing, and at the end of my three months, was to have prepared them to pass a university-wide examination in composition and rhetoric. I was given a list of "suggested texts" which I thought highly of, except that my students couldn't read them. To make matters worse, I found myself before a racially self-segregated classroom of poor inner-city African-Americans and poor rural whites. An empty row of desks between the two groups served as a no-man's land. This was not an auspicious beginning.
I didn't know quite what to do, so I announced to the class that I simply couldn't teach in a segregated classroom, and proposed that I leave for ten minutes while they discussed possible solutions. When I returned to class, the no-man's land was a bit more populated, and the class was involved in a rather heated discussion about whose fault the segregation had been. I assigned them to write a narrative about their childhoods in their own words and in their own hand, assuring them that I wouldn't assign grades to these papers. The next day, I asked them to read their papers aloud. They weren't called upon, and so we endured many long silences between volunteers. The narratives were poorly written, but they were compelling and interesting and provoked an unexpected reaction of shock among these students at the similarities between the childhoods of the African-American and white rural poor. Affected by each other's stories, they slowly allied themselves. I confessed to them that their teacher was a rank beginner, but that I cared about their success, and in exchange for their assistance in "training" me, I would certainly dedicate myself to helping them stay in school.
It took me two weeks to persuade them that the mastery of standard English was necessary. I divided them into small, integrated "affinity groups," believing that they would be more comfortable reading their work to a few rather than many peers. The stronger students in each group became tutors for the others. I devoted long hours to high-speed grammar games. Without knowing yet about "process" writing, I encouraged them to think of each paper as a draft toward a paper. Papers could be revised again and again until they were worthy of a passing, or even a high grade.
I did lose a few students: one to drug dependency, another to mysterious and compelling circumstances at home. On the day of the examination, I gave them a pep talk, but also announced that perhaps some of them would fail the exam. As it happened, most already knew this, but didn't feel particularly fearful or saddened. They would come back, they said, and try again. To my surprise and delight, three-quarters of the class passed. When the scores were posted, they invited me to their party. Even the students who failed the exam were there. They wanted to celebrate and to inform their teacher that she had "passed." I knew then--I must have known--that I had stumbled into an honored and loved profession unwittingly. Shortly thereafter, I received notice that I would be teaching the advanced composition students from then on, according to the mysterious logic of the educational bureaucracy, who believed they were rewarding me for my success with the poorest students.
In the years following graduate school, I was fortunate to receive publication awards for my work, and was thus offered many opportunities to teach literature and writing. Although I have never returned to a remedial composition classroom, I recognize many of my pedagogical practices as having originated there. I still devote extensive time to individual conferences, and divide larger classes into smaller affinity groups for discussions and the sharing of original work. The students in my classes are expected to develop their critical faculties, not only for their own benefit, but for their classmates. In my practice, the classroom functions as a community. The students are responsible for the quality of their experience. They are expected to attend to one another's work with the same seriousness, devotion and rigor with which they expect to be attended. In my writing courses, students are required to read extensively, and to make written reports on their reading. I have, in the past, been cautioned that state university students simply will not do the kind of reading and writing expected of students in private schools, but I haven't found this to be true.
One learns to write by reading. A poet's work is in conversation with other poets past and present. It is my responsibility to inspire my students to read, and to guide them in their reading, and to select for them the works which will be meaningful to their own creative and intellectual endeavors. The poetry students at George Mason, like other poetry students enrolled in similar programs, write for the most part first-person lyric-narrative free verse, but, like most other student poets, have little sense of how free verse evolved in the twentieth century. They are not as deeply read as they should be. As a response, I developed a "poetry map" for them, somewhat like a celestial map, with constellations of poets and poetry "schools," movements, groups, and lines of influence. I tried in so doing to avoid hierarchical categories, and to diagram a challenge to the dominant canon. This map is fluid and in process. The idea of it seemed to help the graduate students to visually imagine the flow of literary forces and currents.
For most of my teaching career, I have taught poetry workshops at undergraduate and graduate levels. The "workshop method" evolved at the University of Iowa, from an idea of creative writing as a "studio art." The earliest workshops successfully enabled gifted young writers to develop in the company of their peers and under the guidance of accomplished poets and writers. During the post-war years, writing programs became a democratizing force in American letters. I often suspect that it is just this force that is most resented when people complain about the "proliferation" of workshops. We hear that there are "too many" poets and writers, writing "too many" poems and stories. Perhaps it is rather that our creative literature is no longer produced by the privileged few whose means afford them the leisure to write, and whose work reflects the values of privilege.
Still, I have found myself concerned about the workshop process. Too often it seems that we are teaching criticism adequately enough, but we are failing to address the creative process itself. We discuss poems for at most twenty minutes in the traditional format. Twelve to fifteen poets participate in the discussion. What might be most helpfully said in that period of time? Often we find ourselves critiquing the particulars of a work without addressing its larger implications. Even the most gifted workshop teacher has some difficulty with this. In the worst workshops, critiques are perfunctory: the cutting and pasting of weak and strong passages. What we often accomplish is the technical polishing of an uninteresting piece of work. Many workshop teachers, including myself, have attempted to redress these problems. My own experiments have led me to create a new workshop focused on writing rather than critique. Briefly, the class is expected to arrive with writing materials and leave with rough drafts of new work. I assign the students various exercises and experiments, which have been gathered from teaching poets all over the United States. The work in this workshop is produced quickly and is discussed according to its possibilities and implications, rather than as a finished product. I also lecture on "experimental" revision practices. This class seems to alleviate writer's block, which is often suffered by poets writing in a graduate school environment.
I have also been long interested in continuing education, community-based education and the relationship between practicing writers and their communities. Ten years ago, I initiated a workshop through the Split Rock Arts Program at the University of Minnesota on community-based documentary writing ("creative nonfiction"). My husband (a documentary photographer) and I took forty writers and photographers to an economically depressed mining region in northern Minnesota. We worked together with the mining communities to produce a documentary in still photographs and text about peoples' lives after the closing of the mines. This evolved into "The Iron Range Community Documentation Project," involving hundreds of writers and photographers over a period of five years. An archive of over one hundred thousand photographs with texts were offered to this community in 1988, and is now conserved by the Minnesota Historical Society.
In recent years at George Mason University, our poetry faculty has concentrated efforts on building a nationally recognized graduate program in poetry, and have succeeded beyond our hopes. Our program has grown from a dozen to sixty active students, and our graduates have begun to publish internationally as well as nationally, and to find positions teaching in colleges and universities, despite the present academic job market. In my work as an educator, I have begun to develop interdisciplinary courses for undergraduates as well as graduates, often cross-listing these courses to the benefit of both groups. These have included a course on "the poetry of witness," arising out of my editorship of Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1993), which collects the works of poets who have endured conditions of social and historical extremity our century (including house arrest, forced exile, censorship, imprisonment, deportation, and torture). The center of this course is a study of poets who survived the Holocaust. History, literature, philosophy and ethics are addressed. In another version of the course, the survivor literature of the Holocaust is the focus, as well as film representations (Lanzmann, Resnais, etc.). This was taught as University 390, and it included a trip to the United States Holocaust Museum, and intensive interaction with two guest speakers: an observer from the Klaus Barbie trial in France and a three-hour meeting with Thomas Kenneally, author of Schindler's List. My poetry workshop students learn to participate in an active literary community beyond the campus, attending events at the Library of Congress (as a group, and accompanied by me), The Folger Shakespeare Library (for which I obtained four ongoing fellowships from the Lannan Foundation of Los Angeles, California, enabling GMU students to attend free of charge), and consortium university events, as well as readings in cafés and coffee shops in the metropolitan area. I try to model for these students an active literary life: writing, reading, editing (I advise the graduate student literary magazine), and discussing works in informal groups and literary "salons."
It has recently been argued that the University is now a corporate rather than a cultural institution, no longer operating as an ideological arm of the nation-state, educating citizen-subjects and propagating national culture, but rather as a corporate-bureaucratic institution, training a managerial-technical class for the transnational globalization of technological economies. As such, the university is undergoing a transformation from a site of critique to a site of human resource development. Concomitantly, the former governing ideas of the university, Kantian reason and Humboldtian culture, have been replaced by the principle of techno-bureaucratic "excellence," wherein the term "excellence" is a non-referential unit of internal currency, circulating to self-validate the now market-driven University, which views its students as customers, and its educational product as a durable good.
Underlying the best formulations of the argument for the technoversity of the future is a concern for the preservation of access to higher education, and its affordability for all socio-economic classes, that would extend the spirit of democratization implicit in both the The Serviceman's Readjustment Aid Act of 1944 (G.I. Bill) and the Johnson-era "Great Society Program." The salutary aims of such programs, however, are easily undermined by a socio-economic engineering which endeavors to orient curricula toward vocational utility, foreclosing the possibility of developing the serious critical faculties of intellectual inquiry available to the elite. It is therefore incumbent upon us to preserve the possibility of a strong undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, canonically inclusive and rigorous, as well as exciting graduate programs in the humanities which hold open opportunities for future scholars and writers, for intellectual and creative labor done for its inherent value. I am deeply committed to teaching, and to continuous pedagogical growth.