You’ve Read This Post Before


The Glossary, a Los Angeles-based audiovisual marketing firm, has reinvented David Foster Wallace as a motivational speaker. This “fine purveyor of STIMULATING VIDEOGRAMS” edited the best soundbytes from Wallace’s graduation speech at Kenyon College, “This Is Water,” and then dressed it up with video, trendy animated scribbles, and sprightly background music.

The Glossary included the lines from the speech that haunted Wallace’s readers after he hanged himself:

Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

Returned to its original context as part of an exhortation to graduates to work towards mastery of their own perceptions – considering, for instance, that the overweight woman losing her temper in a checkout line might have spent the night with a dying husband and was not, in fact, just put on earth to annoy everyone in line behind her – the passage serves as a sort of radical motivation in which reimagination is the only way to keep oneself alive. Some critics, including Leslie Jamison, in his review of a Wallace biography, have rewritten Wallace’s suicide as a piece of postmodern performance art, with the “terrible master” passage a snippet of autobiography concealed by being waved in front of a crowd.

The less esoteric version has Wallace suffering from lifelong depression, forced to go off his medication because of severe side effects, and then, after falling into an even more severe depression and restarting the poison pills, discovering that they were no longer effective for him. Apparently, even if you are a genius, you still also have to be a person and a body with an uncooperative brain. Irreconcilable differences are bound to occur.

What surprises me about The Glossary video that has gone viral this week is that people find Wallace’s views so inspiring and revolutionary. In essence, he argues that most people ricochet back to the same mental point of origin, the panoramas that are so familiar we have stopped seeing them; but by prodding ourselves to consider other versions of what looks like reality, we are free to become better masters of our minds. He also acknowledges that getting outside ourselves is difficult, exhausting work, and he admits that sometimes he himself is too tired to engage in it.

To me, this celebration of possibilities is as good a definition of creativity as I’ve ever come across – something like mental Cubism, in which all realities can be embodied at the same time. But it also makes perfect sense to me that Wallace’s call to reinvent and reenvision, and the massive effort it takes to do so, would come from someone who was suicidal enough of his life for a bullet in the brain to become a metaphor. With depression as the random point in space from which you view the world, death is always right in front of you, blocking your view. To survive, you have to imagine a different frame, in which the option of suicide is somewhere far in the distance, behind a closed door, somewhere you might visit sometime when you don’t have so many other things to do. Once you know where the door is located, though, it is impossible to forget it exists or how to open it.

In a speech at the 2011 National Book Festival, Toni Morrison briefly discussed her dissertation, which compared William Faulkner’s and Virginia Woolf’s conceptions of suicide. Faulker viewed suicide as the ultimate defeat, Morrison explained, while Woolf saw it as a reasonable choice, in her case a rational alternative to putting herself and her husband through another period of psychosis. I tend toward Woolf’s view, and, I would guess, so did Wallace. Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech offers instructions for making other choices.

However, it is a more than a little paradoxical that the speech has been appropriated by a marketing firm. As a former (mostly mediocre) ad writer, I’m in a position to know that the whole objective is to create materials that act as magnets, pulling thoughts in the intended direction without infringing on viewers’ certainty of their own free will. Within a few days, the video had attracted 2.7 million views, dwarfing the popularity of previous projects (and, incidentally, using audio of Wallace’s Kenyon speech without permissions). In an Adweek interview, the creators claim, disingenuously in my opinion, “Our main goal was to expose people to the content of the speech.” Later in the interview, though, the creators concede, “…as a tiny company in an industry filled with so much talent and competition, it’s extremely difficult to get your work noticed…so we’d welcome anyone who enjoyed ‘This Is Water’ to get in touch with us.”

I’m reminded of the perennially puzzling sentences, “This statement is untrue” and “Question authority.” Wallace’s legacy will almost certainly transcend this little ripple in the information ecosystem, but I’m also fairly sure its undertow is meant to pull us down into the water.

Rubbernecking

from the Boston Globe

from the Boston Globe

It is fashionable to express contempt for those who drive past an accident and slow down to look. According to the critics, rubbernecking signifies a prurient interest in the misfortunes of others, a fundamental and irresistible inhumanity automatically triggered by the prospect of blood, gore, and emotional wreckage. The same principle applies to other varieties of voyeurism activated by celebrity meltdowns, tell-all memoirs, sexual indiscretions, mass tragedies, noble sacrifices, and spectacular acts of strength and courage. If we were a better species, not so prone to viewing destruction and exposure as entertainment, so the story goes, our curiosity would not be so much on display.

Personally, I’m not convinced that our human interest in calamity (and calamity barely averted) stems from something sordid that sprouts from the brickwork of civilization. In a work of literature, captivation begins where good luck runs out, and we attribute the burning compulsion to turn the page to curiosity or a search for meaning rather than bad character. When disaster hits bricks-and-mortar reality, though, the same impulse seems outré. If the medium is the message, then Twitter, facebook, Reddit, and the blogosphere seem to lead us towards the worst of both fiction and reality, where facts and meaning are equally elusive.

Yes, I am talking about the Boston Marathon bombings.

When I see a car accident, I always, always look. I am not ashamed of looking. I want to know two things: Is it someone I know? and Are the victims okay? I do not seek the frisson of adrenaline rush that comes from contorted metal or imagining something worse behind the ambulances and fire trucks. In a work study job cataloguing historical photos when I was an undergraduate, police photos of local car crashes comprised a good portion of the collection, but I couldn’t bear to look at them; and in high school Driver’s Ed, when we were forced to watch several editions of the car-crash scare series Red Asphalt, I became so terrified I would kill someone that once I finally got my license I didn’t want to drive. In other words, I am looking for reassurance, not a cheap thrill at someone else’s expense.

I think that something similar happens when someone seemingly “normal”—or at least normal enough—commits a large-scale atrocity. Some people complain that we are more interested in the perpetrators than in the victims, who are more deserving of media attention. But, to me (and, I suspect, to others), the victims’ role is not nearly as frightening as the perpetrators’. Certain horrific acts, like what took place at the Boston Marathon, or Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Tuscon, make us seek answers to our most terrifying questions: Who could be capable of such a thing? Could I? Could someone I know? Would I recognize such a person? How does someone make the decision to become a terrorist? Could he have been stopped?

At least from the preliminary reports, both the Boston Marathon bombers turned to violence in response to ordinary human pain: parents’ divorce, immigration, a best friend’s murder. The evidently more volatile brother, who already felt out of place in the United States, lost the possibility of citizenship when he committed domestic violence, and, in response, threw away his own humanity to retaliate with terrorism. He went to Bunker Hill Community College (where I have colleagues), and then dropped out while immigrants with similar problems kept going. The younger brother, the one almost universally described as warm, kind, and popular, bafflingly went along with his brother’s plans—why?

Peter Young Hoffmeister, a high school teacher and former Huffington Post blogger, lost his HuffPost blogging gig when he submitted a post recounting his past as an angry, lonely, gun-obsessed young man. After being expelled for carrying a loaded, stolen handgun to high school, he got kicked out of two more schools before “the support of some incredible adults” and an outdoor program for troubled teens inspired him to straighten out. Compassion saves, at least sometimes. Maybe there will always be Loughners and Holmeses who spiral out of reach, but on the other side there are also Hoffmeisters who force us to ask, Couldn’t something have been done?

I have noticed that it’s much easier to throw around the “evil” label, to dehumanize, to call for the torture and death of the “monsters,” than to ask such questions—at least judging by the talk shows, media rhetoric, and inflammatory facebook posts that have rippled through my feed the past few days. Now that the victims are maimed or dead, it’s too late for compassion to make a difference in the outcome, but to look for reasons is to acknowledge that there might have been a moment, or even moments, when someone might have intervened, or some time when a few kind words might have helped prevent so many worlds from breaking.

Seen and Not Seen: The 98% Inauguration, 2009

Four years ago, the night before inauguration, some friends came up with a pair of tickets. For several hours, I felt like the luckiest woman in DC: new to the area and suddenly gifted with a chance to witness the inauguration of our country’s first black president. I felt only slightly less lucky when I couldn’t find a friend to go with me on such short notice. When the Metro stop I needed closed because of overcrowding and I had to get off a stop early, my luck meter wavered only slightly: I had functioning feet, after all, and moving around would help keep me warm on a day with 9 degree wind chill.

I squirmed off the train at Gallery Place Metro and saw this, which is meant to be a photo of the mob on the escalators, but is also a reminder that our Swedish friends are happy to help us change our living rooms if we can’t change the country:

2008_0210Inauguration0022 (2)It was a strange day in D.C. It took me a while to realize why people looked so different, besides that they all were walking (though “pressing forward” is probably more accurate) in the same direction: Almost everyone was smiling underneath their hats and scarves.

2008_0210Inauguration0028If everyone you meet feels lucky, it’s hard to worry too much when emergency vehicles start blocking all possible paths to the Mall. Just find the big cheese, and move when the cheese does.

2008_0210Inauguration0032Eventually I reached a turning point: Give up and go get coffee, or carry on? I carried on, looking for a route to the Mall. I even tried to slip through the lobby of a hotel, but I ended up routed back to the same spot, back with a lot of people who didn’t know what direction to walk.

2008_0210Inauguration0033Soon I couldn’t walk any farther because I reached a bottleneck – an entrance gate, supposedly – with snipers on all the rooftops and Secret Service trying (but failing) to steer a family through the crowd. One of the girls, probably in her late teens, started to cry, and a man who must have been her father kept shouting, “I own that building!” until it became clear that there was no way to move in any direction.

Welcome to the proletariat.

This is what I saw for the next four hours.

2008_0210Inauguration0037I am under five feet tall, and for most of my time in the crowd, we were packed too close for me even to lift my arms. The fence on the left was a temporary barrier. Periodically the crowd would press forward, unleashing the hope that we might actually get through the line. It became clear that all of us, even though we had tickets, were going to miss the inauguration, but we were squeezed too tight to turn away. Often I couldn’t bend my knees or feel my feet, and when the crowd moved, I was carried by the pressure rather than walking under my own power.

But it was a happy day. Nobody complained or argued, at least that I heard. When Obama took the stage, a young woman called a friend who was on the Mall near a Jumbotron and streamed the inaugural address through her Blackberry (remember those?) so that everyone around her could hear it. She was our hero that day!

2008_0210Inauguration0046But…we were still stuck between the crowd and the fence. Soldiers controlled the gate, letting people dribble through a few at a time. When the gates opened, the surges forward became more forceful as we got closer. Finally the crowd pushed forward, and though I couldn’t get my feet under me to stop, I saw the gate closing as I approached. For a moment I was sure I was going to be crushed, but the soldier left the gate open long enough for me to stagger through.

I looked back and saw the other people who were still trapped behind the fence:

2008_0210Inauguration0045This is me with a numb face, feet, and hands. I had a big smile for a bad hair day in a gigantic coat:

2008_0210Inauguration0047My inauguration experience ended shortly after I got through the gates. Already people were gathering along the parade route, showing off how prepared they were:

2008_0210Inauguration0055 2008_0210Inauguration0057Then I finally got coffee.

2008_0210Inauguration0054A USA Today journalist saw me walking to the Metro and asked me why I was leaving. I told the story you see here, some of which he got right (the part where I’m quoted is near the end of the article).

Today’s inauguration doesn’t even compare. For one thing, I had no interest in being there in person. It’s true that there’s never a second second time, but the view from my sofa was perfect. This year, the story is “I turned on the television. I turned off the television.”

In 2009, on the other hand, I had a story you couldn’t get on television, and that’s something that’s amply worth standing in sub-freezing cold to see.

Every Day Fiction – “Inside the Dog”

My short-short story, “Inside the Dog,” is featured in Every Day Fiction today! Thanks for reading, if you do, and feel free to post ratings and comments on the Every Day Fiction website.

Here’s the link: INSIDE THE DOG • by Jill Kronstadt | Every Day Fiction – The once a day flash fiction magazine..

Ink Well Mag’s “Milestones” Edition

One of my stories appears in Ink Well, and I would love it if you visited!

Here’s the corrected link. I have had intermittent problems getting the page to load, but the link does work…thanks for reading, if you do.

Ink Well supports emerging creative writers, photographers, and artists. Hope you’ll support them.

It Seemed Like a Bad Idea at the Time

Photo by the Washington Post

My first job after college was at a health insurance company, making copies, printing out letters to reject claim appeals, filing, sending out mailings, and answering phones…and those were the fun parts. For this position, across from Westlake Park in downtown Seattle, I’d turned down an offer for the proofreading night shift at a tiny publisher situated in a bad part of town and a position assisting a quadriplegic entrepreneur, which sounded fascinating until every last member of his staff made a point of telling me he regularly insulted them until they cried.

By the time I capitulated and took the health insurance job, I was feeling the strain of hunching over a computer on a flea-infested rug in an apartment without furniture (yes, in the same building where I was later threatened by a shotgun-wielding retiree), living in a city where I knew no one and couldn’t afford to go out. I took a part-time telemarketing gig that involved calling up unemployed people without health insurance and trying to get them to buy season theater tickets. A bubbly blonde actress who started the same night I did almost immediately started reeling in customers, while I rapidly proved myself to be the world’s worst telemarketer. I didn’t even make it through the training, and after two nights on the phone I stopped coming, too humiliated to ask if I would have a paycheck.

I did not have much more aptitude for clerical work than I did for telemarketing. I learned that my high GPA and undergraduate degree did not necessarily mean I could survive in an office without losing my mind. I thought health insurance was ethically wrong – insurance companies profited from people’s vulnerabilities and fears, weaseled out of paying for illnesses, and had an entire department of registered nurses and doctors whose sole purpose was to ensure that treatments were medically necessary, which turned out to be code for finding reasons to deny coverage – but by then I needed the money.

Essentially, my first lesson after graduation was one that most people grow up knowing: idealism is hard to maintain when you need to pay the rent. Though I looked down on my coworkers for their unquestioning loyalty to a company that made its money through the pain and suffering of its customers, I quickly realized that I had fallen into the same moral compromise as the insurance profiteers. I dragged slowly through the filing, stealing chances to read the documents as I went and then justifiably being chastised for my lack of productivity.

I found a fiction workshop to take at night, but the couple of hours a week devoted to writing withered under the pressure of 40-hour weeks devoted to work I hated. The job was spectacularly dull, but worse than that it sucked me into a bottomless pit of self-loathing. My supervisor, a truly kind person trying to do the right thing, began to express concern about my emotional state. One morning, filling in while the receptionist was on a coffee break, she told me that my voice was too soft on the intercom and asked me to speak more loudly. When she turned away from the reception desk, my eyes filled with tears. I can’t even answer the phone right, I thought. How am I supposed to get a decent job?

A moment later, though, I had one of those merciful, lifesaving thoughts that from time to time have saved me from myself: What does answering the phone right have to do with anything? A day or so later, I gave notice. My last day was Valentine’s Day, some five months or so after I’d started, and I celebrated with a date at the Pink Door with a man from the writer’s workshop.

Those five months, however, ended up more than paying for themselves as the health insurance system got more and more complex. Because I played Harriet the Spy with the filing, I understood the labyrinthine rules of insurance games, even as they grew more and more labyrinthine in the decades after I graduated from college. I knew definitions, exclusions, preexisting conditions, capitation; I knew the difference between copays, coinsurance, deductibles, and lifetime maxes. I knew that, as people suspected, the regulations were, in fact, meant to give insurance companies reasons not to pay. And, from doing filing in the provider services department, I saw the kinds of malpractice and sexual harassment that would be tolerated without serious repercussions by the medical establishment. (When, a dozen or so years later, a gynecologist faced criminal charges for drugging and then raping female patients, I thought of those files.)

As I’ve been absorbing today’s news that the Affordable Care Act defied the pundits and survived its constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court, I have thought a lot about my insurance years. Yesterday, Sarah Palin repeated her erroneous and much-debunked claim that “death panels” would determine whether patients received care. Meanwhile, those who would most benefit under health care reform misunderstand the legislation, and those who oppose reform actively distort and wrongly characterize its provisions. Even as the quality and availability of health care have plummeted below any other advanced Western nation, factual information has failed to counter ideological misrepresentations.

One reason for the public’s confusion may be that the law’s advocates have not adequately explained the ACA or persuaded citizens of its benefits. I think that the main reason, though, is that insurance in general is difficult to understand unless you have spent substantial time learning about insurance. The whole system is a sleight of hand, meant to fool the unwary, and, despite the victory in the Supreme Court, a large segment of the public are still too easily fooled.

A Failed History of Flight

Nearly a year ago, partway through my recovery from a neck and shoulder injury, my orthopedist waved me out of his office with vague instructions to avoid car accidents, roller coasters, and hang gliding. When I asked for more detail about what might happen if I went hang gliding, he dodged specifics, then fumed, and then finally, when I explained that I had always planned to try hang gliding someday and wanted to know the risks, told me that a bad landing might result in my needing neck surgery.

“Thank you,” I said. “That’s all I wanted to know.”

I can’t say I mind trying to avoid car accidents. I will miss roller coasters, although they are not so important to me that I am willing to risk catastrophic injury. Hang gliding, though, is another story.

Since I can remember, I have wanted to fly. I think I was eight years old, inspired by a summer-camp reading of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, when I decided that humans had failed to fly only because they had convinced themselves they couldn’t. With proper concentration and determination, I insisted, I would be the first human child ever to take to the air unaided.

I put myself on a rigorous program of fierce concentration and practice. A friend and I constructed cardboard wings, which we tied to our arms with string, and then ascended the steep hill at the top of the local park and ran down it as fast as we could, our arms outstretched. My friend, who broke her arm attempting a different flight-related activity on her own, missed the next stage of training, which involved jumping off a branch of the biggest California oak tree in the park, then about eight or ten feet off the ground.

Nearly each day that summer, I ran down the hill and jumped off the branch, thinking every time, This time this time this time this time. One day, several weeks into my regimen, I tipped off balance and sprained my ankle when I landed. The sky – or maybe my hopes – had, for the first time, betrayed me.

I had heard that you should get back on a horse after you fall, so I jumped out of the tree one more time, as a farewell to the impossible. Part of me believed that it could not possibly be true that something I wanted so badly could be forever unattainable. I jumped, and gravity, the same as always, pulled me back to earth.

At a fiction reading I attended shortly before The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize, Junot Díaz said, almost as an aside, that all creative people have personal origin myths about their creativity, but they don’t as often have myths about the origins of their inner critics. (He said many amazing things, but most of them have nothing to do with this blog entry.) My own creation myth is one of flying and falling, making uneasy negotiations with hope and then having to accept my own limitations.

What did I learn from my failed experiment?

Basically, I learned almost nothing. Over the years, I have learned nothing over and over again. I can’t watch even the scruffiest sparrow dip in and out of shrubs without feeling the same old longing for flight. I wrecked my knee in a dance class, then danced again; when I’ve flown in airplanes, I always ask for the window seat so that I can imagine what the wind would feel like if my arms were wings. All I have learned is that hope is very, very difficult to kill.

If being what I am not is impossible, though, being what I am is not all that easy, either, nor is it really as prosaic as it sounds. The first year I had a vegetable garden (in Seattle’s P-Patch community gardens), I was astonished that plants could so thoroughly be themselves. The first thing a carrot seed did was send down a long, fragile root; the first thing a lettuce seed did was make leaves. At the time I started gardening, I was recovering from knee surgery and had not yet been cleared to go to dance class. I was just starting to know what my reconstructed knee would be able to do, and just beginning to understand that its abilities would fluctuate from day to day. It is humbling to become the student of a radish, but the plants had an insouciant self-acceptance that I did not.

I hope that eventually I will have the opportunity to decide whether to try hang gliding despite the risks. One side of the balance represents fulfillment of a dream of flight; the other side offers a promise of seeing the world – without embellishment – precisely as it is. Both possibilities, in the end, seem equally profound; and both still seem almost, but not quite, beyond my reach.

The Art of Not Knowing

Every time I teach my online fiction writing course, several students introduce themselves by saying, in one form or another, that by the end of the class they hope to find out whether they have talent.

I, too, would like to know whether I have talent. Every time I sit down to write, I have the urge to gaze at at my own work like Narcissus gawking at his own image in a pool, and I wonder whether what I create is beautiful, horrifically bad, or simply in need of substantial revision. I am not alone. For instance, Lynda Barry, in her autobiographical comic, “Two Questions,” recounts how the dichotomy “Is this good?”/“Does this suck?” nearly destroyed her ability to do art because she began to see each piece she created as a judgment on her worth as an artist and a human being.

Having spent about a decade of my precious days on earth asking myself similar questions, I wish I could help my students avoid this particular creative death spiral. I tell them that practicing any sort of art is a long process and that they are at the beginning of the process. I tell them that the course will occupy only a few weeks of their lives, and I warn them against using these weeks as an oracle that will tell them whether they should keep writing or not. I tell them, too, that I make a point of not answering questions about my opinion of their potential.

The more I write and slog through the uncertainty of writing, the more I realize that Barry’s two questions are the very last ones I should be asking because they’re just not relevant to the work itself. I have been told all sorts of things about my writing – everything from “You’re not James Joyce” to “I don’t see why you would care so much about things that aren’t even real” to the coveted “This is very strong work” – and nothing anyone has said has made much difference to my confidence level. (In one of my first college writing workshops, on the other hand, the professor recounted an incident from her own college years, in which an embittered professor told a student, “If I wrote like you, I’d slit my throat,” which almost certainly would have had an impact – but I desperately hope that story is an urban legend.) In response to various negative reactions and rejections, I’ve spent long periods of Not Writing, but I have always gone back to it eventually; and when I have received praise and encouragement, I’ve glowed for a few days and then spent weeks and months convinced that I would never write anything good ever again.

Like I said: creative death spiral.

Every time I begin to write, I start at zero. I feel that I am not just inventing a story, but myself as a writer. It as though I have to relearn everything I have ever known, every single time. I have to accept – again – that what I have to say, should I even succeed in saying it, may not be worth saying. I may be a better writer than when I started out, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write something terrible, and I am fairly sure I will fall far short of what I wish I could write. If I want to keep going, I have to embrace zero and everything it doesn’t mean. I have had to stop believing that my feelings have any relationship whatsoever to the quality of what I produce. I have to focus on the work itself, not ponder whether it is any good.

Lynda Barry’s comic dramatizes her search for “what is missing” in her art. In the last frames of the strip, she is taunted by ghosts whose frenzy increases the more she resists, until she inadvertently cries out the answer: “I don’t know!” and liberates her work from questions of meaning and worth.

Inevitably, my students will ask themselves the two questions no matter what I say to them, just as I did in my first writing class and for many years afterwards; and some students will read every comment they receive as though it’s a prophesy of what is possible. Some will become angry when what they think of as the oracle suggests that years of practice may stand between them and instant brilliance. I can’t stop my students from wanting answers to the question, “Do you think I’m any good at this?” any more than I could stop myself from asking the same thing when I was in my first workshop. But just because I’ve had – and continue to have – my own struggles with Barry’s lesson doesn’t mean I can’t try to bequeath it to my students.

At my college, the creative writing faculty have been charged with coming up with a way to measure what students learn in art and performance classes they take for general education credit. We had a spirited discussion about what was attainable in one beginning writing course, but we all agreed that it was not reasonable to expect a piece of high artistic quality the first time through the process. None of us, I suspect, are as good as we would like to be, which gives us common ground with our students. The difference is that those of us with more experience have by now swapped our fantasies of genius for a long, lonely march along an unmarked path through unmapped terrain, in search of a hypothetical treasure that may or may not have value. This expanse of untrodden mystery, however, is what freedom actually looks like.

Take it from someone who doesn’t know.

Caution: The Moving Walkway Is Ending

Early one morning a little over a week ago, the DC Metro deposited me at Reagan National Airport, where I would depart for an intensive fiction workshop in San Francisco. Only a few months had passed since my last flight from Reagan, but I had already forgotten the familiar robo-female voice that met me at the airport entrance before I reached the moving sidewalk, repeated its message ad infinitum, and followed me around for days afterwards: “Caution! The moving walkway is ending!”

If a message repeats itself that many times, it functions something like an advertising jingle or a mantra. It snakes into ordinary thoughts and insinuates itself into travel destinations. Eventually, new, unintended meanings stick to it like burrs on a tube sock.

In my case, the prickly tube sock has morphed into a metaphorical statement about the second week of May, the last of this academic year. The moving walkway – something like a tunnel, on which I’d stepped last August, accelerated in a predetermined direction, and then landed in the precise spot the engineers intended – was ending. For months, I’d sped through most days, hopscotched through classes, workshops, conferences, committee meetings, planning, mentoring, and grading, constantly sprinting toward the next point on the calendar.

After all the uproar about workload at Montgomery College, I am not going to mount a defense of summer, which for me will include teaching an online class, serving on a couple of time-intensive committees, co-facilitating a workshop, helping in academic advising, writing an article or two, and, it now seems, helping to compile a handbook for faculty teaching transfer composition. In other words, I will be working this summer. But what I won’t have, at least most of the days, is the moving walkway of obligation to appear in person, dressed presentably, at a specific time and place.

Yes, three months of modified entropy is a luxury. And yes, I will be getting paid for most of the work. However, I learned more about fiction in my four days in San Francisco than I probably have in all my years of writing, and more than anything else I am grateful for the opportunity to be a writer for a couple of months. Among the things I love about teaching is the chance to counterbalance the self-absorption required for writing with work that has a direct and immediate benefit to others. In other words, one of the advantages of a moving walkway is that I have a destination, a clearly marked path, and an arrival time: everything my writing is (usually) not.

It’s time I embraced potential uselessness, fruitlessness, pointlessness, and aimlessness, at least for a little while. It’s true I may get lost, but it’s also true I may end up somewhere the moving walkway can never take me no matter how fast I run.

Lessons from the First Decade

The Friday before last, I celebrated the tenth anniversary of the first class I ever taught. Well, to be perfectly honest, I thought about celebrating – in between answering email, grading essays, and scrambling to finish three separate projects by their deadlines – and wished I had time to blog in honor of the occasion.

People seem to have a widespread misconception that, unlike in every other profession, good teachers spring into shape like instant Ramen rather than going through a period of training, learning, and sometimes-painful introspection. As a mentor and superb teacher who had been in the classroom more than twenty years told me, “My first year, I thought I did pretty well. Then after a few more years passed, I thought, ‘Well, the students learned in spite of me.’” Even though multiple colleagues told me I was “a natural,” I still had a huge amount to learn. I assume that once I’ve taught two decades I will look ruefully back on how little I knew after my first one, precisely because experience matters. Here are some of the (hard) lessons I’ve learned so far.

10. Don’t put policies in your syllabus that you don’t have the heart to enforce. During my first year teaching, I tried to strike a balance between the faculty who wanted me to impose military-style discipline (there were a lot of veterans at my first job) and those who told me, “But your emotions are part of your pedagogy!” Classroom management is like training a cat: either be consistent, or just let the cat take charge.

9.  It’s best to be gullible. I am an English professor, not an FBI agent. I prefer to believe what my students say, even if it is likely that they are not telling me the truth. And, if I can’t prove that a statement is untrue, it’s best to pretend to believe it. The most outrageous example occurred when a student known to be a compulsive liar claimed to have a brain tumor. When he showed up at class, seemingly unable to walk without assistance from other students, I took his word for it. One of my colleagues, on the other hand, required medical documentation. By the next class, he was fully recovered. However, I would not have wanted to be the one to say “I don’t believe you” to someone with a serious illness.

8. Most plagiarism is accidental. When I learned to cite sources, there were more or less only three kinds we were allowed to use in essays: books, magazines, and newspapers. Today’s students are exposed to literally hundreds of different genres, some of which themselves contain plagiarism, sampling, and remixing. The idea that ideas as well as words can be plagiarized comes as a particular shock when I cover academic integrity. While some students flagrantly copy whole papers and hope to get away with it, most are genuinely confused.

7. There is no such thing as review. You are either teaching – as if students have either never learned or have forgotten what you’re talking about – or reinventing. One of my worst-ever teaching mistakes (Fall 2004, my first time teaching developmental English, is burned in my memory) involved rushing through material I thought students would know if they had met the course prerequisites. It took us about a month to recover, but I never made that mistake again.

6. Less is more. One of my favorite student comments of all time (I think it was Winter 2004) came during the class before an essay was due. I knew some students had been confused by the assignment, but I had explained it multiple times and thought they now understood. About a third of the way through class, though, one of my most conscientious students asked, “I know you have said we need to include X and Y. But what are we supposed to do in this paper?” Oops.

5. Don’t work harder for your students to pass than they do themselves. As I have mentioned, I teach at a community college, and many students face serious obstacles to completing an education. There’s a fine line between reaching out to a struggling student and, well, overreaching. Films about teachers often focus on recalcitrant students who respond to a teacher’s caring and mentorship (Good Will Hunting, with multiple people chasing after the troubled-genius janitor played by Matt Damon stands out especially), but in real life, I have found that if I put more effort into the student’s passing than the student herself, outcomes are almost always bad no matter how noble my intentions. Consequently, I have learned to let passing be the student’s accomplishment, not mine.

4. Teaching is the fun part of your job. Committee work is the price of admission to a classroom, and there is no better antidote to frustrating college politics (or, for that matter, exhaustion, aggravating personal situations, etc.) than an hour spent teaching students.

3. Dress for the mess. I truly admire my colleagues who can wear white to work and not stain it with coffee, dry-erase markers, ink, copier toner, or any of life’s other little accidents. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I actually have colleagues who wear white to work. Public speaking may be the most common phobia, but even faculty who get up in front of people every day don’t want to feel like the spotlight is on…spots. Prints and layers are good. Black is usually good unless you are teaching with old-fashioned chalk, in which case you’ll look like you’ve been in a paintball fight by the end of class.

2. Leap. Even a well-planned class can sometimes go awry, and at such times, you are lucky to be in a profession where you can change direction without warning or approval.

1. Don’t let what you’ve learned override your passion. When I was a new teacher, I had love for my subject, but no experience. Once I had some experience, I became obsessive about getting class right – being structured, sequential, and clear – and not leaning on spontaneity when I should have good planning. While these goals were all worthwhile, I realized last summer that, somewhere along the line, my perfectionism had led me to leave my passion at the door when I stepped inside a classroom. This year, I realized I’d come full circle: my magic ingredient was the one I’d had with me all along.

I feel like I could easily come up with several dozen more lessons. So, colleagues, what bits of hard-won knowledge would you include on your list?