In practicum one afternoon this fall, the class discussion shifted toward students’ comfort in the classroom and, ultimately, their comfort with the writing process. That is, I don’t want students to be uncomfortable, I want students to feel comfortable enough to explore their own ideas, Students should feel comfortable enough to take risks in their writing. Of course, this preoccupation with student’s comfort got me thinking.
I’m going to push back on the concept of making students comfortable in this final reflection. I think that moment in class informed my teaching philosophy in a way that I’m not wholly finished processing. Hopefully, through this reflection, I’ll better understand why I left that class feeling so conflicted.
In defense of my peers, I want to say, gently, that I suspect some of their preoccupation with comfort is projection. Most of my classmates are filling an unfamiliar role as a teacher in a place in their life that feels precarious in a situation which feels risky. Grad school attrition rates are high. The risk and responsibility feels enormous. My classmates are mostly young and are feeling out a teaching persona which probably feels inauthentic at times. Just three years ago, I was in their shoes, feeling underprepared and out of my element while desperately craving success. I’ve never agonized more about my professor clothes, elements I could control, more than I did the first semester I taught.
With that in mind, I also want to say I’ve realized that making students feel comfortable is not a goal of mine.
It isn’t that I don’t care about student’s comfort. I do. I’m just realizing that I can’t mitigate the feelings of riskiness that come from students in a writing classroom. I could eliminate grades all together. I could run my classroom like I’m living Lord of the Flies. I could eliminate all of the extrinsic factors under my purview, and promise every student an ‘A’ if they just turn in their work. Unfortunately for my students, discomfort stems from external factors I cannot control and intrinsic characteristics I cannot know.
Consider the rhetorical situation of the student writer. We can guess at the cultural factors, the contemporaneous preoccupation with grades and failure and value, the insecurities and ego of the student writer, their own history that includes at least thirteen years of schooling, and the piece of teaching philosophy left by each of their writing teachers, the stamp of an educational system that priorities scored outcomes over process. As academics, we know all of this. In the moment, we just want our environment to be as comforting as possible. It’s a noble thought - the world is hard, in writing class you can be you.
The problem is that writing is hard.
Writing is hard for graduate students. It’s hard for secretaries and administrative assistants who write hundreds of emails per day. It’s hard for me. It’s hard for little kids, tenured professors, professional writers, and people who publish fanfiction on the Internet. The worst part is that the better you get at writing, the harder it is. If there is a way to unmake the difficulty of putting meaningful words on a metaphorical page, I don’t know it.
So my goal going forward it to let go of that preoccupation with comfort in the classroom. Instead, let me just acknowledge for students how hard I know it is. Being told ‘this is really easy’ is of no comfort to people who are struggling to do something.
Since I as a teacher cannot mitigate discomfort within the rhetorical situation nor can I transform the nature of writing, all that I can do is acknowledge that writing is difficult, that sometimes students in my class will be asked to do things that cause discomfort, and that we will do our best to develop strategies through which we can work through this discomfort together. That’s a long sentence to say that writing sucks sometimes, but there isn’t anything that I’m going to ask students to do that they cannot learn to do.
This is the year I finally feel like I’m hitting my stride as a teacher. I’m organized. I have a myriad of different lesson plans in my repertoire. I have goals. I have classroom management skills. I have technological aptitude. I have my sunny disposition. I have my wry self-awareness and my willingness to take risks in the classroom. Work that used to take me hours - grading, writing a syllabus, developing a lesson plan - I can do much more quickly. I’ve lost that teetering sensation like I’m two seconds from falling on my face, and this new-found sense of security has really allowed me to enjoy the parts of teaching that I really struggled with in the beginning. Even if it’s still hard.
If I could do things over again, I think I would tell my students that their experience in my classroom will be determined by their own willingness to try new things and go with the flow. A lot of students think I’m an easy teacher because I’m organized, lay out all of my assignments early, and try very hard not to deviate from my plan. I’m good at explaining difficult concepts in consumable chunks. Some students find my course is difficult to pass without regular attendance and because the nature of my in-class assignments means students cannot passively receive lecture-based knowledge. Unfortunately, writing is a thing we learn by doing. I can’t impart writing skills by talking about them. Trying new things is uncomfortable, but I think maybe that’s the best way to learn.
There’s an old debate over whether writing is an art or skill. Truthfully, I think that good writing is art. The work that produces it is a skill. When I first talk to my students about writing, I talk to them about basketball. I tell them to imagine that every day for an hour a day for their whole life they practiced basketball. That student still might not be as good as Lebron James, but they’d still be pretty good. They might even be the best amateur basketball player they know. The same goes for playing the violin, knitting, and writing.
I prepare for class by planning a unit. I start with a major assignment and work my way backward, defining assignment goals, then practical assignments, then daily lesson plans. I took so many courses as an undergrad which seemed wholly divorced from the outcomes of major assignments that I try to scaffold lesson plans accordingly. We do fast daily writing assignments that encourage students to practice skills we’ll use in a major writing assignment. I’m a solid extemporaneous speaker, so I rarely need lecture notes. I have to guess what I think students will need to be successful, and sometimes, I students ask questions that lead us to an unexpected place.
Each class is different. Their needs are different. Their fears are unique. Truly, I can’t know what skills they need to temper and which ones are metaphorical raw chunks of dirty iron. I guess, and sometimes I get it wrong.
But there’s no part of this that feels comfortable. We push ourselves to do better because writing well is a skill worth having. Maybe it’s possible to make writing more comfortable for students, but if it is, I don’t know how to do it and still develop their writing skills. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Really, if my students always felt comfortable, I’d be worried I hadn’t pushed them enough to be better writers.
I feel the same way about being a teacher. I’m better than I was, but I definitely wouldn’t call it comfortable. There’s something rewarding about the discomfort, though. Doing something difficult and doing it well is so satisfying, and I know I bring that mindset to the classroom.
I always struggle with the closing of the reflective essay. I think sometimes that I’m supposed to go back through individual assignments and evaluate my performance for strengths and weaknesses. Often, I feel like I’ve missed the mark entirely in reflection. Maybe it’s because I don’t agonize over my insecurities, which I find demoralizing. Maybe it’s because I know that I am, like my students, in a complex rhetorical situation thirty-grmmble-mfrm-mrm years in the making, which I have trouble adequately describing. Maybe I’m not good at ending things that haven’t ended.
Next semester, I want to continue teaching a multimodal class. I want to utilize the ePortfolio more. I’ll encourage students to do more writing on their portfolio rather than in Blackboard assignments. I’d like to continue to focus on writing and research process rather than outcomes. I hope I can help students think critically about their topics and their writing. But I won’t worry about their comfort. That’s not what writing is about.