The students who enroll in Thinking and Writing do not often know much about the life of a writer; and, for the most part, students do not know much about the writer teaching their class. The opportunity for first-year students in Thinking and Writing is more than to explore the intellectual work of writing. It is to consider the formidable power of the written word with the support of a professor immersed in a life of writing.
Lorianne DiSabato brings impressive academic credentials to her Thinking and Writing courses—an MA in English literature from Boston College and a PhD from Northwestern University. She is also trained as a Senior Dharma Teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen. But like many of us who are devoted to teaching college writing, Lorianne is a writer. Her Thinking and Writing course, “The Art of Natural History,” has been a favorite of many students. Lorianne also teaches sections of Environmental Literature for the department of English. As she explains in a recent reflection on her courses this semester, “Rivers and Literary Imagination” and “The Literature of Birds and Birding,” students learn through writing some of “the way[s] humans derive meaning from natural objects: looking at a river, we imagine the flow of time, or watching the migration of birds, we consider the passing of our own lives.”
Words like these suggest the generative connection between the practice of writing and the teaching of writing, especially in a course designed to develop student writers. In a recent post on her blog, Lorianne writes about a favorite Silver Maple that has long stood along the edge of Fiske Quad. This elegant maple was once described to me by my friend Jeff Garland, the campus arborist, as a beautiful tree in exactly the wrong place. The metal cables Jeff placed to hold two of the four trunks in place were reminders of its fragile place in our lives.
The occasion of Lorianne’s post was “Old Silver,” a tree she describes as “a natural object that I derived meaning from. . .an actual tree and a symbolic one, a being that shared my campus habitat as I’ve tried to teach countless students over the years.” But when the thick metal cable snapped on a clear and windy early-May afternoon as we went about our end-of-the-semester work of reading and grading student writing—as two of the four trunks came crashing down on to the soft green grass of the quad—she began to think. As it happens, one of the things that happens when talented writers begin thinking through writing is that they find their way. And it is not surprising that Lorianne finds in the falling of a beloved tree words that capture the commitment to learning and growing (and sometimes falling) with the students we teach:
This semester, I put a lot of time into helping my Environmental Literature students succeed with the very papers I was grading when Old Silver fell: my students and I spent an entire class period brainstorming potential essay topics, we spent part of another class meeting doing peer reviews, and we spent a good portion of a third class session doing revisions based on my draft comments, followed by a second peer review. I’m gradually learning that although trees sometimes fail for no apparent reason, success is never an accident. If I want to enjoy the papers I’m reading–and today when Old Silver fell, I was largely satisfied with the essays in my paper-pile–I have to take care in designing assignments and actively helping my students produce the kind of work I want to read. Good papers don’t just happen by chance.
Students, like old maple trees, are prone to becoming prone: both gravity and inertia are forces of nature, and at a wearisome point of the semester, it’s easier to give up than stand up. Old Silver has stood for years with a little help from the Keene State College grounds crew, and I’m learning that students also need an occasional prop or prod. It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like students just aren’t getting the lessons you’re trying to teach; it’s easy to think it’s somehow your students’ fault, or the fault of their previous teachers. Why don’t students come to us, we lament, already knowing the Big and Basic Lessons we see as being so vital? Why does teaching always feel like starting from scratch as we emphasize and re-emphasize the lessons we think our students should have already learned?
I no longer expect students to understand difficult ideas the first time I explain them, and I no longer expect students to master complex skills without repeated opportunities for practice. I no longer expect students’ previous teachers to have taught them the skills I want them to have…or, more accurately, I no longer expect students to recall the lessons their previous teachers taught. The business of teaching is grueling work: it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of failing before you can succeed; sometimes your approaches to teaching–just like your students’ papers–need to be revised.
Lorianne’s words resonate deeply for all of us who have worked to make Thinking and Writing an essential piece in a Keene State College education. Her words capture the real work of teaching, and the challenge of learning (and relearning) we all experience in our day-to-day work with students. If you are interested in reading all of the blog post, and I’d recommend it, you can find it at Lorianne’s blog, Hoarded Ordinaries.