Friday, April 28, 2017

For what we are about to teach, make us truly thankful

"I teach some meat-and-potatoes classes and some you'd-better-eat-your-vegetables classes," I told my Creative Nonfiction students, "and every once in a while I teach the loathsome liver class. But you," I said, "are my dessert class."

It hasn't been an easy class, for me or for my students. Just as it took me dozens of attempts to perfect my signature angel-food cake recipe, teaching an upper-level writing class draws on years of experience as a writer and teacher, including dozens of opportunities to learn from my mistakes. Each iteration takes a great deal of effort--all those reading discussions, writing assignments, drafts and exercises and workshops to run--but the result is sweet and satisfying. 

My writing students make me laugh every time we meet, while their writing assignments sometimes move me close to tears. In our most recent workshop, I saw a student craft a suggestion so clearly and cleverly that it revealed what a great teacher he's going to be.

It takes hard work to offer specific, meaningful comments on a dozen drafts, some over 10 pages long, but I marvel over how much of themselves my students pour into their writing and I want to honor their efforts. And then the writing provides its own sweet rewards--sparkling phrases and sentences crafted with precision and wit, like strawberries and cream on top of my angel-food cake.

But teachers cannot live on dessert alone. The bulk of my teaching load consists of meat-and-potatoes classes, solid and satisfying enough but rarely offering tasty surprises. I'm thankful for these courses because they're dependable enough to keep the College's doors open and keep me teaching year after year, often over material that feeds my soul (even if the meat-and-potatoes papers lean toward the pasty and flavorless side of the menu). And we all need those you'd-better-eat-your-vegetables courses, those required classes that equip students to succeed without offering much in the way of teacher satisfaction. I am thankful for the chance to keep teaching new students, even if that means choking down brussels sprouts--without salt. (But deliver me from loathsome liver, that rare class that makes me want to run away from the table entirely. Fortunately, it's not on the menu very often.)

So as I said, I'm thankful for every opportunity to teach, even if I sometimes have to choke down distasteful ideas or wretchedly prepared writing, but nothing puts a spring in my step like the dessert course, the class guaranteed to brighten up a bad mood and remind me why I keep doing what I do. I never know in advance which course will qualify as dessert, and some semesters none of them quite make the grade, but when a class becomes a joy to teach even when the work is most demanding, I know I'm in the presence of the kind of sweet reward that puts the finishing touch on the rest of the meal.

Just don't ask me for the recipe--it's not so much a secret as an unfathomable mystery. Whatever made it happen, I accept dessert with thanks and savor every last bite.

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