Triple hats: writing, teaching writing and teaching writing teachers
Triple hats: the first hat is writing, the second hat is teaching writing
and the third hat is teaching writing teachers, along with teaching many
other teachers from RMIT University's School of Creative
There are about 110 teachers, mainly sessionals, who are employed by the School. The majority of those teachers are engaged in professional arts practice and, by and large, they did not intend to become teachers - they intended to be arts practitioners and have arrived at teaching almost by default. We have a whole school made up of teachers who probably didn't intend or want to be teachers in the first place.
Our traditional method in the School of Creative Media of introducing
professional arts practitioners into the art and craft of teaching was
to provide teachers with a class list, a room number and a subject
I think the difficulties some new teachers of creative writing teachers may encounter can be summed up under the following topic headings:
I'll look at some of these topics in order.
Topic One: Misunderstanding the role
I think some - and only some, I would like to stress - new creative writing teachers misunderstand their role. What I mean by that is that some new creative writing teachers assume that the class is for their own benefit rather for the benefit of their students. (This attitude is often expressed implicitly through various things that are said. In its most extreme version the general message once it's decoded goes something like this: teaching is simply a different form of an Australia Council grant. You fill in time, you do as little as you can for your students, they should feel lucky to have you, you get paid and you go and do your own writing.)
How does this attitude manifest itself in the classroom or in the tutorial
If the class is for the benefit of the teacher then the following things occur:
Now those situations just mentioned are probably rare. Most creative writing teachers I know are working generously and tirelessly for their students. My former colleague Judy Duffy is a good example of a teacher who sacrificed her own writing career for the sake of the careers of her novel-writing tudents. She was a generous and inspirational teacher who put her students first.
Most creative writing teachers I know are working for the benefit of their students. When a teacher is working for the benefit of their students then the following things occur:
What a student picks up immediately in a classroom or a tutorial room is whether the teacher cares - about them as individuals and about their writing - or doesn't care and whether the teacher likes or doesn't like them.
Topic Two: Underestimating the workload, particularly with regard to assessment items
Beginning creative writing teachers usually underestimate the workload. They take note of the class contact hours that are mentioned but they don't factor in all the additional hours for preparation and correction (especially in the first year of teaching where the beginner is often teaching themselves to teach as well as preparing new material or customizing someone else's material).
Topic Three: Encountering troublesome and/or demanding students
Creative writing is an area where we traditionally encounter students who are sensitive and/or neurotic and/or brilliant. Student Counselling Services at RMIT used to tell me regularly when I was coordinator of the course that they were seeing more creative writing students than students in any other discipline area in the whole university. As well, Student Administration used to tell me that our creative writing students were the rudest in the whole university. Our average per class is one difficult student per group of 25. This paper is not the place to go into a list of ways in which students have been difficult in the past nor is it a place to go into remedies for dealing with difficult students (that would take a whole other paper) but let me say in passing that difficult students are often crying out for attention (they want to be noticed and respected) and once they are given the amount of attention and respect they are demanding they often settle down. (I have created a whole PowerPoint presentation on this topic that I deliver to staff upon request.)
Topic Four: Insecurity about the quality of one's own creative writing
This is a very sensitive topic for teachers of creative writing. The almost-Faustian pact is made: it almost invariably occurs that the students' writing improves at the expense of the teacher's own writing (the student gets stronger as the teacher gets weaker). The teacher puts time into someone else's writing rather than her/his own; but then that is the nature of the job. Teachers simply run out of time. They are so busy helping their students with their writing, helping their best students to find agents and publication opportunities that they run out of time to concentrate on their own writing. The psychologically dangerous outcome of this - with repercussions for the students - is topic heading five: resentment at having to teach.
Topic Five: Resentment at having to teach
I'll approach this topic by commencing with a series of generalisations (which may or may not be correct).
To generalise - 1: Writers want to write rather than to teach writing and yet they have to teach writing in order to earn money so that they can pursue their first love, of writing.
To generalise - 2: Students want to learn how to write so they can get published and feel justified in writing and in calling themselves writers.
The resentment of teaching creative writing is expressed in such statements as the following (and all of these I've heard writing teachers say over the past 13 years):
Have you heard statements like these?
So for outsiders, at least, the situation of the creative writing teacher may appear to be conflictual for two reasons:
The way out?
Therefore, if we step back from this situation we can see that there is the potential for a fundamental conflict of interest between the professional needs of the teacher - to write and continue to be published and the professional needs of the students - to write and to get published.
What is the way out of this double-hatted situation? (By the way, the phrase "double-hat" itself implies at the least a potential conflict of interest if we look at definition in the Macquarie Dictionary: "to wear two hats" means "to hold two official appointments at the same time".) So what is to be done?
I think the only way out is this:
In terms of "balance", one of the strategies I employ is to
ask myself, "What is my role here at this moment? Am I acting as
a writer or as a teacher in this particular situation?"
And if the answer is, "My current role is as a teacher," then
I focus on my students and give them a hundred percent of my attention.
Another "balancing" strategy is to devote more time to writing:
I now work part-time rather than full-time
The third hat - Teaching teaching
Now I would like to turn briefly to the third hat - teaching arts professionals
how to teach. This is fraught with problems as you can imagine. Many teachers
resent even being invited to attend a teacher training seminar, though
occasionally you will find a new teacher who is eager to learn. (Just
as an aside - is there another paradox here? We have students desperate
to learn, and teachers not keen to teach and not
The teacher training program that I run - and it's mainly for new teachers - has three aspects to it:
Firstly, new teachers will be invited to attend at least two three- to four-hour seminars in their first year of teaching. Secondly, teachers are able to enrol as students in my classes (or in other teachers' classes). For example this year (2001) one of my students in novel writing was the poet, and staff-member, Lisa Jacobson. Thirdly, mentoring consists of teachers being able to make a time to see me to talk about teaching issues. Some staff-members are reluctant to talk about their teaching problems with their boss so it can be very useful for them to have someone, who is not a boss, to talk to.
Attitude is as important as content
Now to move on to my next point: in creative writing teaching, attitude is as important as content.
As creative writing teachers we are not simply teachers of content but "bearers of attitude". We are not simply teaching a subject, rather we are teaching a subject to someone. We can present a subject without anyone being present in the room but when we teach a class or a tutorial a transaction takes place.
Teaching is every bit about contact as it is about content. An emphasis on "What am I going to teach today?" obscures a deeper question which is "Who am I going to teach today?" and also disguises a problematic question "What does to teach mean anyway?"
"Content" is everywhere. Students can go and buy books by Kate
Grenville, Carmel Bird and Garry Disher on how to write if they want content
but students also come to creative writing classes for contact; they want
contact with other students and with their teacher. They want to learn
something about themselves as much as learning about "content".
They want to test themselves; discover themselves and creative writing
just happens to have become their chosen vehicle to make something
Having interviewed mature age students over a 13-year period, often the
implicit or explicit request on our writing course is that the students
want the course to change their lives. That is often the plea that
Creative writing teachers by and large have the content under control;
occasionally it's the attitude that needs working on. What's an appropriate
attitude towards our students? Well, for me, I feel the
Helping students with their writing is as much about the attitude we have towards them as individuals as it is about helping them on a technical level. Freud talked about the Golden Seed - it's that self-belief that has been given to an individual by a parent or a teacher. If we can instill confidence, a justifiable confidence, into a student then the student takes control and teaches himself/herself. (It's like building a well for a village rather than shipping in a truckload of bottled water.)
Understanding the role of the creative writing teacher
Now if one side of the coin is misunderstanding the role, then what's the other side of the coin?
My understanding of the role of the creative writing teacher is as follows. I believe that as creative writing teachers we need to do the following things in the classroom/tutorial room situation. We have to:
In conclusion I would simply like to say that teaching creative writing is an act of generosity. Yes, we do get paid to do it but at the end of the day we are helping to develop our competitors (as writers and as potential teachers of creative writing) and those who will replace us.
The best creative writing teachers are often those who are the most generous
- with their time, with their encouragement, with their intelligence and
with their inspiration. But the conundrum still remains: How do we successfully
balance those double hats? For the most generous teachers are often the
least generous when it comes to their own writing - they simply run out
of time and the energy to write. (W.B. Yeats' question is relevant here:
"Perfection of the Life or of the Art?") For creative writing
teaching wants all of our waking moments and art requires those same waking
moments to flourish. The choice as to how
Antoni Jach is a novelist and a poet. His latest novel is The Layers of the City (Sceptre). He is a part-time teacher of Novel Writing at RMIT University.
Vol 6 No 1 April 2002
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady