Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

September 4, 2009

How I Learned to Write, Part 2

Click here to read Part 1.

When we last saw our heroine, she was about to dive into the underworld of academia, the dirty little secret of many overachieving students: cheating.  Only in order to save her GPA (and her smart-girl reputation), of course.

I wasn’t going to do anything as crass as purchasing a ready-made essay from the internet.  After all, I genuinely wanted to do the work; I just couldn’t figure out how.  I decided I’d check out every book of literary criticism of Kafka from our library.  I’d pick passages relevant to my assigned story, paraphrase them, and cobble them together to form a cohesive essay: my own brand of Plagiarism Lite.

As I read through these books, however, an amazing thing happened: I learned how to think about Kafka’s writing.  I remember literally saying at one point, “Oh, so that’s what my professor wants me to do!”  While reading these other writers, I found myself thinking of other citations from the story to support their claims, sometimes disagreeing with their arguments, and sometimes drawing my own, unique conclusions about Kafka’s words.  At the end of the course, both of the papers I turned in were wholly original.  I never had to plagiarize a single word.

Unfortunately, it seems rare for other students to have the same revelation I did: that writing is an opportunity for me to engage with a writer, an event, or a way of seeing the world.  I am so glad that I got a chance to learn that writing is not about telling a professor what she wants to hear.  It’s about finding out what you have to say.  Of course, when writing, you should consider what the reader wants.  If no one is interested in what you have to say, no one will read your words, and then your writing becomes an exercise in one hand clapping.  But I think having something to say is the foundation of all good writing.

Ironically, that is ultimately what led me away from a major in literature.  Although I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of literary criticism and there are people who turn it into a career, I realized that whatever I wrote in that genre wouldn’t be anything I really wanted to say.  While I believe great literature can be relevant no matter how long ago it was written (that’s what makes it great), I just don’t think what critics say about it matters that much.  Anybody who reads literary criticism probably already has ideas of his own about the text, anyway.  And that’s how the author meant his or her writing to be: an intimate conversation between himself or herself and another individual, multiplied thousands or millions of times over.  I have no desire to get in the middle of that.  Now that I can enjoy books without a professor’s agenda hanging over my head, I don’t beat myself up if I don’t understand why everyone thinks The Brothers Karamazov is so great.  I can just accept that Dostoevsky’s message in that book wasn’t meant for me, and I can move on to something that really resonates with me, like Notes from Underground.

So I was greatly encouraged to see last weekend’s New York Times article spotlighting teachers who don’t assign and “teach” certain books: they let their students choose what they want to read.  Instead of the teacher leading a discussion to “teach” the book, they all take turns giving mini-presentations to the class, talking about the book and often recommending it to their classmates.  Sure, the occasional student picks Captain Underpants, but many students have been inspired by their peers to read major literary works like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, or A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines.  The students may not fully grasp the subtext or be able to “unpack” certain passages, but I think authors have a reason for embedding their perspective on certain issues within a fictional story, instead of just writing an essay.  It’s OK to just enjoy the story, and if you’d like to learn how to peer into the author’s deeper meaning, I suggest checking out How to Read Literature like a Professor.

Nevertheless, it is completely possible to enjoy great literature without being “taught” how to do so.  After all, The Last of the Mohicans sold the modern equivalent of 10 million copies in the early 1800s, long before every man, woman, and child was expected to sit through an English class to learn how to properly appreciate great writing.  Come to think of it, some of them even managed to learn to write that great literature without the benefit of instruction.  Maybe we should give today’s budding readers and writers some of the same trust and freedom.



  1. Neat! A friend told me not to read criticisms of the Metamorphosis as it may narrow my own interpretations. But the more critical interpretations I read, the more I began to understand Kafka. And I even manage to find some parallels between him and me in terms of writing!

    I’ll keep in mind about writing my own views rather than the views I think the teacher wants to hear. Anws, the teacher has been emphasising this plenty of times. But each time he says to be original, I wonder how. Now i know. Thanks! 🙂

    Comment by M — September 4, 2009 @ 11:13 pm | Reply

  2. I enjoyed this…

    I have found myself doing the same synthesis with the non fiction I read. I am very interested in the causes of same gender attraction. The readings go on and on with so many viewpoints, but only on the narrow plain of “is it genetic” and “can one change?” There are so many more questions and levels of understanding to be explored. What drives sexual attraction between opposite genders, to start? Why are opposite gender siblings not attracted to each other? Are there exceptions? (yes) What drives intraspecies sexual attraction? Are there exceptions? (yes) What do the exceptions tell us about the underlying mechanisms of sexual attraction. What part does evolution play in this?

    You start to synthesize your own theories by reading very broadly in ethology, neuroscience, psychology, genetics and endless studies and test them to the extent possible. No, I don’t have a degree in genetics or psychology, and because of that, I won’t get an audience, but what the heck. The most exciting insights come when disciplines come together.

    One becomes engaged in the topic from an increasingly original viewpoint as opposed to indoctrinated.

    Comment by Rebecca G — September 22, 2009 @ 8:48 am | Reply

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