from the University of Central Florida lately.
If you happen to know why, pleasedrop me a line.
by Keith Snyder
Despite the blear of an air travel day and the disoriented blink with which I switch from whatever Im engrossed in to whatever my wifes saying to me, I got the little red spurt, and my chest and arms did the suppressed-vibration thing they do when I cant punch somebody who deserves it.
We were waiting to change planes in Ottawa, and the little red spurt was because she had just told me about an article shed read in CLASSICAL SINGER about bad voice teachers. If bad is all your voice teacher is, youre ahead of the game. The abuses are insane. Students are told theyre too stupid to learn; that they might as well go home and sing for their families because no one else will ever want to hear them; theyre punched in the stomach (to illustrate support from the diaphragm), screamed at through entire lessons; preyed upon sexually.
Earlier this year, I taught at a weeklong writing workshop. Its for people with novels underway, so theres something on the page to work with; its supposed to be about practice more than theory, though workshops are always theory-heavy: Students like theory because they think it comes before practiceand because talking about writing is easier than actually doing itand teachers like theory because although its only useful to a certain extent, you cant get in trouble teaching it.
I got my students partial manuscripts in advance. The quality ranged from possibly publishable to a beginners first story. Writing teachers like to argue about whether to tell hopeless students they should give up. They debate: Is it cruel to fan hope when hope is not realistic?
Ill skip to what Im pissed off about:
Teachers of the arts, get the hell over yourselves.
* * *
Maybe no one ever told you this: Youre the hired help. Youre there to help the student improve. If the student is at 9, get the student to 10. If the student is at 1, get the student to 2.
Thats the entire job. You took money to teach this. Teach it. Then shut up.
Helping the student improve is the only thing youre any good for, and the only thing worth paying you for. You are not a spiritual guru, either benevolent or malign; you are not a mother figure, either benevolent or malign; you are not an industry clairvoyant; you are not any other goddamn thingeither benevolent or malignexcept a person of certain skills who is willing to help other adults make those skills their own.
You may be an industry gatekeepersome voice teachers have the ears of opera company bigwigs; some writing teachers are editors or publishersbut that is in addition to your primary responsibility as a teacher, not in lieu of it. Being important in an industry does not negate your primary responsibility as a teacher, which is to help the student improve.
Its a service industry. Its not a stage for your egotist fantasy. Its not the living that society owes you because your brilliance goes tragically unappreciated in our capitalist system. You must get your gratification from helping the student improve and from knowing you did the work to say things that are true. If your gratification comes from being adored, or from knowing more than everyone else in the room (not exactly an achievement if youre a writer and theyre writing students); if you smile indulgently; if you feel as though these are children for you to mold; then however convincingly you can enumerate your contributions and demonstrate the subtlety of your taste, no matter how many student successes you can point to, youre a parasite.
* * *
Students have fantasies, too. The primary fantasy is "You are the anointed one."
Students dont realize that the guru doesnt actually know who is the anointed one, because no one knows that. No one, including your particular favorite saviour/guru. Its clear to a good teacher when a student is weak or strong in a skill the teacher knows how to recognize, and teachers with a feeling for industry trends may spot a students exploitable tendencies. But thats it.
Students with a self-flagellating streak like handing the whip to an authority figure. Teachers who are sadistic parasites love to accept and use it. It means they get ego strokes in two ways: First they get to feel powerful shredding you, and then they get to feel powerful comforting you. If there are breakdowns and emotional scenes, all the better: Thats a sign that were getting somewhere.
Parasites. Paid parasites.
This isnt therapy. Even if your art feels therapeutic, your teacher is not a therapist, and a writing class isnt a therapists office. Its a writing class. You should be learning how to write better. Thats it.
* * *
At this workshop I taught at, there was an instructor who believed it was her job to tell students whether they had what it took. Some of her students, unfortunately, didnt seem to know any better. She supported her cases with psychological analyses of the students she found wanting: You need to be more assertive; You havent suffered enough; I have suffered much, in ways you cannot imagine.
Thats not writing instruction. Thats sick. You want to pay for it because you enjoy humiliation, go for it. Enjoy the whip. If you think thats a writing class, youre mistaken.
One of her students stopped writing after a dose of abuse. "If we can talk you out of it," intones a certain chorus of writers and writing teachers, "then you didnt have it in the first place. Its a tough business, and if youre going to quit over a little hard truth, so much the better for everyone involved."
Bullshit. Teachers are paid to help students find the way from 9 to 10, or from 1 to 2, and thats it. Were not paid to rhapsodize about having what it takes, as though we know what that isand as though we dont know were implying that we have it ourselves. A student may or may not have sufficient skill to achieve his or her goals, but it is the students responsibility to consider that, not yours.
You also do not have a reliable idea of the students capacity for learning. You have no idea what this person can do, given the right motivation and instruction. Youve been in that position yourself: Someone in authority underestimated you. Maybe even worse: Someone in authority overestimated you. Dont be eager to become that same person. "But I see more clearly than the myopic teacher I hated" is bullshit. No you dont. You have blind spots about your students too; theyre just different blind spots than your least favorite teachers had. Believe that your insight is superior and youre instantly who you hated.
The students job is to learn. Any adults job is to self-assess and decide what to do, wise or foolish, for better or worse. Youre not the students mommy or daddy. You are hired help, and the job youre being paid for is to teach. Dont want to? Dont take the money.
Which brings me to a corollary to what Im pissed off about:
Students of the arts, get the hell over yourselves.
* * *
You are not important enough to be the worst writer or singer in the world. "Im the worst" is, in its way, as self-aggrandizing as "Im the best." Either way, no youre not. Your job is the same as the teachers job: to improve you. If youre at 9, get to 10. If youre at 1, get to 2. If you have a teacher who says things like "You havent suffered enough," or "Only your family will ever want to hear you sing," that teacher is a parasite. Ripping into you gives that teacher a rush. Abuse is not necessary to get you from 9 to 10; if it is, youve got a bigger problem than learning to write.
A teacher who knows what he or she is talking about and thinks of you as an adult does not act this way.
Of course, the down side here is that you have to act like an adult and make yourselfnot some imagined gururesponsible for your success or failure. If youre not willing, expect a lifetime of alternating intimacy and abuse from whack jobs with god complexes.
A teacher is parasitic and skilled? Other teachers have the skill and not the parasitism. If you are with a parasitic teacher because you calculate that he or she is the gatekeeper to your career, okay, thats your business. But:
1. Youre going to pay for it.
2. Is your belief in this teachers gatekeeping power based on testimony from anyone besides this teacher and/or his/her favorite students?
* * *
Near the end of the workshop, I ran into this abusive writing teacher in the stairwell. She asked how the conference was going for me. I didnt tell her that Id overheard her trying to convince one of my students that I wasnt worth listening to, or that Id taken on two of her students after official hours, at their requests. (One was uncertain enough at the outset of the workshop to be shattered by her abuse, and the other saw clearly enough to be angry that shed paid to be treated like shit.) Instead, I said that I thought Id learned more than my students, and that Id found a new way of explaining ineffective writing. Its not that youre doing something wrong (goes my new way of explaining); its that youre missing opportunities.
Hows yours going, I asked.
They just need so much, she said. Nothings ever enough. You keep coming back, year after year, hoping this time will be different, but it never is.
I play a game sometimes, to amuse myself. When someone talks about other people, I imagine theyre talking about themselves.
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© 2003 Keith Snyder