Reflections on Teaching College Writing: The Importance of Failure and the Death of the Authoritarian Teacher

The Importance of Failure

When I first began college, I failed many times as a student. I often failed to be curious, failed to ask questions, failed to understand my situation and its importance, failed to develop good habits, failed to find motivation, and, consequently, failed a few of my courses (one course multiple times, in fact). During this time, failure and I had become best friends.

I was familiar with the way it crept up slowly and quietly, was familiar with its awful sinking feeling. I had learned to feel its sharp, guilty pangs, and to hear the faint echo of its nagging voice, constantly reminding me of how I’d let myself down. However, it was through failure that I learned the most about myself—about my tendencies, about my general situation, and about my strengths and weaknesses as student. In fact, I had known failure so intimately that I eventually learned how to not fail until I gradually became an expert in succeeding.

Thus, by the end of my undergraduate, I suddenly found myself excelling in all of my courses. My anguishing in the trenches of failure had hardened me, disciplined me. And because I had face-planted so many times at the beginning of the race, I longed even more for the finish line.

By then, I had a genuine thirst for knowledge, a burning desire for excellence, and a willingness to prove to myself and to my professors that I could and would succeed. In the end, I knew nothing could stop me because I had a visceral and intimate understanding of what it felt like to fail, and fail hard, and this caused me to challenge myself more than I ever had before, making the satisfaction of my successes all the sweeter. Ironically it was by learning to fail that I had learned to succeed.

In both teaching and writing, I have therefore come to see failure as a necessary step in the learning process that helps us better ourselves. In fact, if teaching and writing had an official mantra or motto, it would probably be the oft-quoted line from the Samuel Beckett’s play, Worstword Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”

Out of context or not, correctly or incorrectly interpreted, the quote highlights, for me, the necessity of failure, and the need to “fail better” in order to get where we need to be. However, unlike Beckett’s dreadful characters who often wallow in hopelessness and absurdity, I sincerely believe that our failures as teachers and writers often can, should, and do breed success in ourselves and our students.

When I first began teaching English Composition as a graduate student, I never had much practical guidance on the subject aside from a few pointers given to me by continuing lecturers and professors. Although I had researched plenty and taken a practicum in teaching first year composition, I felt like I was never quite as prepared as I should have been for the demanding and complex task that awaited me.

For instance, I didn’t yet know that teaching, like writing, was an imperfect craft which required failure—and which required a constant chipping away at something first thought be perfect before discovering something better hidden underneath. I didn’t know it involved a simultaneous grasping and failure to grasp fully—a kind of Gatsby-esque reaching for the magical green light at the end of the dock, but perhaps with more tangible results. I likewise didn’t know it was a fluid, chaotic, and unpredictable art rather than a carefully controlled science, and that I would have to learn it gradually, and with with varying results.

And so, as I quickly learned when it came to teaching—and as the philosopher Heraclitus put it—that one can never truly step into the same river twice, I also learned gradually that one can, through practice, discover techniques for approximating the best way to step into those rivers so that one doesn’t simply fall headlong into it them each time, only to be swept away by the current.

Therefore, this blog post is my attempt at giving beginning instructors the practical knowledge that I had to learn the hard way—namely, the knowledge gained through trial and error, success and failure. However, my introduction suggests, I am not arguing that one will, could, or should prevent all classroom failures from happening, because this is ultimately how we learn—both as writers and as teachers.

Rather, the post should serve as a helpful guide that safeguards against the more obvious pitfalls of teaching writing and teaching in general, and which provides what I think are two useful models for examining and reexamining what we do in the classroom as we continue to explore the exciting and unpredictable landscape that teaching offers.

The Fate of the Authoritarian Teacher

As beginning teachers, it is all too easy to fall back on our previous experiences of being taught in middle school or high school, and to thus adopt the absurd, discouraging, backwards, and ultimately unhelpful role instilled in us from a young age and perpetuated by our worst educators—namely, the role of the authoritarian teacher.

The authoritarian is a teacher you do not want to be. The authoritarian does not promote learning, but instead promotes anti-learning. They are someone who is far more interested grades than competencies, preferring to chart the accumulation of points rather than measure a writer’s actual growth.

They are a person who often suppresses creativity, preferring their students to follow strict rules rather than take risks or experiment. They also prefer to pontificate from on high rather than converse with the lowly, only placing a high value on their own opinions while ignoring those of their students. They are a teacher who does not write, yet demands that others write well. They do not bother to model what good writing looks like, yet expect their students to meet their demands, which are usually high.

The authoritarian teacher is someone who necessarily rules from a distance, preferring to see themselves as a ruler of subjects rather than a coach or a guide. Consequently, they place themselves higher up and farther away from their students so they can look down with authority, and so their students can look up to them with fear and respect.

As a result, they always view their students as lesser beings, never as equals. This kind of teacher also believes that it is their primary responsibility to be a dispenser of knowledge, and that it is the job of their students to be passive receptacles who must remain fully dependent on the teacher’s ability to present them with “right” or “correct” answers.

By remaining distant and impersonal, the authoritarian teacher also opts to remove students’ humanity and hide their own. They usually make a point of appearing serious and stern during class, never revealing their true selves for fear that their human vulnerabilities might be exploited, or that their authority might be undermined. They are teachers who cloak themselves in mystery, hiding their personal lives out of fear or selfishness, never getting too close too to their students or allowing their students to get too close to them.

The authoritarian teacher is also Machiavellian in attitude, convinced that students will always be at their worst. Unable to effectively build trust or rapport, this kind of teacher justifies the need to be in complete control of the classroom. Convinced that their students might try to usurp their power at any given moment, they must constantly keep a sense of paranoia them, exercising an ever-watchful eye lest the classroom devolve into chaos.

Having no place for dissident student voices, the authoritarian teacher rules the classroom through fear and intimidation, making students cower before their commanding voice and the threat of the “F” on their transcript. Ironically, these teachers are often secretly afraid of their students, and are generally intolerant of the views they espouse, especially when they conflict with their own view. They also tend to feel uncomfortable or threatened when students ask too many questions because they have trouble explaining themselves or justifying their own questionable rules.

Authoritarian teachers have also conditioned themselves to see students as vague abstractions instead of human writers—as a phantom list of names which accompany the bad punctuation and spelling errors which must be corrected. This kind of teacher does not take time to enjoy his or her students’ writing or encourage them to write better, but instead strives to punish them for their transgressions against Standard Written English—usually with little to no regard for their feelings. In fact, sometimes a student’s writing is so bad that the teacher feels compelled to do the work for them, unable to rely on the student’s ability to fix the “mess.”

Although the authoritarian teacher’s criteria for assignments and grading are not clearly defined, as they cannot be bothered with such trivial matters. On the contrary, they have a strong conviction that their students must simply know what to expect in college. Naturally, whenever a student fails to meet these vague or obscure expectations, the authoritarian teacher will not hesitate to stamp an “F” on the student’s paper with little or no explanation of the grade.

However, this system of alienation, fear, and control that the authoritarian teacher creates and relies on ultimately becomes their downfall. Because they have put themselves so far above their students, they cannot possibly reach down to sympathize with them or help them write. Because their students have been taught to fear the teacher’s presence in the classroom, they are afraid to ask important questions. Because the teacher has given them no control, they have no way of solving their own problems. And because these students have been continually discouraged with punitive and corrective feedback, they no longer value their own writing or what the teacher has to say about it.

Eventually, these students will reach a breaking point and begin to rebel. Tired of the authoritarian teacher’s oppressive yoke and browbeating, they will undoubtedly begin to rise up in protest, and the teacher will gradually lose control of the classroom—ironically achieving the result he or she fears most.

The moment this happens, some of the more vocal students will likely voice their frustration and anger, verbally lashing out or storming out of the classroom altogether. Similarly, the more reserved students will slowly become defeated by the teacher’s discouraging ways, and will eventually fail to show up for class, convinced of their inability to succeed. In either case, the end result will be the same. Students will stop showing up, either because they have become aware of the teacher’s incompetence, or because their will to learn has been crushed. In the end, nothing will have been gained, and everything will have been lost.

However, the good news is that we need not be like the authoritarian teacher. In fact, we can combat our urge to become them by striving to be what I like to call the writer-teacher.

The Emergence of the Writer-Teacher

The writer-teacher is the complete opposite of the authoritarian teacher, and is the teacher you want to be. They are someone who promotes creativity and learning, and discourages anything that stifles them. They are far more interested in a competencies than grades, more interested in measuring a student’s growth or progress than charting the accumulation of points. They enjoy talking with their students and are genuinely interested in what they have to say. They love to write, and want their students to write well too.

Although the writer-teacher understands his or her position of authority, they prefer to see themselves as an equals rather than someone above their students, and thus feel more comfortable taking on the role of a fellow reader and writer. They are also people who recognize the need to get to know students on a personal level as well as an academic one, and who recognize that distance is the enemy.

Thus, by seeking to remove the distance between themselves and their students, the writer-teacher is not afraid to reveal who they are, making students unafraid to reveal themselves in return. The writer-teacher also does not shy away from being vulnerable or making a fool of themselves because they understand that these are valuable opportunities for learning.

Consequently, the writer-teacher prefers to see themselves as a coach or guide rather than an infallible dispenser of knowledge, and believes that students should be active participants in their own learning rather than passive receptacles. They are also someone who writes regularly, using their own experience with writing to inform their teaching and their students’ learning. They never assign work that they would not be able to do themselves.

By getting to know their students personally, and by writing regularly, the writer-teacher is also in a better position to assess and evaluate their student’s strengths and weaknesses, and tends to have a more accurate picture of how their students are progressing as well as how they can improve. They also tend to see the glass as half-full, focusing on their students’ potential rather than their deficits, and working hard to ensure their students realize this potential.

When it comes to responding to student writing, the writer-teacher prefers to see such writing as an opportunity for a dialogue between reader and writer rather than an occasion for harsh, definitive judgement. Rather than taking ownership of student writing, the writer-teacher also recognizes their students’ need to solve their own problems by experimenting, taking risks, and making mistakes. They also never seek to correct or punish students for these mistakes, because they realize that good writing necessarily requires a degree of ignorance of what one is trying to say.

Unlike the authoritarians, writer-teachers have also learned to see student writing as the unfinished product of human beings who must be helped and guided through the writing process. Naturally, these teachers make a conscious effort to understand, connect with, and even enjoy student writing, always leaving positive, encouraging, and conversational comments with the student’s point of view and well-being in mind.

Similarly, the writer-teacher also recognizes his or her students’ need to control their learning, and only intervenes when students are in need of guidance, explanation, or clarification. Although writer-teachers always hold their students to a high standard, they are always clear about expectations for assignments and grades. To this end, they often provide explicit and writing models for their students to follow—at times, using their own writing—and provide students with detailed rubrics or assessment criteria prior to giving assignments.

The writer-teacher is also someone who has learned to humble themselves before their students and be attentive to their needs, keeping an open ear and open mind to their various requests—and most importantly—to their complaints. Because the writer-teacher understands the importance of creating a non-threatening, relaxed, and open classroom environment, they avoid preaching or dogmatism at all costs, and welcome questions as well as disagreements, recognizing these as opportunities for further explanation, illustration, and clarification.

They are also someone who values writing and speaking to and with their students rather than writing at them or talking down to them. Consequently, the writer-teacher has no need for fear or intimidation, but only needs to politely remind his or her students of their obligations and of the course expectations.

When confronted with poor student writing, the writer-teacher is keenly aware of the traumatizing effect the “F” can have on the student psyche, and instead opts to withhold the letter grade so that they can begin an open dialogue with students about what they have done well and how they can improve. They are also well aware of the distraction that points and grades can have on the student writer’s growth, and therefore must find creative ways to focus student attention back to the writing while still evaluating the quality of their work.

As the semester draws to a close, the positive learning environment constructed by the writer-teacher will have made a significant impact on the way in which students view learning and writing. Students will likely have found writing to be a more worthwhile and meaningful activity, and their overall writing competency will have grown. In the end, much will have been gained, and nothing will have been lost.

Although these two kinds of teachers are, of course, caricatures, they are nevertheless caricatures which serve as useful teaching models—one  to be emulated, and one to be avoided at all costs. In this sense, both the authoritarian and the writer-teacher provide a mirror for reflecting on what we do in the classroom, and for assessing and reassessing the quality of our own teaching practices.

Realistically, most first-time teachers probably come into the classroom with a healthy mix of the writer-teacher and the authoritarian, and I know that this was definitely the case for me. However, the more I tried to teach well, the more I failed, and the more I failed better by listening to my students instead of my ego, the closer I came to the writer-teacher and the more I learned to abandon my authoritarian ways.

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