If you ask the people who read these sorts of things, they’ll tell you that Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is one of the better books about writing and being a writer. For me, the most important and valuable part of Bird by Bird comes from the anecdote that gives the book its title and appears on the back cover of the paperback edition. On the off chance you don’t have a copy handy or aren’t standing in the writing section of your local Barnes and Noble right now, I’ll do you a favor and just type it out for you:
…Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” *
Today, I’m not thinking about Bird by Bird in terms of writing, but in terms of teaching writing. After a week of having no idea how to get my footing with my students and getting the overwhelming feeling we’ve been slipsliding along for three weeks, I’ve decided to rethink how I’m teaching my students this semester. And I’ve decided to go about it bird by bird.
I’d like to say that I lost this class somehow, but I can’t. First, it’s too early to tell. I’m definitely in danger of it, though. Second, their actual refusal to communicate means that they can’t get away from me. You can’t lose what you don’t have.
Last week, I struggled with how to break the silence that marked our discussions of Into the Wild. After class on Monday, I began to worry that only one week into the semester they were approaching our discussions with willful silence. By last Wednesday, I was sure this was the case. And I was angry. By Friday, I had calmed down and figured out how to draw them in a bit more. I broke out some reliable old tricks*^ and things actually started to chug along.
On that same Friday, their first writing assignments were due. These were short papers, 500-750 words***, and they shouldn’t have been too bad. Typically, short papers are where you see creativity and few, if any, actual writing problems. Sure, some students don’t try, and that’s a problem, but there’s usually nothing soul-shaking about what’s on the page. So, when I sat down to grade them on Wednesday, it felt like I had been massively bitch-slapped.
What I read didn’t sit right with me. Actually, it was pretty disheartening.
I came to the decision that I had to go in the classroom on Friday and tell them that they had to do it all over again. And while they heard me telling them that they did their papers wrong and now they had more work to do, what I was actually trying to tell them was that I hadn’t begun to fight.
At some point, I hope they heard me when I told them that it was important to me that they become good writers. And I also hope they heard — and understood — when I said that it mattered to me that we take the time and work to produce good writing rather than simply finish an assignment and move on.
Because it does matter.
As much as I want/intend to leave academia and the humanities and all that, I do believe in the power and necessity of good writing. And I think it’s important to work towards trying to produce it, regardless of what you’re actually doing with yourself for a living. Aside from the fact that being able to write is becoming a specialized skill, one that sets you apart from other people and makes you valuable because so few people realize that it is valuable until faced with the fact, being able to express one’s self is a pretty necessary thing. While we all have our own ways of doing it, being able to effectively communicate in writing is no less valuable than doing so in other forms. I know that if my students can write well, they’re going to do much better at work than their peers who can’t. But I’m also in this for the student who maybe has a need to put words down in paper and be understood that he or she didn’t realize was there.
So here’s my plan for now: take a deep breath, stay calm, and teach some damn writing.
* In the interest of giving full citations and all that, that anecdote appears on pages 18-19, in the chapter titled “Short Assignments.”
*^ A good deal of my pedagogy comes from turning class into a series of dinner party conversation-starter games.
*** Experience has taught me that just saying 2 pages double-spaced allows second semester first-year students a bit too much room for interpretation. And while it’s interesting in a theoretical, “let’s see how their brains work” kind of way, it’s not helpful in creating some sort of standard.