What we do, not what we know



I count a lot of influences on how I teach, but perhaps the most significant one is Ken Bain’s book, What the Best College Teachers Do.

Published in 2004, it came on to my radar at just the right time. I’d been back to teaching for three or so years following a post-postgraduate dalliance with Corporate America. I felt pretty good about the progress I’d made in the classroom up to that point, particularly when it came to utilizing an effective and authentic teaching persona, and relating to the students, but I also knew that I didn’t have any kind of overarching teaching “philosophy,” primarily because I’d seen a job listing asking for one, and I didn’t know what it was, and a one-sentence statement of “Showing up on time” probably wouldn’t cut it.

The key to What the Best College Teachers Do, is that last word, “do.” Rather than focusing on what teachers should “know,” Bain’s research involves fieldwork and observation. He starts with the teachers who are successful – meaning their students engage in the kind of deep learning we all wish for them – and tries to uncover their “habits.”

According to Bain’s research the best teachers look at teaching as a “practice” in the same sense we talk about physicians or lawyers having a practice. Good teaching is about doing, evaluating what we have done and then trying again…practice.

Every year, about this time, I re-read large swathes of the book, reminding myself of things I’d forgotten, reinforcing those I remember. I look at my notes from the previous semester, the successes and lesser-successes and imagine ways I might be able to nudge the lesser-successes into the other column.

One of the things I’m realizing about my discipline, writing, is that each semester, my focus is less and less on information, or material, and more and more about “habits,” the habits of writing. While I think this is true of any writing, it’s particularly true in creative writing, my specialty within the field.

While there is still plenty of information I will ask my students to learn, I know that my instruction will primarily focus not on what writers know, but what they do.

These tend to take two forms. One is a list of skills that writers maintain and practice. The other is the cultivation of attitudes and habits that are most conducive to writing.

In most every case, these skills and attitudes overlap. For example, we work on reading like “a writer,” that is to understand “how” a narrative works its effects on the audience, rather than “what” the narrative has to say in terms of meaning. In order to do this, you have to be reading all the time and widely, one of the habits writers practice.

Another skill writers need to develop is best known as “ass in chair,” the ability to go to the writing space every day. This is coupled with an attitude known as “every day counts, but they’re not all good,” a recognition that just because ass is in chair, what comes out isn’t necessarily going to be golden. Accepting that failure and falling short is pretty much inevitable when it comes to measuring the end result of expression against our intentions is a vital skill.

This year, I’ve been thinking about adjustments I need to make regarding another skill, that I think is important for writers, “noticing.” By noticing, I mean the ability to look at the world and see things of interest that can be filed away for future storytelling use, to see things that are meaningful, but not knowing quite why.

The noticings can be small, like an old truck I saw yesterday with two wildly contradictory bumper stickers on it. On one side was the “Coexist” sticker which champions a kind of global acceptance among different faiths.
On the right side, was an anti-Obama sticker stating, “I’m not racist, I hate his white half too.”

I started thinking about this incongruity, wondering if it was possible that the truck’s owner simultaneously could hold both beliefs, or maybe it reflected a house divided, or if somewhere in the recent past, there was a private sale where buyer and seller were on opposite poles. It was a small moment, but it’s filed away, something I can maybe use later in any number of ways.

Previously, I’ve tended to think of noticing as an intangible, less a skill to be practice, than a particular orientation, the kind of thing you’re born with, or if you’re not born with it, at some point, a switch turns on and there it is. I believe I’ve thought about it this way because I don’t really know how to teach curiosity. I’ve viewed it as an attitude independent of the skills and habits that develop it.

Except that thanks to my former professor/mentor/friend Philip Graham, I realize that curiosity, is, like all the other habits, something that can be practiced. In order to open his students to he experience of noticing, he requires that they go have “an adventure.” They’re required to go do or see something and then simply report back to the class. We can see how this exercises the noticing muscle by simultaneously taking the student out of his or her comfort zone, and by requiring them to report back, to force them into looking at their experience more closely, and consider it more deeply.

I’ll be incorporating this activity into my course this semester. I’m looking forward to hearing about all the different adventures.

And while I’ve never spent time on the tenure track, for me, it reinforces the link between scholarship and teaching. Because I’m in the midst of my own writing practice on a daily basis, I have immediate experience to reflect upon when considering how to approach the teaching of writing to people who are at the beginning of the journey. Trying to improve my own work, makes me better at helping others.

I could go on, but I’m afraid it’s ass in chair time for a novel I’m trying to finish before school restart