Johns Hopkins Magazine - November 1996 Issue

Reflections of a First-time Professor

By Dale Keiger

I've been reading madly for weeks, dreaming up writing assignments, telling myself that, after 23 years of professional writing, I do know what I'm talking about. Yet, as I walk to my first day of class, my heart is pounding like I've just run 10 miles at high altitude...

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY to department heads.

One day in June 1994 I had lunch with John Irwin, who was then chairman of the Hopkins Writing Seminars. We finished our business before we finished our food, so we began talking about writing programs. With no real intent, I mentioned an idea I had for a course that I called Reading as a Writer: teach undergraduate creative writing students how to read texts as a writer must read--not just for content and emotional response, but with an eye for how the writer put everything together, the technical details of structure, voice, imagery, characterization, precision, cadence, dialogue....

John paused, sipped his drink, then said, "Want to teach it?"

Thus I became a college professor. To be precise, visiting associate professor of creative writing. I had never taught before, unless you count the little lectures I've delivered over the years to student interns at Johns Hopkins Magazine and elsewhere. The curriculum vitae I handed in to the dean was what you might charitably call a concise document.

Cut to Groundhog Day, 1996. It's 1 p.m. on a Friday, the first day of Writing Sems course #201.400. I'd been afraid that no one would register for a Friday afternoon class taught by some guy no one had ever heard of, but 14 students have signed up and five more are on a waiting list. I've been reading madly for weeks, highlighting texts like a freshman cramming for my first exam, scrawling notes, planning lectures, dreaming up writing assignments so the students can put their new reading skills to use, telling myself that, after 23 years of professional writing, I do know what I'm talking about. Yet, as I walk to class, my heart is pounding like I've just run 10 miles at high altitude. I'm not sure how a person can be confident and scared to death at the same time, but I am.

I walk into Room 38, in the basement of Gilman Hall. The room is stuffy and no one has turned on the lights. I flip the switch and illuminate an overflow crowd of 17 kids, more than I can admit to the class. No one has given me a faculty handbook, or even any advice, so I've no idea how to untangle this first administrative snarl. Some of the students who registered aren't here, some who put themselves on the waiting list are, and two guys who didn't even make the waiting list have shown up anyway, hoping to get in. Several people are clutching forms--I hate forms. For lack of a better idea, I advise everyone to sit through the first lecture; after that they can decide whether they want in or out. My hope is that the enrollment problem will resolve itself.

In the weeks before this day I had tried to imagine what my students would be like. What I desire, of course, is 14 thoughtful, talented, industrious budding writers who will all go on to greatness. Who will begin their acceptance speeches at the National Book Awards by saying, "I owe a great deal to a teacher I had at Johns Hopkins." What I'm scared I'll find instead is a bunch of 20-year-old wiseacres already cocksure of their literary talents and skeptical that a teacher can tell them anything they don't already know. That is, I'm afraid they'll be just like I was when I was an undergraduate writer.

Whatever they're like, they're all here and they're all staring at me. It's time to put up or shut up. I briefly explain the purpose of the course. Then I pull from my knapsack a portable CD player. Because this course will deal with the precise use of language, I want to begin by talking about the differences between English's two primary vocabularies, the one based on Anglo-Saxon and the one based on Latin. For the Latinate vocabulary, I've selected a typically ornate passage from Henry James. For the Anglo-Saxon excerpt, I plan to play an example of the Mississippi delta blues, circa 1920. The use of the CD player is not showmanship or an attempt to ingratiate myself with the younger generation. I want to see how these kids deal with the unexpected. I know from working with editorial interns that Hopkins students tend to want direction. They like to follow an arrow on the floor. Today I want to knock a few of them off stride and see how they respond. See if they regard an expanded horizon as enlivening or threatening.

We read the selection from James. I play the blues song. And they don't get it. One's a story, the other's a song, someone complains...what sort of comparison can you make between them? Pay attention to the language, I tell them. Notice the words, how the effects are different, how the emotional distance changes from the cool dispassion of James to the earthy directness of the blues. No response, just impassive faces. I think to myself, Next time, forget the music.

There is one nice moment on this first day. I read an excerpt from Sense and Sensibility and do not name the work or the author. I ask them what they notice about the language. A young woman at the other end of the table says, "It sounds Austenesque."

"It's better than that," I reply. "It's real, live Jane Austen."

Two hours feel like seven. As the clock mercifully ticks off the last minutes of class, I make reading and writing assignments and dismiss my students. All 17 still want in, which I take as an encouraging sign. I have to turn away three. As everyone files out, I stash my books and papers in my knapsack and think, I need a beer.

THREE DAYS LATER, one of my students calls me to apologize for her behavior in class. I rack my brain, trying to figure out what she could be talking about. The worst behavior I can recall came from a few kids who were silent and unresponsive. She goes on to explain that she's sorry for how furiously she was taking notes, afraid she might have been disruptive to the other students. I can't get over it--she's apologizing for being attentive. I assure her that taking notes won't result in points off her grade...please take all the notes you want. My god, these kids are earnest.

For our second class, I've assigned two short stories, Henry James's "The Middle Years," the one I'd quoted last week, and Raymond Carver's "Are These Actual Miles?" This will be my last attempt to make my point about the two English vocabularies. I'm not surprised to find that everyone preferred the Carver to the James. I am surprised to find that only two-thirds of the class have their writing assignments ready to turn in. Did they think I was kidding?

The discussion of the Carver story is good. My students are perceptive, sharp, and willing to join the debate, most of them. The ones who don't volunteer to speak get volunteered by me...nobody gets to hide in my class. They might as well learn now that success in art comes to the assertive.

That night, I read their first writing assignments. I'd told them to create a scene in which two people are not getting along, and tell it through the eyes of a third. They're not allowed to actually say that the two people are fighting--they have to put that across in their descriptions. I further instruct half of the class to write imitation Henry James and the other half imitation Ray Carver. Reading the papers now, I see that they didn't get either author. The James imitators have simply larded their texts with a lot of unnecessary polysyllabic verbiage; most of the Carver imitators have just placed their characters in a bar, as if that's all Carver were about.

But one paper stops me cold. A female student has described a teen-age girl spying through the window on a confrontation between her stepsister and an abusive father. In her hatred for him, the narrator at the window imagines pulling the father's face off, and the writer has vividly rendered this imaginary scene, right down to the sucking sound of the father's flesh pulling away from his skull. The text contains a few grammatical mistakes, but it's so potent and alive that I feel a chill as I read it. I decide that for this student, my primary job will be to avoid getting in her way.

AFTER THREE WEEKS, I've had two modest successes. As has always been my practice with interns, I've been writing detailed, line-by-line critiques of the students' work. In some cases, they've given me four paragraphs and gotten back three pages of criticism and advice. They express surprise at this much personal attention, but they like it. If I'm tardy with an evaluation of their latest work, they remind me.

The other success is a reading assignment. I'm using a fiction anthology, plus a collection of non-fiction from people like Joseph Mitchell, Calvin Trillin, Tracy Kidder, and John McPhee. From the latter book, I assign "The Mountains of Pi," a New Yorker piece by science writer Richard Preston. It's a long account of Russian emigré brothers who in their New York apartment assemble a supercomputer out of components ordered from catalogs. The brothers are engaged in a quixotic search for patterns in the endless digits of pi, and the article goes into a lot of mathematical detail. To my surprise, the students love it. Some of them say they didn't even know this sort of non-fiction writing existed. I've expanded their horizons after all. It's a happy accident.

My classroom has a radiator that clanks like a shop full of tinsmiths. On a day when it's especially noisy, one of my students, a dark-haired young woman named Kerry, stands up in exasperation and steps toward it, intent on halting the noise, which stops as soon as she approaches. She shrugs, sits down, and the racket resumes. She stands again, and again the radiator falls silent. I suggest that throughout the rest of class she should periodically stand up and menace it, since that seems to do the trick.

Later, I mention this noisy contraption to my colleague, Writing Sems professor Stephen Dixon. "Ah," he says. "You must be in Room 38."

Another hassle is the weather. Friday after Friday it rains, or it snows, or it sleets. One day it starts snowing about 7:30 a.m., and by noon there's already a foot on the ground. All morning my students call, hoping to hear that class is canceled. No such luck. If I had to drive 20 miles through this slop, they can walk across campus. Someday they can tell their own kids, When I was your age, I would walk four blocks through drifting snow just to get an education.

WITHIN A FEW WEEKS, we fall into a classroom routine. I assign a piece for them to read, and in the next class, we pull it apart. I pose questions. Why, in "Sweat," does Zora Neale Hurston shift the point of view in the second section? In his non-fiction narrative of the stock market, "The Ga-Ga Years," how does Joseph Nocera use the second-person pronoun to turn the reader into a participant? They debate the answers. If I've assigned a writing exercise, we go over some of those in the second half of class, trying to read with the same sensitized eye we've used on Hurston and Nocera. I learn when to let the conversation go, and when to step in because somebody's getting beaten up.

Gradually, I begin to sort out the personalities, learning whom I have to draw out, whom I have to temper. John, Jennifer, and Sue almost always have insightful comments, but often won't make them unless I ask. That's not the case with Tamara, an aggressive Texan who seems more New York than Dallas and whose abrasive comments amuse me but sometimes irritate her classmates. One day, with the full confidence known only to someone 21 years of age, she declares that Tolstoy wasn't that good a writer. Bruce, a poetry major, mostly just smiles, but that's okay--I like him because he laughs at my jokes.

I get to know them through their writing. Most are not yet artful about disguising autobiography as fiction, so I learn of their divorced parents, their vices, their anxieties. A lot of their stories take place in bars, but I'm heartened to come across few references to drug use. They don't write about sex as often as students did when I was an undergraduate, but then I came of age in the Sixties, and we thought we'd invented sex. They try too hard to create original images and get tangled in their own overwrought language. None of them understands how to hyphenate a compound adjective, and they're careless about noun-verb agreement. They grin sheepishly and scribble corrections when I point out that what the words on the page actually say has strayed far from what they presumably meant to express, sometimes to comic effect. After a lecture the week before on precise observation, one student has his driver-protagonist describe in minute detail a woman in another car visible only in his rear-view mirror. I suggest that had the driver actually spent that much time gazing at his mirror, he surely would have steered into a pole. The student nods and crosses out several sentences on his manuscript.

John, a lineman for the Hopkins football team, seems to view all of life as one big contest on the gridiron. Maria, a shy woman with a tiny voice who misses most of the first month due to illness, writes gritty, keenly observed vignettes of street life. Brian's protagonists have a hard time with women, Lara's descriptions are studded with upscale brand-name merchandise, and Serena exhibits a flare for language as vivid as her fluorescent nail polish. Tom hands in one piece that isn't much as a story, but contains an utterly fascinating account of how a factory produces dog food.

Week after week, most of them diligently follow my instructions regarding subject matter, approach, and length for their writing assignments. A few consistently start out to do what I've requested, then find something more interesting to do with the story and pursue that instead. Because I have specific points that I'm trying to make with each assignment, I keep secret my respect for those who insist on coloring outside the lines. They're the ones most likely to turn into writers.

One session, I instruct the class to observe something in real life and use the description as a springboard into a story. The next week, one young woman walks in an hour late, pale and exhausted. But she turns in her assignment. When I read it later that day, I understand why she looked so bad. It's a blunt, honest account of her roommate's attempted suicide.

WE READ ERNEST HEMINGWAY, Ray Bradbury, Walt Harrington, Flannery O'Connor, Susan Orlean, Louise Erdrich. I try to show them how Eudora Welty, in "Where Is the Voice Coming From?," her fictional account of a racist's murder of a black man, uses the pronoun "you" to draw the reader into uncomfortable complicity in the crime. I get them to notice how Orlean, in "The American Man at Age Ten," employs details at the end of the piece that echo her initial paragraph. Is this an accident? Doesn't Leslie Marmon Silko, in "Yellow Woman," do the same thing? As does Bradbury in "There Will Come Soft Rains," and Nocera in his journalism? If all these fine pieces employ the same device, doesn't that suggest that one reason they've endured is that this sort of structural unity works?

I'm sharply critical of a piece of reporting by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and the students rise almost as one in her defense. A few weeks later, we reverse roles. I'm impressed by a David Quammen essay; they all hate it, except for Bruce--and near the end of class he cheerfully deserts me for the majority.

When I illustrate how various writers make class distinctions by the way they describe their characters and the vocabulary they employ when they write dialogue, the students resist. They don't like the idea of making judgments about somebody based on how that person looks or speaks. If they are to become good writers, they'll have to get over this squeamishness about how our habits, dress, and speech reveal our circumstances and backgrounds. But I'm touched by their generosity and fair-mindedness.

ONE DAY, I LEARN the Law of Inverse Preparation. It's been a bad week, with too many deadlines, too many papers to grade, too many magazine articles falling through at the last minute. I'm distracted and unprepared when I get to class. I look forward to letting the students take over the discussion, but they just sit there, inert, drowsy, and sullen. We struggle for a while before I call it quits and let them get an early start on their weekend. I realize that on the days when I'm well-prepared to lecture, the students are lively and opinionated and I end up doing the least talking. Conversely, when I'm underprepared and need them to carry the discussion, they turn unresponsive.

Always, I wonder: Am I teaching them anything? I think so, but there's not much in the way of benchmarks. In class discussions, they're starting to point out, on their own, intricacies of structure, characterization, and imagery that eluded them when the semester began. One or two, knowing they're going to miss a class, start showing up at my magazine office to turn in notes about what they would say were they able to participate in this week's discussion. Attendance is good, even the Friday before Spring Break. I dunno, I guess I'm making some sort of progress.

But one thing gnaws at me. They're becoming better readers, but with a few exceptions, their writing is mechanical, uninspired, lacking in imagination. When I point out mistakes, they stop making them (usually moving on to new ones), but rarely do I get a sense of a writer deeply immersed in his or her subject, alive to the possibilities of language, turned on by the mysterious process of composition. I know how to get them to stop using redundancies, or how to keep their point of view from wandering aimlessly. But how can I get them to turn loose their imaginations? Most of them are creative writing majors--what if they don't have imaginations?

By either luck or intuition, I trip over a solution, of sorts. In the eighth week of the semester, I tell them to go home and write down a vivid memory. I don't care if it's from 10 minutes or 10 years ago, I say, just write it down. Don't worry about spelling, grammar, imagery, cadence--just dump it on the page. Then, take whatever's on that page and make a story out of it. Turn your imagination loose. You can change the setting, you can change the gender of the characters, you can do any damned thing you want. Just go down whatever path your pen takes you.

The results astonish me. Students who previously had turned in three or four desultory paragraphs come back with seven pages of heartfelt, well-wrought prose. A few wander in bleary because they've been up all night trying to get the sentences just right. They ask me if I could please increase the number of writing assignments to go along with the reading. No problem, I say, immensely pleased with them. If only I'd have thought of this in week two.

ON A HORRIBLE NIGHT IN APRIL, Hopkins makes headlines for the worst possible reason. One of our undergraduate students shoots and kills another on a walkway near the library. The campus is stunned. Most if not all of these kids grew up in safe neighborhoods, and unlike my generation, they did not come of age when their country was at war. They're unused to the idea of someone like themselves being shot to death. They're even more unused to the idea of the shooter also being someone like them.

When my class assembles two days later, I begin by saying, "Considering the events of a few nights ago...I just want to say that although I knew full well that all of you were all right, it's still good to see you sitting here today." They look at me in a somber silence that I can't read. Maybe they appreciate my sentiment; maybe they just think I'm a dork. But I've come to realize how fond I am of them. I've gone from having no kids to having 14. One night I mention to John Irwin, whose fault this all is, how much I love what I'm doing. He smiles and says, "It's addictive, isn't it?"

AS THE SEMESTER WEARS ON, we're all wearing down. Hopkins imposes an enormous workload on its students, most of whom compound their exhaustion by joining as many campus groups and volunteer activities as they can find. Several have picked up the Hopkins Hack--a persistent cough that starts in February and doesn't go away until Memorial Day. I'm not coughing, but I am feeling the weight of conducting class while I also write full-time for the magazine. Critiquing student work takes a lot of time and patience. As the term progresses and I get more tired, I find myself forced to edit carefully my critiques before I hand them out, because I'm getting too curt and blunt. It's my job to teach these folks, not discourage them or hurt their feelings.

At the beginning of another session, Tamara asks, "Is this class going to have senior option?"

"No," I reply without hesitation, all the while thinking, What the hell is senior option?

She frowns and says, "None of my other classes are, either."

That makes me feel better, but I'm still stumped by whatever it is I've just denied her. I never do find out what it is, though I later hear it has something to do with exempting graduating seniors from finals. I've got to get a better handle on the administrative parts of my job.

AND THEN, ONE DAY, it's over. Thirteen weeks have come and gone. We discuss the last reading, and I collect the papers that comprise their final exams. It's still not easy to judge how much they've gained from the class, but when I invite them all to the campus pub, only a few decline, one because she must attend a remaining class. We spend a few hours drinking beer and sodas and eating popcorn and enjoying each other's company one last time. I'm heartened by the fact that all but five of them are juniors and sophomores; maybe I'll have the good fortune to teach them again.

The next Friday, I glance at the clock. It's 1 p.m., but for the first time in three months I don't have to be in Room 38. I'm relieved to have only one job again, but I'm also sad and empty. I love being a writer, but I've learned that I also love being a teacher.

On Commencement Day, I stroll over to the big tent on the Upper Quad and watch the seniors from my class graduate. They're all spruced up in dresses and neckties, happy and laughing and sweating under their robes, which they're in no hurry to take off. Most if not all of them will forget me, and that's okay. Of my dozens of teachers, only two had a dramatic effect on my development; all the rest are now no more than vague images from my youth. Many of their names are beyond recall as I write this.

But as I think of my students--John, Keri, Serena, Sue, Tamara, Eric, Brian, Kerry, Ian, Tom, Bruce, Jennifer, Lara, Maria--I can't imagine forgetting them. Maybe I will. But I doubt it.

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.


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