Alexander Chee on being taught by Annie Dillard.
I teach Annie Dillard’s “The Chase” in my English 101 class—that story is a delight. I use the essay as a jumping off point for my students’ narrative essays. I haven’t read more of Dillard other than that short story, or Chee. I’ve been reading him on social media for a while now.
I’m curious about how writers are as teachers. I’ve been working on being a creative writer since I was thirteen, but teaching is my day job and I think it makes me a better writer, so I’m always in search of how others approach the subject of teaching writing. Especially writers who made teaching a day job like John Green, Dillard, and David Foster Wallace. You could say I’m leeching off of these people, because—basically—I’m a sophomore teacher. This is my second year as an english teacher, and I’ve been trying to figure what are good methods and how I can be better. I’m always asking my colleagues and such if I can sit in on their classes, what they do in particular situations, how they structure their essay assignments, etc.
This article was especially enlightening, because it’s Chee’s perspective as Dillard’s student. This bit, on her requiring the papers to be triple spaced is interesting:
There was that much to say. Each week we turned in our assignments on a Tuesday, and by Thursday we had them back again, the space between the triple-spaced lines and also the margins filled with her penciled notes. Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence. This had arrows drawn pointing off towards the amazing sentence and the disappointing one. Getting your pages back from her was like getting to the dance floor and seeing your favorite black shirt under the nightclub’s blacklight, all the hair and dust that was always there but invisible to you, now visible.
This is one of the many things I’m constantly worried about: going through nearly sixty papers a week, giving that much feedback leads to there not being enough time in the day—and burnout. Giving as much detail as I can in my comments is a tough cat walk.
What I try to do in my classes is preach this:
You are the only one of you, she said of it. Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters. Don’t worry about being original, she said dismissively. Yes, everything’s been written, but also, the thing you want to write, before you wrote it, was impossible to write. Otherwise it would already exist. You writing it makes it possible.
I think most well-intentioned writing teachers try to put this on, or attempt to try and help the students become themselves rather than mini versions of the teacher. I had a discussion with a student who said a previous english teacher told her never to write research papers using the quote hamburger. Are there better, more eloquent methods? Probably, but I haven’t found one as effective and I get good results. The quote hamburger is a concept I picked up from my time at Brooklyn College where the top bun of the paragraph is the topic sentence, the meat of the burger is the quote or evidence from another source not your opinion, and the bottom bun re-contextualizes the quote into your argument. The purpose of the research or thesis paper is to have a conversation between yourself and another writer. The student might have have misinterpreted the previous teacher’s point, but at the end of the day you’re not there to turn them into versions of you, but help them be themselves and also know how to properly write a research paper. How they write their sentences, what they write about is entirely up to them.
Finally this bit was really cool, and not something I’ve ever thought about, but I’m going to do it the next time I’m in a bookstore so I’ll probably teach it too:
Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, she said. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.