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  • Helen Raica-Klotz

The Mostly True Diary of a Part-time English Instructor (with apologies to Sherman Alexie)

Updated: 7 days ago

By Helen Raica-Klotz

September 22, 2023

A few days ago, I finished reading my students’ narrative essays from my First-Year Composition classes. Linda, who describes her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome and depression following the death of her husband. They were married for three years before he died of cancer in his mid-twenties. Nycole, who writes about cutting herself slowly and meticulously to feel something alone in her room at night. The last time she did this, she cut deep into her upper thigh to make the shape of a heart. She still felt nothing. And Michael, whose older brother wrapped himself and his car around a tree after too much weed and Jägermeister. Michael thinks he sees his brother at night sometimes, standing outside his bedroom window, there just to say hello. Oh, there are other essays too, about high school proms, family vacations, baseball games, first crushes. But Linda, Nycole, and Michael? Their essays are the ones I remember.

               When I pass out my syllabus at the beginning of every semester, I always look at my students with trepidation. I will teach them about thesis statements and MLA documentation, audience and purpose, transitional phrases and paragraph construction. And they will teach me their names, their majors, and their stories. Then their stories become mine. Their narratives spill over my desk and into my life—in the car as I drive home, in conversations with family and friends, in bed late at night. As a composition teacher, I have the gift and curse of knowing my students. I have read about rape and violence, drug addiction and chronic alcoholism, senility and poverty, unwanted pregnancies and unexpected suicides. Of course, most stories are not painful ones. But enough of them are jagged and raw enough to cut deeply into my skin.

               I had a dream last night. In it, my students, faces blurred, stand before me with open mouths. Their papers are clutched like lost puppies to their chests. “Hey, can you hear me?” they call. “Helen, can you hear me?” I reply, softly at first, then progressively louder, “Yes, yes, I can hear you.” Soon I am shouting, but their cries continue. I realize they cannot hear my reply, no matter how loudly I respond.

September 26, 2023

               It is difficult for me to teach the personal narrative since I am, by nature, an introvert. I would rather read the stories of people I don’t know. It is my interest in human nature but my innate fear of human interaction that prompted me to become an English teacher rather than a therapist. I am more comfortable talking about a student’s underdeveloped paragraph or missing commas than about the truth they are attempting to tell.  

               After the narrative essay is completed, I start to teach standard academic writing: the definition essay, the rhetorical analysis essay, and the argumentative essay. Yet this academic writing always seems slightly out of focus to me. It is appearance-oriented: the correct references, the right discourse, the carefully constructed arguments. It is shiny, glossy, and error-free, like the models who gaze up at me from the magazines in my dentist’s office. Writing as performance.

               The narrative essay just seems more real. It is about honesty, after all—bare, gritty, and often unattractive. That’s probably why my colleagues treat student narratives like the drunken uncle at the family reunion who tells off-color jokes and drinks too much Pabst beer: something you enjoy from afar, something that amuses you, but something you never, ever, willingly invite into your home.

               Ironic, isn’t it? I think writing is the most powerful of all the humanities. Through writing, we can reframe, refocus, reevaluate our experiences as human beings in this world. The Latin root of “educate” is educere, which means to lead out. As an educator in the university, I have the opportunity to lead students back into their past lives through written language, to examine and honor that place that will begin their journey out into the larger world. But I have discovered no one is interested in where our students have been. The implicit consensus seems to be, perhaps if they are lucky, we can help some of them forget where they came from.  

October 20, 2023

               I read Terry’s definition essay. He has chosen to define “suicide” based on his experience with this noun. First pills, then different pills, then pills combined with alcohol. The sentences snake and curl on the page, broken up by random punctuation and misspellings. “I think about how much better being death [sic] would be.” I can see him as I read. He sits in the back row of the classroom. Terry doesn’t talk much. His eyes hide behind too much hair, and his fingers, his nails coated in chipped black nail polish, play with his nose ring, turning it round and round. He is a mess. His writing is a mess. But it is true, this story—painful, raw, and true.

               I read the next essay. LaToya has chosen to define the word “loss.” She uses the example of her basketball team losing the regional semifinal game her senior year. The paper is correctly formatted, and she has taken the time to carefully edit her essay or run it through Grammarly.com. “I cried and cried,” she writes. “It broke my heart.” I can see her too. LaToya sits near the front of the class, dark hair pulled back in a neat bun, wearing a seemingly endless supply of clothing by Adidas and Under Armour. She always maintains eye contact with me, smiling and nodding politely as I talk. Her story is well-written, meets the assignment guidelines, and is true – trite, but true.

               I would know these students even if their names were redacted. I see them; I hear them on the page. I will enter the numbers in the rubric and calculate a score for each, but who am I to grade their experiences?

October 25, 2023

               This semester, my university is atwitter about Chat GPT, the new software that can write students’ papers. There are workshops for faculty to “promote” AI-assisted writing practices in their class activities, to “integrate” this technology into their assignments, and even stipends available to research “best pedagogical practices” using this AI tool.

               “What do you think?” a colleague asks. I think we should ask the students to write about themselves: the sound of their best friend’s belly laugh, their mother’s obsession with “The Tiger King,” their worry about their little brother’s penchant for stealing booze from their dad’s liquor cabinet, their roommate hooked on Adderall. No computer can do this. It’s the soulless writing of academia that’s easy to imitate.

               But it’s risky. I know the university has little room for personal narrative. “Telling story” is considered the weak link that students fall back on when they haven’t been to the library, failed to think deeply, or are just being lazy. Students’ stories of their own lives are a fishy business, since personal narrative is often linked to the word “truth,” which in turn is linked to other words like “telling,” “healing,” and “connection,” words that make many of my colleagues blink in disbelief. Add to that an academic culture that views students not as tabula rasa, but dirty blackboards, filled with profanity and crude drawings, in need of a good eraser. University students are seldom seen as intelligent and autonomous individuals, with experiences of their own worth sharing. Narrative-based writing is, as one fellow faculty member put it, “frankly meaningless.”

               And it’s risky for the student as well. To tell a good story, a true story based on their own lives, the student must be willing to not hide. And hiding is easy. There are so many ideas, stories, arguments, positions, pieces of research that are carefully cultivated and ready to use. Within a few hours—or minutes—a student can create a quilt of an essay, pull it up over their head, and vanish into thin air. It’s quite the parlor trick. No, any student who unfolds their own narrative in my class is forced to stand alone in front of me, their audience, with only 1,500 words on the page to keep them company. And I am the one with the gradebook, the rubric, and the assignment sheet, all tools calibrated to measure the worth of what they have to say. This is not an experience many students rush to embrace.

               After all, writing is hard. So is reading. That’s why our university has purchased software to “read” incoming students’ essays for placement into one of our three levels of composition classes. A student will be required to take three writing classes, or two, or one, depending on the verdict of this AI software.

               “If we’re not going to read their work, why should they bother to write it?” I ask in a department meeting. No one seems to have an answer for me.

November 16, 2023

               Jamal sits in my office, watching me intently. We are discussing his paper, a polished and skillfully written rhetorical analysis of a David Brooks essay. It is like nothing Jamal has ever written. I know this, and he knows this. Now, we play the game: Can he tell me more about his insights on Brooks’ view of an ethical life? Did he get help from anyone else writing this essay?

               He tells me that he did get help, from his mom. “She’s a good writer,” he explains. “I’m not. And I got a bad grade on my last essay because you don’t like my writing. I thought she could do it, and you’d like it better. She’s white, like you.”

               “But I want your writing, your voice,” I tell him.

               “No,” he says, shaking his head once definitively. “No, you don’t.”

               I assure him I do. I ask him to rewrite the paper. I encourage him to visit the Writing Center and share his draft with a tutor, who can help him organize his thoughts and edit for surface errors. I tell him I will grade the revised version of the essay. I remind him not to have his mom—or anyone else—help him. “You can do this,” I say. I am not sure he believes this is true. I am not sure I do either.

November 26, 2023

               I am starting to believe that teaching writing at the university is not teaching writing. Not really. First, the “I,” the writer themselves, becomes lost in a stream of other voices, so the author’s own story is often only a pinprick of light in the darkness of the text. Second, the focus (that is, the grade) is often on the appearance of the product, as defined in the rubric: proper format, a clear thesis, integration of outside sources to support key claims, and lack of comma splices. The grade is seldom based on the ability of the writer to capture an elusive truth, to write something that resonates deeply with the reader.

               This seems inherently dishonest. It is not just that teaching takes time away from my own writing—it does. It’s not that reading 92 essays four times a semester that are filled with flat and convoluted prose filters into my own work—it does. It’s that what I believe and what I teach are so directly at odds, I feel like a liar when I stand in front of the classroom.

               I suppose the obvious solution is to tell the truth. I could tell students that the purpose of writing is to harness the healing power of putting words on a page, a tool they can use throughout their entire lifetime. I could attempt to awaken their creativity, often buried so deeply it seems not to exist at all, by starting and ending the entire course with personal narratives that come from their own experiences. I could say to hell with the editing of grammar and punctuation and ask them to use whatever language they have to put their lives on the page. But this is dangerous. Many people at my university would argue that a good composition instructor is clear and rigorous, with high expectations and a firm grasp on the rules of academic writing. These characteristics, after all, are what get my teaching contracts renewed each year. In my world, the majority of my students, most of my colleagues, and certainly my dean expect tangible outcomes (read here “basic skills”) in fifteen weeks. Respect for the process of writing, a heightened appreciation for this creative force in our lives, and improved psyches are not listed as goals on the syllabus. Simply put, to teach self-expression in the composition classroom would be perceived as pointless, self-indulgent, and downright lazy.

               Yet to teach self-expression through writing would take incredible bravery, effort, and integrity. It would require me to tell my students that several basic truisms they have learned about the world are false. The premise that appearance is everything; that if you work hard, you will always succeed; that money and power are the definition of success—all wrong. It would require me to combat years of Nike advertisements, A$AP Rocky lyrics, and almost every reality show on television—not to mention what they read on X, see on Tik-Tok, and view on Instagram. I would need to convince them that their lives will never be linear paths, but always recursive in nature, therefore worth examining again and again. In short, it would be a great deal of work.

December 11, 2023

               Heading back to my office after teaching a night class, I run into Scott. Literally. We almost collide in the deserted hallway when I turn the corner. A twenty-three-year-old, well read in Sarte and with a dog-eared copy of Walden in his back pocket, he is one of my favorite students. He says he was looking for me. He needs an extension on his final argumentative paper, an essay about the loss of the Native American culture in northern Michigan. His wife has just found out that she is pregnant again. He needs to drop out of school and has spent the last four days looking for a job. “I’m feeling a bit trapped,” he confesses. “Can I have until Monday?”

               I grant him the extension. I remind him he is a good writer, and clearly a good husband and father. I joke that I’ll be so buried in papers this week, I won’t even notice one missing. He nods and turns to leave. “Thanks,” he calls over his shoulder. “You’re a good teacher.”

               “You too,” I reply. It is all I can think of to say.

December 12, 2023

               Am I a good teacher? I don’t know. I am sympathetic to my students. Their lives seem so chaotic, and all I have to offer are the tools of stringing words together, to create some kind of order on the page. That’s all I’ve got. And even writing doesn’t always work. I know the frustration of wrestling with language, of trying to pin down meaning and all too often losing the match. “Writing is hard,” my students tell me. “Yes, it is, I agree.”

               The more I write, the more tentative, the less absolute I become in the classroom. More often, I find myself saying, “You might consider…” or “A possibility here is ….” Writing is an experiential skill you only learn by doing. I will never be able to provide my students a detailed map. The best I can do is give a few provisional guidelines, draw some hesitant sketches in the sand, stand on the shore and point in the general direction of the waves. “It’s over that way,” I murmur. “Good luck.”

               I suppose this might make some of my students feel bewildered. It sometimes makes me feel ineffectual. But in the end, I haven’t lived their unique experiences, so I don’t know how best to craft them on the page. I am just convinced their stories matter. The Latin root of “voices” is vocare, meaning to call out. I need to be able carve out some space to hear their voices. I need to add my own voice to the chorus. And I need to believe that someone will hear us.

               Just…listen.





 

Helen Raica-Klotz teaches literature and composition courses at a regional university in Michigan. She has taught writing in regional correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and local libraries as well–any place where she can find people who have something to say. She has two non-fiction books and over 20 poems, fiction, and creative non-fiction pieces in print. She lives with her husband and their big black lab in Northern Michigan.



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