Approaching a New Semester and a New Blog–Conversations

I have been teaching English at BYU for twenty-five years, focusing on creative writing for more than half of that time. As I contemplate winter semester 2010 and the new AML blog, I have been thinking about conversations. A blog is a long conversation, and likewise, we teachers have somewhat structured conversations with our students during every class. Some might label the teacher/student conversations lectures or lesson plans, but I always aim for an exchange. Since I married one of my professors, I have some unusual insights about relationships, academia, and conversation.

My husband, Bruce, is brilliant. He is far better-read than I am, though I am funner. Our department told him when he was a single, 34-year-old professor that he would need to get married in order to keep his job. The university told me I’d get free tuition if I’d just marry a professor. So Bruce and I really invented the win/win scenario before Covey even coined the phrase. But then we were two very insecure, smart people and we were MARRIED. On our honeymoon, we had our first fight–about my odd interpretation of King Lear. The conversation did not go well.

And then we had to build our marriage. Bruce was accustomed to lecturing, and did it expertly. But lecturing does not go over well in the bedroom, and before long I let him know that the podium was not invited into our bed, and also that I was now his WIFE, not his student, and was his equal in every way. (I would not include that confession on Bruce’s behalf if the situation hadn’t improved vastly.) Of course, I brought my own set of problems. I have no difficulty articulating anything, and am quite capable using my tongue to cut someone in half unless I control the impulse. I believe Bruce still has some scars.

A Baptist minister once told me, “Sarcasm has no place in a Christian marriage”–something I have come to believe, even though I have not always lived up to it. (Does sarcasm have a place on the AML blog? What are the risks?)

As I look towards this new semester and think about yet another group of eager faces, I realize how soft Bruce and I have become–and not just in our aging bodies. We are nearing the empty nest phase of our life. Bruce has moved from giving Harvard-inspired, 300-page reading assignments (to be done within a week) to a much more reasonable pace. More importantly, he has become a bishop and is also the department ombudsman, mediating problems between professors and students. I have told him he is a Tzadik–a righteous man, because he shows such mercy and compassion to all. He is a peacemaker. As for me, I have moved from being a slightly sarcastic single woman to being a quieter (though not terribly quiet), married grandmother, who loves her students as though they were her children but who tries to treat them as respectable peers. Bruce and I both have increased in love and understanding in all of our many contexts, and we’re still growing. Our conversations have gotten much, much better. I believe that love is at the heart of good teaching (and good blogging?).

Sadly, some in academia have learned the falsehood that a real academic must intimidate not only with stance but with vocabulary–liberally peppered with the appropriate, often incomprehensible jargon. Teachers become almost vengeful as they catch students at plagiarism or let them know what pitiful little posers they are.

The great Teacher did no such thing. I thoroughly enjoy being in a field where I get to do what Jesus did: tell good stories. I love the fact that my students also write essays, and that they sometimes address issues and events they have never felt comfortable addressing–everything from doubts to depression, from loss of a parent to hope in a romance, from coming out of the closet to preparing for a mission. My job is to open the space for them to write candidly. If I am arrogant, contemptuous, etc., the space closes and the students will likely resort to long, jargonesque sentences that attempt to impress the teacher rather than communicate an idea or an experience. Fear of failure translates into long quotations from secondary sources. If, on the other hand, I can create a free space in my classroom, if I can empower my students with responses to their work that go beyond correcting grammar, if I can lead them to their real teachers–the writers themselves, not the textbooks–, if I can excite them about the possibilities of writing through my own passion for it, and if I can hold good conversations with them, I’m doing my job. And then I’ll give them grades and forget their names…(The second part comes with age, I’m afraid.)

My hope for the AML blog is that all of us story tellers or critics of stories, whether told on paper, in film, or on the stage, will work from love, that “snarking” will simply not happen, that we will respect each other and the aims of the Association for Mormon Letters enough to hold lively, edifying, provocative conversations without arrogance and without any kind of dismissive edge. We are a community of artists and lovers of art. We need all of us–and in fact, we need more of us. We need subscribers and discussers; thoughtful contributers and equally thoughtful respondants. We need everything in our community which art itself requires to endure.

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5 Responses to Approaching a New Semester and a New Blog–Conversations

  1. Ed Snow says:

    Stimulating thoughts. Snarking and sarcasm should be avoided in our interactions here–I think we all agree that’s the house rule for getting along in the AML family and enjoying each other’s company. But I worry sometimes where that leaves humor writing, especially satire.

    Snarking and sarcasm might be considered crutches for humorists, only a step above using vulgarity for laughs. Possibly. But in the recent humor collection _101 Damnations: The Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells_, editor Michael Rosen points out that the rant/kvetch and complaint remain not only mainstays of American humor, but are one of its chief sources. I think I agree, misery, not happiness, being the wellspring of humor as Twain noted.

    And what to make of the numerous irritable, satirical prophets in the OT and even Paul in the NT who can really let loose whenever they want to? The KJV hides much of Paul’s irascibility (I forget the passage where Paul suggests that the Judaizers who insist on circumcision should have been less stingy on their own, um, entering into the covenant). Satire is a "prophetic device" to get to truth, but too much satire can result in cynicism. Twain again: "against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." That assault weapon has 2 edges.

  2. Austin says:

    So what was your controversial King Lear interpretation?

  3. I love good satire. In the group of blogs called the Bloggernacle, someone or several someones used the guise of Joseph Addison to comment on the various blogs–usually with fine wit. He or they no longer do it. Other snarkers don’t really understand the difference between satire and cruelty. I have no objection at all to "snarking" with kind wit. I object all over the place to biting wit, because someone leaves with teeth marks in their metaphorical flesh.

    My interpretation of _Lear_ had to do with the white cliffs of Dover. I don’t remember the details. Bruce was such an expert that he was a tad territorial. That’s no longer the case. I recognize his expertise, and he respectfully considers any insight I might have. A few years ago, he told me he thought I had a point about whatever it was I said on our honeymoon.

  4. Annette Lyon says:

    I love the idea of safety in the classroom (and, by extension, conversation and this blog), where others can be open and not be attacked, but can share their thoughts and feelings and opinions and know that they won’t have, as you said, teeth marks in their metaphorical flesh.

    As for _Lear_, I get shudders just hearing the title because I had a class where we had to write 8 different papers on that one play, each paper getting progressively longer and using a different critical theory. By the end of the semester, I despised it beyond words. That was nearly 20 years ago, but I doubt you could pay me to reread it even now.

  5. Angela H. says:

    Margaret, I love this: "My job is to open the space for them to write candidly. If I am arrogant, contemptuous, etc., the space closes and the students will likely resort to long, jargonesque sentences that attempt to impress the teacher rather than communicate an idea or an experience." The creative writing classroom is a peculiar place–and it can be an exhilarating, fertile place if the teacher knows how to cultivate the right atmosphere. But few atmospheres are more painful than a creative writing classroom full of fearful or judgmental or nervous writers. I wish I could have taken a class from you.

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