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.