Teaching: at the beginning.

by Jeff Oaks


I like to have conferences early on in the term. Maybe fifteen minutes long. I tell students there are three reasons: 1) so I get to learn their names and faces; 2) so they know where my office door is; and 3) so I can give them a chance to talk about their own writing, history, and anxieties. Depending on the class, I usually give them some exercises to work on at home or in private, separate from the work of the class. I’ve been known to loan out books. Some never come back. Most do.


One thing I’ve been pushing hard lately is making students practice describing things. It’s astonishing how few of them are able to hold their minds still enough to notice color, texture, shape, size, smell, and other qualities in anything other than general categories. Maybe we are all that way until asked to make differentiations. Learning to draw helped me I think to see more carefully and so act more carefully, based on individual cases rather than general categories. Wasn’t it Ruskin’s plan to teach everyone to draw as a way to generally improve their intelligence? I remember a policeman on some talk show showing an audience how badly they all “saw” a suspect they’d arranged to run across the stage. I bring in “things”: an old turtle shell, a dried sunflower head, shells from the beach, an apple. We read poems by Mark Doty, by Mary Oliver and others. Then we read poems by Wallace Stevens and Neruda that try to defamiliarize common things.

Write out all the rules your teachers told you or even just implied about what makes writing good. Try to get at least ten. Spend every week from now until the end of the term trying to write something that breaks them. One after one.