Do Teachers and Writers Live in Parallel Universes?

What profession is most like teaching? Authors Tracey Kidder and Richard Todd unintentionally provide a possible answer.

To teach is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them – by imagining for the student an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself. No doubt you know some things that the student does not know (why else presume to teach?), but it helps to grant that the student has knowledge unavailable to you. This isn’t generosity; it is realism.

I wish I had written that. In fact, the authors who did weren’t even writing about teaching; they were writing about writing.

Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd is a rarity: a book about writing that’s hard to put down. As a bonus, they also, inadvertently, describe teaching. It takes some manipulation, like I did above by replacing write and reader with teach and students. Here’s their original:

To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them – by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not know (why else presume to write?), but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge unavailable to you. This isn’t generosity; it is realism.

Later, in a sentence on narrative writing, Kidder and Todd provide a template for judging a lesson. How would you fill in the blanks? 

If a lesson is __________, the teacher should be able to go from one __________to a rather different one, from one __________ to another __________without giving off a scent of __________ or __________.

Kidder’s and Todd’s actual sentence is:

If a story is well-designed, the writer should be able to go from one subject to a rather different one, from one time to another time without giving off a scent of arbitrariness or struggle

To conclude, here is my favorite passage, with substitutions and blanks for your to fill in. I’m still playing with it myself. I’d love to read what you come up with, for any or all of the blanks (maybe as a comment, hint, hint). But if all this exercise does is get you to think a little deeper about teaching, this post is a success:

Every teacher hopes for (1)__________. Somewhere along the way all teachers experience (2)__________, too, and the pain it causes is real. But pain is a purer feeling than the despair, sometimes masquerading as (3)__________, that comes from equating one’s (4)__________ with the size of a (5)__________ or even with the response of (6)___________. It is (7)__________for a teacher to live in a state of (8)__________to the business of teaching and also (10)__________ for a teacher with (11)__________ambitions to imagine that (12)__________is perfectly congruent with success. Some of what teachers do, the best of it, is not easily or widely (13)__________. The deepest pleasure of a piece of teaching may lie in a graceful (14)__________ , an intuition about (15)__________ that finds exact (16)__________, the spirit of (17)__________ that lies behind the work. A good word for these things, when they occur, is (18)* “__________.” Whatever (19)__________any lesson achieves may or may not be rewarded in the (20)__________, but (21)__________ isn’t generally achieved with the (22)__________ in mind. Every lesson has to be in part its own (23)__________. In happy moments one realizes that the best work is done when one’s eye is simply on the (24)__________, not on its (25)__________, or even on oneself.

*18, 19, and 21 may all be the same word.

By the way, here is the passage above, as Kidder and Todd wrote it:

Everyone hopes for (1) success. Somewhere along the way all writers experience (2) rejection, too, and the pain it causes is real. But pain is a purer feeling than the despair, sometimes masquerading as (3) hubris, that comes from equating one’s (4) self-worth with the size of a (5) publisher’s advance or even with the response of (6) reviewers. It is (7) self-defeating for a writer to live in a state of (8) noble opposition to the business of publishing, and also (10) self-defeating for a writer with (11) literary ambitions to imagine that (12) fortune is perfectly congruent with success. Some of what writers do, the best of it, is not easily or widely (13) noticed. The deepest pleasure of a piece of writing may lie in a graceful (14) narrative, an intuition about (15) human behavior that finds exact (16) expression, the spirit of (17) generosity that lies behind the work. A good word for these things, when they occur, is (18) “art.” Whatever (18) art any book achieves may or may not be rewarded in the (20) marketplace, but (21) art isn’t generally achieved with the (22) market in mind. Every book has to be in part its own (23) reward. In happy moments one realizes that the best work is done when one’s eye is simply on the (24) work, not on its (25) consequences, or even on oneself.

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