Attempts at Unmasking: Dr. Andy’s Approach to Teaching
Do we see more or less when we teach via Zoom?
“Although I know it's unfair, I reveal myself one mask at a time.” Stephen Dunn
I recently taught my last class of the fall quarter, so now that I am spending time with a final stack of submitted essays, I’ve also been thinking about my students and how much I’ve enjoyed their company.
Many of my students believe they are already strong writers when they enroll in my class, so I have them submit their first essay assignment early in the academic quarter. In most cases, they are startled by the discoveries that I share about their prose and the grade their essays have earned. Then they buckle down and get to work.
I meet with my students twice a week – the students who attend all classes and who also visit my Zoom office hours learn the most. Not only do their receive personalized attention – visiting office hours is like taking an essay in to the doctor for a check-up rather than merely watching some educational videos on exercise and nutrition – but in Zoom office hours, we also get to see each other’s faces. The “face-to-face” Zoom room conversations remind us that authentic communication entails facial expressions, the sort that at least I took for granted before I started teaching my classes from behind a mask.
Using the sort of theatrical gesticulations that I learned from my actor father, when teaching as a masked man, I gesture a lot more and draw bigger diagrams on the whiteboards. The performer in me enjoys telegraphing my lessons. For instance, sometimes in class I make a point to tell students what I’m thinking, using phrases such as “I’m curious about what you just said,” or “You’ve made some smart choices in this paragraph, showing me evidence that you are thoroughly revising your prose.” Sometimes I point out what might once have been obvious: “You are really attending to the needs of your reader.” Before the pandemic, my facial expressions would communicate some of these messages.
I suppose that, as is the case in our interpersonal relationships, people in a writing class like to hear expressions of praise and admiration, rather than just sense such affirmations through eye contact and smiles. For wisdom on such matters, I turn to a book that I have also given to former students as a wedding present: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by Dr. John Gottman. Notice how what Gottman says here could apply to teaching writing, as well as love relationships:
“People can change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted the way they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.”
I really admire and appreciate my students, appraisals that I communicate by praising the insights they offer and assertions that they make about topics that matter to them. In my Writing in Fine Arts class, for instance, my students’ first assignment – a multimedia autobiography – gives them a chance to introduce themselves with a few paragraphs of prose, with a photograph that includes their (unmasked) faces, and with a representation of one of their creations so I can unabashedly laud their creative output. Trying to communicate my high estimation of each student, I share what Carl Rogers calls “unconditional positive regard,” such as by noting students’ imaginative strengths and artistic flair while pointing out that I could not hope to accomplish what they have done in their creative field.
Then I turn to the organization, emphasis, style, and clarity of their prose and gently show them where and how they are missing the mark. I promise to help them eventually match the clarity of their prose to the clarity of their thinking. No matter one’s previous experiences as an academic writer, writing about the arts or about any topic can feel like a struggle to translate one’s inherent wisdom into a language that can be received by a reader.
As one our assigned composition theorists, William Zinsser, says, “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other.” With examples, many of them taken by authors enrolled in the class, I show them how clear thinking functions as the foundation of their essays. If they are majoring in design (and I have more design majors in my Writing in Fine Arts classes than those from any other disciplines), I remind them what data visualization guru Edward Tufte says: “Good design is a lot like clear thinking made visual.” If they are artists, I remind them what the poet W.H. Auden said: “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” If they are wrestling with loss or confronting social injustices, I present them with a favorite Ernest Holmes quotation: “Healing is the result of clear thinking.” Before the quarter is over, students are workshopping and submitting prose that contains what expository prose expert Maxine Hairston lists as the qualities of successful writing: Substance, clarity, unity, economy, and grammatical correctness.
Lao Tzu said that “When the student is ready the teacher will appear,” and likely each of us can think of a teacher or professor who appeared at just the right time for us (and allow me to share a shout-out to Will Layman, Carolyn Williams, and Sir Christopher Ricks). Reminding me of the sudden and mysterious exit of elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi, Lao Tzu also said that “When the student is truly ready... The teacher will Disappear.”
I don’t know if my students were ready for me, but it’s with a mix of satisfaction and regret that I will disappear from these students’ lives. I hope they feel prepared to think and write clearly about what excites them to be artists. I will keep an eye open for their publications, art openings, and performances, as well as the day when we can all congregate again without our masks.
Eighty people came to the most recent poetry reading that I attended at the John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis. If you were among that crowd, thanks for participating. Katie Peterson, Director of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at UC Davis, called it “the biggest crowd for a poetry reading, ever.” I appreciated the exaggeration!
Every week I write and publish a Pub Quiz of 30 trivia questions for subscribers on Patreon. Would you like to join us there, and receive the trivia fruits of all that labor? This week’s quiz includes question on topics raised above, as well as dog breeds, breakfast cereals, U.S. senators, genetics, MCU actors, trotting possums, and other topics you might know something about. If you plan to gather with friends or family this holiday season, I hope you will ask me for a sample so you can host or participate in a form of entertainment that doesn’t involve a screen (unless you are quizzing via Zoom). Or, you could just visit the Patreon page to show your support there. Thanks to all the patrons who make these weekly missives possible.
P.S. The aforementioned W. H. Auden described the aforementioned Sir Christopher Ricks as "exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding." I’m glad I found him!
P.P.S. Here are some questions from last week’s Pub Quiz:
California Culture. The 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood was filmed in Bidwell Park. A municipal park, it's the third largest in California and one of the 25 largest in the US. Name the city.
Countries of the World. What is the name of the German-speaking microstate located in the Alps between Austria and Switzerland?
Science. The second largest order of mammals after rodents comprises about 20% of all classified mammal species worldwide, with over 1,400 species. Name this mammal recognizable by most schoolchildren.
Books and Authors. Published in 1937, what short novel set in California tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers?
Sports. Born with the first name Ferdinand in 1947, what American former professional basketball player played 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers?
P.P.P.S. In my most recent podcast, I interviewed the poet Katie Peterson and played some clips from an interview with the poet Donald Hall.
Please listen and subscribe to Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour wherever you get your podcasts, or find the show at https://poetrytechnology.buzzsprout.com/. On the first and third Thursdays of each month, I host the Poetry Night Reading Series at the John Natsoulas Gallery, 521 1st Street in Davis. Find out more at www.poetryindavis.com (where you can sign up for the mailing list).