Hello everyone, my name is Stephanie Hammer and I have a teaching problem

Friends of the unreal: teaching Composition is kind of impossible. And yet, I still do it.

I love teaching. Especially as I grow older (and older), I find working with different kinds of people incredibly stimulating and fascinating. Since I live currently in a very rural area, and with the continuing dangers of COVID, my realtime circle of encounters is very small, and I struggle to enlarge it, pretty much any way I can.

When I first moved here, I got hired to teach Composition at a local community college. It was completely thrilling to go on an actual job interview and get hired!!! In my early 60’s! Since then, I have taught a course a year for them for 5 years. The department heads and faculty I have met at the place I work are NICE. The other people I have met at the college are KIND.

But the workload is really heavy.

And it has not gotten lighter. I think a lot of this workload has to do with the fact that I’m not trained in Composition but am first and foremost a literature person and a creative writer. That means that I want to make things COMPLICATED and INTELLECTUAL When people talk about “critical thinking,” I think “yeah…. let’s really get into it with Marx, Foucault and bell hooks!,” but that’s not really what’s wanted by either the school or the students. As a creative writer, I’m similarly contrarian. I — secretly — don’t really WANT students to learn how to think and write in a cut and dry way that follows all the rules of organization, and even . . . punctuation. A part of me sides with e.e. cummings and thinks “you want do use only lowercase? go for it!” And a huge part of me thinks everyone in these classes would be better off learning how to write some poems, before struggling with the opinion essay. I tend to think against the rules… typical of an avant-garde writer. Which makes the fact that I teach Comp at all, interesting.

Then there’s the fact that I really want to get to know the students, and they’re for the most part, just trying to get through the course so that they can leave English 101 — and me — behind forever. It’s a transactional relationship, and I have not managed to maintain an ongoing conversation with any of the students I have taught. That makes me sad.

So here I am again teaching one of these classes, asking myself “Shouldn’t I be working on my own writing, and trying to advance my stuff and working on advancing the stuff that my writer-friends write?”

The answer to this is “yeah, but…” And then I start thinking about the first short assignment that students have coming up in the class, and how could I make it more interesting? And I think about the student who has come back to college after 17 years, because they want to learn something. And the student who moved here from Eritrea. And the student who works a full time job so they can go to college and pay off their car.

They’re compelling, these people are.

Does Composition as currently constituted help them? I don’t know. Frankly, I have my doubts that a quarter-long class can simultaneously teach English grammar, essay organization, and reading all at once to students who maybe don’t know grammar at all, and have never read a book all the way through.

Do I help them? I don’t know that either. I continually feel a kind of draw to the students at this community college. But, I don’t think they need me particularly. In fact, I imagine they are better served by other, more professionally trained composition instructors, who know how to get the job done more efficiently than I do. I may confuse the issue, because, like I said, I like to make things complicated. I just hope I don’t make it worse for students, with my strange ideas about thought and writing

Well, I’ve committed to teaching this quarter. What do I do in the future?

The solution may be to teach more creative writing. I do that too, and I could do more if I wanted. But oddly, as hard as the work is, and as not great a job as I suspect I may be doing, I think I’d miss these Composition students. It’s weird.

I don’t know the answer. The late Bill Readings observed that once we engage in the scene of teaching, we are forever enmeshed in it. We are, I think he said “addicted to others.” I can’t find my copy of his book, The University in Ruins, but that’s what I remember him saying.

Am I addicted to teaching? And if so, is there such a thing as a “good” addiction? I have no idea.

Well, back to work on figuring out that first assignment.

Then I’ll write a poem.

Then, I’ll get dressed.

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