By Nicholas Hayes
Sometimes on Sunday mornings, I wake naturally. My partner snores gently. A cat stretches over my chest and belly. Another cat, balled tight, leans against my calf. In these moments, I don't have to worry about my inadequate health insurance or my student loans. These mornings are the navel of my world. Everything on the queen-sized mattress seems right. In these moments, my comfort is supreme. But eventually, inevitably, the adorable ball of fur will swat the cat on my chest. They will hiss and spit. Eventually, inevitably, I have to think about my finances. I have to get out of bed.
Students who have enrolled in Writing Workshop are often running from the bad dreams of previous academic experience or doubt in their own academic ability. Their nerves can be so frayed that I find myself wanting to create the academic equivalent of the Sunday morning bed for them. I don't want them to worry. I just want them to sit in the classroom, talk with each other, and find that this can be a comfortable environment.
In the classroom, I want students to know they are not alone. I talk to them about my own struggles with writing. At times, I will even show them drafts of papers I am writing. I show them the notes I make on my work. I point out the errors I have made. I insist that they are not alone. Most people have made the same bed and take the same steps to get out of it. I invite students to talk about their writing difficulties. They see they are not alone. I try to show them they do not have to be uncomfortable when they write or when they are in class.
Having created this environment, many students find ease in silence when I ask a question or request a volunteer for peer review. Some think they can hide in the silence. But I break this silence by saying I will take "voluntary volunteers first, and then involuntary volunteers." Everyone needs to participate not because of some grading checklist, but because attempting to answer and finding the confidence and comfort to share work is the only way to build a worthwhile learning experience. Some students try to bargain. They'll share their work if they can do it anonymously, but I have tried to do this in the past. And when their classmates were unshackled by anonymity, their feedback was blunter and the anonymous students' found less comfort than in the open peer review.
Certainly, comfort is not always conducive to learning.
From my own educational experience, I learned the most from the teachers who made me uncomfortable. Those instructors who inhabited tiny, book-cluttered offices would clear a small square on their desks so that I could set my work out for them to scrutinize. If my reasoning or translations were unsound, Dr. B would sigh, "Nicholas, I didn't think you were any idiot but [the quality of that thought was lacking.]" In graduate school, one of my advisors would disdainfully slide my short stories back to me. She grit her teeth and made me map out each sentence and explain how the syntax fit the nature of the story. The anxiety from these experiences still makes me want to vomit. But the lessons I gleaned from these experiences are clear and indelible. When students ask me to hit the metaphorical snooze well past the time we need to be challenged, I imagine Dr. B whispering in my ear to stay firm for the students' sake. This academic daimon knows I must demand clearer thinking and finer phrasing. I push (but with a softer touch than Dr. B could manage.)
A vocal minority of students who believe they can only learn from a dry-erase dictator armed with a free-flowing red pen complicates this reflection. These students think education is to be battle hardened. But they miss out on the fact we need to know we belong. At times, I have to send these students to their metaphorical beds to look at the good work they have done.
Workshop more than other classes requires balance between comfort and challenge. So many students have been traumatized by past educational experiences that they are reluctant to attempt writing. Providing an environment in which they can salve their wounds is the first step in getting them on track. Of course, once students know they can be comfortable they need to start the difficult task of writing. Finding this balance changes from class to class, and it requires instructors to use the soft skills of reading a room. Most importantly it requires instructors to remember Writing Workshop prepares students to find comfort in an academic community that will challenge them.