M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of Utah. TEACHING PHILOSOPHY:
B.S. in Psychology from Brigham Young University.
"On Stage." Prism International 38:1 (Fall 1999): 78-90.
In Letters to a Fiction Writer, Charles Baxter, an excellent short story author, tells a would-be student that he doesn't "really believe in most wisdom . . . [that] what passes for wisdom is simply somebody's personal prejudice masquerading as truth. It's ideological poison seeking an object" (Busch 33-34). The wisdom professors give their students may help them write better for certain audiences, may make them more self-aware for revision's sake, may help them deconstruct and construct texts, but our wisdom is still a form of ideological containment. We are often socializing our students into the academic boxes we are most comfortable with. Are we really doing them any favors?
Since I teach classes about writing and reading, I often begin with Roland Barthes' Pleasure of the Text. In his swirling, weaving, contradictory descriptions of an erotics of reading (and writing), he describes two types of texts: the text of pleasure is easy, comfortable, civilized; the text of bliss is destructive, without language, murderous (14). He sets up this textual binary only to show that the "true" erotic reader (and writer) wants both pleasure and bliss from a text, wants to merely enjoy a text, but also wants jouissance, an orgasmic communion within the language sea of fluid meaning, a pleasurable sense of pain from rolling words around in our mouths and heads. How do I "teach" my students to want an orgasmic bond with language?
Students often want to get some thing. They want clarity. I can only teach them the opposite of this. With my poststructuralist mindset, I can only increase the chaos. Sometimes I want to teach them silence. In Desert Notes, Barry Lopez describes the way the desert can empty a person of language and desire, at least after time:
You can become impatient here, willing to accept any explanation in order to move on. This appears to be nothing at all, but it is a wall between you and what you are after. . . Moving on is not important. Listen attentively. . . Listen until you can hear the dreams of the dust that settles on your head. . . I would like to trick the rattlesnake into killing itself. I would like this kind of finality. . . If such a thing were possible, the desert would be safe. 12
Yes, often students, and professors, talk, explain, expound in order to make things safe, in order to limit the chaos. But how can this not create walls when supposedly we're supposed to be removing them?
I could invoke a common teaching philosophy cliche' and say, "I'm a facilitator." This always sounds so egalitarian. "I don't lecture. I don't preach. I facilitate. I help students find their own way toward knowledge." I used to say this about myself, but being a facilitator would imply that I am helping my students move on toward some place where "the real" of life and writing and literature has finally been absorbed. Still, during and after my classes, students will tell me they have "progressed," they have learned more than they knew before. But if I am a facilitator, all I ever think I can do is move students from one place to another. I am too poststructural to believe in progress. I am too postmodern to actually give advice about writing and a love of literature without deconstructing my advice in the next breath. I agree with Wallace Stegner when he asks, "How can anyone 'teach' writing, when he himself, as a writer, is never sure what he is doing?" (9). Stegner was 79 years old when he said this. If writing was a Platonic field of progress, you would think he'd have a clue by then.
Obviously, I am not Platonic. How can a postmodern person be? And so, when I am at my best in the classroom, my classes are swirling, woven things, fragmented and excessive and passionate. When I am at my best, I don't teach my students things, I teach them my own fetishes. I play with the deconstruction of gender, race, class, sexuality and narrative convention in the postmodern, British novels of Jeanette Winterson, or in the short stories from tejana Sandra Cisneros, but then I swoon over their language. I moan in class when I read the beginning of Cisneros' "Tepeyac":
When the sky of Tepeyac opens its first thin stars and the dark comes down in an ink of Japanese blue above the bell towers of La Basilica de Nuestra Senora, above the plaza photographers and their souvenir backdrops of La Virgen de Guadalupe, above the balloon vendors and their balloons wearing paper hats, above the red-canopied thrones of the shoeshine stands . . .then Abuelito tells the boy with dusty hair, Arturo, we are closed, and in the crooked shoes and purple elbows Arturo pulls down with a pole the corrugated metal curtains. 21
"Just feel that language on your tongue," I say to the students. "Doesn't this huge, rambling, poetic sentence make you jealous as hell?" I ask them. Barthes says the desire to plagiarize is a common reaction to a blissful text (19). So I teach my students to "steal," but with originality, of course, because that's what writers tend to do in the midst of bliss. I teach my students to be voyeurs, because I am one, and I teach them to write it all down, because I do. I teach them that obsessions will fill their pages. And so, I teach them about love and ethics and belief because I can't stop thinking about these things, and I can't stop writing about them. I teach them about confessing because that's what I do on the page: the personal is political is pedagogical is personal in my classroom. I teach them to experiment, to play with the conventions of narrative, because I do, but I also teach them to bring something soulful to their pages, what Jeanette Winterson might describe as a voice that "invites the reader to believe" (Art Objects 71). "Believe in my chaos, if you want," I tell my students. "Believe in the uniqueness of our voices," I say. The queer, mestiza writer Gloria Anzaldua says, "I write the myths in me, the myths I am, the myths I want to become" (93). On any given day, I live in the world of mythologies, of stories, of constructs, and I this is what I write about, so this is what I give my students too. I teach them deconstructively that though "society" wants to make things simple, things are never simple, binaries are never absolute, and neither is writing, not in the act of putting words on the page, and not in the act of reading those words. "Write complexly," I tell them. "Write artistically and blissfully," I say.
I know all of this still puts students in a box, or at least moves them from one box to another. I know I still have too much power in the classroom. Still, I can perhaps sooth my controller's angst by thinking of Michel Foucault here when he says, "What gives power its hold . . . [is that] it does not simply weigh like a force which says no, but that it runs through, and it produces, things, it induces pleasure, if forms knowledge, it produces discourse . . . [it] runs through the entire social body much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression" (36). So even if I go into class every day and stare at the students in silence like my colleague Larry Harper would like to do, I don't think I can escape wallowing in discourses of power with them. However, I don't think the power exchanges we go through have to be repressive. I can create a certain openness in the classroom, or at least a mythology of openness. And in the end, I hope we can experience a little textual pleasure.
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 2nd Ed. ???San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1999.
Barthes, Roland. Pleasure of the Text. New York, Noonday Press, 1980.
Busch, Frederick. Letters to a Fiction Writer. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Foucault, Michel. Michel Foucault: Power, Truth, and Strategy. Trans. Paul Patton and Meaghan Morris. Sydney: Feral Publications, 1979.
Lopez, Barry. Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven. New York: Avon, 1976.
Stegner, Wallace. On the Teaching of Creative Writing: Responses to a Series of Questions. Hanover: UP of New England, 1988.
Winterson, Jeanette. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New York: Vintage, 1995.