I have been teaching writing for over 25 years, and during my 17 years in Portland State University’s creative writing program, the students chose me to receive the English department’s John Eliot Allen Outstanding Teacher Award five times–almost every year I was eligible. (You had to sit out two years each time you won it.) I mention this only to suggest I know a little bit about teaching writing. Or maybe just teaching in general.
Whenever I received one of the Allen awards, people would ask me the secret to good teaching. My answer was always that you have to love your students, caring about them as individuals. Beyond that, every teacher has to teach in her own way, according to her own personality and vision. Here are three basic principles that have worked for me:
- Challenge students to achieve beyond what they think they’re capable of doing by setting high goals and high standards.
- Actively and persistently help each student to achieve those goals and maintain those standards, without relenting.
- Work harder than your students work.
And one more thing: Encourage your students in every possible way at every possible moment.
The most consistent thing students have said about my teaching is that I’m tough but fair. If you aren’t tough, you aren’t helping students do anything more than they could do on their own, in which case they don’t need a teacher. If you aren’t fair, they’re going to stop listening to you no matter how right you are about what you’re trying to teach them.
Just over a year ago, I took early retirement after 20+ years of teaching writing at the college level to focus on my own work. Most of those years I taught literary nonfiction or fiction to both graduate and undergraduate students. The students at my last school, Portland State University, honored my efforts by voting me the English department’s Outstanding Teacher five times in 17 years, almost every year I was eligible.
I continue to work with individual writers and teach in summer programs at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota and the Manhattanville College MFA’s Summer Writers’ Week, but I no longer have regular, year-long exposure to students. So, before I forget all I talked about in those classes, I’ve started writing a book about writing and being a writer.
As I work on the book, I’m going to be posting a series of short meditations on different aspects of both writing and living as a writer, to be called Three Thoughts About… The thoughts in the individual entries might be formal or informal, technical or creative, practical or whimsical. I’m hoping mostly just to have fun with them and share some of what I’ve learned in my decades of both teaching and writing.
To see the many kinds of writing I’ve done myself, click on the About link above. And please let me know what you think of my Three Thoughts About… entries or, better yet, share them with others by linking to them on social media or your own website.
On Monday of this week, I cleaned out my office in Portland State University’s Neuberger Hall. On Tuesday, I filed my last set of grades. On December 31, 2017, my retirement will be official. After 22 years of university teaching and 17 years at PSU (during which I was fortunate to receive five student-selected teaching awards, one in almost every year I was eligible), I’ll soon be a writer only. That should mean more time to post on this somewhat-neglected site.
I will continue to lead summer workshops at the Collegeville Institute and the Manhattanville College MFA’s Summer Writers’ Week–for information on either of these, including how to apply, go to my Talks page.
A big thank you to all of the students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching as a college professor. I figure that over my 22 years at universities, I’ve critiqued more than 4,000 papers. I’m happy to say that a fair number made it into print here or there. I hope my comments on the others were at least somewhat edifying.
Look for more thoughts on teaching on this site in the weeks ahead, including some of the things I’ve taught and learned.
On to new pastures…
I’ll be giving talks on Pure Act at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle at 3 p.m. on Sunday, October 4, and at the University of Portland bookstore at 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, October 6. (See my Talks page for location details.)
These talks are significant to me for different reasons:
Seattle: Having grown up in Seattle, I’ve long dreamed of giving a book talk at Elliott Bay, the top bookstore in the city. And the talk is being co-sponsored by Image literary journal, which published my essay A Gyroscope On the Island of Love and named me its Artist of the Month in March of 2012. The other co-sponsor is Wave Books, which put out a great collection of Lax’s later poetry in 2013: poems (1962-1997), edited by my Portland State University colleague John Beer.
Portland: The University of Portland reading was arranged by my dear friend and former thesis student Fr. Pat Hannon, who teaches there. Pat’s thesis was published last year by Ave Maria Press as a book called Sacrament: Personal Encounters with Memories, Wounds, Dreams, and Unruly Hearts. Pat will be introducing me. This will also be my first reading in Portland since my book came out.
I hope you’ll come to one of these talks if you’re in the area, and spread the word to your friends!