Author Roger Rosenblatt (left) shares a laugh at his memoir workshop at the Southampton Writers Conference. Photo courtesy of Southampton Writers Conference
Is anyone more insufferable than a know-it-all teacher? You can recognize one a mile away: quick to offer an opinion and outshout any naysayer.
Well, as an unwitting member of the species, I can happily propose a four-word cure for what Bob Dylan once characterized in a song title as the Disease of Conceit:
Go back to school!
You bet, every teacher should make the effort to sit in a classroom at least as often as, say, her or his car needs to get a tune-up at a garage, just as a doctor should try being a patient now and then.
By transforming yourself from instructor to instructed, this experience is bound to keep even the most self-satisfied professor — or any kind of educator — humble. Sure, you can attend seminars and read learned op-eds and pick up some tools of the trade. But you’ll get the best education from experiencing the world from a student’s seat.
Just ask me.
I recently spent 12 hours, spread over four days, attending a workshop in memoir writing at the Southampton Writers Conference out on eastern Long Island. A dozen or so of us gathered to be students again and learn how to tap into our personal mysteries while figuring out how to communicate them in a coherent and captivating manner.
It was our good fortune that Roger Rosenblatt, the acclaimed essayist and best-selling author, was our captain. We couldn’t have asked for a better multitasker, for Roger proved to be brilliantly analytical and refreshingly direct. He always remained constructive (and highly entertaining). Like the best teachers, he was part drill sergeant and part cheerleader.
Above all, he encouraged us all to keep writing.
Being a student again means, to turn on its head the catch-phrase in the book and movie “Love Story,” always having to say you’re sorry — and acknowledge your shortcomings.
Heck yes, it was humbling for me to nod stoically while Roger and the well-intentioned members of the class critiqued my work. Out loud. To my face. In loving detail. And in the immortal words of Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire: Blunt as a spoon.
Hey, didn’t they know I’ve had two books published by “serious” New York publishers? Does the name Penguin ring a bell? And don’t forget my 14,000-word e-book. In the eyes of the Southampton class, those credits and $2.75 would get me a strap to hang on to aboard the F train — as they should have!
I’m pleased to report that, yes, I got over my oh-so-impressive CV to settle in and re-learn a thing or two about good writing: focusing on storytelling, shedding a writer’s natural self-consciousness, checking your insecurities at the door, understanding the essential difference between humor and comedy, and supplying ample amounts of details, descriptions and anecdotes. And, of course: SHOW — don’t merely tell.
Just as much, I appreciate, I was reminded what it takes to be a successful educator. You see, I am lucky enough to have a second act after spending decades as a dedicated reporter, columnist, editor and team leader in mainstream journalism. These days, I am an adjunct professor at Hunter College and Stony Brook University, teaching subjects as varied as journalism, diversity and leadership. I’d like to think I’m getting good at it by now. I suspect that nobody exactly masters teaching because, wonderfully, every day is different and each student presents his or her own particular education challenge.
But I remembered at Southampton the essence of being a good teacher: communication. We all seek approval and encouragement, even on our worst days. Every student deserves that.
Jon Friedman, who teaches at the New School and Stony Brook University, writes the Public Eye column for The West Side Spirit.