Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Lessons Learned: Chocolate Metaphors for Teaching and Writing

Thanks to the generosity of Chuck Siegel at Charles Chocolates, Jacques Dahan and his team at Michel Cluizel, Andrew Shotts at Garrison Confections, Fritz Knipschildt at Knipschildt Chocolatier, and Monica Passin at Painter Girl Chocolates, I wrapped up the fall semester (my first teaching Seminar in Composition at the University of Pittsburgh) by sharing boxes upon boxes of chocolate with my students. Before I get too deep into the spring semester, which started yesterday, I'd like to talk about that final, chocolaty class in terms of my overall pedagogy. Call it a teaching philosophy statement cast in chocolate:

1. Prepare and overprepare:
This is good advice for both students and teachers. You want to write a paper using a primary source that's guarded by a dragon-lady librarian in a special archive that's only open on Wednesdays and Sundays from 2am to 5am? Better not wait until the day before your paper is due. You want to do a new activity in class where students stand on one foot reciting poetry while copy-editing blog entries on their laptops? Better give that one a trial run. I don't always follow this advice, and my lack of preparation has led to the occasional disaster.

One person who seems to blithely avoid disaster at every turn is Charles Chocolates' Chuck Siegel. When his holiday orders grow exponentially from one year to the next, he has ample time to recruit friends and family to help out in the factory. When the construction materials for his booth at the Fancy Food Show don't arrive in time, he's there early enough to replace them. When I emailed Chuck to ask if he would donate some of his confections for my final class, he sent an enthusiastic response that included an intricate calculation of how many pieces of chocolate 18 freshman would need (200, or four edible chocolate boxes). Before the end of December, well before the last day of class, a UPS man delivered the four chocolate boxes in an enormous (inedible) cardboard box. And then an amazing thing happened: the next week, another box containing four chocolate boxes arrived, bringing my total to eight chocolate boxes! I've been so busy grading papers (and then recovering from grading papers over winter break) that I haven't even had a chance to call Chuck about the second box of boxes. I don't know if it was a last-minute fit of generosity or just an accounting error. I'll tell you one thing, though: Thanks to Chuck, I was exceptionally well prepared for class.

2. Make time for your own work:
The English department at Pitt has an extraordinary number of tenured faculty members who are as committed to teaching as they are to their own research and writing. I asked both members of a faculty husband-and-wife team (something else the department has an extraordinary number of) how they do it, and they told me that you have to accept that you won't get a lot your own work done when you're teaching--and, for that reason, you also have to accept that you need to dedicate some time to life beyond teaching.

Around the same time that my shipments from Charles Chocolates came in, Drew Shotts of Garrison Confections sent me an oversized box from his latest seasonal collection. When I wrote to Drew to tell him of my plans to bring his chocolate into school to share with my students, the response came back, "forget the students... spend next Sunday in bed eating it with a friend." Point taken.

3. Be willing to sacrifice free time and free love:
What friend? And what bed? To be clear, members of the writing program (and its parallel programs in the English department) make wonderful friends, several of whom I did share Drew's chocolates with on Saturday night. But not a one of them is the kind of friend with whom I share my bed. I also really don't have a bed. In August, I left my stop-gap job at Epicurious in New York for orientation in Pittsburgh, and I've been reading and writing, taking and teaching classes ever since. I managed to bring a mattress with me, which is in the middle of my bedroom floor. I haven't had time to buy a bed frame yet.

4. Write passionately:
My students and I arrived at the last day of class exhausted, and, despite our best intentions, a bit overworked and underprepared. Since I hadn't written a class plan in advance, I asked the students to bring to class something about which they were passionate, so that we'd have something to discuss. Dayne brought in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Adrienne brought in a Grey's Anatomy DVD, Lexie brought in a very important lyric poem but for the life of me I can't remember which one it was, Andy brought in his wrestling clothes. This was not, I insisted, merely a regression to show-and-tell. As college writers, my students are going to have to find subjects, themes, ideas, or problems that they want to write about again and again, in different ways, in longer and longer pieces. That's what I do with chocolate, I told them.

5. Be inquisitive:
Writing is about contemplating ideas that defy easy questions and easy answers. It's about layering your insights, complicating your conclusions.

On the last day of Seminar in Composition, our chocolate spread including Chuck's chocolate boxes, handfuls of Laissez Les Bon Bons Roulez from Painter Girl Chocolates (which provoke spirited responses with their hot pink foil wrappers), and three varieties of Couverture Mini-Grammes (astronomically high-end chocolate chips) from Michel Cluizel. I just had to look at how the chocolate was arranged on my students' desks to see that they were interested in exploring subtle connections and contrasts.

6. Never piss off administrators:
Never! Don't ever do this. Even if you have a direct line to the most important person in your department (even if you are the most important person in your department), you should never do anything that even slightly perturbs the people who deal with mail, paychecks, books, and copy machines.

But--I am going to express my frustration over an administrative fumble that delayed the arrival of a package from Knipschildt Chocolatier so much that the truffles missed my last-day-of-class party. I am going to open myself up to seriously regrettable repercussions, I'm going to risk sabotaging a carefully cultivated professional relationship with Fritz Knipschildt (an energetic and impressive chocolatier with whom I have no personal qualm whatsoever), and I'm going to say, here on this blog, in this public forum, to the administrators at Knipschildt Chocolatier: Guys, you missed the deadline, your didn't do what you said you were going to do, and that's lame!

7. Break the rules
Look at the essays of Jamaica Kincaid, Lauren Slater, and Rebecca McClanahan, which we read in my class, and you'll find sentences that defy grammatical conventions, that are alternately too long and missing verbs. Artists don't follow all the rules. Artists know what the rules are, they follow the ones they need, and they take risks to break others.

I know my blatant defiance of my own rule about not pissing off administrators is going to cause me trouble at Knipschildt, but I'm doing it for the sake of artistic expression.

8. See the larger context:
Evaluating work fairly is an essential part of being a good teacher. That doesn't necessarily mean that the best writers always get the best grades--engagement in the class and in the writing process are just as meaningful to me as writing ability. But it does mean that it's important to encourage talented writers and to resist holding a grudge against students for any reason. A really great piece of writing that comes in late is still a really great piece of writing. Likewise, delicious chocolates that arrive late are still delicious chocolates. So I didn't relegate the chocolates in the Knipschildt signature truffle collection to the garbage can after they missed class. Instead, I brought them to the final session of my Seminar in Pedagogy, a graduate course for first-year teachers like me. My professors and my fellow grad students seemed to enjoy them.

9. Write honestly
I've been lucky enough to spend a little bit of time with George Saunders, one of the most remarkable writers and writing teachers out there. I also assign readings of some of his work to my students. In the essay "Thank You, Esther Forbes," Saunders writes that "[w]orking with language is a means by which we can identify the bullshit within ourselves (and others). If we learn what a truthful sentence looks like, a little flag goes up at a false one.... [T]he process of improving our prose disciplines the mind, hones the logic, and, most important of all, tells us what we really think."

In my mind, good writing is honest writing. I once saw Vivian Gornick (who has been rather absurdly lambasted for compressing actual events into reconstructed scenes in her nonfiction) talk about the difference between "fact" and "truth." Fact is simply what transpired. Truth is the meaning of what transpired. In some cases, fact and truth can be the same. In other cases, one can obscure the other. Both as a writer and as a teacher, I have come to see what a waste of time fact without truth is. That's why I was so angry when a Knipschildt administrator told me that the reason my chocolates hadn't arrived was that a train had been delayed in a snow storm. And that's why I was even more angry when she followed up with an email that read, "I contacted UPS and they informed me that at this stage of the shipment they are unable to accelerate the package. Sorry about any inconvenience this may cause." I'm sure those things are facts, but, in my interpretation, the truth was "I've had almost a month to do this, and I didn't, because I just don't care." So when I showed up to the final meeting of my graduate class Seminar in Pedagogy with my hair disheveled and my final paper only half written, I did not offer as my explanation that my heat had gone out the night before. It was a fact: my heat was out in the middle of winter and I am a creature who cannot survive in temperatures below 75 degrees Fahrenheit for periods of time exceeding five minutes. But the truth was that I would have come to class with only half a paper and disheveled hair even if my heat had been working and cranked up as far as it would go. The truth was what I said to my professors and the rest of my class: "I came to graduate school not so much to write as to work on the writing process. And I've really enjoyed thinking about how to work through ideas with my students in Seminar in Composition and working with them on the process of revision. This paper isn't finished," I said, "but I think I've gotten closer to what it is that I really want to write."


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