"teacher," Kevin Dooley / flickr


letter | 5.8.17

Educating the Means to an Unknown End

On the fine line between teacher and therapist.


I’ve been thinking lately about the ethics of my role as a creative nonfiction teacher. As a fiction teacher, I could urge my students to explore their characters in deep, penetrating ways which, in nonfiction, feels almost cruel. Because now I’m asking them to explore themselves. Tell us, I ask, about your dead best friend or your alcoholic parent, your depression and anxiety, your neuroses, your sibling’s disability. Pull those painful things out and set them on the page for the rest of us to gawk at!

Before this past semester, I’d only taught freshman composition and fiction. When I was offered a creative nonfiction workshop, I thought the switch would be easy. It was, after all, the thing I had spent so much time doing and thinking about as a graduate student. But, when the first manuscript we workshopped as a class was about a student’s panic attacks (as a consequence of grief), I realized how tough it would be to navigate the surprisingly indistinct border between teacher and therapist. Because I found myself carefully, anxiously, framing my critique while also trying to generate and facilitate productive discussion from my students, who instinctively resisted, choosing, instead, to gush over the essay’s honesty. Because clearly, the subject was raw and the essay had been difficult to write. A critique may have felt like a personal attack. Even at the graduate level, I’d seen this happen – workshops devolve into hostility – so how could I honestly expect my undergrads to possess the maturity to avoid this trap?

One of the reasons I’m so anxious about working out the ethics of the undergraduate nonfiction workshop is because not all of my students are nonfiction writers. Some of my students are screen writers; some prefer fiction. A few of them simply chose a creative writing course because they thought it would be fun. I can hold forth on Art for Art’s sake, and preach vigorously about the various aspects of Craft, but only three or four, or even fewer, might actually care about these things.

So: in addition to a not-quite-there-yet maturity level, I’m also dealing with a general lack of interest in the study of nonfiction.

Here is an example, to illustrate what I’m trying to say: in class the other day, we workshopped an essay one of my students had written about an extracurricular activity she’d done (to protect this student’s privacy, I won’t get too specific) in high school. The interesting thing was that her mother had also engaged in this activity, also as a high-schooler. The essay’s pace was slow, almost excruciatingly so, moving linearly from her freshman to her junior year, detailing, almost like a checklist, the tough practices and hard-won competitions. Again, the interesting part: her mother, the entire time, was a nagging presence in the background. As a class, we asked her to elaborate: Was she engaging in this activity to satisfy her mother? If so, was it to keep her mother at bay, to elicit parental pride, to forge a connection?

The reason we pressed this point was that, as her readers, we weren’t quite given enough information to understand, or even to infer, how the mother-daughter relationship worked. We didn’t know how to read the essay, which made it confusing.

When I told my dad about this, he said I sounded like a therapist, looking for my students’ insecurities and pain, asking them to spill their guts.

You get what I’m saying now, about how the borders are blurred, between writing teacher and therapist?

If I’m asking my students to discuss their depression (or a number of other difficult topics), and I am the authority in the classroom, this puts me in a unique position with regards to their emotional well-being. I’ve had seven years of higher education, but none in the medical field, and I am certainly not qualified to help a person out of a dark state of mind. Furthermore, I do not engage in therapy writing. I don’t believe in it, frankly. Because oftentimes, dredging up the dark, nasty experiences and emotions of the past doesn’t actually make a writer feel better – it makes them feel worse. Catharsis is about release, and when a thing is uncaged, or brought out, you can’t really avoid it anymore or pretend it doesn’t exist. To some degree, writing about our experiences forces us to relive them.

The problem is: when that student who wrote the essay about her panic attacks and her grief misses the next class, how can I help but worry my critiques had something to do with it?

What does this mean, I wonder, for me and my students? We find ourselves in this strange place where life—and by life I mean their actual lives—and art meet.

Maybe another way into this discussion is to say that the relationship between content – the meat of the essay – and its arrangement – how that meat is presented – has been on my mind. Possibly my preoccupation stems from the ways I’ve taught the courses I’ve been assigned: in workshops, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching students how to tell their stories in ways that engage an audience, and between those workshops, I ask my students to actively interrogate those engagement strategies. Switching so often from construction to deconstruction can be dizzying – it can make one feel as if all of this discussion about Art is nothing more than talk about messaging and propaganda. It can feel contrived: We find ourselves in a revolving door of words, of packaging, and of audiences. We lift our voices – because we want to be heard – but then we destroy others that do so (take a look at any comment feed), and in the end, I wonder (over and over and over) about the ethics of my role as a teacher.

How much can what goes on in the small world of our workshop affect our lives outside? When I ask my nonfiction students to give themselves up on the page, what else am I asking of them? What does it do to them to confront those tough places? What does it do to them when that confrontation has an audience? I’m not exactly sure. For all the prodding I’ve done, my students may be left stripped of their defensive layers with no clear reward but lots of consequences, most of which likely fall beyond the classroom, where I can’t help them.

On the day of our final, some of my students left looking far worse off than they had on day one—unrested, disheveled. This was not simply a result of finals week, which I know has many habitually happy people grinding their teeth. No, this was a gradual decline I’d witnessed throughout the semester: attendance high at first, communicating in workshop—and then missing homework, and then missing classes. The essays echoed that decline. Other students, however, looked energized despite the intense week they had, proud to read their revisions to the class. Those students seemed stronger, more confident. Despite the requisite finals week leggings and top buns, they exuded a firmness of spirit. At home, conflicted, I broke into the final portfolios. On the bottom of a page, I found this note:

“Thank you for helping me find my voice.”

It’s only a single note. It speaks for a single person. But it’s no small thing.

- Madison Bernath, managing editor