When my mother died, now an inconceivable four years ago, my friends offered a lot of advice. "This is how grief works," the most didactic of them said. Wanting only to help, people gave me lists of feelings they told me I would experience: You will be more tired than you can imagine; you will be overcome with crying jags when you least expect it; the first year is the hardest.
I tried to keep my most uncharitable thoughts to myself but couldn't help feeling annoyed. My love for my mother was mine alone; it didn't follow a recipe or a pattern. Why did my friends think I would grieve in the same way they did? I don't respond in the same way they do to eating an avocado or listening to twangy music. After she died, the most helpful thing anyone did was when a pharmaceutically-endowed friend brought over a handful of Vicodin, some granola bars, and instructions not to take the pills on an empty stomach.
Life went on for everyone else; I stayed in a wallow of need and sadness, unmoored and fragile, and tried to pretend that I could function.
In the same academic term that my mother died, one of my graduate students fired me as her thesis adviser in creative writing. Always perky and uncomfortably solicitous, she was a high-maintenance student: She was very interested in her own life and wanted to write about it, but seemed unable to separate herself from her work in a way that allowed her to hear critiques. I tried to praise and encourage her, but never managed to do it in the way she needed to hear. Plus, I didn't respond promptly enough to her e-mails and she didn't feel that she was a priority for me.
After a while, she donned the mask of the smiling assassin. She never talked to me about her concerns with our advising relationship (I learned about them after the fact) and then avoided my gaze once she'd gone around me to request a change. At the time I was glad to be rid of her.
In the past few years, however, after the sting of being fired passed, I started to think hard about my role as a graduate adviser. And I talked with other professors about strained relationships with graduate students who come in loving you and then are disappointed when you don't love them back, or when you turn out to be not the perfect specimen they expected. What had I been doing wrong? What could I do better? How could I make students feel supported while offering them strenuous criticism of work that is, most of the time, not nearly good enough?
When I began teaching I believed that if students spent the money and sacrificed the time to go to graduate school to get an M.F.A.—a degree whose market value is at best questionable—it was because they had decided to dedicate themselves to laboring on the art and craft of writing. They wanted to learn. They wanted to get better. They wanted help. Right?
As most professors in fields where there are few real and objective measures know, what many students are looking for is for someone to throw a prideful arm around their shoulders, praise their talent, and point out a couple of typos in their otherwise wonderful manuscripts. We have to teach them to value useful feedback and help them become the best critics of their own work. I know my students are making progress when they stop telling me how happy they are with their just-written essays.
It took me a while to realize as a graduate adviser that most students, no matter how old, tend not to feel like adults. They are constantly being told what to do, shown what is wrong with their work, and asked for things on a schedule that is often not of their own devising. Not surprising, really, that some students exhibit childish behavior and act, by turns, overconfident or easily hurt.
What I have come to realize—and it's taken a few years and some unhappy students to get to this point—is that no one wants to be told how to feel or what to do. No one in a position of weakness wants be reminded of that position. Just as I resented friends who would not let me make my own way through the dark wood after my mother's death, I have learned to back off from trying too hard to give advice to my students.
I've stopped giving excessive amounts of direction and telling them things like, "This is how nonfiction works." Because while much of what I have to say may be right and might benefit them, it's better if they figure some things out for themselves. They have to be able, when they get stuck as writers, to get themselves unstuck.
Most veteran teachers eventually come to know that. After spending years as an editor before moving to academe, I've finally stopped trying to make my students' work better and have learned to ask them questions that they can wrestle with in their own ways. I now understand that the goals of an editor and those of a teacher, while often complementary, are different. I needed to learn not to be an editor, and to learn, too, how to be the only kind of teacher I can be—to be myself and let my students be who they are, even when I find them annoying. Like a good therapist who sees so clearly the issues but has to wait for the patient to have his own epiphany, I have had to learn to stay quiet. I can't just tell them all the things I think they need to know as writers and expect them to get it.
A while ago a friend in computer science mentioned something about the "inverted curriculum." When I asked him what that was he acted like I should have my teaching job yanked away. When he explained it, I realized he was describing a practice that may be novel in the sciences—let students read background information on their own and then use class time for problem-solving discussions—but it's business as usual in the humanities. Students do the reading on their own and then we discuss.
But when it came to talking about my students' manuscripts, I made the mistake of doing the equivalent of lecturing to my graduate students. I also made the mistake of wanting their work to be really good. I wanted to fix things that were broken, and to show beginning writers how to make their sentences sing. I no longer want my students to write like me. I want them to write like the best version of themselves.
Now, in my advising, I try to act on my belief that a thesis is not a product, but the end result of a process. Students have to follow their own paths to understanding, and sometimes, even by the time they're finished with their graduate training with a finished thesis in hand, their skills will not be as developed as I would like. I have to trust that they've listened to the things I've said, taken in a whole lot of other helpful advice, learned how to read their own work critically, and that they will, eventually, get where they want to be as writers on their own.