Teacher's Pet

May 21, 2007

My first column, an ode to the inspirational qualities of jealousy, ended with my looking forward to the day that one of my former students would publish a book -- so long as I published mine first.

Well, it didn't work out that way.

Walk into any Starbucks and you can buy a book by one of my former students with your frappuccino. Or you can search YouTube and watch Jon Stewart tell my former student how his book made Stewart's "heart hurt." Or you can open the door to any Barnes & Noble and come face to face with my former student's book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier on the nonfiction best-seller shelf.

Five years ago, when I was a visiting professor at Oberlin College, Ishmael Beah was a sophomore in my "Introduction to Creative Writing" course. Before that, from about age 12 to 15, he was a child soldier in Sierra Leone, an indoctrinated killer and a forced drug addict, and, as his memoir makes clear, he deserves every good thing that could possibly happen to him.

This is not another column on jealousy. The book is an amazing account of a descent out of, and then his return to, humanity. You should read it. But I expected that when a former student finally was published, I would get to play the role of proud parent, or at least pleased midwife.

Instead I can't take any credit or play any role. Because Beah was a student I barely knew.

My writing students often want me to predict their future. Am I good enough?, they ask. Should I bother? My answer is always the same: That's up to you. The fiction writer Ron Carlson once told me that a student asked him, "Have I got it?" To which Carlson had replied, "No. But it's right over there," and pointed across the room.

It was the perfect response because Carlson pointed the student down the path of hard work rather than suggesting that talent was all he needed. But the fact is, fairly often, when a student asks me, "Have I got it?", a silent yes or no pops into my head.

I read a lot of student writing. I notice talent. But of the two most useful attributes of a writer -- talent and perseverance -- the only one you can't do without is perseverance. And it's very hard to tell who's got that.

When I encounter students with talent, I probably give them a little extra attention. Push them a little harder. I often have students lobbying for the position of teacher's pet: They visit during office hours, e-mail me day and night, Google me to find my writing. But what they want from me is not what a bootlicking student wants (higher grades for less work). Those teacher's pets want the extra attention from me that suggests they've got "it."

A friend of mine recently took her 11-year-old nephew to Disney World, and after two perfect days, he declared, "A lifelong dream of mine has been fulfilled." My writing students are often like that, 20-year-olds who want to fulfill their lifelong dreams before their life is long. And they want me to tell them if they should stop dreaming.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe what my students want is a pet teacher rather than the position of teacher's pet. Maybe in reaching out to me they are simply following E.M. Forster's command to "only connect." But what I think they want is to know if they have what it takes to be a successful writer. And the answer is, even if I think I know, I don't.

Ishmael Beah, as a sophomore in my class, bore very little resemblance to the subtle, emotionally devastating (yes, Jon Stewart, the book made my heart hurt, too) writer that he has become in just a few years. There were other students in that class who detonated beautiful bombs of language all over the pages of their stories and poems, students loaded with natural talent.

Beah, on the other hand, had trouble with grammar, was quiet most of the time, and never visited during my office hours. Probably the best I can say of my teaching of Beah is: I did no harm.

But his name was the one on the class list that I have never forgotten. Because he was the one who clearly had something to say. And I do remember telling him that he had good material and that he should stick with his subject. He had content, and style would come. Without his asking for it, I gave my approval.

One of my colleagues recently gave a presentation on the ethics of serving on a Ph.D. committee and reminded us to "never have a teacher's pet." Her point was to be available to all of our students, to offer them the same level of feedback and attention. And in general I agree. Of course, there is a basic standard of care, equal and excellent, that all professors should offer all of their students.

But is it so wrong to offer more attention, more feedback, to the student who seems to have the best chance of success? Not the one who wears the nicest clothes or has the famous mother or even the one who reminds you most of your young self. But the one who seems to have the talent and the perseverance and therefore the best chance of going forth and practicing his or her craft in a way that makes the university proud and the world a better place?

In a February column, Randy Cohen, the ethicist who writes in The New York Times Magazine, came down on the side of the teacher's pet. A letter writer asked if a fellow professor had been unethical in submitting a student's short story for a fiction anthology, thus promoting that one student above all of his others. The ethicist said no, concerning the favoritism issue, as long as the act of generosity was prompted by the excellence of the student's writing and not because he had bright blue eyes and had been a minor-league ball player. (Well, the ethicist simply said no. I added the bit about baseball.) It wasn't so different, the ethicist argued, from giving an A to excellent writing and a C to average writing.

But that scenario is different from the prognosticating that my students seem to want me to do. The professor in question, rather than predicting a student's future, helped to create it.

The truth is, as a professor of writing, I am, in my own small way, a cultural gatekeeper. My comments and grades are an implicit judgment of whether or not a student has got "it." And if I hadn't admitted Ishmael into my introductory course (only about half the applicants got in) and hadn't recommended him for the advanced-writing workshops (to which admission is even more competitive), and hadn't told him he had good material, maybe he would not have persisted and gone on to write a book that has a real chance of affecting how people think about Africa, about children and war, and about being human.

But more likely, had I failed to admit him into the class, it would probably have been nothing more than a small stumbling block. Because the one thing that is predictable in the writing world is that those who need to tell their stories usually do.

A. Papatya Bucak is an assistant professor of English at Florida Atlantic University.