Beginners, Experts, and Everyone in Between

Last weekend I participated in a small conference of writers at a nearby university. My panel wasn’t scheduled until late in the afternoon, but I arrived early and sat in on a workshop led by a young poet who has recently published his first book. There were maybe 40 people attending the session, only a few of them academics. As everyone settled in, I introduced myself to the woman across the aisle and learned that she edits a popular book series. In the row in front of us I recognized the retiree and aspiring author I’d just met in the lobby. By the time the facilitator made his way to the podium, it had struck me that this was perhaps a uniquely challenging group to speak to. Some members of the audience were trying creative writing for the first time, others were pursuing undergraduate degrees in the subject, and a few were professional wordsmiths.

Of course, job candidates face something similar when we are asked to give a teaching demonstration with faculty representatives observing us from the back of the room. The trick is to engage both ends of the spectrum. But at least in those classrooms the students haven’t paid to hear what we have to say (at least not directly). At the writers’ conference, on the other hand, I was keenly aware that these men and women clutching pens and notebooks expected to get their money’s worth.

Surprisingly, I think they all did. More than the poet’s considerable charm and humor, what won the room was his lack of pretension. He presented a practical issue that surely challenged even the most advanced writers in the room, and yet he articulated his points with a straightforward clarity, which included the beginners. When one of the less-experienced participants asked a misguided question, the poet found a way to twist it in a more profitable direction without a shred of condescension. And he modeled an obvious pleasure in the writing process that I found inspiring and I am sure others did also.

I was inspired and perhaps also a little conflicted. You see, the balance he struck so effortlessly is one I often struggle with. My classrooms are usually populated by a fairly limited range of “traditional” students, but within a couple weeks of the semester’s start it’s quite clear they’re not all equally prepared. In my experience, younger professors, especially those of us fresh out of grad school, have a tendency to latch on to the “experts” in our courses and to teach over the heads of our beginners. We may lean on jargon as a kind of crutch, and we sometimes ask the questions that we’re interested in pursuing rather than those that might stimulate a fledgling interest.

I picked up some good pointers last weekend, but I’m looking for more. How do you bridge the gap between “beginners” and “experts” in your classes?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Rico Marcelli.]

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