Write, Rather

Those Who Teach, Can – A Formal Reply to Ryan Boudinot’s Post on Teaching

43 thoughts on “Those Who Teach, Can – A Formal Reply to Ryan Boudinot’s Post on Teaching”

  1. I had a personal relationship with Ryan, and his oozing ego, decades ago. As a teenager, his narcissism already piloted his sociopathic shell of a personality. I spent hours listening to him berate not only me, but his teachers, fellow students, even members of his family. What you are seeing is not Ryan’s reaction to teaching in an MFA program, it is simply Ryan.

  2. I just stumbled across this. Thank you for writing it. The thing that bothered me the most in Boudinot’s piece was the assertion that if you didn’t take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, then you weren’t cut out to be a writer. I come from a culture where the arts are STRONGLY discouraged. They’re considered a hobby and little more. As a teenager I could have never dreamed of actually being a writer. It’s only when I matured a bit, met other artists and writers at university, and became financially independent, that I began to entertain writing seriously – that was at the age of 26. I’m now 30, on the verge of graduating from an MFA program, and the journey has been incredible. Yet I’m always plagued by doubt, as are most artists, and that assertion in Boudinot’s piece increased my doubts, especially as some have been praising him for being a harsh and necessary truth-teller. You unpacked Boudinot’s ‘absolute’ statement beautifully. Again, thank you for your thoughtful response.

  3. As a philosopher who teaches writing I agree with a lot of what the response post says. However, the original writer has a point when he writes that he can’t teach the students to be serious readers. I think there are nuances to point out here, of course. We as teachers can and should be good role models and introduce students to ways of living that had never occurred to them. This happened to me as an undergrad, and I remember being stunned to think I could listen to interesting types of music, cook various types of ethnic food, read lots and lots of books, talk about them with my friends, and live in a way that ignored the conventional social pressures in my provincial small town. And I became a philosophy professor, and I do all those things now. However, I didn’t need to be sold on reading Hume, or Kant, or Kripke, or Wittgenstein. They were assigned or suggested, or I ran across them, and professors encouraged me or graded me based on those readings, so I signed on to that enterprise. Even when it was hard-going, they were encouraging, which is probably a bit part of what was missing from the original post. We owe them encouragement, but it’s not our fault if students simply don’t get interested enough to work on developing more advanced (or any) reading habits.

  4. A million times this. Thank you. If that man had been my instructor I would have asked for my money back the first week. Wow.

  5. Boudinot’s piece didn’t inspire me to write a single word, but your terrific response did.Thank you so much for your passion and skill–the world needs teachers like you.

    1. Oh, it’s like pass the ketchup or pass the salt! :=) I’m a master for mixing cliche’s. I also for some reason can never remember if it’s toy boy or boy toy. I had that problem for years! It’s just part of my language garble.

  6. Although I almost wholeheartedly agree with the article in question, this is an excellent point of view as well. I think it’s a matter of philosophy. For example, many teachers expect their MFA students to come in being thoroughly vetted by the committee, and with an reasonably observable amount of talent and self-motivation. Further, these students should have been curious enough to have gathered a good amount of information about the business side of the field beforehand so that they can spend most of their time doing what they’re supposed to do–write.

    On the other hand there’s something of the purist teaching point of view that proffers forth the idea that whatever students they get, that’s what they have to deal with as best they can; that it’s the teacher’s job to bring out talent, to motivate, and to provide as much help as they possible can.

    But I have to agree with my self-described former opinion. When a student enters any graduate program, they should already be well-prepared and self-motivated. It doesn’t matter if they have commercial aspirations or not; they’re there to work and learn and by passively shambling into the program they waste the teacher’s time and suck up space that more dedicated would use.

    When it comes to forking over money for a degree that guarantees a very low return on investment, the department owes a duty to all the students to provide them with fellow students who are equally motivated and knowledgeable. Not all can come in with the same credentials but none should be a drag on the others.

  7. I must say I liked a lot of Boudinot’s article. I really disagree with you on the reading issue. It is not your job to make students of creative writing like reading. People who don’t voluntarily read and read widely have no business enrolling in a graduate program in creative writing – or even an undergraduate major in it. Being a devoted reader is a necessity if you want to be a good writer. It also shouldn’t be put on the shoulders of past teachers. I’ve been a constant reader since I was five, always reading several books at a time and devouring everything English instructors gave me just for fun. (I write poetry, not fiction, and this is a screen name, but the importance of reading holds true for poets as well) No one taught me that. It was inborn. Frankly, no one could teach me that. You have the passion or you don’t. The writers who are most likely to end up writing great stuff in the future are those who come to you asking for recommendations and have read half the books you name. Teachers provide know how. It is up to the student to bring the fire.

    1. I don’t argue that the importance of reading holds true for any writer, really. I do think that some had the luck of being led to it early in life, while others only discover it because they love to invent stories. Shaming someone for not reading is not helpful. If someone agrees to take on the role of teacher, then this someone has agreed to take the good with the bad and to try to be a true guide to everyone, regardless of flaws. I do agree that students (writers) need to take responsibility for their own education, but that does not exonerate teachers from it. That is my point. I don’t disagree, actually, with anything that Boudinot said in terms of what preparations students really need, but that is what professors are there for, and I guess in this I disagree with his bucking that responsibility, and in your saying that it’s not our responsibility. I agree to disagree on this point.

  8. Dear Ms. Valeri, I hope you didn’t take my previous comment as too judgmental. That phrase made me laugh, so I was teasing a bit. Maybe it was not nice. I’m sorry. But I do want to say that I enjoyed reading your rebuttal to Ryan Boudinot’s post, and sincerely wish I had the benefit of your teaching when I was in my 20s, and had developed a passion for reading and writing. Alas, just as my finger painting was deemed not good enough in elementary school I always found my writing boring and shallow. For all of the students who never said thank you for you, I will. 🙂

    1. Thank you for taking the time to write this reply. I hesitated in reading the comments because frankly I am afraid of social media a bit — I know it doesn’t make sense, since I have this blog, but I’ve never received these many hits, and it was kind of…startling. I thank you for thanking me, and I will also say that a teacher can only judge what you write during the period that you are writing for them. Their commentary is not, and should not be taken as a commentary on your overall potential. Believe me when I say that more and more I find that students who did not show extraordinary promise in one class, blossomed in another, or after graduating. I think the only thing that anyone can ever teach you about writing is to marry it, and be committed to it, and all that comes along with it (including reading as much as you can!) and sooner or later, it will pay off.

  9. Funny teacher. “Pass the mustard.” I’ve heard the expression “cut the mustard” (make the grade) and “cut the cheese.” What does “pass the mustard” mean?

    How about “pass muster.” I am hoping that was an oops, just like my son’s English teacher’s oops with the classroom banner bearing the word CONFIDANCE. Yep. Misspelled confidence, which didn’t give me much confidence that the teacher had passed muster. 😉

  10. I read this former MFA teacher’s article via The Stranger here in Seattle yesterday morning. The thing that gets me is I took from it that he was a graduate of the Writing Seminars at Bennington, and yet he seems to have forgotten the main tenant of what is taught at Bennington: To foster a life in letters and let writing and reading be the conduit that lets you do that, and to be a vital part of its community.

    Ryan Boudinot utterly fails to do this in his article, and chooses to demonize everyone who works hard to write and read based upon the quality of their prose and reading choices; it is interesting to note that not one of the books he suggests is written by a woman, which is sad. It was suggested to me at Bennington to read Willa Cather, and I ended up devouring everything she wrote. I was also asked to read Alice Hoffman, which lead me to believe I wasn’t cut out for magic realism. I also read scores of other women writers and was blessed to have 3 exceptional women as teachers there, and also Douglas Bauer. All of them suggested books to read based upon my writing and my interests, not theirs.

    His flippancy towards child abuse was extremely offensive, and to suggest that a writer should have suffered more is abhorrent.

    I’m a graduate of Bennington’s MFA writing seminars and am deeply offended by Mr. Boudinot’s screed. I was also a professor for 3.5 years in film and video and, though the quality of student work was all over the map, I still loved teaching and miss it every day because the richness of the teaching experience is about changing or bettering someone’s life, and for bringing forth the magic that only the student can achieve if they work hard. Having a small hand in that is a blessing for any teacher.

    Based upon his article, and the vehement response he’s roundly received, he really should be removed from the City of Literature here in Seattle. He has no place being there.

    1. Thank you for articulating this so eloquently. I find that a lot of students who don’t read don’t do so because the only literature they have ever been introduced to simply never connected with them. And yes, it is a teacher’s responsibility to find that something that connects with a student. I think your comment says so much more eloquently than I did, though. 🙂 Thank you for your support.

  11. The dislike for Moby Dick, Infinite Jest, and Catcher in the Rye told me all I needed to know about the writer’s perspective on this topic.

    1. Glad you feel that way. My favorite books are A Hundred Years of Solitude (which I read both in Spanish and in English — the Spanish is infinitely better), Bel Canto (Anne Pratchet) Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison), Sula (Toni Morrison), The Periodic Table (Primo Levi) — and you may notice that all those books are written by either female or non American, non white people (except for Levi who is Jewish, but Italian). Then again there is The Lost Books of The Odyssey. If you’re trying to imply that I don’t read complex books, you are obviously missing the point, and showing as others have noted, that you have a bias towards a certain type of writer, male, white, and in the case of Wallace, a self-proclaimed elitist. I don’t begrudge you or anyone that taste, but do disagree that it’s the marker by which the rest of us should be judged. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this. I believe that an essay should spark dialogue, and I’m glad to be a part of this dialogue as a reader.
    I was one of his students and I had a good experience with him. (I have no misconceptions of where I stood as the “Real Deal”: I wasn’t.) But I also knew a few students who did not have a good experience with him.
    As I’ve taught a few creative writing programs, I have grown a lot as a teacher. Your post has given me a lot to think about. Teaching is a profession like any other and should not be entered into simply as a “rest area” until our books sell and we can now afford to do something else. Just because we are in love with the subject, does not mean we can or should teach.
    Thanks for your comments.

    1. Thank you so much for saying that. When I was at Iowa there was one teacher who was very well known for his harshness on students. Some people lined up to take his workshop, many because they believed that if they could pass him, then they were validated as real writers. Unfortunately, just as many left his class heartbroken and feeling like they could never write again. Some people respond well to tough criticism, but I guess I believe that tough criticism can also destroy potential, and in the least we should be careful to point to resources, approachable ways to direct students to overcome their weaknesses. Thank you so much for writing your response. I appreciate your perspective.

  13. Though we only had one course together, I am infinitely glad to have had you as my teacher.

  14. Well put. Real teachers understand these points intrinsically, regardless of what age student you teach. How many of us would never have learned to read if all teachers felt this way? I’m glad he quit as well, before he had a chance to crush the hopes and dreams of his future students with his pompous and elitist BS.


  15. I don’t think you are teaching at the level Boudinot has taught. I also don’t think you understand how painful it is to be expected to impart an appreciation of good writing to those who have read little, write drivel, and.believe (sic) that belief (sic) in themselves as writers can work magic. Writing is & should be a long, hard process, and too many bad writers & bad writing currently pollutes the air. *Indeed not adequately vetting students for college and grad school level skills is where the sham originates. And bad teaching at lower levels and at home too often does a disservice to students & too often handicaps them to the extent that readiness necessary for higher thinking and writing is an aim too high. Witness the rampant sins in speaking, writing, and every kind of communication in these Unted States. From educators no less than the mass media and the greatly illiterate general public. My sympathies are with Boudinot and those who dare speak out. Language is in big trouble in this American culture.

    1. I appreciate your perspective Ama. After I saw how many hits I got on my response, I felt bad. I wanted to say that I understand that frustration, that it’s hard for teachers to have to work that hard. Still, it’s our profession, and yes, I have taught higher level courses, although not consistently. If anything it’s much worse as an undergraduate: you get a lot more students who think it’s going to be a walk in the park, and we are under the axe for too many drops, while at the same time we get scrutinized and criticized both for too many F’s or too many A’s, so it’s always a catch 22 situation. Still, I disagree with the method, with the dismissive way Boudinot treated his students, and with his absolute certainty of their potential or lack thereof. Thanks for chiming in and fostering dialog.

  16. I’m an undergraduate writing major at Grand Valley State University, here in Michigan. I hope to teach writing someday, either in high school or at a university level, we’ll see what happens. Wherever I end up, though, I hope to be as determined, inspired, and caring of a teacher that you obviously are.

  17. I’m an undergraduate writing major at Grand Valley State University, and I hope to teach writing someday. Either at a high school level or university level, we’ll see what happens. No matter where I end up, I want to be as inspired, determined, and caring of a teacher that you obviously are.

  18. Good for you! One of the best memoirs I ever read was from a young person out of her depth (in terms of vocabulary and correct grammar) in a grade 12 creative writing class, but whose memoir of climbing up in the mountains in her native Afghanistan when Mazar al-Sharif fell, and her family’s lives were in danger from the Taliban was one of the best things I have ever read. To help those whose skills are not yet developed, to see the satisfaction they feel when they recognize they have ‘put it better’– wish I was still teaching, man.

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