Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Resolution and Goodbye to Teaching

The problem with the blog has been that I expect to write brief essays and there hasn't been the time recently. But I do resolve to write something on every possible day henceforth, however brief, however minor or fragmentary.

Meanwhile a short farewell note on teaching.

I have retired as a teacher. In fact today is my last official day of employment. My teaching career is over, in a salaried institutional capacity at any rate.

Teaching has been forty years of my life from 1973 on, for the first year as a part-time Art teacher in Cheshunt, the next as a part-time English teacher at a Hitchin school. After that six years first as full-time teacher of Art then as Head of Art in Hitchin Girls' School, followed by twelve years as Director of Art and Art History at St Christopher's in Letchworth, a progressive, independent, vegetarian school where Clarissa also taught and where our children did their own schooling. In 1991 I was asked to draft a poetry course for a new BA in Cultural Studies at what was then Norwich School of Art. I started teaching it on a contracted hours basis in 1992, then, two years later was offered salaried half-time work (I had already opted for a fractional post at the school) and we moved address to where we live now. In the meantime Tom read Computer Science at Bristol and Helen read English at Magdalen College, Oxford. After 1992 I taught poetry and ran the creative writing part of the Cultural Studies degree (which changed its name two or three times in the period) until 2006 when I was asked to apply as a Reader in Creative Writing at UEA, regarded at the time as the leading university for creative writing in the UK, possibly in the world. That is where I have just finished.

In the rest of my life I was writing. I have been publishing books of poetry since 1978 and have been translating from the Hungarian since 1984. But that was independent of teaching and, mostly, nothing to do with it apart from the fact that between 1975 and 1991 I wrote a play or libretto a year, usually as a production for school. Those things may continue to blow about as dust in the desert but I enjoyed writing and producing them and some of them, by no means all, had something to recommend them.

Teaching was mostly exciting: the roll call of those I taught (along with colleagues of course, chiefly Peter Scupham and Andrea Holland and, latterly, Denise Riley and Lavinia Greenlaw) who have become widely published and recognized poets is considerable, on average close to two a year. If one can be proud of the success of others I am very proud of them. There are still others who were and continue to be outstanding writers who should be better known. I wish them luck and am just as proud of them.

I think what I chiefly taught was close listening and close reading, which is of far greater use to a developing writer than any amount of theory, however valuable that might be as an informing discipline. The rest was a perpetual willingness to laugh, a good deal of patience and simply a keen curiosity about what might have been going on in the words of young potential writers. There were times I was hands-on in a way not generally approved ("Why not scrub this, why not move this to there, why not raise or lower stakes here or there, have you tried this or that word…" etc). But the writers all turned out differently. I don't think there is a recognizable spawn of Szirtes, and if there isn't, it is probably because of a personal curiosity. I never consciously preferred one way of writing - or, perhaps even more importantly, one way of feeling - over another. Somewhere in the text I was reading I assumed there was some reason for its existence, or at least an opportunity within it that might lead somewhere.

That is what tutorials were about. The class teaching was not a matter of teaching tricks - there are few tricks that are worth teaching - it was, with the postgraduates, the encouragement of a culture of generous but intense listening (don't immediately tell us whether you like the writing, first try to describe what it is and what it seems to be doing), and, with the undergraduates, a strong interest in discussing the principles of poetry and language, and in introducing works that demonstrated a reasonable range of options.

The original undergraduate course involved five semesters of reading and writing with terms devoted to Poetry as Song, Poetry as Narrative, Poetry as Ideas, and Poetry as Reports on Experience. So there were ten divergent selections of song, ten of idea, ten of narrative and ten of essentially descriptive verse. Not that these were clear distinctions in themselves, but that they were useful ways of entering discussion. Today I would probably extend this with a course in Poetry as Register, and Poetry as Voice.

Shaw told the world that those who can, do and that those who can't, teach. It was a cruel thing to say. Almost everyone has taught: all the great masters of visual art had their schools, most writers had friends to whom they looked for criticism and advice. That is, in essence, all teaching is. It is a sort of friendship based on common interest within a framework. The friendship may well continue once the framework falls away. It is a human exchange based on curiosity, generosity, wit, and close attention.

As for the institutions, they exist as frameworks that facilitate such human exchanges. It is their only proper function. The current drive towards an ever more corporate business model is the opposite of learning: it operates on the lines of the nineteenth century mill glossed by twenty-first century public relations. The UEA is fine at the moment - long may it continue to be. I am leaving at a point when that drive is ever more in the ascendant in many places. It is to be resisted and ridiculed. The human spirit can do better than that.


henshaworks said...

Here hear(sic) G.You could not have put it more aptly - i particularly like the point about-"intense listening (don't immediately tell us whether you like the writing, first try to describe what it is and what it seems to be doing"
And of course latterly - the institutions.....nothing surprises me there.have a great New year (by the way-your card arrived with our old London address with the postcard here-amazing and thanks

Paul Hellyer said...

Someone once said that during one's formal/institutional learning you have three god-awful teachers and three fantastic teachers. That was my experience pretty much. The three I remember as fantastic are as alive now as they were 40 years ago. I like to think that for a good many of your students George you fall into that "fantastic" category. In years, if not decades, those students will think and talk about you and tell their children, and maybe their children's children, of that teacher known as George Szirtes. There is much in current institutional structures to feel at best uncomfortable with: but the memory of those fantastic teachers live on way beyond whatever the current fashion is for those institutions. As I said, I am supremely confident that there are many of your students for whom you made a great deal of difference to their lives. Really.

George S said...

Thank you John and Paul. I will emend the text that what I say is not a reflection on UEA.

Mark Haworth-Booth said...

The way of teaching you describe is close to the classes I have enjoyed over the past term studying the poetry part of the creative writing MA at Exeter University with Dr Andy Brown - 'close listening and close reading' describes our seminars well.

Thank you, George, and all the best for this new phase of your life. Mark

henshaworks said...

yes i also concur with Paul regarding teachers.......we had some great teachers at Leeds notably Martin Bell

George S said...

I imagine Andy is a very good tutor. I used to see him quite often at Arvon, Mark.

Martin was probably the best thing about Leeds for me, John.

Andrea Holland said...

G this piece reminded me of some of your comments about teaching and learning over the years during our double marking/moderating student work sessions…I just wanted to repeat what I said to the EDP when asked to comment on your teaching: our students always spoke of your generosity and that's reflected in this blog too - how you listen and reflect back, though it was also a lot of time you gave too. Thanks for reminding me here again, at the start of a new year (with a ton of marking to do!). Thank you for sharing this article at the end of 17 years teaching together!

George S said...

It's been a pleasure, Andrea. I will admit to hating marking, but if there was any pleasure in it it was because we could talk and have fun over it. Next time we meet it won't be marking.

henshaworks said...

a friend of mine just sent me this:


After being interviewed by the school administration, the prospective teacher said:

"Let me see if I've got this right.
You want me to go into that room with all those kids, correct their disruptive behaviour, observe them for signs of abuse, monitor their dress habits, censor their T-shirt messages and instil in them a love for learning.

You want me to check their backpacks for weapons, wage war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, and raise their sense of self esteem and personal pride.

You want me to teach them patriotism and good citizenship, sportsmanship and fair play. How to register to vote, balance a chequebook, and apply for a job.

You want me to check their heads for lice, recognize signs of antisocial behaviour, and ensure that they all pass their final exams.

You also want me to provide them with an equal education regardless of their handicaps. Communicate regularly with their parents in English, Spanish or any other language, by letter, telephone, newsletter, and report card.

You want me to do all this with a piece of chalk, a blackboard, a bulletin board, a fewbooks, a big smile, and a starting salary that qualifies me for food stamps.

You want me to do all this,

and then you tell me......

I CAN'T PRAY or wear a little cross, or say "Happy Christmas" because someone might take offence? "

Gwil W said...

George, I'm really pleased you are aiming to write a few words for your blog every day and even if it's just a very few I will aim like many here to read them as often as time allows. Resolution works both ways! On with the show.

George S said...

I do think a lot is expected of teachers, John, though I am glad to say none of that was directly expected of me. I mean there was no such check-list. Having said that, I became ever more aware that governments and parents expected teachers to be the substitute good parents that many parents failed to be and that it became safe to blame teachers for most of problems experienced by young people. Much of this was a backlash against caricatures of 60s ideas of education, and a general suspicion that schools were there to perpetuate broadly liberal values. Not that I would be ashamed of perpetuating such values, but the pressure of league tables and inspections grew and parents and students became customers who wanted quick. efficient, comprehensive service.

As to the crosses, I quite agree that if we allow other small symbols of allegiance, crosses too should be allowed, and that it is stupid to impose values that run against the history of a culture, especially when it comes down to something as normal and embedded as greetings.

Some people and institutions are so admiring of their own goodness they feel they must impose it on others.

George S said...

Gwilym, I will do my best. The problem has been that making a small comment is like pulling a piece of string that often turns out much longer than expected.

The Plump said...

This is perfect:

"It is a sort of friendship based on common interest within a framework."

The simplicity of teaching is underemphasised.

And this is why giving it up is not easy. You miss those friendships.