Wednesday, September 9, 2009


One of the things a student is most eager to secure from you is that mysterious-to-you word, feedback. Another thing is approval. Yet another is even more perplexing--they want to know how to do a particular thing, to execute some technical bravura without being caught doing it; they want to know as though they assumed you could not only do it but instruct them how to do it, when the absolute truth is that if you can do it, you do it through muscle memory. (When, for instance, you do anything, say punctuation, through anything but muscle memory, it emerges as tedious and academic and learned, three qualities which speak to you as tedious and boring, qualities you hope always to avoid.)

Sure: feedback=response, but there is something of despair in the way they ask if you have any of it, as though there is something transformative about it, something that will lead them to the plateau of publication and acceptance. There is so much anguish in the way they ask you if you have any of it for them. The most acute degree is when they say, "Professor Lowenkopf, do you have any feedback for me?" Next in line is the more tentative, "I was hoping for some feedback," followed by "So, what did you think?" What I think is that feedback somehow conflates with acid reflux or a meal such as a Whopper from the Burger King on campus, eaten too hastily, images I have to set aside when the queries are put to me.

Approval often surprises me. When I begin speaking or writing, I am generally neutral. There are exceptions, particularly when I see a project continuing in the literary equivalent of AMA (against medical advice, as in a patient wanting to discharge himself/herself from a hospital contrary to doctor's recommendations) or when I have had advance reason to expect with tingling anticipation the work in hand. Sometimes it sneaks up, overcoming, perhaps even overwhelming me the way a work does when it begins buzzing at first, like a cell phone set on vibrate only, then morphing into full-out resonance.

It is always surprising when they ask me how to do a particular thing, not because I don't try things myself but because of the way I've morphed into letting the story or the narrative tell me what to do, giving it the freedom and responsibility to tell itself, my only responsibility the one of revising until the entire thing feels right. Once again, if they use my title as a preface, Professor Lowenkopf, is it all right if I..? then I fall back on my standard trope, "Don't get caught."

All of which makes me wonder about my own motives for teaching, as in, am I doing this as payback for those who knowingly or not taught me, merely for the income stream (which opens an interesting question about me and income streams in the first place) or the more likely and selfish one that I teach in order to teach myself. The latter makes the most sense, particularly because the same thing has happened with teaching that happens with story: I do it in order to get it to feel right and in the process come to love the process, whether the process is story or students. The same thing is true with editing in that I've had to edit things I was not in love with and have come to respect at the outcome. (A notable type of exception was my recent experience having for some years tried to impress Brian Fagan with the notion of a book on the Cro-Magnon, which has evolved into the best book he has ever written and the best I have edited.)

The message or, if you will, the outcome, is the awareness that what begins as self-interest has down stream consequences of concern for others, particularly others I may not even know.


Anonymous said...

If I were not a teacher I wouldn't know how to use a semi-colon. I'm sure I get more from teaching than it gets from me.

lowenkopf said...

Although I greatly favor the semicolon, you would not be convinced, were you to use my spell checker as arbiter, that I know how to use it correctly. Nevertheless, I plod on, using the semicolon to build bridges of words across gaping chasms of clauses, like a bureaucrat with a pocketfull of stimulus cash.