Academic journal article Research & Teaching in Developmental Education

Thoughts on Teaching and Writing from an Accomplished Author and Teacher: Interview with Phillip Lopate

Academic journal article Research & Teaching in Developmental Education

Thoughts on Teaching and Writing from an Accomplished Author and Teacher: Interview with Phillip Lopate

Article excerpt

Phillip Lopate is a writer well known for the personal essay. He has edited and contributed to an anthology on the personal essay and has published numerous books of essays. He also publishes fiction and poetry, and writes about film, architecture and urban issues.

Phillip Lopate is also a teacher. He started out in the 1970's as a Writer-inthe-Schools, experiences which he details in his book Being with Children. Today, he is Professor of English at Hofstra University, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate level writing and literature courses.

Phillip continues to inspire students and teachers of writing alike. Recently, we heard his keynote address at Bard College's conference on the essay. Later, we sat with Phillip in the parlor of his home in Brooklyn, New York, to get his thoughts on teaching, writing, reading, the connections among them, and how his views have evolved since becoming a father 10 years ago.

I. Teaching Resembles a Kind of Writing Out Loud

Susan: Do you consider yourself more a teacher or a writer?

Phillip: I would say writer first, but teacher is as much a part of my identity. And I do think that teaching resembles a kind of writing out loud. I don't feel I'm using a different part of my brain when I'm teaching. I know lots of writers who deeply resent teaching! They hate it. They seem to feel that mediocre student work will bring them down and dilute their own efforts.

S: Do you think some writers feel this way because teaching takes time away from their own writing?

P: There is always a question of the interior pull of writing when you are alone and the social, extroverted pull of teaching, which seem to be moving in different directions. At the beginning of the school year, after a summer when I have been by myself for a few weeks, I do sometimes feel that I am at the bottom of a well and I have to pull myself up and again become social. But I'm not sure that's because I'm a writer; I think many teachers feel this.

The teacher has to erect a persona and project this kind of wise-person role. And at the beginning of the school year, I might feel very thick-tongued and don't have any advice for anybody, much less myself. But then the discipline kicks in. Teaching is both like acting and like writing. You are projecting a persona. You are not showing the students everything in yourself, all 88 keys. You are showing them enough to become human, and I do think that's important. So I tell anecdotes from my own life because, especially in the writing of personal essays and memoirs, if I'm asking them to be more honest and expose themselves, I have to model that for them. And that part is like thinking aloud. So I really do find them connected.

Sometimes I am shocked or appalled by really bad student work. And then I take a deep breath and say, 'It's really not their fault that they're not brilliant writers. I'm going to work with what they've given me and try to get them to go a little bit further.' So you might say that some of my compassion for my students is based on arrogance. I do think that I am a professional writer, and it's not their fault that they're not. Some of them become professional writers. But perhaps because I secretly believe that I am on another plane as a writer, I can be more accepting of the defects in their work and try to get them to improve.

II. Teacher's Responsibility to Influence Students

Michael: What is the teacher's role in getting the students to the next level?

P: People are capable of self-invention. Since all teaching is a form of manipulation, educators best get used to having dirty hands and not just say that they are enabling and facilitating.

All that jargon is self-deluding! Teachers are influencing and must accept that responsibility. I wrote about this in Being with Children. Teachers who are very involved with socially conscious writing will find their students' writing socially conscious. …

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