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Writers tend to gravitate to other writers. We look for people who understand the way that plots and characters are created in the back alleys of our brains and are willing to share the standard food of writers everywhere: coffee and chocolate. Unfortunately, fellow writers can be hard to find, and that is why I believe so many writers go into teaching. If we can’t find people like us, perhaps we can create some.
Teaching writing often (okay, just about never) lives up to the romantic ideals we have in our minds. Instead of the rousing discussion we anticipate about audience and purpose, we get a roomful of blank faces sprinkled with the occasional student who is tuned out completely, earbuds in and tapping away on their phone. Teaching writing online lets me avoid awkward silences, forced eye contact and trying to talk over the guy snoring in the back row, but it comes with its own challenges.
The main problem with teaching writing online is that a chat box obviously doesn’t give you any room to send or receive nonverbal cues. Now, this can definitely be a good thing. I don’t have to be creeped out by the person who stares without seeming to ever blink, and I can let out as many exasperated sighs as I want. I can also get paid to work in yoga pants while eating ice cream. Enough said. The downside of this, though, is that it’s a lot harder to get a decent feel for where the student is with the assignment or project without playing 20 questions.
Me: Can you tell me a little bit about your assignment?
Me: Great! So what were you supposed to do for this one?
Me: Okay! What are we writing about?
Student: I don’t know.
This may seem like a student who just doesn’t care or doesn’t know what the heck is going on, and in about half of cases, that’s probably true. But there’s also the possibility that the student 1) is a slow typer, 2) thinks that I will judge them if they have grammar or spelling errors in their messages, or 3) is trying to do too many things at once. My job is to figure out which one I’m dealing with. The easiest way to do this is to see what, if anything, the student already has done. If it’s a couple sentences and the paper is due tomorrow, then it’s most likely a student who doesn’t care or is totally lost in the class. If the essay is at least halfway solid, chances are I’m dealing with one of the other three options.
There’s not a whole lot to be done about slow typers, except let them know that they can send little bits of text at a time so that we can keep the session moving. For someone that seems to be hung up on making sure that each and every message sent is perfect, downgrading to some informal language, throwing a “haha,” “lol,” and adding lots of smiley faces can help get things more relaxed. For the person who isn’t all that great at multi-tasking, sometimes you have to put the pressure on. Asking questions that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no” helps. If the student starts defaulting to the old “idk” standby, a quick “That’s okay! I’ll give you a couple minutes to think about it :)” works wonders.
Other than getting over an aversion to exclamation marks, the biggest adjustment for a writer who teaches writing is universal: accepting that very few of the students who pass through your classroom or chat screen will ever learn to enjoy writing, let alone become a writer. There are the occasional students who really find their inner-writer voices and start to create beautiful pieces with great imagery that really captivates, but sometimes the best outcome is getting a student from “I hate writing, and you can’t make me” to “Maybe this isn’t so bad.” And I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. I doubt that a world where everyone was a writer would work.
After all, somebody has to be there to remind us that a writer cannot live on chocolate and coffee alone.