The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: Humiliation Is Not a Teaching Strategy

In one of his recent columns, old-school parenting guru John Rosemond fondly remembers a creative writing teacher, Mrs. Grimsley, who humiliated him. He insists, however, that in calling his work "trash," to the (suppressed) snickers of his fellow classmates, his teacher was showing him she cared about him, that she had high expectations of one of her "best students."

And in one syndicated fell swoop, humiliation is back in the news as a teaching strategy. Mr. Rosemond, let me break it to you gently. Mrs. Grimsley wasn't showing you she cared about you. If she had, she would have thought of far more effective ways of communicating that to you directly, by saying something to you in private. Something like, oh, I don't know: "Mr. Rosemond, this is not up to your usual standards," or "I'm disappointed in you, Mr. Rosemond," or even, "Mr. Rosemond, I know you can do better than this."

What Mrs. Grimsley was really communicating was her contempt for you and her belief in her own superiority. I know because I've encountered a number of Mrs. Grimsleys in my teaching career: teachers who lack the creativity or the sensitivity to consider less degrading and more potent ways of communicating their high standards and expectations to their students.

In fact, as a writing teacher, I've spent the last twenty years undoing the damage done by teachers like those you celebrate upon writers less confident than yourself. Often such damage usually appears in the very human form of timid, middle-aged, usually female, educators in my summer writing workshops for teachers (established by the National Writing Project) who are utterly terrified by the idea of writing. In every case, their terror resulted from a writing trauma they had experienced from their own personal Mrs. Grimsley. One, for example, trembled as she told of watching her first creative effort being literally torn into paper shreds at the front of the class. Another told of the college professor (at a university whose high admissions standards she had already exceeded) who held up her first creative effort, asked the class whose it was, and, once she had identified herself, told her to pack up, leave his class and never return because she clearly did not belong there.

Being a writing teacher, moreover, means I don't just get to hear these stories from my students. Occasionally I get to hear them at social and community events where, upon learning my occupation, people love to regale me with their English-teacher horror stories and then confide in me that that's why they hate writing.

And so my response to you, Mr. Rosemond, and to your readers, some of whom I worry might be convinced by your words that Mrs. Grimsley's behavior was somehow justified, is this: Deeming a student's work "trash" is neither the mark of a good teacher with high expectations nor is it the mark of a particularly good human being. It's the sign of a bully, of someone who can only build him or herself up by tearing someone else down. The kind of person we warn our children against, whose insults we tell them to ignore because their actions are so clearly indicative of their own deep-seated insecurities.

Finally, to my own readers, a happy ending. All the people in my workshops who'd been told their work was "trash" in one humiliating way or another actually ended up discovering, decades later, that they were more than competent writers, that they were actually good at it and that they really did have something important to say. In fact, they're still writing today and those who are teachers are doing exactly what good teachers do, encouraging their students to follow suit. So if you've been the victim of a particularly demeaning experience when it comes to writing, don't let it hold you back. Instead, reflect on the source. Is the kind of person who would express him or herself in such a cruel and thoughtless way also the kind of person who should be deciding whether you should be writing at all?

I didn't think so.