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From writer to writer


I hope this note finds you well. I was reading some Mississippi Solo last night and thought that if I found a moment today, I’d throw a few words your way.

It’s been a long day here at the computer. But it’s emblematic of my semester, which has been very busy all the way around. Last semester, I received all my class assignments just two days before classes began. Ironwork had been so slow that I thought to call and get myself set up for teaching in the Spring (right now).The head of the History department, a really good guy, told me if I didn’t have anything to do, he needed teachers right away.

So, being the flexible type, I talked to my union guys at Ironworkers Local #10 and set myself up for a year of teaching. But the short notice kept me behind all semester. I’m terrible with planning and schedules, absolutely rotten. I spent the semester being spontaneous, promoting book, pulling lectures out of my ass, and letting the students know what they were reading each week. That’s good for me, but I don’t know that students liked it much. My evaluations were great. But, still, I can’t help but think that I could have done better by them if I could have held my head together.

This time, however, I knew what was coming before it happened. I started the school year with syllabi in hand, ready to go. The classes I have this time are not nearly as sharp as the ones I had last time, but I love teaching and the challenge of prying the lid of these heads is great. Setbacks and advances, or, as Jeff Lebowski would say, “Strikes and gutters.”

Unfortunately and fortunately I am spending a whole lot more time this semester on teaching the same number of hours. I’m writing all my lectures from scratch, using powerpoint presentations to accompany my ranting and raving. In part, my motivation are some students who have hearing and sight impairment. They benefit a great deal from having everything I have on the student-access class web site. That means I have to be really on the ball and ahead of them, even if it’s just my ass scooting through the door. It also means that being ahead in the future will be a lot easier and less time consuming.

There are some interesting challenges outside the norm this time, too. Some of my students have remedial needs, which I think is just all right as they demand more personal time. I have to lead them through getting them started and encourage them to participate in their own educations. Some of these people come out of awful school situations. On the other hand, some were home schooled or come out of charter or parochial schools. Oddly, these kids who are supposed to have such exceptional educations come to my classes without the research and writing skills they need for college. Smart kids, these special-school types, but I think their parents and their educators spent more time on idealized notions of education than on things they would need to get through college classes that demanded they use their heads. The more adept kids come out of public schools. It’s counter to the conventional wisdom—after all, everyone has to hate public schools these days.

I also have some people in my class I have taken a special liking to because their obstacles and attitudes were so like mine at one time. My American History II class has a few Blackamerican kids from tough urban settings (one from St. Louis). I also have some working-class white kids—trailer-park kids—who got the same kind of treatment (without, of course, the racial pressures the Black kids have had). I like being with them because they remind me of me. I don’t expect to change anyone’s life here, but I am the teacher who has faith in them human beings. At the very least, I want them to leave my classroom with skills they didn’t walk in with, even if they don’t get the greatest grades—which I hope they do.

There’s another phenomenon: These kids were raised on the internet. I’ve had to deal with more than one student after an exam who comes to me and says that I must be wrong because some internet site had some other idea. Fine, I tell them. But if you are using the internet’s “”-like sites for study, it’s not college-level labor.

As much as I love teaching and its challenges, I can’t wait to get back to building bridges this summer. School. Physical labor. I think, after 47 years, I have found a way to keep head and hands happy, at least until I’m too old to monkey around on the steel.

Because of all of this, my writing has been scatter-shot. But my editor at Nebraska is anxious to help me develop the next book—which will also be some of my dissertation. (It’s kind of cool to write, “my editor.” I almost feel like it’s not my right.) It’s a nice feeling. At the same time, I deal with a feeling that I need to start producing right now. Fortunately, Bridget sort of understands the needy writer she’s taken on and assures me that, next week or two years from now, she will be there to guide the next project.

It’s way too late and I’ve had way too many interruptions while writing this note. I have to get on.

All my best.


P.S. I forgot about this little vid of me fluffing it up about my book. It was a piece they use to fill time on the cable television. I never like looking at myself—I always see a fat-chinned ogre. But I do like that I was wearing jeans with burns from a quickie saw—a gasoline powered saw with a diamond wheel we use to cut steel on the job site. Steel throws sparks, and no matter how careful you are, when you use one all day, you walk away with scorches that turn white after a couple of washings.

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