Notes From the First Year: Some Thoughts on Teaching at MIT

Teaching science and engineering kids, and why toughness might be the most important quality in a writer

A commenter asks:

If this isn't too off topic, what do you find motivates most of your students at MIT? Do they really love the subject, or do they see it as a pathway to bigger things, or are they just doing it because that's what you do to succeed in life? I'm sure it's a combination of all of them, but I would be interested in how you saw the break down.
The first thing I should say is that the kids at MIT are, I think, different than most. Even among students from the highly competitive schools they seem a little different. We live in a world that valorizes "intelligence,"  "talent," and "ideas." (The obsession in journalism with the counter-intuitive springs from this.) What I found at MIT was something a little different. They were plenty smart, but they weren't particularly enamored with that fact. And more than being smart, they were tough.

I've never taught writing before, but I tend to believe that toughness is really important if you are going to be a successful writer. What you need to write is the ability to not get knocked out. You need to be able to take brutal critique and tolerate awful people. But more than that, you need the physical courage to look at a blank screen, and write. What you write will generally be pretty awful -- especially when you are young. And for the most part, this does not change as you age. The writing in your head may well be the sweetest music. But when you put it on to the page what you will get will likely only be some vague, mushy approximation.

The old adage is true -- writing is rewriting. But it takes a kind of courage to confront your own awfulness (and you will be awful) and realize that, if you sleep on it, you can come back and bang at the thing some more, and it will be less awful. And then you sleep again, and bang even more, and you have something middling. Then you sleep some more, and bang, and you get something that is actually coherent. Hopefully when you are done you have a piece that reasonably approximates the music in your head. And some day, having done that for years, perhaps you will get something that is even better than the music in your head. Becoming a better writer means becoming a re-writer. But that first phase is so awful that most people don't want any part.

I think because MIT is a pretty bruising place, my kids came prepared for most of this. I don't know if they expected it in a writing class, or not. But I generally think that arts and humanities classes should not be easy, that they should, in fact, reflect the great difficulty of the actual profession of "artist" or "critic." So I tried to give them that.

I didn't have to work hard to motivate people. What I found was that if I showed up, and I was excited, they fed off of that, and they got excited. I came to feel that teaching was performance. My job was to communicate my own energy and belief in the importance of the work. I had it pretty easy. I wrote my syllabus, and thus chose work that I loved. If the syllabus wasn't working, I could make a change as we went. (I found, for instance, that teaching kids how to write compelling sentences is a lost art.) More than that, I love writing. I go to bed thinking about it, and wake up thinking about it. Some communicating energy was never a problem.

This probably won't really help anyone else in the teaching world. I don't know how well I'd do with a pre-written curriculum which I had to follow to the letter. I don't know how well I'd do in a class where we were studying writing, but not trying to learn how to write. I don't know how well I'd do at a school where the kids cared less.

Still, I enjoyed this year tremendously. People think that teaching at a science and engineering school means you'll be faced with a group of awful writers. But I have read enough dense and vague lit criticism to know that writing clearly does not have a direct relationship with interest in the humanities. In some ways, I felt that the rigor of math had better prepared these kids for the rigor of writing. One of my students insisted that whereas in math, you could practice and get better, in writing you either "had it" or you didn't. I told her that writing was more like math then she suspected.