National Writing Project

Book Review: What to Expect When You're Expected to Teach, ed. by Bramblett and Knoblauch

By: Tina Humphrey
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: Tina Humphrey reviews What to Expect When You're Expected to Teach: The Anxious Craft of Teaching Composition, which examines the issues teachers face in the composition classroom.


What to Expect When You're Expected to Teach: The Anxious Craft of Teaching Composition

Edited by Anne Bramblett and Alison Knoblauch, with an introduction by Thomas Newkirk. Heinemann, 2002. $15.00; 128 pages. ISBN 0-86709-535-0.

It's the title that spoke to me first: "The Anxious Craft of Teaching Composition." What better word to describe the wild job of teaching than anxious? In this collection of powerful essays, many voices share their own personal stories and offer advice on how to tackle this multilayered profession. This book is conveniently divided into three main parts: Holding It Together During Your First Semester, Exploring Student-Teacher Relationships, and Facing Resistance in the Classroom. Through each section, this book speaks to both new teachers and experienced teachers alike about issues all teachers face in the composition classroom. While the essays are narrated from college instructors' points of view (all the article writers come from the University of New Hampshire Composition Program), the lessons and stories in this brief yet powerful book will appeal to all teachers.

The book begins with "A Note to the Reader," which includes "instructions" that inform the reader of how to cover the text. Two options are suggested: one way is to simply read the book cover to cover, and the other is to mill around in the various sections of the book, looking for an essay that happens to speak to you in your current state of mind. The editors state, "We invite you to poke around, or to read an appropriate essay, anytime you feel bewildered, anxious, or angry." Because a brief excerpt from each essay is included in the table of contents, picking up this book and opening up an essay to fit one's "struggle" is a natural way to approach the content covered.

Opening to the table of contents, I was drawn first to an essay entitled, "Forty-Eight Eyeballs" by Carrie Heimer. "The ball is in my court. I've never taught this class before. I haven't had much opportunity to brainstorm with other instructors about it because everyone else is just as busy as I am, and they seem busier," Heimer writes. "I don't want to ask how to teach the class I self-assuredly said I would teach, and I don't want to be standing here while my new students all sense a [Jerry] Springer moment brewing" (11). From here, I simply had to turn to Heimer's complete essay. And in that essay, I found a voice that seemed to speak to me as a relatively new teacher myself. I found comfort in Heimer's words and her honesty.

The rewarding moments are when my students let me discover that they are in the same wrestling ring I am. I get a glimpse of the little man behind the curtain, so to speak, and get to step up and guide others who are in the market for brain, heart, courage. I can't provide these things. Neither can the study of composition. But I can help package the request. . . .

When I read her conclusion, my heart broke open, and I yelled, "Amen!" out loud. I've found myself coming back to Heimer's words again and again.

It's the honesty in these essays that makes this book stand apart. These are essays written by real teachers who admit that they don't always know what they're doing. Thank goodness. To read Nancy Eichorn's essay, "Boundaries of Caring" where she admits to taking a student-teacher relationship too far by sharing details of her personal life and nearly crossing the line between teacher and student and thus learns the difference between caring about a student and taking care of a student, I am comforted. I feel the same in reading Andrew Lopenzina's essay "Becoming a Witness" in which he tells of his time when he was "called upon to witness something" in the life of one of his most challenging students by allowing the student to explore the death of his father through writing, in his essay, "Becoming a Witness." Through all of these essays, I felt as if I were part of a circle of colleagues just like me; these are teachers who make mistakes, who have bad days, who don't know all the answers either, and who also don't know what to do in that five minutes before class starts.

Besides the honesty in these composition instructors' words, it's the lessons that readers can walk away with that drew me to this book. In the essay "Within the Silences," Christina A. Hitchcock takes a close look at her writing assignments and her connections to her students. The "silences" that resonate so loudly in her class had her trying strategy after strategy in order to engage her students in their own writing. By taking a close look at her students, her role as the teacher, and the role of the school, Hitchcock was able to find ways to empower her students as people, thus allowing them to empower their writing and to step out of their silences. In the end, for example, she uses the memoir as both a reading assignment and a writing assignment and encourages her students to take chances with the form. Readers will step away from this essay thinking about their own classrooms, students, and expectations and wondering from what the "silences" in their classrooms stem and how to break them. Hitchcock discusses concrete lessons she uses, including having students write essays in which each ". . . must discuss her own philosophy of life and its genesis" and having students find a newspaper article in order to ". . . disagree with it in a letter to the editor."

In her essay, "I Am an Excellent Writer," Freda Hauser speaks to plagiarism—a common area of puzzlement for composition teachers. In the essay, Hauser describes her struggle with how to deal with a student who plagiarizes (a form of bullying) without becoming a bully herself. In my own school's English department, we regularly endure agonizing debates over the definition of plagiarism. In this piece, Hauser considers this issue from multiple standpoints—everything from a discussion of paraphrasing versus plagiarism, to how to prove it, to what happens when teachers make the "accusation," to what kind of "bullying" atmosphere this creates in our classrooms, to, finally, what all of these decisions really mean. And she ponders the aftereffects of the accusation as well, wondering how we make sure we're still teaching a student once—having accused her of something this powerful—we must ask her to leave our classroom (as the rules state). Hauser has no answer. Instead, her power lies in the questions she asks herself and, ultimately, in the questions she poses to the readers. Teachers will read this essay and find themselves pausing here and there to look inside their own philosophies in order to come to their own definitions of what it means to be a good teacher and, specifically, a teacher who forces students—all students—to find their own voices.

As I pick up this book one more time, I smile at the soft pages, the dog-eared chapters, the underlining, and the notes in the margins. Sticky notes, crumpled from being carried to and from school in my bag, hang out from the book's top and sides. I now think of the book as a type of narrative reference. In it there are some answers, lots of stories from voices that I can relate to, and even more questions that will resonate for new and experienced teachers alike.

About the Author Tina Humphrey is a teacher-consultant with the Denver Writing Project. She teaches English at Cresthill Middle School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

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