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The Wow! Moment and Teachers’ Responsibility

Creative Writing teachers sometimes — not very often, but sometimes — experience a Wow! moment, when they see student work of a caliber that is simply way beyond the majority of the class… a student whom they feel moved to encourage to keep writing, in some capacity or other. Or at least, a student whose talent and hard work deserves recognition.

That Wow! moment is even more powerful when you’re teaching Creative Writing in a foreign language. I just finished grading my last pile for the semester — aside, perhaps, from a couple of late videos submitted to Youtube — and all I can say is: Wow!

While everyone worked hard, and developed somewhat, there are two students in the class whose work is simply outstanding. One of them is simply a very versatile write: knee-slappingly funny when she wants to write satire, heartbreaking when she wants to write a drama about growing up, piercingly clever when she’s playing with character psychology, and twisty and subversive with the romance melodrama tropes that make up so much of popular storytelling in Korea. I find myself strongly wishing she would go into screenwriting, as Korea badly needs fresh, interesting, and intelligent voices like hers in its entertainment.

The other student is also singular, though in a much different way, writing very powerful stories where the timing is very close to perfect, where the characters go through a kind of transformation — and exert their agency, to a degree that is not only rare in Korean fiction, but even to which I find a lot of Western student writers struggle to achieve — and where things are all there for a reason. The words out of place — the foreign-language element — is relatively minor, and in fact they serve to highlight just how relatively strong her prose is, for someone who claims to “hate writing” to the point of often ditching homework for her other classes in order to avoid it. This student has so much potential as a fiction writer that it kind of scares me, the small chunk of responsibility for encouraging her that I feel as her teacher.

I should probably talk a little bit about why I think Creative Writing is a good kind of course for students studying English as a foreign language, but I think I’ll save that for another time, as there’s something else I want to talk about now. That something else relates to a couple of experiences Miss Jiwaku and I discussed the other day, which had a lot in common.

What they had in common was a lingering bitterness, a lingering resentment, and a lingering regret at not having confronted our own teachers who had failed in that responsibility when they encountered what should have been a Wow! moment.

In Miss Jiwaku’s case, it was in either middle school, or late in elementary school — I think the latter — and she was in a foreign Korean-language school in Indonesia. The teacher had asked the students to write a fairytale, or something like that. So she took a famous Korean story — one of the tales that is popularly known as a pansori, though she couldn’t remember which — and she worked like hell to make the story her own. When she brought it to school, she was proud of her work, and knew that it was good, so she read it to the class.

Not Miss Jiwaku. A scene from a Pansori performance. (Click for source.)

The teacher immediately accused her of passing off work done for her by her parents as her own work. She protested, but was dismissed… and ended up being so immensely discouraged that she stopped showing her writing to anyone after that. She is writing and doing other creative work now, but her teacher took what could (and should) have been a Wow! moment, and stomped it flat.

My own experience is pretty different, yet with a very similar conclusion: while I was an undergraduate, struggling to get enough credits during the summer session to graduate from a Double Honors program in five years (instead of six), I took an Introduction to Sociology course. I’d already read a fair bit of sociology, as I’d been involved with a woman who was a Sociology major and had helped her with her work at times.1 From my (very limited) experience, Sociology seemed sort of interesting, and sort of easy, and so I took the course.

We had classes Monday to Friday in the morning, but one Thursday, my jazz group — a quintet, I think, that year — was hired to play outdoors at the Jazz Festival downtown, for good money. I couldn’t turn the money down, as I needed it and wanted to get at least one gig that year. But this meant I had to miss class. I told the professor, and she told me to ask another student what I missed, and it’d be fine.

The next week, I asked a couple of students, who told me, basically, the same story: we’d been assigned an essay project for the following week a few weeks later, and had to “discuss how technology affects communication styles.” So, what did I do?

I spent the weekend in the computer lab, researching and writing my essay. I probably have a copy around somewhere. It was a long, but relatively straightforward, application of theories from our textbook to an aspect of online interaction that (back in the halcyon days of 1995) seemed new to me, and interesting, and rife for anxiety: the fact that people could pretend to be anyone they wanted to be, online.2 I tackled some specific, infamous incident, even — where a guy had pretended to be a woman in a chatroom of some kind, setting off waves of panic. As an RPG fan at the time, I was pretty comfortable with the idea of role-playing, though it fascinated me how it might be taking place in real life.

So I read our piddly little 280-page paperback textbook to the end, looking for usable theories, and found one or two near the end (I half-remember that it was Symbolic Interactionism) and then spent my whole weekend — by which I mean 14 or 16 hours a day — in the computer lab, drafting and redrafting what was probably the best essay I’d written to date. It was a monster, 35 pages long — but my Luddite professor didn’t use dialup at home, and when I offered to print out my online references (since most of them were online), she said that would be nice.

So I did, and handed in the whole pile, which was hundreds of pages long. Now, I didn’t expect her to read the hundreds of pages of references, but I did expect her to realize I’d read them all, and synthesized them, in a week.

When I got the paper back, it bore to starkly contradictory markings:

  1. A note that began, “This is graduate student-level work,” and,
  2. A C+ scrawled on the front page in pencil.

I approached the professor at the end of class, asking what I’d done wrong. You never know, I might have bitten off more than I could chew, or totally misunderstood Symbolic Interactionism. The professor told me that she doubted I’d written the paper.

I was incredulous. I asked her to check my computer lab hours over the last weekend, when I’d been writing the essay. I asked her to grill me on the contents of the paper.

“But we haven’t even studied Symbolic Interactionism in class,” she said decisively. “We haven’t even read that part of the book yet.”

“I read the whole book last week. It’s not very long.”

I was, by the way, and Honors student, struggling to keep my grades up so I could get a scholarship since I couldn’t afford tuition. I pleaded with her to allow me to prove I’d written the essay — my outline, my notes, anything that would help demonstrate it.

Her response: Well, this wasn’t the essay she asked us to write, anyway. (She saved this till last, of course: she couldn’t prove I’d cheated, so then she told me I’d written the wrong essay.) We were supposed to write a short, personal essay on the way that some communications technology had affected our personal style of interaction with others. Not a highly academic essay, just a short personal one.

I was flabbergasted. I told her that students had told me otherwise, after I’d missed class. That multiple people had told me the same thing. That I’d done what I thought I was supposed to do. I asked for a chance to write a short, personal essay — which I could hand in the next day.

“No, it’s too late,” she said, and dismissed the whole idea. When I expressed concern at the prospect of losing by chance at a scholarship, when I expressed horror at having spent a weekend writing a major essay I didn’t need to write, she was about as understanding as a lump of clay. That is to say, she was an asshole.

Don’t get me wrong: when I think a student has cheated, I’m up front about it — at least, after I verify it. If I can’t verify it, I  go with my gut, but I also talk to the student about my doubts, and make a real effort to verify whether the student is being honest with me.  Earlier this semester, a student completed a video assignment in my class, and I doubted it was authentic. I went so far as to get the contact information for the owner of a building in whose shop the video had been filmed (the shop having closed down in the meantime), when a friend of mine in the nieghborhood verified that the person I thought was a student posing as a shop clerk really was a clerk. I told the student he’d been vindicated, apologized, and granted the student a completion for the pass/fail assignment.

So I understand the professor having suspicions: maybe not everyone reads ahead. Maybe she’d never gotten a grad-student level essay handed in during an undergrad course. And I fully acknowledge that I should have appealed the grade, though I’d heard that most such appeals were pointless.

But the thing I know is that while I listen to my gut, I’ve also learned to distrust my gut enough to offer a chance at self-vindication to each and every student whose case is uncertain — when I cannot find proof of plagiarism, but have suspicions. I ask them to explain a concept, or to explain to me in their own words the second major argument made in the paper, or things like that. I ask how big a specific source text is, or otherwise engage them in conversation about the thesis of the text. Usually, you can tell very quickly who’s bullshitting, and the bullshitters usually own up to it within a question or two.

But sometimes, just sometimes, they’re not bullshitting you. And that’s important.

It’s easy to forget, when confronted with a lot of good-enough, not-bad, pretty-good, or even mediocre-quality work, that some people really do kick ass all on their own. It’s crucial to regard that Wow! moment with the care and caution it deserves. Because sometimes, just sometimes, you run across someone who is way better at something than you were at the same age. Sometimes, you run into someone who could really be a big shot in the field, if you encouraged them.

And if you don’t feel a sense of responsibility contemplating that possibility arising in your classroom? Then throw out your board markers and textbook collection: you don’t deserve to call yourself a teacher or professor or instructor.

As for my responsibility? Well, at the very least, I’m going to try meet with the two students whose work blew me away, and encourage them. And next semester, if I get another Creative Writing course, I think we may produce a fat little chapbook for them to hold a reading to promote, give away, and so on. Some of them students — including these two — are talking about starting an independent writing group, something I have urged other classes to do, and given up urging: they came up with the idea themselves. So who knows, maybe they’ll even follow through!

Oh, and yes: I did finish all my grading (the major stuff, anyway) today. Whew! Now, for the math to begin.


1. Which is to say, when she suffered what I suspect was a nervous breakdown towards the end of her final semester in school, I, ahem, basically wrote her last two essays for her by sewing together somewhat-related passages from two of  her textbooks in ways that looked interesting to me, assuming that they’d come out mumbo-jumbo. I got higher grades than she ever got, and it was her major. I don’t not mention this to tout my own brilliance: I take it to mean the subject was easier than a university major ought to be. Perhaps it’s unfair that I’ve looked down on Sociology ever since: it’s possible that the department was just pathetic at the university where I did my undergrad studies. 

2. This issue was on my mind, I only now realize, because Miss Jiwaku and I just watched the eighth episode from Season 1 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer titled “I Robot You Jane”, in which this facet of internet communication plays a central role. Ah, social anxieties of the past… it feels like a lifetime ago.

A fate too many teachers suffer: you become a robot. An evil robot. A fate best avoided. (Image from the aforementioned Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode.)
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