My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 3: Writing

I write…obviously. I think I write fairly well for a French-Canadian kid from the wrong side of the tracks. That wasn’t always the case.

Of course I learned how to write when I was quite young, in elementary school. I learned early to write in French and in English. I still write in French and in English, but at the moment I write predominantly in English. However, in this blog post I don’t concentrate on the mechanics of writing. I’m more concerned here with writing as a craft, or as some would say, as an art.

I must say that I was fortunate to attend some good schools where the staff were sincerely concerned about the students and their success. I attended a French Canadian Catholic school in Maillardville*, BC close to New Westminster from 1952 until 1959. All the teachers were nuns. In 1959 I and about 40 other boys from Maillardville travelled to Edmonton to attend the Collège St-Jean. That was an excellent school where a classical education could be had. I, not being particularly brilliant at the time, failed to appreciate the good fortune I had being at such a school. Boarding with hundreds of other boys never really appealed to me, but I did okay socially. I was an especially mediocre athlete in a school that loved athletics. I pretty much failed at sports although I always participated and I failed to excel at my academic work too going from the top of my class to the bottom of my class in grade 12. I was always too self-conscious to be good at anything. Instead of going ahead and just doing things like score goals in hockey, I always had one eye on the coach concerned with what he thought of me. I had the brains and some skill along with some desire, but I was completely bereft of self-confidence. A couple of concussions I got from playing hockey probably didn’t help much either.

At Collège St-Jean students were expected to write a lot in both French and English. I managed to learn some of the basics and for some reason I loved verb conjugations in French. I studied them even when I didn’t have to. We studied Latin too and I loved Latin conjugations as much as French ones. I have no idea why. I still have in my library a book entitled 5OO French Verbs. I’ll bet you don’t have one of those. I also have a couple of Latin grammar books. Every once in a while I’ll pull one off the shelf and flip through the pages just for old times sake. I even go so far as to test my verb conjugations against the tables at the ends of the books. Now, Google has all of that online. It’s hardly any fun at all anymore. English verb conjugations are hopelessly unfun.

So, even though I was pretty much an utter failure in most of my college activities, I had some fun with language and did well in my literature and composition courses. It’s when I entered Douglas College in New Westminster in 1971 that I had to really buckle down and learn some writing skills. I struggled. Composition was not easy for me. I had to work hard at it. It seemed to take forever for me to write a term paper. At least that’s the way I felt about it. Of course, my fellow students were having as much trouble as I was, by and large, coming from the working class, but not many of us were too keen on broadcasting the fact. I busted my butt at Douglas College and ended my time there with a strong grade point average as well as eight general credits for attending Collège St-Jean in Edmonton. Douglas College was obviously impressed with the quality of the education I got at St-Jean. Simon Fraser University (SFU) went one step further than Douglas College when I applied to study there in 1973. It recognized fifteen general credits for my frankly shoddy performance at Collège St-Jean. That was the equivalent of one semester’s work. Bonus! Happy days!

SFU was mostly great but being a natural contrarian I wouldn’t see it that way most of the time I was there. I got depressed. I got anxious. I got angry. I got scared. Same as many of my fellow students. At Douglas College I found that sociology was my favourite subject so I decided to enrol in the Sociology and Anthropology Department (S&A). That was a great choice on my part. I finally did something right. I loved it and did very well in terms of grades. I still had to work hard at writing, but that was something I was willing to accept as a likely prelude to the work I would have to put into writing at any job I was to get in the future. I wasn’t happy with it, but I was resigned to not being a good writer. Still got a BA though. Grades were good too. Good enough to get into grad school, no problem. Thankfully, it was in grad school that I finally learned how to write with some fluency and ease. It was about time. Writing my dissertation proved to be the impetus for me to completely change my attitude and practice towards writing. I could not have done it without some help from a couple of amazing professors I had. I live in perpetual gratitude to Noel Dyck for working with me as a member of my committee for pushing me hard to figure out the process of writing. He’d tear my essays apart. They’d be covered in comments: “Signpost that!” “Complete your thought!” I still love him for that. Richard Coe from the English Department was also instrumental in getting me to understand the dynamics of paragraph structure and the organization of narrative. I still have his great book Toward A Grammar of Passages.

Now, writing is enjoyable for me. I can sit down and compose a thousand word blog post in an hour or two. Of course, a big part of being able to do that is to have something to write about. I think I’ve proven that I do have something to write about given the 280 blog posts I’ve put together over the years. Add to the numerous blog posts I’ve written the scores of television scripts I wrote in the 80s and 90s, a number of research reports, magazine and newspaper articles and I have a fairly impressive body of written work.

Learning how to write well has not been easy. I write now with a fair bit of ease, but that ease was birthed in anxiety and self-doubt over many years, decades even. Finally, I can say that I’m quite pleased with myself for having survived the process. I don’t look to the coach anymore to see what he thinks of me.

 

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* The history of Maillardville is interesting. It was a community of French Canadians who, for the most part, came from western Québec, close to the Ontario border, around 1909. They were brought to BC from Québec as strike breakers in a long racially-charged dispute among forestry mill owners and their white workers against an increasingly strong Asian presence in organized labour.

Teaching Sociology

This morning around 6 I woke up and in that wonderful half-sleep just before I get up and feel the pain in my back wrenching me back to reality I thought about how many times I started the college term in the Fall of every year for the past 36 years with the same lecture.  It’s about how I teach sociology and how my students learn and don’t learn.  I teach sociology, but right now I want to focus on the teaching part of what  I do and not the sociology part.  I’ve also taught 1st year (freshman) French, Canadian HIstory, Anthropology and Sociology, but over the last 25 years or so, pretty much exclusively Sociology.  So I know that my teaching style is consistent across various subjects.  I teach using humour (at least I think I’m funny at least some of the time) and a highly critical approach to things.  After teaching for so long I know that some of my students, at least, appreciate my teaching style.  Funny thing is, I don’t think I can teach people how to teach like I do.  It’s not a teachable skill.  It’s a skill that comes from a confluence of life happenings, genetics, upbringing and experience. To know when to chide a student or make a joke or criticize the textbook is something I’ve learned over the years.  Most of the time, it works.  I don’t use notes when I teach.  Teaching for me is a dialogue between me, the text writers and my students.  I don’t think I could learn that at teacher’s college.  It depends on my personality as much as my knowledge.  It helps that I love what I do, that I have a deep connection to what I know and study and that I have respect for my students and their struggles.  Every year, with a new set of fresh students, I tell them that every one of them has the intelligence to make it through my course and do well.

But, I tell them, there are many reasons they might not do well.  Personal troubles are at the top of the list.  Disputes with family, friends and/or lovers can really sap energy and impair concentration.  Struggles with beliefs, with what’s right or wrong, good and bad although sometimes essential for learning can leave one confused and disoriented just at a time when there is a real need for concentrated activity in studying and listening in class.  Overwhelming concern with what others’ expectations are, whether articulated or not, push away the need to work on course material.  Worry about work, finances, children, husbands, wives, parents and health all contribute to poor academic performance.  This is fodder for another blog post in the near future, but for now, I just want to convey the reality that success in school is not just a result of hard work, nor is it the achievement of one person, the student.  Success in school and university is the result of the efforts of many individuals and institutions.  The sad reality is that we don’t, as a society, care much who succeeds and who ‘fails’ at school.  We need people to do both.  It’s somewhat of a contradiction that in a society so focussed in individuality and individualism we cannot care for the single person.  No wonder people feel abandoned, frightened and angry.  We just don’t give a shit about them.

That’s what I tell my students.