A Non-Academic Writer's Reflection Thus Far Studying the Teaching of Writing.
My name is Matthew Goldfarb. I may very likely be the least qualified person to share with you a story about teaching in the classroom for one glaring reason: I’ve never taught in the classroom.
Ok, that isn’t 100% true. In college, I was an apprentice teacher in a psychology course, and I taught one class on developmental psych. There was also that one time I was a guest lecturer at Mount Holyoke. My friend, an economics professor, invited me to speak about the power of creating movements in business.
I am writing to you as a student at Johns Hopkins in their Master’s program for the teaching of writing.
Why teach writing? In my professional life, I worked as a copywriter, writing teacher, and messaging strategist. I have worked with prominent advertising agencies and small start-ups. After almost 18 years in this career, I found myself at a crossroads. I no longer enjoyed coming up with quippy 1-liners and messaging strategies for big companies. I wanted to find a way to create more meaning in my life and have a more substantial impact while doing something that I love.
Writing has always been something that has come naturally to me. It started when I was a kid, and I wrote my first short story at seven years old (My grandmother commissioned it for $7 about a tire named Gene).
I had always taken for granted the ease with which I found the writing process, which became very apparent to me later in my career when many of my clients and colleagues started asking for direction on the process of writing. This led to the creation of professional programs teaching others how to find their voice, develop their website content, and learn how to get out of their head and write down on paper. It also led to the development of several books on the craft of writing in a professional setting.
The idea to teach writing in an academic setting emerged during a conversation with my sister-in-law during a family vacation to Italy. Recognizing that I could take my skills from my professional career and put them into academia was exciting, if not intimidating prospect. This began the journey of researching various teaching programs that would allow me to focus on what I was passionate about and potentially lead to employment opportunities. At the same time, I had to consider the added challenge of being the co-parent of an 8-year old boy, which meant being hunkered down in Western Massachusetts. Therefore, I needed to find a program that was both reputable and also allowed me to study online.
This is how I found the program at Johns Hopkins. And it is how, amid a pandemic, I find myself taking my first class which coincidentally, is all about teaching writing online.
If you’ve made it this far in my posting, I want to tell you that I am writing this article because I wanted to share my experience so far as a non-academic teacher’s experience learning how to become an academic teacher.
In full transparency, I have treated this entire experience thus far as an experiment into the unknown. I have started the process by not being fully aware of the outcome or if getting my masters will be enough to afford me employment opportunities. Still, I have kept an open mind and a willingness to go all-in, even in the face of the uncertainty.
My foray into the academic world has been both exciting and, at times, overwhelming. Coming into a class with other students who have years (and in some cases, decades) of experience in the classroom made me feel as though I was at a disadvantage. Most of the other teachers were there to supplement their experiences — I am here to begin mine. While I have felt this insecurity emerge throughout the semester, not once have I been made to feel as though my experiences (or lack thereof) were detrimental—quite the opposite. During one of our first assignments, we were tasked with using VoiceThread to introduce ourselves and tell a little bit about who we are. Being overeager, I was the first to share photos of my self, my son, my experiences, my love of movies, and my love of writing. I was surprised to discover that many of my classmates appreciated my non-academic approach to the course load, offered encouragement, and even sought advice on some of the technologies and lessons I had learned from the business world.
To say that my experience has been nothing that I had expected is an understatement. Naively, I had imagined this class that was designed to teach writing online to essentially be the same as the on-campus experience; my professor instructing us by a lecture with a video camera, straight forward assignments and a focus on the theory of writing. I discovered, that the online experience of education is non-linear, non-medium specific, and has endless possibilities. Over the past 4 weeks, we have focused on many topics including — the reasons we write and teach, the importance of equity and access (something that has taken on specific relevance amidst Covid-19 and the recent Black Lives Matters protests), the power of mentoring, mentor texts (we were tasked with choosing a mentor text and then creating a sample creative entry, I decided to use a book by Austin Kleon called “Newspaper Blackout“, where I took a newspaper article and obscured most of the text in an attempt to create something new), annotated articles and videos using hyptothesi.is, and studied the importance and power of Connected Learning. We have written blogs, had lively discussions, met over Zoom, conducted self-assessments, and read endless pages that have continuously challenged my notions of what it means to be a teacher and what is truly possible in this new connected world. While I never doubted the importance of community in academia, seeing it first hand has been enlightening and inspiring.
My latest assignment was to share something that I “made” in a public forum. Having spent years as a copywriter, I was very comfortable and familiar with using social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook to share my ideas and thoughts. Still, I have never done so on a platform that is dedicated solely to educators. I post today having no idea if sharing my experience thus far provides value, is of any interest to educators like yourselves, or contains any insight into the student experience. Despite my own insecurities, I am choosing to share because I’ve always believed we have no say in how the rest of the world receives what we have to offer. We can’t decide if anyone else finds value in the thoughts we have about the world around us. The only thing we can do is share what we have seen and how we feel.
This is the first and could possibly be the last post you will read from me through this experience. I am grateful for anyone who has taken the time to read what I have shared today. Take care everyone.