Learned writers write academic essays.

Has it really been since Halloween that I last posted? Longer, even, since I posted anything directly related to writing or teaching. Shame on me.

But it’s been a busy three and a half months, in which time my wife moved overseas and I tried desperately to wrap up a semester teaching without my wife around to motivate me, while at the same time I also packed up/donated/sold/recycled three years worth of house (or seven years worth of house, if you count from when my wife and I first combined our lives), shipped cats overseas to join my wife (a gruelly, torturous ordeal I’ve documented elsewhere), moved myself overseas to join my wife, and attempted the long process of settling into a foreign culture….

And now I’m teaching writing, in English, to a classroom full of Arab women. My life has not been dull.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t had time for writing. Quite the opposite, in fact — I’ve gotten more productive writing (and a lot of unproductive writing) done in the past few weeks than I have since before I finished my dissertation, I’ve published a story and a poem in the past month (a personal record for brevity between publications — and one of them is in a genre that ordinarily terrifies me!), and I’m feeling great about my life as a writer in general. I just haven’t managed in these past few weeks to migrate over this way and scribble some ideas.

So, why today? As usual, it is teaching more than writing that has inspired a post: My students and I were discussing today the merits of education and the purpose of learning to write. My new university here in the Middle East is a Western institution, with instruction in English and accreditation from an American education agency, so, like most Western students, my new class has adopted a general equation of “college degree=good job” (though, unlike most American students, my new class doesn’t openly avow a “tuition dollars=earned degree” attitude of entitlement). In the interest of challenging this education-for-financial reward concept, I asked them consider the value of education as self-inherent, ie education for education’s sake, and they were quick to take my idea and run with it. This led to a conversation about the purpose of studying writing, and it was this conversation, happily, that produced the most interesting comments, especially when the students launched into a heated debate (without my prodding!) over whether writing is rooted in talent or learned skill.

Eventually, I had to draw pictures on the board, and I illustrated a metaphor of a scale and four weights, with one weight labelled “Talent,” one labelled “Learning” and the other two “No Talent” and “No Learning.” One student had suggested that talented writers could get by without learning how to write, while learned writers could make up for lack of talent with education, but another student challenged this, which led me to ask: “If we put these on a scale, so we have a talented writer with no education on one side and a learned writer with no talent on the other, would they weigh the same?” Some students said yes, but others argued that untalented people could not learn to write — that talent was a necessary foundation from which to begin to learn writing — and so the question was pointless, while still other students suggested that an untalented person can learn to write better than a talented writer, but never better than a talented writer who has also learned about writing. (Though I didn’t say so in class, this is a position closest to my own.)

Finally, one student offered the gem of the day, which I wrote on the board–in quotation marks — and lauded her for, and which spurred me to write this post. She said, “Talented writers can write beautiful stories. Learned writers write academic essays.” She said this latter sentence with a audible sneer, and I laughed out loud. I said, “So what you’re saying is, it’s possible for boring, untalented people to write and publish academic essays?” She tried to backpedal but I stopped her and said, “Because I agree! I’ve read a lot of those essays, most of them by my own colleagues!”

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