Deborah Schnitzer
2000 3M Teaching Fellow

(Editor’s note: a student is recounting for a friend a meeting she has had with a teacher).



o then the prof said, Well how long do you think it should be? And I said, How the heck should I know? You’re the teacher. You didn’t say that. You’re lying.

I am not. Do you want to hear what happened or not?

Okay. Just don’t get into a snit.

Well, she said, you’re the one who’s doing the work and so I think you’ll be able to figure out when you’re done. And I said, oh come on-it’s an assignment, you designed it and you’re the one marking it (aren’t you) and so you’ve got to have some idea about the number of words. And then she said it doesn’t have to be only words or just words; you can approach this in any number of ways using any number of modes. And I said look, I read that stuff about a creative project in the course outline but I don’t think I can take it seriously. Don’t you really just want an essay? And she said, well there are many kinds of essays aren’t there? And I said, no there aren’t and I should know because I’ve been writing seven to ten a year for the past three years. She doesn’t say anything. So I say an essay is about ten pages long demonstrating a particular argument using specific evidence from the text with quotes from relevant people and a decent bibliography that proves adequate research in the field.

You know I’m right, right?

Yeah. So what. Don’t you think she knows what an essay is for heaven’s sake? What’s the big deal in reminding her.

Because she’s pretending that there are other ways of doing things when it’s the same old carrot. I want her to see that I’ve been around.

Shit. We’ve all been around. It doesn’t make any difference.

Well I think it does.

Okay. Calm down.

Do you want to hear more or not?

Sure. Take your time.

Well, she says, yes, that kind of essay is one way of coming to terms with what you’re learning but you can integrate other approaches-blend them-an original composition in any medium-a quilt-a radio show-a multimedia presentation-short story-dramatic representation-photographic essay painting- set design-interpretive dance-graphic form-mobile ….

And I’m thinking what the hell is this. I’m in a literature course. I’m not in fine arts or creative communications. But I don’t say anything.


Then she says the analysis of literature is a fine art and you can explore a variety of means to help clarify and represent what interests you. I don’t say anything and she says think of the building of a reading as a work of art-it can take any shape; can show the way you figured it out and then perhaps along with the piece you can provide a composer’s log-help me understand the questions you asked, sources you consulted, what you’re pleased with, what you might reconsider.

She’s going after that whole process-not-just-product thing.

Of course. A lot of them say that at the beginning. True enough. And then you get killed if you take them seriously. So what did you do?

I said, this doesn’t make any sense. I’m supposed to come to conclusions here. Demonstrate what I know. Why the heck would you be interested in my process? She doesn’t say anything but I’m on a roll and so I say and furthermore, what if I get stuck? What if it doesn’t work? What if I don’t come up with anything good enough? What if I can’t paint or draw or sing or dance or read dramatically or quilt or sculpt? And she looks at me and she says these are legitimate concerns, but what ifi asked you to tell me about the kinds of artistic forms you’ve already explored?

I humour her-tell her that I used to play the piano; did some drawing but that ended in grade five and haven’t touched anything since.

Which is true.

Absolutely. But you know she doesn’t give up. She says,

Why don’t you think about it-open things a little-look at what strikes you as important in the work you’re reading-examine the forms that come-give yourself permission to dream a little ….

Dream a little … sure. I’m taking five courses and I’m going to graduate school and I need a 3.8 and you’re telling me to dream a little. What ifi screw up?

You won’t.

What do you mean I won’t?

What do you mean when you say screw up?

You know. Get lost. Get stuck. Not figure it out enough.

Those are risks. They’re good ones. Worth the taking. Worth a lot. But how do I know if it’s going to be any good?

Why not try and find out? That’s what’s important.

Easy for you to say.

I don’t think it is.

Oh yes it is. You’re the one with the degrees.

Yes I am. But you’re the one who’s defining the form, discovering the content. I’m telling you that I pay attention to that and every step along the way. That’s central to what we’re doing together. I’m putting my word on this.

And what ifi’m wrong? There is no right way of doing. No right answer.

Oh yeah. I’ve heard that before and then just when you think you can dare something-try something out-depart from the teacher’s point of view-bang- and it’s oh yes that might be interesting but … I don’t have time to play that game.

I am not playing that game.

Who-says? I do.

You think she really knows what she’s saying?

I don’t know. So I tell her.

I don’t think you can get away with this.

Why not?

Because this is a university and there are certain standards and ways of doing things and this sounds too loosey-goosey for me-too many risks-I don’t trust it.

But I do. Just dream a little bit right now. Let’s pretend. I ask you: What strikes you as important in Stein’s Tender Buttons?

Oh for God’s sake I can’t make sense of any of it. Every time I think I’ve got a little bit figured out, I lose it.

Why do you think that is?”

Oh you’re gonna fall for it aren’t you?

Fall for what?

She’s just manipulating you so that you’ll forget who’s really in charge.

Wait a minute. I had some good things to say here. Listen. I told her, Stein doesn’t play fair. She’s got this whole interior language-her own pulse; her own associations; her own inside jokes. She won’t let me in.

Maybe you could show that.


Well show how you try to enter the piece and how you’re thwarted. But I don’t get anywhere.

Maybe you do.

No way. I just try and try and try and I’m blocked at every turn. It’s like a hall of mirrors. One word bounces off another, takes a dip, ends up somewhere else beside another word and I’m trying to figure out what the hidden meaning is, what the trick is and then when I think I’ve got it, bang, she’s off somewhere else and it won’t sit still. Won’t behave. Delinquent that’s all. Everything’s distorted. Only sometimes. Maybe there’s a kind of sense.

Well. Why don’t you work with that? A kind of sense. You know that’s what Stein says herself Right here in her Afterword: “I took individual words and thought about them until I got their weight and volume complete and put them next to another word and this same time I found out very soon that there is no such thing as putting them together without sense. It is impossible to put them together without sense.”

I’ve got to admit I was pretty impressed with Stein on that one.

It’s just coincidence. That’s all.

Exactly. That’s the point you idiot.

Don’t call me an idiot. Well don’t keep dissing what I’m saying.


No you’re not. Yes I am. I’m sorry.

Are you sure because I can stop any time?

No. Tell me.

All right. So she says, Why not show the hall of mirrors. Sounds kind of silly.

Do you really think so?

I don’t say anything. I’m thinking. There are seven more people waiting in the hall. Maybe she’s trying to get rid of me.


But then I say, I could do that you know. Build a kind of box with mirrors and words and have them play on surfaces and reflect and suggest and I could use lighting and extend the distortions but choose the words carefully so that possible associations are released so that ….

You could do that couldn’t you?

Well I could try. But how are you going to mark it?

Now you’re talking.

That’s what I thought. But she says,

I guess I’ll look at the integrity of the design, the form you created and how completely it realizes your argument, the kind of word play you achieve.

Sounds a bit like working with Tender Buttons.

Seems to. That’s a good thing isn’t it?

You tell me.

So then what happened?

I don’t know really. I’m just going to think about it. I’ve got this idea …. Don’t give me that look.

What look?

This could work you know.

And it could bomb. And there goes your grade.

No. I think I’m going to risk it.


I think this might be fun. I think she knows that. I think she wants me to actually have some fun.

What kind of fucking planet are you on?

I don’t know. But I’m going to risk it.

It’s your neck sweetheart and it’s your call. Seems to be.


In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry reminds us that “beautiful things … always carry greetings from other worlds within them,” inciting in us “the desire to bring new things into the world: infants, epics, sonnets, drawings, dances, laws, philosophic dialogues, theological tracts.” Art calls and engages what Maxine Greene in Releasing the Imagination describes as the “answe!ing activity of the mind.” Scarry writes: “This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education.” Green advises: Teaching involves the “difficult task” of devising “situations in which” one “move[s] from the habitual and the ordinary and consciously undertake[s] a search” inspired by “a yearning to·make some sense.” Both would agree that the seeing and telling of how that has been achieved represent the most serious, courageous and playful work human beings can do.