Grossing Out Teacher: A Horror Writer in the Writing Classroom

There was one kid who always sat in the front row–let’s call him Fester–who recognized me right from the start of class because he’d read one of my short stories in a horror anthology. He was a horror fan. His story was also written from a passion, but I could tell that he truly set out to frighten me, and therefore impress me. And he did this by writing a story about me. —Mike ArnzenGrossing Out Teacher: A Horror Writer in the Writing Classroom  (Broad Universe)

I love the name… “Fester”. His last name is probably Boyle. Arnzen is inviting comments on Pedablogue.

As part of a web design unit, I once gave the class an assignment to create a web page that was so terrible it would make me weep. One student posted a photo of one of my children, with a link that connected to a porn site. I should have probably specified that I was looking for horrid design, rather than horrid content.

In another class, a female student submitted a two-page dramatic analysis making a fairly predictable and juvenile pun on the word “climax.” She supplied ample erotic language to illustrate her point, but she mistook the ending of the play for the climax. Some students in the class were stunned when I suggested that her metaphor would be stronger if she recognized that most playwrights give the audience and the characters the chance to fall asleep holding each other after the climax, and that a relationship that ends with the climax is probably an economic transaction. I skewered her — not for pushing the boundaries, but for the omissions that weakened her claims. (While literature is full of material that is both clever and shocking, in a college English class, you can only get so far simply by making a clever, shocking observation.)

While I don’t teach creative writing classes, I do occasionally slip a short fiction assignment here or there. I might give this fall’s American Lit classes the option to write a literary parody instead of a traditional close reading, for example. A few years ago, a student who was supposed to give an oral presentation on Huckleberry Finn instead read a made-up chapter that had Huck being seduced by Tom’s Aunt Polly. I let him read for a little while, then politely asked him if he was going to do any critical analysis. He said no. I told him that he could sit down, and he did without a fuss. I didn’t bother to ask him whether he had written that passage or just found it on the internet, and recorded an F for his presentation. I’d have let him redo the presentation if he’d have asked, but he dropped the course soon after.

A student recently submitted a whodunit in which the prime suspect was an English professor, who is the shell of a great man at the beginning of the story. As part of a workshop in which I demonstrated the value of conflict in fiction, I rewrote a few lines of dialogue and suggested a backstory that would have permitted us to watch the professor breaking down, rather than only showing us the end result. I think students who are just discovering their identities as adults and scholars, and who are used to the clear boundaries that were in place between them and their high school teachers, may feel that seeing their teachers as less than perfect can be liberating and humanizing. This pushing of the boundaries is a part of adolescence, and when students have room to do it thoughtfully and reflectively, it can be a great developmental technique.

From time to time I do appear as a character in a different kind of student writing — academic blogs. Or, almost as often, the personal blogs in which my students pour out the emotions they don’t want to put into their academic blogs. Typically the references are neutral, sometimes they are affectionately mocking. While students do from time to time complain about the workload I assign, only one student has posted an all-out rant.

While I do post links to student blog entries, it’s a different matter completely for me to post anecdotes about things that happened offline. I would never post a student’s grade, or post a bulleted list of all the things a student did wrong. It’s part of my profession to know where those boundaries are, and I’ve had plenty of mentoring and practice to learn about them.