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Calming the Inner Storm

Dawn M. Skorczewski, Teaching One Moment at a Time:
Disruption and Repair in the Classroom
(University of Massachusetts Press, 2005)

Reviewed by Richard E. Miller


With Teaching One Moment at a Time: Disruption and Repair in the Classroom, Dawn Skorczewski has joined the ranks of David Bartholomae, Pat Bizzell, Bruce Hertzberg, Donald McQuade, and Linda Flowers—Rutgers English graduates who have profoundly influenced the fields of rhetoric and composition studies in the last two decades. It may seem odd that nationally recognized figures in the teaching of writing would emerge from our graduate program, but this has, in fact, long been one of the department’s unacknowledged strengths. This is not to say that there’s a Rutgers English school of thought or a Rutgers English approach that binds together the work of these scholars. Indeed, if there is anything that links the work of Bartholomae, Bizzell, Hertzberg, McQuade, and Flowers, beyond a shared commitment to reading student work with care, it is the sheer eclecticism of the resources they draw upon to help them think about student writing. Batholomae introduced the field to postmodern theory; Bizzell focused on “critical consciousness” and rhetorical strategies; Hertzberg, who coedited the award-winning Rhetorical Tradition with Bizzell, directed the business communications program at Bentley College for many years; McQuade, the Vice Chancellor for University Relations at the University of California, Berkeley, co-authored a series of bestselling textbooks on popular writing and advertising; and Flowers was one of the very first people in the field to work on writing and cognitive science. Skorczewski, whose scholarship emerges out of her expertise in contemporary poetry, psychoanalysis, and writing studies, fits easily into this eclectic tradition.

Skorczewski’s goal in Teaching One Moment at a Time is to represent what occurs in the writing classroom as a co-created reality, one where the only certainty is that things will break down—no one will talk; a student will be disruptive; the teacher will not be able to stop talking; someone will jump in with a non sequitur. While experienced teachers develop a range of strategies for responding to these inevitabilities, new and struggling teachers interpret these events as evidence that they—or their students—don’t belong in the classroom. In her book, Skorczewski steers clear of the sentimentality, self-righteousness, and banality that characterize much of the work currently being done on the great mystery of how we come to learn as students and as teachers. Frustrated with the failure of the field to help her make sense of and peace with the inevitability of disruption in the classroom, Skorczewski accepted an appointment as an affiliate scholar at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society, while maintaining her position as director of the writing program first at Emerson College and, later, at Brandeis University. At the Society, she began working with another set of professionals concerned with self-expression, shades of meaning, and misunderstandings. There, she learned of nonlinear dynamic systems theory, which provides her with “a language to capture the lessons of the difficult moments” that populate the life of any self-aware teacher.

True to her word, Skorczewski takes her readers into a range of uncomfortable situations: for instance, she introduces Sharon Olds at a reading and gets a letter from Olds a few weeks later saying that she was disturbed by Skorczewski’s introduction, which she considered a serious misreading of her work. As Skorczewski untangles this situation and others, she demonstrates the value of paying careful attention to the “inner storm” that teachers experience when events in the classroom don’t meet their expectations and of learning how to practice a mixture of “humility and flexibility” when confronted with such storms.

How does one acquire such a practice? An extended example in the book focuses on the breakdown of understanding at the Olds reading and its extraordinary resolution. Olds writes to apologize, acknowledging that others had also read her work in a similar way. Olds includes an original poem about this experience, detailing how writers struggle with the assumption that their readers will see the world as they do, that meaning can, ultimately, be stabilized and secured. Their correspondence continues.

In another example, a group of instructors and therapists in a Society seminar ostracize a student for a comment he made. Skorczewski details how the students worked in the next session with the instructors to uncover and make sense of the problem. She shows that interpretive work is always and inevitably most revealing when the co-production of meaning breaks down—and just as dependably, in the right hands, gets built back up. She offers writing teachers not only a theory for making sense of the emotional turbulence that this steady cycle of understanding and misunderstanding generates, but also vividly drawn examples of how to prepare for and repair such disruptions. Again, how does one acquire this practice? By joining one’s mastery of a given field of study with the sense of calm that comes from an equally deep understanding of the intersubjective nature of emotional reality. And the goal? One escapes the trap of teaching the last bad class or the last good class and begins to teach the current class one moment at a time.

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