Can Student be Teacher?

It’s reader’s month on Writer Unboxed and I’ve been given my choice of two questions to answer. They’re both excellent, and they’re framed within the context of “how do you do X?”

I can work with that structure. I’m not required to be an expert on anything but my own process, such as I understand it. But it raises some philosophical questions I’d love to explore with you.

When I was in family practice, the half-life of medical knowledge was five years, meaning that 50% of anything I learned in 2000 would be out of date by 2005. With that kind of turnaround, which only accelerated as technology advanced, it was impossible to be an expert in everything I’d see in the course of a day. So I developed strategies to cope. I needed to:

  1. Possess enough knowledge to handle emergencies and common medical problems. 
  2. Know when my skillset had been exceeded and be willing to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”
  3. Maintain a web of effective resources at my fingertips.
  4. Follow through. 

Now, to tie this back into writing: At this stage in my career, I’d say I have some intellectual understanding of how to answer these Writer Unboxed questions. I possess rudimentary personal experience. I know some resources and I can and will qualify my responses as coming from a novice.

On a personal level, I’ve also had gifted teachers who were able to teach me both content and process without necessarily having done it all themselves. Heck, I know there were multiple times in my training or younger years in practice when I’d startle my preceptors. Sometimes my knowledge was more current. Sometimes I had benefit of fresh eyes and less cynicism. 

In other words, I don’t believe the issue of competence is black and white.    

But those are my thoughts. I’d love to hear from you: Do you believe people can teach what they haven’t yet mastered through experience?

Is it possible, for instance, to be a life long celibate, but counsel a couple on sexuality? Can a smoker effectively help another individual quit? Or do you believe that one should exhibit personal mastery in order to teach?


Since we’re on the subject of competence, a few links you might enjoy:

A passage from Rowan Somerville’s The Shape of Her which won the Bad Sex Award. If you’ll forgive the pun, I think it “drives home” the message that animal metaphors are seldom welcome in a scene describing sexual intimacy. Also, that authors can exemplify grace despite scathing reviews, as per this excerpt from the Literary Review: 

‘There is nothing more English than bad sex,’ said Somerville, whose first novel, The End of Sleep, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. ‘So on behalf of the nation, I thank you.’

Kristen Lamb had a superb post this week on the mindset of the professional author.

Own dogs and find yourself baffled by them? Check out this Hyperbole and a Half about moving with pets. If you don’t find yourself crying with laughter, might want to get yourself checked to see if you still have a palpable pulse. (I’m just sayin’.)

9 thoughts on “Can Student be Teacher?

  1. I’ve spent this semester, my last as a writing student, tutoring students one-on-one who are just coming in to the program. And my understanding of writing and the method taught at my school has increased exponentially, just by my experience of teaching. I would have never had this understanding without having had to look at this writing process (which is a LOT different from the Iowa critique method usually taught in college-level writing programs) in an instructive way. The teaching taught me. You know?

    I don’t believe we can ever know everything about writing (or medicine or painting or or or…) but as long as a teacher is a chapter ahead, as it were, of the student, then there’s something to be taught.

  2. Eliza, like you, I’ve always found I have to learn my material at a different level while I prepare to “teach” it. (I use quotation marks here, because I’m not confident I’ll be one chapter ahead of WU’s readership, LOL.) I very much enjoy blogging about writing for that reason.

    It’s also a great way to see have far one’s come when you’re coaching a relative newbie. Sounds like you found it to be positive. 🙂

  3. Yes, I think students can be teachers. I remember in college some of my favorite professors were graduate students who were earning a PhD. And as a teacher, I’m not an expert on every concept I teach, but I learn as I go along.

  4. re the animal pun in TheShape of Her….as discussed on All things Considered this sunday, anyhting taken out of context can be risible particularly risible (the example given is Nabokov Lolitta) may I humbly suggest that you examine it within context and then comment.
    rowan somerville

  5. Medeia, there is something about the mid-stage learner that often brings out the best, IMHO; they can have competence but still keep beginner’s mind. My absolute favorite teachers were those who retained their freshness despite years of experience. Sounds like you might be one of them.

    Rowan, absolutely! Now you’ve got me curious, which — speaking of beginner’s mind — is a good place to be. I will inform myself. Also, if/when I should ever be published, please note I’m sure much of my prose will be risible. Heck, I’m often there right now. In fact, you might not want to get attached to your recent award. Prescience says I’ll be displacing you. 😉

    Kat, LOL, I can wait.

  6. If all knowledge was restricted to episodes of personal experience we’d know and learn very little. Look at science. We use technology without understanding how most of it works. Can you build a space shuttle from scratch? Much of our education is theoretical instead of experiential. It doesn’t mean we quit learning. And often a teacher’s understanding is enhanced by having to answer students’ questions and look at things from their point of view. We all must inform ourselves as we go along.

    As far as the relationship counseling, sometimes help comes from an outside-and therefore more objective-point of view. Or so I’ve heard. 😉

  7. I think someone NEW at something can teach, but NOT someone with NO experience. The CELIBATE? Can teach about RELATIONSHIPS because presumably he’s had some (not romantic, but relationships, nonetheless) teaching about SEXUAL relationships? I don’t believe he can, no–not with the authenticity it would take to make a skeptic like me listen, anyway. The never-smoker on quitting? No. (unless they’ve quit some OTHER very addictive thing–there are lessons from parallel areas)

    But the early writer teaching the later writer? Absolutely. I think sometimes we get our rules so ingrained that we miss the forest for the trees. I think fresh eyes can see BIGGER patterns, where old hats see at a tighter level and may not notice the broader thing. I can totally see how, as a physician, you’d need to learn all the time. I don’t know that WRITING skills evolve so much (or they do, but I’m not convinced they should) but PUBLISHING stuff? Maybe audience stuff? Content stuff? I think people can get entrenched after doing something a certain way for a long time and it is GOOD to be open to fresh ideas…

  8. Phyllis, I love your first sentence. So true! For me, anyway. My husband’s one of those people who loves to begin at first principles and work his way up. His kind of learning is slow but incredibly effective. Me, I do take a great deal on faith.

    Thank you for that.

    Hart, you better be careful there, or someone might think you’d learned some critical thinking skills. 😉 Some good distinctions.

    I will say, though, in medicine there were often times my patients would come in with problems for which no text or expert opinion could be found. In those cases, my best guess and common sense had to serve. Gulp. Sometimes it even worked.

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