(This is going to finish in a very different place from where it begins; please be patient.)
When the finalists for the directorship were announced, I had somewhat dismissive comments of Samantha Chang; recalling this, combined with the recent acknowledgement of our vague, anonymous audience, has led me to do some reflecting.
Sam was my instructor first semester, too, along with Grendel and TLB (and others). Sam was a very calm presence in the classroom -- I don't mean vague or ethereal, but her energy was always positive, rather than taking the form of closed off, negative, iron-clad criticism. She was willing to listen to an author; to not only have a polite, measured critique of a story, but to also try to understand an author's concerns. She was a sympathetic instructor, in other words.
(It's worth nothing that before Iowa, I went to an MFA-type Masters program where the faculty was very similar in personality to Sam: considerate, polite, helpful, sympathetic; as caring about the author as anything, I'd say.)
Anyway, second semester at Iowa, I had Frank. Big difference. I don't remember exactly who was in that workshop that's also on this blog -- kclou, certainly, and also bR (congrats by the way!) -- but I was up first, and to use dull parlance, Frank tore me a new one. The 'workshop' was about fifteen minutes of him ripping my story to shreds (mostly inconsistencies with language). At one point he actually wondered aloud if in writing the story, I'd gone to a "cliche-store," where cliches were on sale for a nickel apiece, which made it easy for me to buy so many of them.
I blushed and sweated the entire time. It was absolutely humiliating. I'll never forget the experience; it was the first time in any workshop (and I've been in MANY) that an instructor was so brutally honest. It was the antithesis of the Sam experience: unsympathetic and cold, rather than warm and gentle.
Yet when I look at the work I've done over the last few years, that day stands as a clear dividing line: crappy stories before, better stories after. I know it's easy to create faulty cause/effect relationships, but this one holds truth: the effect of being humiliated that day has had a larger impact on me as a writer than any ten of my other workshops combined. I approach writing diffently *because* of that workshop . . . and I think maybe that's why I was originally critical of Sam as a workshop instructor; it had little to do with her, more with me (my apologies to her, then, for the original comments). I was at a point where 'just' polite story-to-story criticism wasn't going to be as helpful as something more jolting.
Many of us seem to have more respect (if grudging respect) for teachers who were 'mean.' Any thoughts on this? Has anyone else had similar experiences? Is there a point where to actually teach a writer who thinks he/she knows something about the craft, an instructor has to 'shock' them out of that 'knowledge'?
If people HAVE had experiences like this, I wonder if we could collect them here, try to pass it on to something like P&W, if anyone has contacts to a magazine like that. A group essay on the effect of workshops would be cool. Who knows. Thanks.
(feel free to think/tell me I'm being stupid, too)