A Plumber Teaches Writing?

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Photos from Jim LaBate

My philosophy of teaching has developed gradually over the years, but I think I have been heavily influenced by my father who worked for over 40 years as a plumber. As a young boy, I would often travel with Dad to neighbors’ homes, and he would attempt to repair the leaky pipe, adjust the water heater, or fix the furnace. As we worked, he often expressed three of his favorite sentiments, sentiments that I have incorporated into my philosophy of teaching.

  1. “There’s no such thing as an easy job.” Even though our friends and neighbors would assure us ahead of time that “it’s a small job,” or, “it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes,” Dad knew better. He always told me to be prepared for anything and be ready to work hard. I have always tried to pass that wisdom along to my students, especially when it comes to writing.

Many students limit themselves when they write. They simply write a first draft of an essay or story and turn it in for a grade. I try to convince them to go to the opposite extreme. Instead of viewing writing as a one-step process, I try to emphasize six distinct steps: idea, research, first draft, revision, final draft, and editing. Yes, students can complete the paper in one step, but they’re more likely to produce a much stronger paper if they’re willing to gradually work through all six steps and use some of the following techniques: brainstorming, free writing, outlining, researching, experimenting with techniques and point of view, participating in writing groups, and proofreading extensively. My favorite quote about writing, one that we have actually had painted on the wall of The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College, belongs to American writing expert William Zinsser who summed it up best when he said, “Writing is hard work.”

2. “Do something, even if it’s wrong.” When Dad and I arrived at our work locations, he typically spent a few moments socializing or finding out details about the problem. When he noticed me waiting idly, he’d motion for me to get to work. Sure, he knew that I was too young and inexperienced to fix the problem myself, but he wanted me to get started by carrying in the tools, setting up the workplace, or inspecting the situation. Naturally, I share that same basic sentiment with students today.

In The Writing Center and Research Center, I see many students who have a hard time getting started on their assignments. They often say, “I don’t know what to write,” or “I know what I want to say, but I can’t come up with the first sentence.” With the first type of student, I begin a conversation about the content of the assignment, and I ask the students to write down their answers; with the second type, I tell them to forget about the introduction and write the body of the essay first. My key idea for them is to get some words on the page, preferably lots of words, as soon as possible, when the ideas are fresh in their minds. Yes, a lot of those first words may prove to be useless or need to be edited extensively, but once the students have something on the page, they can begin the editing process and move closer to a final draft.

3. “You can’t do the job right if you don’t have the right tools.” In the midst of some jobs, Dad would realize that he needed a certain tool, and he would send me off to retrieve it. “Can’t you just use this one?” I would ask in an attempt to speed up the process. The sarcastic look on his face said “No,” and I gradually came to realize that the quality of one’s tools often reflects the quality of one’s work. I use that wisdom with all my students, especially regarding punctuation and writing techniques.

I find that most students are perfectly content to use only two punctuation marks — periods and commas — and only two writing techniques: narration and description. As a result, I spend a fair amount of time encouraging students to use the other major punctuation marks — colons, semicolons, and dashes — and other writing techniques such as compare and contrast, process analysis, and division and classification, among others. To make my point, I explain how a carpenter could probably build a satisfactory bookcase with just a hammer and nails, but to make a beautiful bookcase, that carpenter would need more than just two basic tools. I conclude by saying, “I want your work to be beautiful.”

During my teaching career at Hudson Valley Community College, I have strived to mimic my father’s blue-collar ideas about work, and I feel his inspiration has encouraged me to work hard, to persevere even when I’m unsure about my direction, and to master the tools of my profession.

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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