“The Learning Curve” Summary
After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sedaris is offered a last-minute position teaching a writing workshop, for which he is not qualified. With only two weeks to prepare, Sedaris spends most of this time looking for a briefcase and staring in a mirror while practicing his tone as he introduces himself as “Mr. Sedaris.”
During Sedaris’s first semester, he has nine students. Hoping to give the impression of being well prepared, he passes out maple-leaf-shaped name tags and pins. However, when he goes to open his briefcase, it occurs to him that he never actually planned any lessons. Unprepared for the wall of blank, silent faces that now sit before him, Sedaris instructs the students to compose short essays on the theme of “profound disappointment.” Remembering that he finds it “impossible to write without a cigarette,” Sedaris digs some cans out of the wastepaper basket to use as ashtrays, places his cigarette package on the table, and encourages his students to have at them. He believes that this tactic is working until an asthmatic student points out that many famous writers—like Jane Austen and the Brontës—never smoked. Unfamiliar with their work, Sedaris surreptitiously jots down the names of these authors to look them up later.
With his very limited knowledge of literature, Sedaris lives in constant fear of being discovered as a fraud. He bluffs his way through class discussions of famous works and authors, worrying that his students can see his ineptitude and dislike him for it. As a result, whenever he feels his authority is in jeopardy, Sedaris reasserts his status by crossing the room and opening or shutting the door, something only the teacher can do without permission.
The asthmatic student transfers, and the class size shrinks to only eight. They continue to make no progress with their writing. Hoping to inspire them with a creative assignment, Sedaris instructs them to write a letter to their mother, who they should imagine is in prison (the crime and sentence duration are left up to the students to determine). The assignment seems well received at first, until a student quietly approaches Sedaris and informs him that this assignment depresses her since her uncle and father are actually serving time for racketeering. This is the last time he ever asks his students to write during class.
Since the students now do all their writing at home, Sedaris passes class time with regular discussion periods. Each class begins with an activity he calls “Celebrity Corner,” where everyone exchanges celebrity gossip. This is followed by “Feedbag Forum,” which is for sharing one-pot recipes (Sedaris pretends that the “pacing” of the recipes is what interests him and does not mention his recent Crock-Pot purchase). Finally, there is “Pillow Talk,” during which the class is encouraged to talk about their private sex lives in a safe space. When students seem reluctant to do so, Sedaris brings in a television and has the class watch soap operas.
There are eventually some complaints regarding Sedaris’s use of class time, so he accompanies the television sessions with a homework assignment in which the students must write their predictions about what will happen in the next episode. While he thought this was a clever assignment, Sedaris is disappointed by the predictions turned in by his students, which show that they are taking neither the assignment nor...
(The entire section is 870 words.)