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Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

As I looked over my class roster for my summer Intro to Fiction course, I noted two things.

First, ten of the twelve students were male.

Second, seven of those twelve students were seniors, and thus at most three years younger than me.

I was not intimidated.

I was a bit intimidated to face a classroom one third full of grown men.

Now, I am not all that good at judging ages, I’ll admit. But I’m fairly certain that four of these guys are my age or older. (Two I am definitely certain.) And while I don’t tend to have anxiety about maintaining authority in the classroom, I am nonetheless aware that I am a somewhat diminutive female with a dorky sense of humor. (Cool doesn’t work. I’ve tried it. Embrace the dorkiness, that’s what teaching’s taught me.)

I mentally evaluated my opening statements. Those precious ten minutes you have to grab the attention, interest, and enthusiasm of a new class.

They were not geared towards these guys.

I did something I never had before. I put myself forward as a student among students. I acknowledged that yes, I am choosing the material and giving the grades; but I am not a Writing Goddess. I am, myself, a student of writing, and am here to learn with them more than dispense wisdom from on high.

(I don’t remember exactly how I said this, although I do remember I did say I wasn’t a Writing Goddess. Really. Dorky sense of humor.)

And you know what? Tonight went really well. I’m a bit concerned about filling three hours twice a week, but these guys talk, and they respond and build off of each other. And those who didn’t talk were still mentally checked in, which is enough to make me happy, for now.

Going to be thinking a lot about authority in the classroom (particularly the writing classroom) and what it looks like this session. Sometimes I perform weird verbal double-takes, folding my sentences back on themselves as I realize that as the teacher, when I contradict something someone’s said, it carries a LOT of weight, a heft that I didn’t anticipate. Even in a room of guys my age. Like when someone disagrees with something Flannery O’Connor said, and I say that I think they’ve misinterpreted her, and then say something else to reassure them they don’t have to hold Flannery O’Connor in the same high esteem as I do and that they can think she’s wrong if they want to … I wonder what that’s like from the student side of things, if it’s as obvious on the other side of the words what awkward acrobatics are going on.

Either way, though, I am looking forward to this session.

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One of my students just wrote in his essay evaluation that he didn’t include quotes from the text he was writing about because he didn’t want it to seem like he was “arguing with a deceased person.”

I could go on about how we’ve discussed writing as an opportunity for “conversations” with a text/author many times in this class … but the fact he said this is pretty funny in itself, course context aside.

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Teaching Notes from Siberia

The class climate survey (called OMETs here at Pitt) just arrived in my inbox today. I admit I was pretty nervous to read these, but I am pretty pleased with the results, including some of the feedback about improvements my students gave me. (These things really DO help me as a teacher.) And the positive feedback was encouraging.

As always seems to happen when I teach, many more people expected an A than got one. I’m not quite sure why this happens. Maybe I’m too happy? But none of them emailed to complain, so …

What helps me most is spotting patterns. There will always be students who say, “Less reading please” (not gonna happen), or who come up with a comment out of nowhere. But when several thoughtful students address more or less the same thing, then it tells me it’s something I should think about.

For example, in this course there were a lot of in-class writing exercises. They weren’t graded. You handed them in, I checked them off, and gave them back. Occasionally I would scribble something in the margins, but I didn’t scrutinize it too intensely, because I didn’t want my students to feel that I was evaluating them via these assignments.

However, on the survey, many students wrote that they wished I’d given them more feedback on those exercises.

They also wanted to write and workshop more than one short story, which I would have loved to do as well–but it wasn’t really possible in a summer course. That’s another thing I have to take into account when reading these comments: some very legitimate issues are brought up that are, I think, inherent to a six week class.

My favorite complaints:

“Refrain from having [the class] in a room the temperature of Siberia.”

“Put us in a warm classroom!”

And finally: “Maybe just that she’s young? IDK. That’s the best I could come up with.”

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Lit Mag Adoption

How cool is this?

One of the few litmags I can afford to subscribe to is One Story. This afternoon I found an email from them in my inbox announcing this program.

I wish this had been in place last year so I could’ve signed up for my summer course … although I suppose six weeks isn’t long enough to really take advantage of it. I won’t be teaching creative writing again until my third year, so I’ll have to remember it then.

I think it’s great to put undergraduates into contact with literary journals; I remember Dr. Mark O’Connor assigning presentations so that his students had to research what was out there. (He also made submitting a story to one of them part of our final assignment, which I think was wonderful.)

I will admit getting free desk copies as the teacher is also an incentive.

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I am a bad blogger.

Granted, I can use the but-I’m-teaching-a-summer-course excuse, and that is a good reason to have huge gaps on your blog. But I am also a horrible procrastinator, so when I’m online I spend my time reading design*sponge and watching “Lost in Austen” on Netflix. (I thought the concept for this miniseries had the potential to be fun: a modern day Jane Austen fan switches places with Elizabeth Bennet, thus causing havoc in the world of Pride and Prejudice. But I stopped watching it about an hour in because I didn’t like it.)

Perhaps the habit of blogging isn’t so important, but I believe I need to cultivate more habits of discipline in my life. I’ve heard and read many times–mostly in spiritual contexts–that discipline is liberating. The more I live with myself as an adult, the more this makes sense. Like how I tell my students, now and again, that rules are what allow creativity and originality to blossom.

I tell them things like that, usually because something I’ve said (or they’ve said) sets me off on a ramble on one of my pet subjects. I used to worry about these diversions, but not any more. I think one of the most basic truths about teaching is that you have to be yourself; and this is doubly true of teaching writing. Even if that means going off on the occasional tangent or simply being a little weird. (I have also reached the point where I simply don’t get embarrassed in class. Ever. I need to learn how to do that as a student.)

Today was my fourth 3-hour-long class (of twelve). I am surprised, every day, at how quickly these three hours pass. At the fact that they are full, and that hardly anyone ever looks like they’re about to fall asleep. To a large extent this is because I’ve been blessed with good students; they have a lot to say, they are perceptive readers, and they are serious about writing. Thank goodness.

I told them on the first day that while I would try for variety, I was only going to teach from stories that I loved. That is all I can do, really: share with them from my store of treasures that nourish me as a writer, and hope it also speaks to them. I can usually judge who connects with what by their faces, by their level of participation–and no, not everyone loves what I do. That is okay.

We have talked about dialogue, characterization, point of view. Today the topic was Plot, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that eyes wandered to windows and empty corners of the classroom. Now and then I would catch one of those deep, involuntary sighs coming from a desk outside my range of vision. Time still passed quickly enough; but I set all of us free early. Plot is not my favorite subject. I don’t know how to talk about it. So I borrowed words that didn’t move me, words that I didn’t care too much about when I was an undergrad. Maybe I could have found some excitement in Plot; maybe I would have tried harder if I knew my own lack of enthusiasm would affect the classroom so much. But part of the problem was that it was reciprocal:

I say words that aren’t mine because I don’t have many of my own to say;

I am faced with eyes that are glazed over or squinting skeptically;

I catch the same itch to get things over with as quickly and painlessly as possible, so I barrel on through.

Perhaps this situation falls under the first soundbite I stole for this class: 1 character (complete with personality, desire, etc etc) + situation (say, a classroom) = plot (things happen, which causes the character to act, which causes more things to happen).

The latter half of the class was devoted to structure, which does interest me; the way relationships other than strict cause-and-effect can be implied, the way a story changes when you fiddle with how it’s put together. But by then we’d been in class an hour and a half already and lost steam.

But I feel pretty good about the other three classes, and hopeful about the next (Setting and Detail).

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Well hello.

I am back from a nearly-two-week trip to San Francisco, which involved me doing many lovely things in the company of my boyfriend and his parents.

Things I did NOT do while California include:

-writing
-planning the summer course I’m teaching
-checking my school email

I will be doing an awful lot of these things in the next two weeks.

The course I’m teaching is Intermediate Fiction. This will definitely be a learning curve for me. I’ve never taught a Creative Writing course; in fact, this is my first time really putting a course together, since last semester I simply adjusted the syllabus the department gave me. The three hour stretch of class time twice a week is a little intimidating. So is the feeling that I am still a student of writing; am I really ready to teach it?

But it is also exciting. It will certainly be an adventure. And I suppose that teaching, like writing, is best learned by doing it, by seeing what works and experiencing what doesn’t.

So I will learn.

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Well, I am back, sort of. At any rate I have survived the end of the semester, with all its grading and being graded, and I am happy to say I am now living in a clean apartment.

In a week I’m heading to California for the rest of May, but in the meantime I am compiling summer’s lists. There is a list for writing, a list for teaching (I am preparing to teach a creative writing summer course June-August), and a list for reading.

The last could go on inexhaustibly, if my memory were better. It keeps getting longer as I remember things that should go on it, or discover other things.

At first I thought of this list as divided between Things I Want To Read, and Things I Should Read. But the reality is that I want to read most of the books on it, or they wouldn’t be there to begin with. So the categories end up looking more like this.

1. Things I Want To Read For Pure Enjoyment

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
The Sea Wolf (Jack London)
Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
A Countess Below Stairs (Eva Ibbotson)
Broken Vessels (Andre Dubus)
The Maze Runner (James Dashner)

2. Fiction I Want To Read To Benefit My Own Writing (but intend on enjoying thoroughly)

The Necessary Grace to Fall (Gina Ochsner)
The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
Winesburg Ohio (Sherwood Anderson … I should have read this ages ago)

3. Nonfiction That Has To Do With Writing and Literary Matters

Mystery and Manners (Flannery O’Connor)
Art and Scholasticism (Jacques Maritain)
A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway)
The StAR Review
AWP Chronicle (I never read this during the semester)

4. Spiritual Reading

Introduction to the Devout Life (Francis de Sales)
The Intellectual Life (Sertillanges)
Truth and Tolerance (Benedict XVI/Cardinal Ratzinger)
Waiting for God (Simone Weil)

That is, at least, a beginning.

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