MONTPELIER, VERMONT — It can be a bit trite when we hear instructors say they love to teach because they learn so much from their students. If you’re learning from us, we students can say, why are we paying you? But as someone who has also been an instructor, I know this can be true should the instructor permit it to happen. And it can lead to a greater educational experience for teacher and student.
A Master of Fine Arts degree is, in the field of creative writing instruction, what is known as a “terminal degree”; in other words, it is a credential that certifies you to teach at the university level. It is hardly all that is needed, of course; many students here in the MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts would love to be university instructors someday, and our instructors are quick to point out that you also need teaching experience and extensive publishing credits before that dream can possibly be fulfilled.
But it was no surprise that a graduating student lecture here on teaching writing, followed by a faculty discussion on the topic, was well attended, despite the fact that we had to be in our seats at 9:15 am on New Year’s Day morning. I won’t speculate as to how many of those attending the lecture were a wee bit hungover.
The volume of information conveyed over that two-hour period is too extensive to include here, but a recurring theme related to instructor-student interaction was concern among attendees–many of whom are teaching writing in various capacities outside of a university setting–that they won’t have all of the answers. I have certainly harbored that concern.
One of our VCFA instructors–I will not include his name here because his comment was made in the intimacy of a classroom discussion–shared how insecure he was when he began teaching many years ago. He would qualify his statements, he said, always suggesting that he might not have all of the answers, driven in part by his dislike of pompous instructors who seemed to believe they knew everything. “My mistake was to bring my insecurities into the classroom,” he said. “The key was to find the right balance between arrogant asshole and apologetic weenie.” Let me say, as someone who has experienced his pedagogical style, he has found that balance.
One thing that struck me was another instructor saying how she gravitates toward teaching classes where the students were hungry to learn, as opposed to attending because of a requirement. The graduating student lecture had focused on teaching English Composition to college freshmen; at many schools such a course is a first-semester requirement for many or all students.
I found myself reflecting on my own experience as a teacher. In every setting in which I have taught, I realized, it has been to adults who had chosen to be there, often at significant expense and/or inconvenience. An enthusiastic and worldly collection of students makes teaching easy and inspiring. It makes it easy to learn from the students, if I can return to the observation at the opening of this post. I understand why that instructor would choose such courses, but I found myself wondering how I might handle that freshman composition class, facing a collection of faces bearing the resentment of lost time they’d prefer to spend in other ways.
I know many readers of The Artist’s Road are teachers in various ways, from universities to individual instruction, and of course all of us have been students. I’d welcome your thoughts on this interconnection between instructor and student.
ADDENDUM: I’ve added a follow-up MFA Nugget post to this one; it provides some news about my own teaching.