MFA Nugget: The Writing Teacher as Student

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.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

12 Responses to “MFA Nugget: The Writing Teacher as Student”

  1. Hi Patrick. The challenge of required courses is how do you reach and engage those less interested? Is there not a way to showcase the passion and interest you share in your subject? That draws in more people than one could believe. Some students, esp. in college, select courses based on the teachers… does that not suggest charisma could engage and interest many? Of course its easier to work with students who all want to be somewhere and choose a specific class, but I think required courses help a teacher to refine their own practices to be better for all of their subjects.

    • This is great insight, Carrie. As to teacher selection, I think sometimes they select the teacher they hear is easiest, particularly if they don’t want to have to take the course, but yes, I can see your own passion could become infectious, makes perfect sense. I love the thought of how teaching required courses helps you grow as a teacher. It’s like in this MFA program, where for my critical thesis and now for the lecture I’m developing, I chose not to take up subjects in which I was already very familiar but instead am exploring areas I don’t know well but am curious about.

  2. Interesting you should say that… all of the above… because I’m a self-taught working writer with no MFAs to back me up… and yet I have taught, substituted, designed my own courses and am designing another one as we speak (posters to go up around town any day now)… so let me say this about that: I don’t even begin to get my thoughts crystal clear on the subject of writing until I’m faced with explaining it to others. I always have a work-in-progress to which I refer, so that I, too, am struggling, exploring, and getting excited about what does and does not work. Writing well is such a mysterious process that I have to remain open to my principles being washed down the drain… I mean if a student is developing a compelling story while not obeying the rules… well, then… I`m certainly learning something. My course is called “Story Structure to Die for”. Wanna sign up? Unfortunately, you have to live here, on an isolated chunk of B.C.’s west coast.

  3. I teach the most reluctant writers on the planet: high school students. For my own sanity — and I believe it’s a sound long-term strategy, too — I think of my job as teaching a process rather than generating a product. Revisiting, revising, and rethinking are intensely painful for kids who just want to get the assignment done, as well as for those of us who are writers by choice. But learning to see writing as an exploration of our own minds and a challenge to our paradigms is a crucial step toward creating anything worth reading.

    • Thanks for this insight, Whitney. I can see this from another perspective, the parent of two high-school students. There are classes they look forward to, and many they dread having to take. As Carrie (ArtistThink) says above, sometimes a compelling teacher will cause one of my two kids to change their opinion of a class.

      I like what you say about teaching a process rather than generating a product. I can imagine the challenge is even more difficult with the large class sizes schools have today–our kids’ class sizes seem to get bigger every year.

  4. Corey Barenbrugge Reply January 3, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    I love Whitney’s insight, which I think is often overlooked. I read a book recently by the STL Cardinals’ psychologist who emphasizes with his players the need to separate process from product goals. The two are related (process is derivative of intended product), but when you’re performing, all that’s important is the next pitch (which leads to the next one and the next). If your process goals are clearly aligned with your product goals, it’s more likely you will succeed.

    I think that applies to teaching as well as to writing. In a class of inspired students who are going out of their way to learn what you have to teach, your process is to teach the lessons you’ve outlined while stoking the flames of enthusiasm by being flexible enough to allow them to explore according to what they want to learn. You’re guiding that process. Ultimately, you may guide them individually depending on their particular interests (and lesson planning will often build in room for students’ individual pursuits).

    I think (and this is just a hunch as I have very little teaching experience) with a class of students who possibly bring a more close-minded approach to the material, you have to be proactive in fostering individual guidance. Students will leave you little clues (or may be willing to talk to you directly) about what they’re interested in and you have to find a way to frame the course objectives in ways that they’ll find beneficial. This likely won’t work for every student or every class, I’d imagine, but it’s a start.

    • Corey, you say you have little teaching experience, but I love this:

      I think… with a class of students who possibly bring a more close-minded approach to the material, you have to be proactive in fostering individual guidance. Students will leave you little clues (or may be willing to talk to you directly) about what they’re interested in and you have to find a way to frame the course objectives in ways that they’ll find beneficial.

      I think you nailed it!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. MFA Nugget: An Entire Residency in One Tasty Bite | The Artist's Road - January 10, 2013

    […] Considering what type of student you’d like to teach. […]

  2. Teaching and Writing and Researching, Oh My… | A Daily Journal of my Comp/Rhet Dissertation - January 12, 2013

    […] MFA Nugget: The Writing Teacher as Student (artistsroad.wordpress.com) […]

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