2015, Archives, October 2015, The MFA Years

Teaching, Or the Art of Performance (Or, Y’Know, That Thing You Do for Your Stipend)

Over the past few weeks, I wrote a comedic story about Edward Snowden that was rejected by McSweeney’s. My intramural soccer team made it to finals and if we win, we get T-shirts. A family friend visited town and we went on a 4-mile hike around Lake Lurleen. I semi-read Strangers on a Train (doing my discussion post about the final chapter means I read the whole thing, right?) and dreamt that my literature professor was an amateur magician (man, that fedora he was wearing? Really, really bad). I’ve grappled with issues entailed in writing the other and read Stanley Crouch’s brilliant essay “Segregated Fiction Blues” about the subject. I discovered that the Italian restaurant DePalma’s is perfectly meh despite the large crowds that gather outside on Friday and Saturday nights. I went to a reading by Sofia Samatar and heard an excerpt from her short story about a creepy, futuristic summer camp for girls. I tried to get a room full of sixth graders excited about poetry in spite of their complaints that it is “boring” and “too long.” I learned that the film named Miami Connection actually takes place in Orlando. I went to the West Alabama State Fair and had several bites of funnel cake but did not ride any of the spinning rides because then I would have thrown up.

I’ve been in Tuscaloosa for over two months now, and the honeymoon period is beginning to wear off. Not necessarily in a bad way—no relationship can sustain itself in the honeymoon period forever—but the thrall of newness is now balanced against the realities of everyday life. There are philosophical differences in workshop that must be navigated, too many books to read and not enough time, and a growing awareness of the smallness of Tuscaloosa, a knowledge that there is still much to be discovered but that it can’t compare to the infinite people and places and events that is Los Angeles. There is the desire for, if not instant gratification, then frequent gratification, publications and awards and accolades, the desire for reassurance when the hard moments kick in. And then there is the wish that the laundry would do itself, that the dirty dishes would be magically clean, that the bathroom sink wouldn’t need wiping down so often and that the trash would hobble its way out to the bin on the street on its own volition. These are feelings that I imagine are both specific to me and a function of graduate MFA programs in general.

But in this post, I’m going to focus mostly on one of the most omnipresent elements of the MFA program—teaching. The reason why so many MFA programs offer some degree of funding is because most of them also require their students to teach during their time at the program, a sort of quid pro quo if you will. I know that the application process is revving up now that it’s October, so one thing to think about as you distinguish programs from one another is what the teaching load is like. Are you required to teach? If so, how much? What classes? The whole time? And then think about your own personal attitudes toward teaching—do you like teaching? Do you imagine you would like teaching? Do you hate teaching? All of these are necessary considerations.

So here goes for the specifics at Alabama. During your first year, you are required to work 20 hours/week (except for the few folks who receive fellowships limiting their workload to 10 hours/week). Generally, this work is either broken down into a combination of working as a tutor in the writing center and working as a research assistant for a professor in the English department, or working as a teaching assistant for a large lecture English literature class. The sorting hat folks in the department (sorry, guys, sorry, no more Harry Potter references) decide what type of work we’ll be doing. After your first year, you will teach two classes each semester, starting with composition and potentially moving on to creative writing and literature classes, with of course some exceptions. MFA students may be relieved of their undergraduate teaching duties by taking on other work, such as teaching in the Alabama prison system, serving as one of the managing editors of the Black Warrior Review, and/or working as the Creative Writing Program Assistant, which involves helping to organize readings/visiting writers and the prospective students weekend.

Okay, a little background on me—before starting my MFA program, I worked as a teacher at a weird, alternative private middle and high school in Los Angeles (teaching English and history) and as a creative writing instructor for a non-profit organization. I did both of these things by, y’know, choice, so I had a bit of a leg up as far as teaching experience. I don’t think that the experience was necessary, but it has been helpful given that I was assigned as a teaching assistant for a large lecture class. I think the biggest impact is probably that I’m already a fast essay grader and a fast lesson planner, and I also have familiarity with being in front of a classroom.

So for specifics—my assignment for fall semester was as a teaching assistant for a large lecture early American literature class. This is, for the most part, pre-19th century writing (Native American oral histories, captivity narratives, explorers’ journals, etc.), with the class eventually touching on a few writers from the Romantic period such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman. The requirements as a teaching assistant include attending the lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays, completing the readings for the class (theoretically, more on this to come), leading the Friday discussion sections (two discussion sections of 25 students each), and grading the two essays that the students turn in.

The truth is that I’m by no means an expert in early American literature and that I haven’t actually done any of the readings this semester. However, by paying attention in the lecture and reading up a bit on the various authors online, I’ve managed to get by without any issues. For the Friday discussion sections, my go-to strategy is to break the students up into small groups (2-3 students each) and have them work on a brief assignment that they then share with everyone else for the last third of the discussion section. This works well on a number of levels: 1) they have an activity to do, which makes it harder for them to fall asleep or play on their cell phones, 2) my role is shifted from expert to facilitator, which makes my job much easier, and 3) they have to participate, which they are reluctant to do on a volunteer/hand-raising basis but actually relatively happy to do if forced.

The other main part of my job is grading the essays, which is challenging in its own way. Most of the students in the large lecture class are not English majors (or wannabe English majors) but rather students taking the class to get rid of a requirement. Their performance on the essays is often, hmm, mediocre at best, and it can be difficult to decipher what is the result of a lack of experience and what is caused by a lack of effort.

I think for me, the strangest thing about being a TA for a large lecture class is interacting with the undergraduate population. The MFA bubble is comfortable, familiar—bright, talented, creative individuals from around the country having dialogues about contemporary literature—and while there are some undergraduates who want to engage in learning in this way, there are many who don’t. Many have chosen to attend Alabama because they love football or because of the Greek scene on campus, and there is a strange homogeneity here that I can’t say I’ve necessarily encountered in the same way elsewhere. There is a certain value placed, for example, on looking and dressing the same. The sorority girls almost exclusively have blonde hair and wear large, faded pastel T-shirts, very short running shorts, and brand-new tennis shoes. In any case, I suppose part of teaching involves thinking about what my priorities are and how they relate to the priorities of my students, which I’m still trying to figure out.

Next time I’ll talk about what it’s like preparing to have a book published while in an MFA program (Glass Shatters, coming out from She Writes Press on April 12, 2016!) and my decision to go with a small, non-traditional publisher. In the meantime:

Currently Cooking: Coq au Vin

Currently Watching: Stoker (creepy Hitchcock-esque film from 2013, go watch!)

Currently Listening: Hauschka’s Ferndorf

Currently Reading: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen



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