2016, Archives, October 2016, The MFA Years

A Few Adjustments

Image: Molly Montgomery

Last week in my writing workshop, my fiction professor drew a triangle on a whiteboard, which she sectioned off into levels, to represent a pyramid. On the bottom level, she wrote: clarity, meaning and sense. On the next level up, she placed character, dialogue, and setting, then further up, point of view and voice. She explained each level in turn, topping off the pyramid with symbol and theme. Often, she told us, novice writers find their intended message for the story and write from the top down, but that’s not how good storytelling works. You need to construct the story from the bottom up, and let the complexity of symbolism and thematic motifs develop organically from the foundations of your language, your characters, and your plot. Perhaps this seems like an obvious statement, but for me, it was a new way of thinking about writing.

Writing has always been instinctive to me. In college, I took creative writing workshops and I thought about the craft of writing, but in those courses we never had time to explore in-depth the process of story creation. I spent the past two years working in education, while writing on the side in my spare time. When I wrote, it was usually for my own enjoyment. So it’s been a while since I thought critically about my own work. One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make in graduate school so far is re-discovering an academic mindset. I’ve realized that I don’t always have the vocabulary I need for discussing the elements of a short story and how they are connected, either because I forgot how to describe certain literary devices—such a imagery, motifs, metaphor, allegory (what’s the difference between allegory and a metaphor again?)—or because I never learned that vocabulary in the first place. I find that I often know how to use those words when analyzing a poem or a published novel, but I don’t know how to articulate exactly what I liked or disliked about one of my classmate’s short stories. Learning how to talk about writing and becoming self-aware of what I am doing (and not doing) in my stories are my first stepping stones to becoming a better writer.

The other big adjustment I’ve had to graduate school has been learning how to teach on the fly. I have a few years of experience teaching and tutoring small groups of students who were in elementary school or high school, but now I’m teaching college students and too boot, I have my own full class of 27 students.

My situation is abnormal here at UC Davis, so if you’re thinking of applying here, I don’t want to scare you away. My program guarantees full funding for the second year, in which you work as a teaching assistant for the English department. For the first year, you have to search for your own position as a teaching assistant. However, my program doesn’t just throw you to the wolves. The English department figures out how many teaching assistant positions they have left after giving all the ones out to the people with guaranteed funding, and then if there are spots left, they give them to us first-years. So, for two out of the three quarters of my first year (winter and spring), I was offered a position as a T.A. in the English department. For fall quarter, I applied to all the positions on campus that I felt I was qualified for that I could find. I knew as long as I secured a T.A. position in some department, I would receive a tuition remission and a monthly stipend. Luckily, I had a double major in English and French in college, and I’ve lived in France, so the French department agreed to hire me to teach French 1 for this quarter.

Most teaching assistants in the English Department or other departments on campus support a professor who runs a lecture course. They may hold discussion sections once a week, and they grade papers and exams, but they are not responsible for teaching all the material of the course to the class. The language departments, on the other hand, give their teaching assistants the responsibility of teaching the entire course. We are overseen by a faculty member who observes us and checks in with us on a regular basis, but we are the ones responsible for delivering the content of the course. It’s more time-consuming than most positions, since I teach a 50-minute class five days a week, instead of just once or twice a week.

I knew working for the French department would be a challenge when I signed up for it, but I embraced it as a learning experience. After so many years tutoring and not quite being a teacher, I was ready to make the leap from being the aide to being the person in charge of the classroom. Of course, I knew I would need to develop a whole new teaching skillset since a) I would be teaching college students and not children and b) I would be teaching entirely in a foreign language since the French courses offered at UC Davis are immersion courses.

Experienced teachers have often told me the first time teaching is really a sink-or-swim experience. In that case, I’m doing my best to tread water and to keep my head above the waves. I’m still not completely comfortable standing in front of the class and telling them what to do, and it still takes me at least an hour every day to prep for my hour-long lesson, but I’m improving, and through the act of teaching I’m learning what strengths I already have as a teacher and what things I need to work on.

Writing may start from the foundation-up, but teaching, as I’ve learned in the pedagogy class I’m taking, is all about scaffolding. As a teacher, I do have to keep the big picture in mind—the themes of the course, the overarching purpose. I figure out what my objectives are for the chapter and the lesson and fill in my lesson with activities that will help my students reach those goals. In construction, workers put up scaffolding to support a building as it rises, but then once the structure can stand on its own, they take it down. I am constantly lending a hand to students to try to pull them to the next level, until they realize they no longer need my help to balance on their own. But with language learning, at least at this stage, the teacher is never rendered entirely obsolete. I always have to be prepared for them to move up, laying the scaffolding for the next stage of their language development.

It’s a lot to think about, but I view it as a puzzle that needs to be solved. I love that aspect about teaching: problem-solving. When you can figure out what you’re doing wrong and fix it in a way that makes a concept clearer to students or helps them grasp whatever you’re trying to teach them, it’s incredibly gratifying. Writing can feel like that sometimes too, when you finally are able to convey that specific, fleeting image that’s been nagging you on the inside and which you can’t quite express. But those ephemeral moments of satisfaction are all too rare when it comes to writing, at least, in my experience. With teaching, it happens every day.

Still, I can’t forget the reason I’m here in first place is to write. And I’ve been doing a fair amount of that too. Between re-learning how to ride a bike so I can zip around our large campus, reading novels and criticism for my literature course on “Blues, Literature, and Black Feminism,” grabbing drinks with my cohort members who are quickly evolving from acquaintances to friends, planning lessons, teaching, sampling every café on campus and in the town of Davis, writing Yelp reviews, trying out new recipes, and occasionally wasting an entire evening arm-knitting and completely failing and then subsequently spending two hours trying to untangle the knots I’ve created, I do sit down and write.

I turned in my first short story to workshop this past week, which means this upcoming class everyone will have read it and will have comments for me. I’m as nervous (and proud) as a gap-toothed kid showing off the first baby tooth they lost at show-and-tell. “It was loose, and I wiggled it, and then my grandpa decided to tie a string around it and tie the other end on a doorknob and pull it out by slamming the door” I imagine them saying (that’s a true story). In much the same way, with a decent amount of pain and a not insignificant amount of blood, my short stories are often born. I’m eager to find out how the world receives them. I hope they’re worth the toothache.

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