So it has been a year since I started teaching creative writing at the college level, and here are my top ten surprises:
- It is possible to wend one’s way through fourteen years of schooling without learning how to use commas, apostrophes, quotation marks, or indentation. Likewise, it is possible to have gone through all of that education without having ever absorbed what text looks like on a page.
- Too many students will robotically do exactly and only what you tell them for acts that should be creative, but they will be recklessly creative in anything that actually requires adherence to rules.
- Many, many students are surprisingly computer illiterate. Their competency is in communication gadgetry, not software like an operating system or word processor or spreadsheet. The ribbon atop Word’s interface may as well be the panel of a nuclear reactor to some of them. They are oddly frightened to try things to see how they work.
- Most classes break down into eerily consistent student archetypes: the pothead, the indignant future school teacher, the surfer dude, the athlete, the surprisingly-attuned sorority girl, the preternaturally brilliant eastern bloc refugee, the nerdy reclusive gamer guy, the quietly talented former Douglas Anderson student, and so on.
- Using a Best Fiction of the Year anthology to teach beginning writers is like taking new artists to the Louvre and saying, “Make me some of those.” The stories are dull and inaccessible to most students, and they show subtlety of technique that isn’t discernible until a writer can, you know, get through a beginning, middle, and end.
- PowerPoint is the worst possible teaching tool since the flog, reducing engagement and complexity for students and instructor.
- The work required outside the classroom is exponentially proportional to the amount of time you’re in it, and snotty conservatives who think educators are skating down Easy Street need to be forced to outline a three-hour lecture. Here’s a hint: we don’t just steal them from the Bible like you do with sermons.
- Geeky kids who like Star Wars and Neil Gaiman and the Hunger Games seem to be FAR more engaged and with-it than ones who aren’t.
- Despite decades of people telling me that I have the manner and personality of a perfect teacher, I’m actually a lousy one: I lecture too much and have a hard time figuring out what would be hard for students to understand about fiction. I’m also terrible at explaining grammar. “Just do it correctly as God intended” is pretty much the limit of my ability on that score.
- Reading a large number of student manuscripts unquestionably undermines my own fiction writing, both in terms of time and quality.
And the top, top surprise of all? There are parts of it I enjoy, and I’ll be doing it again in the Fall.
Once I achieve some of my financial goals with the supplemental teaching money, I’ll have to decide what I’ll do: keep my course load, lower my course load, or stop teaching altogether. My course materials and syllabus are stabilizing, so perhaps it will soon be possible to better integrate teaching and writing into my schedule at the same time. But if it isn’t, I know which one has to go.
For a huge stretch of my life, perhaps from the ninth grade until I was thirty-five or so, I wanted to be a college professor. I worried that I’d be better at that than writing, even, and I wondered if I’d have some moral responsibility to pursue my better destiny. The good news is that I’m a better writer than I am a teacher, and I’m relieved I didn’t force myself into an academic life.
And I think that makes me a better teacher than I might have been.