A Tale of Teaching and Writing (in Parentheticals)

By on Monday, April 14th, 2014 at 9:45 am

Remember what you’re here for, my professors repeated during my two years enrolled in the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. Do not permit teaching responsibilities to interfere with writing, they would say. Their words echoed in my adjunct office, bouncing back and forth between concrete walls (there were no windows; it looked like a glorious prison cell). I felt as if I was hiding a shameful secret when I nodded along to their sage words. But here it is in print now: I felt as passionately about teaching as I did about writing, and on many occasions (please don’t tell them), I did let teaching trump writing; I was still learning the program’s requirements and the students’ abilities (or lack thereof) as well as my own (or lack thereof works here, too). I felt I was there for both (like the true rebel that I am).

As graduation approached, I heard various opinions regarding teaching and writing. Many graduate colleagues reported teaching was too time consuming and that a regular 9-5 job would actually be more productive. Others said the flexible (the ability to stretch oneself too thin) hours and less work in the summer (the act of scrounging for pay) could yield fruitful results. Personal blogs were written by alumni taking either side. Highered.com and The Chronicle of Higher Education posted articles about the boons and stresses of adjunct life. They circulated on my Facebook newsfeed so kindly shared by peers. (Was I supposed to be writing instead of updating statuses?) In print, and in internet print, the discussion continued. I did not contribute.

My first year after graduation, I failed to write as much poetry as I thought I would (should). I focused on balancing the new schedule of teaching more than two classes whilst acquainting myself with a new campus. I was now working at two campuses (don’t worry; eventually I will work at three). Adjusting to a new campus involved more than just finding the cafeteria or bathrooms (although that was clearly important). I had to learn a new curriculum, new procedures, the new student body. Time for lesson plans, letters of recommendation, department meetings, office hours, emails from students, stacks of student papers were taking up space on my floors, my inbox, my calendar. And let’s not forget the many hours that disappeared during my commutes between campuses.

Around midterms and finals, I wrote comma splice and be specific with fervor instead of working on my own syntax and specificity. I did not abandon poetry during this time; such a word seems far too dramatic, hostile (or does that sound as if I protest too much?). Sure, I wrote and edited and submitted work; I started writing book reviews and essays, too. Writing still stood proudly in my view (okay, maybe the rearview). Teaching once again often won out the battle for my time. At first, it felt nice to focus on something else, to not have to worry about course work and the literary canon. Yet, it did not take long for me to feel an itch (damn “feel an itch” is a cliché). It did not take long for me to feel the dull throb of a dehydration headache—my body’s subtle way of telling me to take care of myself. I missed workshop. I missed poetry conversations. I missed those annoying articles posted on my newsfeed (well, not quite that one).

Now, two years after my graduation, time and priorities have shifted. Because I have already mastered or more accurately improved (let’s not get ahead of ourselves here) the balancing act of teaching at a few institutions, I now prioritize my work. I have actually found that when I am busiest, I am most productive. (This happens with me at the gym, too. Is it spring break? I have plenty of time! Eats doughnut. Do I have work every day with wonderfully long commutes? Yes. I better squeeze in a trip). I now hear Remember what you’re here for and actually start applying it, instead of listening with downcast eyes.

Perhaps I needed time off from the pressure of “making it” post MFA. Perhaps I just needed the time to adjust to my new schedule. But to my great relief and surprise, the biggest change in this second year is my teaching. Yes, those pesky, much feared courses that were battling for time and attention (and okay often still do) were now helping to inspire and promote my own work. Teaching poetry and short stories forces me to read more poetry and short stories and to do so thoroughly. In addition, when I assign writing prompts, at times I get the chance in class to work on the prompts as students do. I have produced some horrible poems out of these and some promising ones. The key thing: I am producing, and not just sporadically (because a few paragraphs ago, I think I was playing up my productivity of last year).

This past fall, I taught a course titled Readings in Poetry. After reading Kim Addonizio’s poem “Fuck,” I asked the class to write their own poem with the same title, or one that lists what a poem should or shouldn’t do. They only had a few minutes in class to jot some lines down, but two of my students volunteered to read their poems aloud. They were stunning: smart, funny, and engaging. I went home and wrote my own version (and probably didn’t even write it as well as they did. Touché, Mary and Kadiann). It was this moment when my writing started to pick up. I needed to get excited about writing, instead of feeling as if I should be writing. It was my students who did this for me. Their excitement to have time to write in class, their surprise at reading lines that didn’t fit their preconceived notions of poetry, their smiles at my ill-conceived jokes all contributed to discovering that joy in reading and writing again. I thank them and am still in awe of them.

This semester, I am teaching an Intro to Creative Writing course. We just finished the poetry section. Almost all of the students began the course without an interest in poetry or even with a strong dislike of poetry. Helping to change their minds is one of my favorite things to do as an instructor. And watching their work grow is the reason why I am just as passionate about teaching as I am my own writing. I have countless examples of great work from this class. As Domingo began a piece about a serial killer with “His hands should be on display,” Zane wrote an evocative sex poem that was anything but overwrought (thus accomplishing something I still struggle with). Jess crafted a poem about potholes that doubled as a metaphor for domestic violence while Cassandra produced lines about her love for the WWE with humor and poignancy. Rob composed a four line poem that summed up the feelings of our country before the 2008 recession. The list goes on. I am half way through their portfolios now (wait, should I be grading?) and am truly inspired by their ideas, their lines, their images.

I also find it helpful to simply remind myself of writing adages (ones that I, of course, know, really I do, but that may slip in my editing process from time to time). When I stress to students that their work needs to surprise not just the readers but also themselves, I am really reminding myself of this, challenging myself in this. My students’ level of curiosity and honesty about the exploration of writing is something often forgotten. I find myself often thinking (obsessing) too easily about rejections, the pressure to not just produce but to produce something worthy of an expensive degree, worthy of the professors who helped shape me. This is all standard writer anxiety fun. Yet, I do not have to only look to the academy, the fancy publications, or the degree to quell it. The best moments can be found sitting in the back of an undergraduate class, watching students lead a workshop, hearing them comment on details all on their own, things I would have said before giving them the chance, (or even better, observations I would not have seen at all). My students, in their work and insight in classroom discussion, help foster a creative space not only for them but for me as well. They are the fodder for my work, not my hindrance.

This is my contribution (to be shared on a Facebook newsfeed)—a reminder to tell students and myself: Remember what you’re here for.

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