Posts Tagged ‘students’

Why We Teach

In this era of COVID-19, it can be easy to lose track of the big picture and get caught up in all the details. I was reminded of this the other day, when a former student, who I hadn’t heard from in a decade, posted a comment and tagged me in Facebook. She mentioned something I had said (yes, it was a compliment, not a complaint). We commented a little back and forth, and another student chimed in, mentioning another class.

What this reminded me of is something I have always felt. We teach, not for the class or the test or the essays students write, but for the future. I care more about what a student will take from my class four, five, even ten years later, though more times than not, this is something I never know. It’s rare to see a comment like this or to run into a student and have them tell you in person. And that is how it should be (though it’s incredibly rewarding when you do hear from students).

Education is not about immediate or even tangible results. Of course, we give tests and papers, and we want to push students to excel and we want those tangible results. But the bigger point is what happens later. It’s great to see our students succeed after they graduate, and it’s great to find out that something we said or taught mattered. I try to remember that students who struggle in a class, who may earn a B or C or even lower, may still be the ones who get the most out of it. They may not be able to show ‘mastery of the material’ during that semester, but if something sticks with them, then the seed is planted and they will benefit in some way, someday, maybe in unexpected ways.

It’s hard to remember this when we’re all struggling to keep up and to stay connected with students who are suddenly being taught at a distance. Our struggle to keep teaching and our attempts to be fair and yet to be as rigorous as possilbe will be a big part of what makes an impact. The most important lessons taught in a class are often tangential to the material that is covered. The greatest lesson can often be given just by caring enough about every student, meeting them where they are, and helping them improve. In the end, it’s not about the grades and it’s not about the degree; it’s about that human interaction, communication, and faith in each other.

What can (should) a Creative Writing MFA do for you?

As many people will tell you, you don’t need an MFA to be a good writer. Many writers, even since the MFA became ubiquitous, have proven that point (not to mention the greats that somehow managed it before MFAs existed). So why bother (or pay for) getting a degree?

The traditional wisdom used to be that since the MFA is a terminal degree, if you had one, it meant you could always teach at the college level. But that hasn’t been a given for quite awhile. For one reason, the reality always has been that to teach you needed an MFA and significant publications to be considered for a teaching gig. And AWP continues to maintain that significant publication ought to be considered the equivalent of an MFA (though I don’t know that I buy that argument entirely—there is something about learning about academic discourse and research that happens in an MFA or PhD program that you don’t get from writing on your own—but that’s a discussion for another time).

So if an MFA in writing isn’t necessary to be a writer and may not be a guarantee of becoming one (no MFA program I know of is brash enough to claim that it will be), what does a writer gain from entering a program besides 3 letters after her or his name? That’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot as I read applications from prospective students for our new low-residency MFA program: not only “what can they expect,” but also “what do we owe them.” I’ve seen some very good writing samples in recent weeks, some of which could be published as is. What might they gain from our program?

Breadth

One way to think about the value of a creative writing degree is in terms of breadth. We all do some things well, but exposure to other writers, both the writers teaching in the program and the other student writers, can present you with new possibilities you might not have considered before. Responding to other writers whose style differs from yours can push you to think differently about your own writing, not necessarily to adopt the other writer’s style, but to try something in that direction.

And of course the readings in forms and literature classes can also expose writers to new possibilities that might extend the range of writing you do, whether that is new subject matter or a new genre — in our program we encourage students to work in more than one genre and students will be exposed to other genres in the mixed-genre residency workshops. So a students sense of the range of possibilities open to them ought to be broadened by the time they’re done.

Depth

Besides learning about more kinds of writing, an MFA program should help you become more intentional and thoughtful about the kind of writing you are most familiar with. Someone with good instincts still becomes a better writer the more he or she is conscious of the craft decisions to be made. Discussions in workshops and reading in forms classes should complicate and clarify our understanding of forms we work in. The goal is to dig deeper and get more out of the story or poem idea that might be ‘good enough’ to be published, but could be better or more rewarding (for the reader and for the writer). Ultimately, the experience of writing a thesis will present the student with the opportunity to explore a subject extensively, both in the creative writing portion and the research component. A thesis involves a defense, and the the creative thesis should still involve a reading list of other creative work in the same vein, as well as theory about the genre or genres represented in the thesis. Defending the thesis based on the tradition out of which it emerges requires a deep understanding.

Either of these qualities (breadth or depth) are ones you could learn on your own through extensive reading or by cultivating a writing community that challenges you to push further and explore more options. But it can be hard to find that community or to broaden your reading habits on your own. An academic program should have these features (extensive reading and a diverse community) built in.

Practical Knowledge

Another thing that most MFA students hope to get out of their experience (and that therefore ought to be provided as much as possible) is an entry into the writing life: specifically, networking and advice on how to become published. Though no program should promise publication — much depends on the talent and drive of the writer, after all — any MFA should be conscientious about providing its students with the information and tools they need to be successful writers, and these tools include advice and information on the publishing industry. Recently the argument has been made that no one can know what will happen to publishing in the near future. Changes in the industry are happening at a rapid pace: the publishing houses that have been dominant may or may not survive and the way that they do business may change radically. Still that is no reason to throw up our hands and say we can’t prepare students for the future.

When I was in graduate school, I would have laughed if someone had told me I would someday be teaching online. In fact, at that point, the world wide web as we know it did not yet exist. AOL was starting, there was Gopher and ftp, but html was only beginning to catch on. And yet, the graduate education that I received allowed me to adapt to a changing instructional environment, and in a similar way, the skills that we teach our students now about the publishing world as we know it today, will help them navigate the publishing world of tomorrow. And as we bring in speakers to talk about the current state of publishing, or as we help students and former students begin to get their feet in those doors, we will also learn more about how things are changing. I may not be able to predict what the world will be like in five to ten years, but I can give students the skills and the confidence to  be able to navigate those changes successfully.

Besides practical knowledge of the publishing world, though, students in an MFA program should gain practical knowledge of other writing-related careers, whether that is within publishing as publicists, agents, editors, etc. or in other fields such as technical writing, public relations, writing for the web, etc. These forms of writing shouldn’t be presented as a fall0back position in case you fail to ‘make it’ in the literary world, but rather as ways to combine literary writing with earning a living. We hope to accomplish this through internships, courses on new media, and seminars during full residencies that focus on publishing and other writing-related careers.

An MFA program, in other words, may not be able to guarantee a teaching career or a career as best-selling writer to all of its students (when was that ever the case?), but it should see one of its responsibilities to its students as giving them the knowledge and skills they will need to earn a living, as well as the knowledge of craft they will need to produce great literature. Too often these are presented as an either/or option, when in fact students and programs should demand both.