Monday, August 17, 2015

Teaching While Writing

Teaching writing can improve your craft, but steal your time.

I love teaching. It is one of the two things I enjoy most, almost even with writing. Teaching about writing? That's as close to an ideal job as I can imagine.

Unfortunately, the reality of teaching writing at a college or university isn't always the ideal.

Helping others write well, helps you write better. That is why teaching writing can be an important second or primary career for writers. However, the teaching assignments and class sizes can quickly offset any benefits to mentoring emerging writers.

Many of us with advanced degrees in writing dream of teaching our creative passions. Those with advanced degrees in literature and similar fields also wish to teach and share their personal areas of interest. A third set of scholars, focused on composition and rhetoric, are dedicated to teaching what can best be described as the norms of academia.

If you are passionate about literature, discussing the great works seldom feels like drudgery. My own experiences teaching literature-based courses were wonderful. To be a good writer, you need to be an active reader. An active reader analyzes the rhetorical choices of other authors. Therefore, teaching literature can remind a creative writer of the limitless choices all writers have.

Teaching creative writing, which should include some reading assignments, allows a writer to explore the craft with passionate emerging writers. Even students not considering careers in writing seem to enjoy discovering their own authorial voices.

If you get the rare chance to teach a small creative writing class, nothing is more rewarding or more conducive to your own creative writing. As students develop their own works, I would find myself working in parallel and discussing my own struggles with the students. I learned as much from my writing students as I hope I might have taught them. Our shared passions converted the writing class into a writers' group; this was precisely my dream when I pursued teaching.

I have only had the opportunity to teach a handful of creative writing classes and seminars.

The reality is… most of us end up teaching composition. Also known as first-year writing, college writing, and academic argumentation, this is that course in which students prepare three or four "academic" formulaic papers adhering to Modern Language Association (MLA) formatting and style guidelines. Occasionally, APA formatting and style are also taught. Although most of us appreciate the need to master these templates for success in other courses, academic writing is rarely the passion of those teaching it.

My doctorate degree is in rhetoric, and though the program emphasized scientific and technical communication, I was able to explore my interest in creative writing. Likewise, my Masters degree is in English composition theory and rhetoric. The immediate assumption is that I am interested in and passionate about academic writing. As stated above, I appreciate academic writing, though I also routinely mock its pretentious and inflated style.

Do not assume that completing a Master of fine arts degree in writing leads to different teaching assignments. In fact, every MFA I know personally predominately teaches college composition. One reason I obtained the PhD is that some universities prefer the PhD for teaching upper division and graduate courses in writing.

Allow me to explain why teaching FYC, college composition, can be an obstacle to pursuing creative writing.

Composition courses are often non-tenure-track, lecturer, and adjunct teaching posts. While our colleagues in literature might teach two or three courses a semester, many composition instructors teach three, four, or even five sections per semester. Because composition is a general education requirement, sections often include 25 to 35 students. Pause to consider the time required to provide feedback to 100 or more students. I found myself spending from 15 to 25 minutes per paper, attempting to provide guidance in place of mere corrections. That time grading and mentoring exceeds 40 to 50 hours per assignment.

Exactly when can a writing instructor write? During the summers? During winter breaks? During those hours at night when most humans sleep? My colleagues and I at various universities often commiserate that there is no time for our creative pursuits. The writing we must do, especially if we want to obtain tenure, is generally academic. Poetry, novels, and screenplays are set aside because they must be.

There is the adjunct path, which requires accepting part-time work, without benefits, to leave time for writing. That’s the path I have opted to follow twice, and might be a choice I make in the future. Full-time writing professorships provided income and security at the cost of time for… creative writing. 

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