Welcome to the Front of the Class: Setting Priorities as an MFA Student Tasked to Teach
Author: Kit Frick
As I sit down to write this article, I am in the process of moving from Central NY, where I’ve just completed my MFA at Syracuse University, back to my pre-MFA home of Brooklyn. Caught between beginnings and ends right now, it seems like a good time to reflect on the past three years—not just on the workshops and parties and piles of books and the afternoons spent on porches debating poetry picks for Salt Hill, but also on the hours spent in front of a class and the (many) hours spent preparing for those interactions with undergraduate students of writing and literature. My funding package at Syracuse included an annual stipend and full tuition remission (i.e. free classes) in return for three years of serving as a TA in the University’s Writing Program (i.e. composition) and English Department. Before coming to Syracuse, I had a good deal of experience working with college students as an administrator and advisor in an academic department, however, save for a rather disastrous run one college summer as a teacher at a summer program for over-privileged middle schoolers, I had no prior teaching experience. I don’t know exactly what I expected going into my first year as a TA, but I did imagine a relationship developing between my work as a teacher and my work as a graduate student. That didn’t immediately happen for me, and I’m going to explore here a few of the factors that contributed to that experience. If you’re reading this, you may also be about to embark on your own teaching stint during an MFA program. As incoming MFA’ers, we’re likely to have spent time thinking about our expectations for ourselves as writers during the next 2 or 3 years. It’s less likely that we’ll have thought much about what we wish to gain from the teaching. I hope that reading about my experience will help you to set and gauge some of your own expectations for your TAship.
When I arrived in Syracuse in August 2009, I was immediately immersed in a two-week-long orientation for new TAs in the Writing Program. I quickly realized that I was one of only two first-year MFA students tasked to teach; everyone else was on fellowship in their first year and wouldn’t begin teaching until the following fall. I was of course jealous. But I was also excited to be there and to get the ball rolling on this whole MFA thing, so I entered my first day of orientation with enthusiasm. By lunch, I was thoroughly overwhelmed and practically paralyzed with fear. As an undergraduate, I attended a small liberal arts college with a “writing across the curriculum” program, hence had never taken a college composition course. I realized, listening to the full-time Writing Program faculty and the experienced, returning TAs talk, that I had no idea what a composition class was supposed to be like. And now I was supposed to teach one? I had learned to write academic papers the old fashioned way—we read a ton of articles by published, world-class scholars in our literature and psychology and history classes, and then we budding minds of tomorrow tried to write like the greats. We failed a lot, and then we got better. Wasn’t that what college was all about?
Here, academic writing was taught as its own field—a concept foreign to me—and like any academic specialty, it came with its own theories, practices, methodologies, and something called heuristics. We learned terms like “evolving thesis” and “notice-and-focus;” we practiced reading and grading sample student papers; we discussed desired outcomes for our soon-to-be students; and we designed model heuristics, a teaching tool that stimulates the brain to experiment and evaluate—better known in the high school classroom as an in-class activity. For two intensive weeks, I struggled to wrap my head around what exactly we were supposed to be teaching these incoming freshmen about writing academic papers. My peers in orientation—those graduate students of Composition and Rhetoric and of Literature—seemed comfortable and confident. I was the freak from the hippie school who had to look up terms like “ethos,” “pathos,” and “logos” before she could teach them. When the first day of the semester rolled around, I still had no clue how to teach college writing as its own discipline. We had spent two weeks discussing what we wanted our students to learn. But I had no idea how to get them to learn those skills when removed from the context of a literature class or other academic subject. I was teaching a subject that had no direct relationship to my graduate coursework, and unfortunately it was also a subject that I had no background in myself.
Teaching the freshman-level academic writing course was a daily struggle for me. We were TAs in name only—we were each the primary instructor for our own class, and in my case, I was woefully unfamiliar with the course material. It did not get easier as the semester went along, I became critical of the curriculum as I came to understand how far this approach to academic writing veered from my own experience, and I grew increasingly resentful of the hours and hours I would pour into planning for each class—not because I was necessarily striving for pedagogical excellence, but because I had to learn the material myself before I could figure out a passable way to convey it to my students. Don’t get me wrong—it may in fact be the case that the “academic-writing-as-its-own-field” approach can be more effective than the “writing across the curriculum” method through which I learned college-level writing. Clearly, however, I was not prepared to teach this approach. While I struggled, some of my fellow TAs were loving it. My peers—those not in the MFA program—were students of Literature or Composition and Rhetoric, and they were finding direct ways to tie their own graduate coursework into the teaching material. For the Comp. and Rhet. students, this was a no-brainer—they were teaching the intro-level class directly in their field. Literature student interested in ideas of public and private space in the urban novel? Design an inquiry on public space in Syracuse for your academic writing course. As a poet, I was at a loss. In addition, I realized that I was probably the only one in the room at our weekly pedagogy meetings that hadn’t taken a freshman comp. course themselves. My peers knew the rules. This was easier for them.
By second semester, things got a little better. I was still teaching in the Writing Program, but this time I was teaching the sophomore-level course on academic research. I could bring in more of my own course material—occasionally something that actually related to my own interests as writer—and I got to teach lessons on research skills and practices, which I found to be far more concrete and familiar than the ever-ambiguous terminology of rhetoric. I continued to over-prepare for my classes, and my writing suffered, and my new relationships with the other MFA’ers—blissfully enjoying their fellowship year—suffered as well. I still resented the teaching, but I began to feel better about it. Now that I was teaching something that I had a handle on myself, I was OK in the classroom. My confidence increased, and I actually started to enjoy teaching, just a little bit.
In the second year of the program, things took a dramatic turn for the better. Perhaps taking pity on me, the faculty found a way to remove me from the Writing Program, where I would have otherwise taught for a second year, and to place me instead as the TA for a poetry survey course taught by faculty in the MFA program. Things started to click. Here, I actually got to observe a faculty member teach. I learned a few things about the hows of teaching in addition to the whats. I helped lead discussion, I bantered with the professor in front of the class, I fielded student questions, I graded their poem analysis papers, and I met with them in office hours. Suddenly I was involved in the teaching of something I loved. Poetry. That’s why I was here anyway, right? When a student liked a particular poem, I could point them to more work by that poet or to other poets they might respond to. I could intelligently address their ideas. I had something to offer. Even better, as a TA instead of the primary instructor, I had breathing room outside of class. No endless hours obsessively planning for the next gig. My writing got better. (I actually had time to write.) I had time for friends. I could actually like this teaching thing.
By my third year, I was back in the classroom as the primary course instructor, but mercifully still within the English department, teaching a literature course connected with the contemporary author reading series on campus. We read six or seven books of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction each semester. One week, we’d meet to discuss the book. The next, I’d take the class to a reading and Q&A session with the author. I loved it. I brought ideas from my own work as an MFA student into the classroom. I experimented. Because I was comfortable with the material, I stopped over-preparing. I saw students who had never picked up a book for pleasure become eager to discuss the texts and read more. By my third year in the MFA program, there was almost no relationship between my teacher-self in the freshman comp. classroom and my teacher-self leading successful discussions about literature, enjoying my students, finding a balance, enjoying the work.
Your experience teaching as an MFA student is bound to be different from my own. Some programs will only allow you to teach comp., but maybe you took academic writing classes in college. Maybe you’ll know what you’re doing. Other programs actually allow you to teach workshops, and I bet you’ll love it if you get the chance. I wish that I had gotten to do that. Maybe you’ll have a mix of fellowship semesters and teaching semesters, and if you do, the one thing that I heard over and over from my classmates in that situation was that they squandered their fellowship time, and had they known how time-intensive teaching would be, they would have spent more time writing and less time hanging out in their first year. Do with that advice what you will. The best guidance I can give you is to spend time before you start teaching and early into your first teaching semester setting some expectations and priorities for yourself. If you’re teaching out of your field, do you see any avenues for tying your writing and coursework into your teaching? If not, what can you bring to your teaching that will both help develop your confidence and offer something unique to your students? Try to spend as little time preparing lesson plans as you possibly can without making a fool out of yourself the next day. I wish I’d been able to do that sooner. Rely on your fellow TAs whenever you can. Make time to write. My husband, also a graduate student, always says, “Whatever you do, don’t take teaching too seriously.” In retrospect, that seems like the way to be, but that’s advice I was only able to follow once I was actually teaching something I knew. Know that your experience will not be my experience, but set your priorities so that you get something out of your time teaching. Once you feel confident that you have something of value to offer your students, you might actually enjoy yourself.
Kit Frick received her MFA from Syracuse University. Her poems have recently or will soon appear in places like PANK, Conduit, DIAGRAM, cream city review, and H_NGM_N. A 2012 “Discovery” / Boston Review semi-finalist and Best New Poets 2012 nominee, Kit is an Associate Editor for Black Lawrence Press, where she edits the small press newsletter Sapling. You can find Kit online at www.kitfrick.com.