The tension between life and education is not such a complicated one, except that I am both teacher and student right now, while also trying to engage in life. I’ve been a teacher long enough, and have spent enough energy trying to teach my students to look beyond the artificial confines of the academie’s ivory tower, that I’d forgotten a little bit about being a student. Many teachers are able to see emerging colleagues when they look at their students. I’m grateful for these teachers, and strive to be one. Others believe in rank and file, and have every right to do so: they’ve worked hard to earn their stripes. For those students who are deadline-driven, who are grade-driven, who have faith that doing well in a class is equivalent to doing well in life, these teachers work marvels. But this sort of hierarchy does not serve my learning.
Since entering grad school last August, all of my professors have been committed to student learning, and a few of them have taught us through trying personal times. The quality of instruction is fantastic. So this post is more of a sorting out of what kind of instruction works for me, not just as a student, but as a professional. It’s not to say one teacher is good while one is bad. I am really just trying to write through a problem I’ve been having: I am writing and reading like a student right now instead of like a writer. There is a difference.
My first semester I wrote like a writer. I had a regular writing schedule and I sat down and did my work. When a chapter was due for class, there was no rush; I had already completed it because writing was what I did anyway. The other assignments were more deadline-driven, but my work on my novel was just my work on my novel. A huge part of why I came back to school was to buy myself time to write and use these couple years to shift toward a more active writing career.
My second semester, I had a back-breaking reading load. Between two classes and an independent study, I was reading 600-900 pages a week. I am a slow reader. Molasses slow. I always have been. And, when I’m reading for class, I’m even slower because of the simultaneous analysis that’s whirring through my brain. I also had one class where hierarchy was important. This meant that my writing received more sculpting than facilitating. As a result, I found I had to tailor the work to the class rather than to the trajectory of the novel. I value the degree as well as the writing, so I was able to adjust my expectations and decide to be a full-fledged student: doing the work that school demanded even if it interfered with the work that my writing demanded. I knew it would be only a few months, and it stretched me in valuable ways.
Now, it is summer. And this is where life and the academie collide for me. Now that I am responsible for my own words once more, both written and read, I’m having a hard time without professor-imposed deadlines and a golden ring in the shape of an A to strive after. I am having a fantastic time with the freelance work: the class trained me well to write on assignment. But I have never been deadline-driven in my creative work, and it is just not coming together for me right now. Similarly, my mind is continuing to whir with analysis as I read. It sucks the joy out of reading. It’s not that I never analyze a book for personal use. It’s just that I usually put that energy only into the books that support what I’m trying to do with my own work. Right now every word of every text I pick up is under scrutiny. The critic is always on.
This is a lesson to me. In the fall, I will be teaching my own undergraduate creative writing classes. They are intro classes, so in many ways I will need to take the posture of the traditional teacher. But wherever I can, I will find ways to facilitate a professional environment for my students. I want them to walk away more capable of navigating their own work, not sorting out the pieces that resulted when life and school collided.
Photo credit: http://flic.kr/p/58VgJn