Reflections from a Shiny New Creative Writing Teacher
I’m writing this in between grading my (first ever!) students’ second poems. I’ve been teaching for about a month.
One of the first things I learned about teaching: grading takes an ungodly amount of time. There are several steps, which include:
1. Excitedly read through first batch of student poems on the bus home from class.
2. Read poems at home.
3. Read poems aloud to roommate (also a teacher) to make sure you’re not missing something.
4. Write comments on poems in pencil.
5. Worry comments are too prescriptive.
6. Erase comments and try again.
7. Agonize about putting numbers on poems.
8. Briefly consider flaunting university guidelines and not grading poems.
9. Put numbers on poems.
10. Reread poems and compare grades.
11. Hope students read comments instead of just staring at their grades.
I’m hoping veteran teachers (read: teachers who’ve been at it longer than a month) can skip a few of these steps without losing sleep at night. I’m hoping I’ll stop losing sleep at night anyway. I’m hoping I’ll soon stop getting nauseous before every class.
I’m doing my best.
I was a nerd in high school. I came to every class prepared, participated, and did all the extra credit assignments. I was voted “teacher’s pet” in the yearbook and was proud of it. I looked down on the students who didn’t care. This trend continued through college.
Now, twice a week I stand in front of fifteen undergrads, talk about Stevens and Plath, and pray someone will raise a hand with a comment. I want my students to be as excited as I was, as engaged as I was. But that isn’t fair to them: I’m at a Big 10 school, this course fulfills an elective, I’m obviously nervous, and half of them would rather be at the gym than learning the basics of metaphors. Still, there are sparks of excitement when we discussed the ‘Polish rudder’ in O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster” and wrote to the Civil Wars’ “Barton Hollow” video. It’s more than enough to keep me motivated, to keep me invested and trying.
The thing is, they’re my first class, so I like them just a little too much, and (because I had a bad experience with my first workshop instructor) I desperately want them to like me back. I want them to learn and to have fun. When I ask a question and get blank stares in return, I think their silence means, “You’re not getting through to us and we don’t like you,” when it’s probably just, “I’m tired because I’m an undergrad.” Perhaps I’m over-thinking the situation, but so are they.
I am convinced (based on my undergrad experience, a month of teaching, and a crash course in pedagogy) that teaching creative writing is less about ‘teaching’ and more about ‘getting students to trust themselves’ and ‘getting students to understand it’s ok to let go of the grade, to play.’ Aubrey Hirsch already discussed something like this in greater detail. Students have been told time and again that poetry is serious business, that you have to read a poem twenty times to even begin to understand its complexities.
And while that may be true, it puts a great deal of pressure on new writers. Not only do students have to turn in a poem to be graded, they’re under the impression that good poems have to be complex enough to deserve—nay, require—a dozen readings. So they load their poems with competing metaphors, odd rhyme schemes, abstractions, and antiquated language, as I once did, expecting me to reward their hard work with a high grade. And because that often means they’ve ignored the assignment or failed to implement what we’ve gone over in class, I can’t. They see a low grade and they shut down. One student’s already accused me of giving his work low grades because I don’t personally like it.
There’s a lot to unpack, and it’s not like I can just shake them until they forget everything they’ve been told about writing, until they realize this class is about so much more than the grade. Their history is there; it can’t be ignored. So we have to find ways to trick them. The best poetry instructor I had as an undergrad, Peter Jay Shippy, worked with our desire to impress by attaching published poems to our workshop poems. By looking at what similar poets were doing in their work, we could learn to imitate better versions of ourselves.
That should be the goal of any writing class: to learn to fake it until you make it, which you can’t do if you haven’t (temporarily) let go of the formal, lit-crit baggage you’ve been carrying for years. Poetry is largely imitation. Imitation is play. And at the end of they day, if you’re not at least trying to play, your students are only going to care about their grades and you’re not going to get anywhere.
Doug Paul Case teaches a section of introductory creative writing at Indiana University, where he is an MFA candidate in poetry. His work has appeared in PANK, Annalemma, > kill author, and others.