Tag Archives: learning

On Workshops and Professors

I saw a diagram recently on a friend’s Facebook page about the writing process. In particular, number five stuck out to me: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ninamohan/charts-that-perfectly-sum-up-being-a-creative-writing-maj?bffbbooks#.dvdOBPjQLO

Why, you ask? It’s my life.

After the summer and a particularly good group of writers in a long distance writing workshop over video chat, I was feeling pretty enthusiastic about my writing again. I had a good grasp on what my biggest problem was, the fact that I just want to dump all of my trauma into the essay and then run away and leave the reader holding the bag. The most illuminating feedback I received over the summer was that my writing can be “like throwing a bunch of punches at the reader and then never offering them an ice pack.” It made perfect sense to me. I write about these sucky things, and then never give the reader 31 year old me, the me in the now. I make the reader sad, and I generally leave them there. Armed with this insight, I made some edits to one of my more recent pieces of work and then jumped at the chance to go first this semester when my new writing workshop professor asked for volunteers. Yay new semester! Yay new professor! Yay new class with new feedback!

My zest for school dampened pretty quickly, with the gloom of last year quickly settling back in once I was in the classroom. I promptly stuck my foot in it with my new writing professor as I was passing out my essay. I tried to tell her how excited I was to take her class because of all the fantastic things I had heard about her, and it must have come out wrong, because she said that she felt like I was pressuring her for feedback and that she was now so uncomfortable she didn’t want to read my piece.

My professor. Didn’t. Want. To. Read. My. Piece.

I was completely crushed, and I sat in shock for the rest of class, playing with my phone inside my bag. This woman who had been incredibly built up by my peers was yet another let down in a school of let downs. That night, I went home wondering if she would even read my essay. I had an extra copy left over after it had made its way around the classroom, and I told myself that she hadn’t even taken one. It was a terrible, horrible, no good week of waiting that included seeing said professor in the hall and having her look right through me like I wasn’t even there. I wanted to scream after her “I WAS JUST TRYING TO TELL YOU HOW EXCITED I WAS TO FINALLY TAKE YOUR CLASS BECAUSE EVERYONE SAID YOU WERE AMAZING AND GAVE THE BEST FEEDBACK.” But I didn’t. I didn’t say anything at all.

Went to class the next week and discovered that she had indeed read my piece. The workshop went okay; it wasn’t the worst one ever. (There’s a blog about THAT workshop somewhere…) The professor was actually really nice. She asked my permission to read out loud scenes depicting rape. She discussed the piece with a respectable amount of decorum, especially compared to my workshop the previous semester where it was suggested the sex was consensual. And then, as I do after every workshop, I immediately pulled out her written feedback on the train home.

She called my use of the word “rape” too harsh. She said that it ran the risk of alienating the reader, and she suggested that I remove it, along with any graphic depictions of violence. I wanted to drop the essay onto the subway floor and grind it under my shoes. I wanted to rip off the outfit I had carefully picked out because workshop and scrub the makeup I had applied between class and dog walks right off my face. I wanted to quit. Too harsh. The word rape was just too harsh for the reader to handle, the word that I spent forever learning how to be comfortable saying was “too harsh.”

I cried. It was the first time in a long time that workshop feedback made me cry. I decided that I would never again work on that essay. I told myself that I would never have a thesis advisor, that all my dreams in terms of that were completely out the window.

The following week was a whirlwind of school-related disasters, culminating in the moment when the head of the program called me into her office to tell me that my workshop professor had called me high maintenance and said that my writing was disturbing.

#crushed.

I gave consideration to quitting graduate school for what had to be the hundredth time. And then I made a decision. I emailed my professor. I apologized for whatever grievous offense I had committed, even though I wasn’t sorry at all. She wrote me back thanking me. After class last week, she approached me.

“So what’s the deal? With…this?” She gestured from herself to me and back again.

“I …. I ….” I opted for the honest route. “Look. The head of the program said that you called me high maintenance, and I was really offended. Because I’m not. Like I said in my email, I just wanted to learn from you. And I’m sorry if I stuck my foot in it the first day. I really meant to say all of the things I said in my email—how awesome I had heard you were, how excited I was to be in your class. And it didn’t come out that way. I—“

“Wait,” she interrupted me. “She said I said WHAT?”

It turned out that the program director had lied to me. Or, well, SOMEONE had lied to me. My workshop professor and I talked in the stairwell for over half an hour and hashed out our garbage; I decided that she is what I will be in twenty years—nervous around people, but a strong writer with awesome feedback. We hugged. We made up. We decided that the program head was trying to say anything she could to make me her thesis student. We both apologized to each other for everything that had gone wrong.

It occurred to me as I walked home, once again, that workshop didn’t mean nearly as much as I thought it did. That feedback could be taken wrong. That I was only as good a writer as I let myself be.

I am only as good of a writer as I let myself be.

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The Right Answer (On Being a TA) — Rough Draft

One of my advisors once told me that she lives for the moment where her students no longer need her and can be independent. I love that moment. I wish it could occur every day; I also wish that I could not be sad when it doesn’t. I’ve heard that feeling, that sadness, does go away for some. But I don’t want it to, not really. When it does, I’ll know it’s time to stop teaching.

*

The first real class I ever taught, aside from church related things, was a beginning theater class for five to eight year olds. My aid for the class could probably testify to the fact that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I had observed the class under another teacher, so I had a basic idea regarding how things should go. But I had come in expecting a curriculum filled with the right answers and what to do and arrived to find nothing but a roster and a theme: Robin Hood for tiny humans. It was my first experience flying by the seat of my pants. I like to think it worked out well; I then taught for the company for the next three years. But that first class has always been my favorite. I felt like a teacher when I was in front of their semicircle, all of them sitting cross-legged and staring up at me, waiting for me to tell them what to do. However, I will never forget the moment when they walked onstage for the end of session performance and were able to say their lines and do the choreography without me. They were independently acting, wearing their construction paper Robin Hood hats (that kept falling off on the stage). Maybe they weren’t perfect, but they were pretty darn great. They displayed the things they learned in class, and I had had a part in that, however small. To me, that was what being a teacher was really about.

*

I can’t remember exactly when I made the decision to become a TA—it just sort of happened. I don’t think there are many of them in undergrad. Or at least not many who ARE undergrads. I believe this makes me a unique breed. 

I received an email from professor towards the middle of my second year of undergrad. She was looking for a dedicated student to work as a supplemental instructor. It wasn’t really teaching, per say. Supplemental instruction more revolves around reviewing material with the students and teaching them how to learn independently. But I still had a blast with it. It was a completely different feeling than being in front of the kids and teaching drama. I looked forward to doing it in future semesters. Then it came:

We don’t have enough Psych 101 instructors that want SI next semester, so we won’t be able to use you.

I was told that if I could find a professor willing to work with me, I could possibly do SI for that professor instead. So I put out a Facebook status and tagged every professor I was friends with. I got a bite:

I’m very interested. Let’s chat.

I was very interested in working with this professor, N, but it turned out her course didn’t have a high enough failure rate to require a supplemental instructor. It wasn’t in the budget. I still desperately wanted the opportunity to learn from her.

Behold. The idea to TA was born.

*

I often get asked what I do as a TA. It’s a lot; it’s too much to list. And my duties have evolved. I attend class, I talk. I grade, I lead. I comment, I assist. I get to draw on the board and occasionally play Vanna. It just seems to work.

Last semester, I went into the first day as a TA quite overwhelmed; I wasn’t sure how it would be to “share” a classroom, so to speak. I wasn’t sure where my place was, how I fit, what I was supposed to do. I didn’t know when to speak up, how to make things work as a person in front of the classroom but not in front of it at the same time. In a classroom of 18 year old and up people as opposed to tiny humans. 

I don’t think I spoke the first day. I possibly didn’t speak the second either. I panicked when I realized there were 28 students and I couldn’t remember their names. 28 seemed like so many more than 16, the largest size theater class I’d ever taught. And the first time I taught as a TA, I did a lot of things wrong. I had an activity planned that involved my laptop, but I had never used my laptop with the projector before. I didn’t realize everything would automatically show when I plugged it in; I failed to take into account the fact that I had student grades up on my screen, as well as failed to remember that my wallpaper was a picture of my dead son. When the class didn’t respond to me, I forgot that they weren’t really talkers to begin with and began to panic and rush through things. I expected N to bail me out rather than try to bail myself out; I immediately looked to her. And while she did save me, she at the same time made me keep going. When no one would really converse with me regarding the video clip I had shown, I started calling on random people. I didn’t give them enough time to think. I was scared to wait them out. And then I didn’t fully connect my segment to the main theme for the day—fallacies.

I cried driving away from campus that day, because I couldn’t focus on the good things that had happened—that the students liked the video clip, that they did eventually engage, that they gave me the correct answers. I could only focus on the fact that things didn’t go precisely the way I’d planned, and the fact that I would never be a teacher.

Even at the end of the semester, when I had a lot of TA wins under my belt, I thought back to that first day, that day I screwed up. But the focus started to change when I realized that rather than continually calling myself a failure, I wanted to be better. I wanted to grow.

I’m different now than I was that first semester. More confident. I’m better at planning out what I’m going to do, and I’m a better TA for it. I talk to the class, and they talk to me. This semester, I’ve even (somewhat) created my own assignment for the first time, a composition design proposal that I will assign in class this week. Things seem to be going better. I’m not sure if it’s that the class is more talkative and better as a whole, or that I’ve learned. 

I like to think I’ve learned.

*

I had a student once named A. A was very quite and shy. I had a hard time getting her to engage with the other kids. She didn’t want to sing solos or talk in front of people, but she loved me. Every week she would bring me a small gift, from a construction paper drawing of “her teacher” to a valentine, to a photo of her new puppy. It was wrong to have favorites, but she was definitely one of mine. Not because of the gifts, but because I understood her. I was shy too. 

“Do you ever get afraid in front of people?” she asked me one day after class.

“A,” I replied, “I think everybody does. It’s okay to be shy, but performing can be different. An escape from being scared. You can be whoever you want to be.”

“Okay,” she replied, and then skipped off to meet her older brother.

She disappeared from classes for a while after that session, but when she turned eight she auditioned for and was accepted to her first show. When she came onstage as one of the orphans in “Annie,” I cried. It was the moment I realized I was meant to be a teacher.

*

I have never been so grateful for the chance to work with someone as I am to work with N. Not because I work with her now so many days a week and get to do all the things. Not because of the load she carries and the way she’s taught me to balance, though her load is enormous. And not just because she’s awesome, though she definitely is. It’s because of the little things. The fact that she spends an hour on grading a paper other people might dismiss for being poor work, just so she can maybe help the student become just a tiny bit better. The fact that she spends her entire break preparing her classes and looking back on activities to enhance them and make them better each semester using suggestions from students. The fact that she opens her office and her email and her time to help her students and make them not just better students, but better people. She has done that for me, without a question. That N has taken the time to work with me has made me a better teacher as well as a better person. Not many people get this chance, but I did. And I’m doing well at it. I more than make it work. I’m becoming more confident. Growing. Learning.

During student conferences, which she let me sit on, I watched N handle an especially promising student who was not doing so well—a student that I might have written off were the decision left to me. Despite the problems this student has had, N was still willing to work with her. She was able to see past that and see the student underneath, and I could tell that she wanted to break through. I believe that she can, whether it be to that student or to a different one. Even when she doesn’t know the right answer, she figures it out.

I want to be that teacher someday.

*

The thing about teaching is that there really isn’t any one right way to do it. I know that now. All of my life, I’ve looked to others to tell me what to do and I live for the right answers. I need them. My teaching style has evolved into a mix of the people around me; I’m not the drama teacher on her first day anymore, and I’m not the TA who makes stupid mistakes. I’m the woman who watches, who absorbs, who learns and grows. I watch all of my professors and the way they handle their classrooms; I read the comments that they put on my papers and I look at their rubrics, and I figure out how they grade. Through that, I have begun to figure out where I lie. My grading style is between two professors, N and D. I’m less black and white than I used to be, but I still have a hard time calculating grades without actual numbers in front of me. I enjoy the way T makes herself available to help students in whatever way she can. I love the way they all flip the classroom, the way they make me think, and the way they have taught me to have my own ideas and stand on them. I have learned so much from all of my professors, about teaching and about simply being. And I am grateful for every last opportunity.

I started writing this thinking that my teaching was a little piece of all of them. But I’m beginning to realize that it’s a lot of me too. And that that’s the right answer.

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