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  • Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Saying Farewell (Forever) to a Course
August 4, 2014 - 6:21pm

Due to a combination of bureaucratic reasons and personal choice, this is the last semester in the foreseeable future that I’ll teach an introductory fiction writing course. Going forward, as long as my “visiting” is extended by mutual agreement between me and the college, my time will be spent exclusively on first-year writing.

The good news is that I enjoy teaching both composition and fiction, though the enjoyments are rather different.

In my syllabus for first-year writing, I declare that the course is the most important one the students will ever take, and while my tongue reaches for my cheek with those words, I’m pretty sure I actually mean it. I’ve long believed that “freshman composition” – for lack of a better word – matters. A good experience in a first-year writing course has the potential to put students on a positive track that will carry throughout their educations.

I’ve seen it happen for students, often. I’ve also seen the opposite, so the stakes feel high.

Teaching first-year writing is also demanding (to me) in ways other courses are not. The course requires a degree of personal engagement that is (again, to me) deeply absorbing. There’s a necessary intensity to teaching first-year writing that can be satisfying in the same way immersing myself in a long term writing project can be satisfying. It is occasionally grueling, often frustrating, with an uncertain outcome, but the struggle itself matters as much as the end result of the battle.

The work is the thing which gives life meaning.

In first-year writing, phoning in my teaching results in a substandard experience for both my students and me. To the extent that I work hard at my teaching, at some level it’s a selfish impulse, a virtuous circle where I benefit as much or more than the students.

On the other hand, it’s hard for me to argue to my students that an introductory course in fiction writing will be the most important class they’ll take in college, even though this was true in my case. Very few of my students will go on to careers as writers. It’s likely that most of them will never again write creatively once they’ve completed the course.

Because of this, teaching introductory creative writing often feels more like play. While the workload is still pretty heavy, requiring lots of student writing and detailed instructor commentary, the stakes are (or at least feel) lower. The nature of the work in a fiction writing class is often very different than their other academic courses, even for English majors, which creates a kind of refreshing atmosphere. While the occasional student may start a lifelong love affair, for most it’s a small, hopefully enriching and worthwhile, diversion.

Teaching creative writing is like inviting curious students into my personal playpen and having the chance to share my favorite toys.

So for this reason, I’ll be sad to leave teaching creative writing behind, but for others too.

One of the reasons is a little shameful to admit because I’ve never been one to buy into status markers (maybe because I’ve never had much status in academia), but going forward, when people ask what I teach and I tell them “freshman composition,” I will be announcing my contingency.

I am not and never have been ashamed of my status. In this space and others I’ve been pretty forthright about it. That I’ve spent since 2001 teaching off the tenure track has nothing to do with my abilities or qualifications, and everything to do with personal circumstances and a troubled system of higher ed.

And in terms of my relationship to higher ed, I self-identify as a teacher first, so positions that require teaching above all are a good fit.

But the contingent among you will know the look you sometimes get, particularly from some (obviously not all) academics, when you exclusively teach first-year courses. It is something like pity, though not quite, because pity would involve them feeling genuinely empathetic, as opposed to wondering what you’ve done wrong, or in what ways you are defective[1].

So while I am not ashamed of my status, and occasionally revel in setting the TT “lifeboaters” straight, it is tough to give up this final teaching tie to the field that first switched me into the on position.

I read Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and I needed to know more about their mysteries, the same way a believer must study the Bible.

I went to graduate school in order to try to learn how to create these things (stories) that meant so much to me.

I had no motive other than a wish to join with the group that valued these things. I’m not sure I ever expected to publish. I’m certain I didn’t expect to teach. That I’ve had the occasional opportunity to actually instruct others on writing creatively still strikes me as a kind of miracle, one far bigger than having published books.

Considering this, I see that teaching creative writing has been an opportunity to re-experience the origins of what has become my life’s work. When I am teaching fiction writing, I am a member of the tribe that I originally sought to join in ways that go deeper than "just" continuing to write. It gives me a chance to maybe be the kind of person that was once so important to me as a student. That this is likely over is a sadness for sure.

But that was one life. This will be another, with different, equally unforeseen pleasures.

--

I just spent 10 days off the grid and didn't miss Twitter for a second, and yet, upon my return, it was the first thing I looked at.

 


[1] The good news is I now work in a place where TT faculty actually teach first-year writing and understand its value, so at least when I’m at home, I won’t have to deal with this.

 

 

 

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