Monday, September 29, 2008

MFA Confidential: To Teach, or Not To Teach?

While Julie offered some insightful words of wisdom about post-MFA life last week, luckily, I am still mid-delusion, mid-torrid-affair with my graduate degree in creative nonfiction. And I know I should feel lucky:

I don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn five days a week (only two this semester); I can still ignore “the real world” when it’s convenient to (and the bailout plan won’t affect my next paycheck); and I get to shoot the shit with fellow writers and publishing professionals on a regular basis. Talking about David Foster Wallace and his tragic demise for 48 straight hours seems normal, as does analyzing the choice of bug by Kafka in the opening of The Metamorphosis for 20 minutes. All in the name of becoming "literary,” well-versed enough in the heavy hitters of one’s field so as to someday be able to mock them in a list on the McSweeney’s website.

However, now that we’ve hit the fourth week of the semester, I am confronted by one of the less savory realities of grad-student-dom: I am a teacher of freshman composition at Emerson. And unfortunately, much as I like to deny it (and continue to deny it by blogging here about it!), I have to grade papers. Tons of papers. Terrible, badly phrased, ill-conceived, freshmen papers. (Some are fabulous, and they string you along just long enough to keep you going through the worst ones.)

Several of my colleagues have already embarked on the grading hamster wheel, one that ensures that for the next ten weeks or so, several of our nights, weekends, and otherwise free cell phone usage time will be consumed with thinking about our students’ papers: their subject-verb agreement, their overuse of passive voice, and their ability (or lack thereof) to convincingly analyze a text or persuasively present an angle on a topic.

Don’t get me wrong: I love teaching. It’s strange, actually, how much I have taken to it over the past year, and how dry erase markers kind of get me hot. But now that I have embarked on the large-scale project that will become my thesis in May and actually want to work on it, I find myself returning to an age-old question that Emerson MFA-ers tangle with: should you teach in grad school? Why distract yourself from the writing time you clearly value and have staked a goodly sum on being able to engage in, in order to toil amongst freshmen papers?

I’ll return to this topic, surely, as the semester progresses and I lose track of friends, relatives, and everyone else except for the lovely 18-year-olds I have in class, but for now, I present a brief Pros/Cons list. Feel free to add to my list with a comment if you too, have considered the benefits and drawbacks of teaching during graduate school:

Pros of Teaching Freshman Comp:
- Resume booster (duh)
- An Emerson Copy Code (worth its weight in workshop crits)
- Ego boost
- Free paperclips (from the WLP front desk)
- Dry erase markers (see above)
- Liking your students
- Feeling like you’re making a difference in the world! (as opposed to the lack of instant gratification in revising that essay or story you’ve been working on for the last year but which hasn’t ever seen the light of day, let alone been “published” for an “audience”)
- Getting to work with John Trimbur (Composition & Rhetoric God)
- Ego rush of grading papers (beware: it wears off quickly)
- Not having to get a soul-killing part-time job at Barnes & Noble (or insert other hellish job here)… hopefully
- Getting paid to teach! (again, novelty wears off just after rent is paid)
- “Talking shop” with other faculty
- Increased chance of overhearing WLP-dept gossip
- 18 or more freshmen hanging on your every word (at least once or twice during the semester)
- Actually getting to test whether you ever want to do this again (priceless!)

- Less time to write
- Stress of wondering if you’re spending too much time/not enough time/no time planning your lessons
- Grading papers (the novelty wears off)
- Hand cramps from grading papers
- Deterioration of eyes due to grading papers
- Realizing you’re at the bottom of the academic totem pole
- Realizing you’re probably making less than minimum wage (Never divide your paycheck by hours spent teaching)
- Jealousy of writer friends who seem to be spending lots of time writing, while you are trying to figure out the best way to explain dangling modifiers
- Wondering if you’ll ever get another teaching job, or get stuck teaching composition for the next 35 years. Or until you go blind
- Sense of humor devolving into things 18-year-olds find funny (booze, boobs, hipsters)
- Receiving panicked emails at all hours of the day
- An intimate entrée into the personal lives and antidepressant cocktails of your freshmen
- Did I mention: less time to write?

1 comment:

Amanda said...

As a teacher who is about to begin grad school, I can offer this insight: While swimming through massive piles of student papers can suck in a big way, its amazing how much we learn about ourselves (both as writers and as human beings) by teaching and correcting the errors of others.