Teaching Writing

The most gratifying part of being a Teaching Assistant (TA) this semester has been the work I’ve been able to do with students on their writing. I didn’t even realize how important teaching writing was to me until I had to do it. But I love when students email me, knock on my door or catch me after class to ask to work on their papers. I love when I have a question about a sentence or a phrase, then they tell me what they were trying to say, and I’m able to reply, “Yes. You need to write exactly what you just said.” And I love handing back A papers to students who think they’re weak writers because someone told them once upon a time that they weren’t.

I had a chat with my students recently about writing. I encouraged them to shift the way they think about it, with the understanding that in some ways, they can’t. Taking approximately 15-18 credits requires likely dozens of papers a semester and it’s very difficult to give the proper amount of time and attention to each and every paper. You often don’t have the time to write drafts well in advance to get feedback from your professor or TA. You’re simply trying to crank those babies out to make sure you have something to turn in.

When that’s your reality, it’s difficult to think of papers as anything but a means to an end, a hoop you have to jump through. In all honesty, I can count on one hand the number of papers I actually remember writing in undergrad. Remember, as a French and Comparative Literature double major, and an International Relations minor, I probably wrote hundreds of papers. And yet.

Still, with all of that in mind, I still proposed a perspective shift. Instead of thinking of writing as another thing you have to do, think of it as an opportunity to share the thoughts and opinions you have about our films, backed up with evidence and careful analysis.

Yet another problem I’m up against as a TA is the way we present writing as an individualistic enterprise. Because folks have so many papers to write during the semester, it feels like you have to lock yourself up in a study room in the library until you have no more words. I reminded my students that that’s absolutely not how writing works professionally. Every writer that we read in class, every book that you get in the bookstore…all published writers have editors. They have friends and family and mentors that read their words with a red pen of love at the ready. They workshop their words. That’s why the “Acknowledgements” section of books exist. Writing is a communal process, but we present it as something you do alone. So I try to make it as clear as possible that I am willing and able to work with them on their words, because they shouldn’t have to be in this alone.

I try to be as sincere as possible when I tell them I look forward to reading their words. Yes, it is my job to read and comment, but I’m curious as to what they think and how they think, especially if they’re quieter in class and discussion. Papers are a chance for you to flex a little, but it gives you the time and space to think through your response if you’re not as willing to jump in to a conversation with only a half formed thought. I try not to think of their papers as more work for me, but a chance to get to know my students a little better. I think of my comments as engagement with their thoughts.

I perhaps do all of these because I want them to love writing as much as I do. I know my efforts won’t matter to many of them, no perspective shift will occur. And that’s fine. But as long as I’m clear that for at least this semester, they have someone who cares deeply about writing and their words, I will have done my job.

So many articles exist on best writing practices and how the greatest writers write, but so much of that is crap. No, you don’t have to write every day to be an effective writer. You should practice as regularly as you can, but every body is different, every life is different, every circumstance is different. As much as I would love to write fiction all day every day, I mostly write during the summer and winter break when I have extended periods of time to devote to that manuscript. Do I write every day? Mostly every day, yes. But I consider many different things to be a part of the writing process. Tweeting is writing, blogging is writing, journaling is writing, reading is writing, note taking is writing, outlining is writing, drafting is writing, revising and editing is writing. I do at least one or more of those things every single day, but not because I’m practicing every day writing. Writing is part of my self-care, my self-expression, how I feel whole.

What I didn’t know also makes me feel whole is helping someone else craft clear and substantive prose, helping someone find their voice and run with it, and encouraging them at every step of the process. I love being a sounding board, an editor, a cheerleader– all important parts of writing. I love it all. Teaching writing is difficult, as is writing, but I still manage to find joy in it every day.

Doubt, Failure and Rejection

If you follow me on Twitter, or even here on Black Girl Does Grad School, it’s evident that I’ve been in a bit of a funk for a little while. Okay, a lot of a funk and for a long while.

The truth is, it happens and it happens frequently. Grad school is just like that: some weeks you are fine, you feel like you are killing the game, you’re writing, you’re reading, your productivity is through the roof. And some weeks (or several of them…in a row) are about opening rejection emails before you’ve even left your bed in the morning, blank word documents, institutional drama, and the increasingly depressing feeling of trying to keep afloat in the middle of the ocean, knowing that any moment it could swallow you whole.

In particular, rejection letters really have the ability to drown me when I’m already barely afloat. On a day when I’m balanced, feeling healthy and whole, surrounded by love and support, rejections barely cross my radar. On a day where I’m already irritated and isolated (often self-imposed) due to circumstances outside of my control, rejections take me out. Negative self talk is already the soundtrack of my day, I’m feeling like my writing is particularly weak, and then bam– the worst sort of confirmation.

I sort of came to an understanding with myself. I stopped trying to fight the labels that academics were using to make me legible. I instead focused on simply doing work that fed my soul and that I felt was a direct expression of me walking in my purpose, worrying less about categorizing it and making it marketable, and more on making my words fly. This mental shift helped me prioritize, focus on and execute my work in a way that was meaningful to me.

And it worked.

Until it didn’t.

I now believed in my capacity to produce substantive, rigorous and complex work; I was focused enough to write it; I was becoming brave enough to submit it but nobody seemed to believe in me as much as I now believed in myself. It was enough to crack even the strongest of foundations and then the doubts seeped in. The worries that I had finally managed to shake reached through those cracks, grabbed ahold of my soul and squeezed. As often as I jokingly recount the tale of how I became Peanut Festival Queen of Suffolk, Virginia, the nagging thought that follows like a bad aftertaste is, Did I peak in high school? It seemed that making your dreams come true was a concoction of ambition, consistent hard work and a dreamer’s heart, but I lacked that dash of magic that seemed to be the key.

When all is said and done, I know I usually like to end my blog posts with a neat bow. I am nothing if not a (somewhat performative) optimist. I like to believe that even if I haven’t yet, I will overcome adversity and the fruits of my labor will be rewarded. And while I do have faith that everything will work out for me, I’m still living in a moment in which I am constantly stewing in a stale pot of doubt, failure and rejection, instead of perfecting my recipe for Black Girl Magic. I’m learning to live in the space between my imperfections and my potential, coming to embrace the harmony that failure and resiliency produces. Practically speaking, it means I honor my feelings, because even if I know that my future is bright, today’s forecast is overcast and rainy. It means that I take a moment to be transparent in my writing about what this moment is for me, instead of hiding from it, as if it doesn’t exist.

And perhaps…the answers that I have been hearing are not a no.

It’s an implied not yet.

Misadventures in TA’ing

One of the things I most looked forward to when I found out I was going to grad school was teaching. After spending my last semester of undergrad at UVA teaching my own self-designed course, I was eager to get back to the front of a classroom, maybe breaking down some literature with first year students or offering writing support during office hours.

But my dream situation got put on hold. There were several factors: I was now at a relatively small(ish) liberal arts university with overall tiny class sizes, which reduced the need for Teaching Assistants (TA’s). While we were guaranteed to teach at some point, if we wanted, TA-ships were not as easy to come by as I had originally imagined in this setting. Then there was the unspoken understanding that often times, first year students weren’t always placed in TA-ships. In terms of the content I wanted to focus on in the classroom, my university didn’t have graduate programs in English or Africana Studies; so in addition to the small class sizes, I wouldn’t really have an opportunity to TA where my heart was (unless, of course, I managed to snag a course cross-listed with English, which were few and far between).

So I pouted, but in spite of all of that, the prospect of TA-ing still appealed to me. I was placed in a programmatic graduate assistantship my first year with the Omohundro Institute; then with the Lemon Project, which I stayed with for my third year as well, much to my surprise. I loved working for the Lemon Project, but my desire to teach was flaring up, as well as my concern that it was getting to be so late in my graduate career and I hadn’t had any formal teaching experience, aside from leading workshops with Lemon and Course Instructing for Keio.

By the time I actually got a TA assignment, I was headed into my fourth year, almost formally dissertating. With only the prospectus standing in my way, I had moved past wanting to TA, and was ready to teach my own course, for which I had created a well-developed and, frankly, exciting, syllabus. However, due to an undocumented “policy,” I was denied my course and placed in a TAship that I had spent my first three years daydreaming about.

The circumstances under which I was placed in this position certainly marred my enthusiasm, but even so, as I gathered my thoughts about my teaching philosophy, and grand ideas for my first discussion sections, I was inflated by the prospect of being surrounded by gifted thinkers whom I got to help guide.

My cute little bubble of hope and optimism slowly deflated as I attended meetings and prepared for the start of the semester. Things were not shaking out as I had expected and, most importantly for me, I was already feeling like I couldn’t make my own decisions about how I wanted my classrooms to run, and by extension, feel. I was confined by more limitations than I had anticipated. The inability to put my own personal stamp on the two little classes I could call my own, and really express the fullest version of myself as an educator had me feeling claustrophobic and honestly, jaded.

There’s a part of me that understands this is part of the process. You learn to follow the rules before you can make your own.

But there’s another, much larger part of me, that has never particularly subscribed to this manner of thinking.

When the first day of discussion sections rolled around, I was even more nervous than I had reason to be. The professor for whom I was TA-ing would be there on the first day, mostly to talk about the syllabus, but also to lead the class in an exercise.

It felt strange, not being able to set the tone the way I wanted on the first day, and I felt myself shrinking, trying to take up the least amount of space possible. I left after my first set of classes, relieved that they were over, but also feeling an undeniable urge to cry. It had been so long since I had actively attempted to make myself small. I hated the feeling, but more than that, I hated myself for complying.

I wanted badly to get back in the classroom this week to restart, but due to the hurricane (which was more like a very windy drizzle), the school was closed and the students, and I, were off the hook.

I find myself deeply conflicted, but also very aware that it’s only been two weeks and I have plenty of time to turn this experience around. I’m conflicted because I finally get the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, but it seems like I keep stepping into one misadventure after the next. I love teaching– I always have. I very rarely played with my cousins on Sundays and holidays in the backroom at my grandparents’, preferring to read on the floor at my mother’s knees, but when I did, it was guaranteed to be a game of school, in which I got to be the teacher. It was an easy enough role to slide into, when most of the adults you knew intimately were educators. My mother was a fifth grade teacher, two of her sisters were teachers, her friends were teachers. I grew up drenched in questions of pedagogy and learning what was good practice based on which teaching policies my mother fumed about or praised while trading war stories with her sisters on the phone after school each night.

I knew from listening in on those conversations that teaching was not easy. It was a headache and it drove you crazy, but as I grew older, I realized that those conversations would not have been so heated if they were not fueled by a love of their job and their mission. My mom, her sisters, and their friends took educating seriously. Educating and education mattered. And I knew it was worth it every time she ran into a former student in the local Wal-Mart. She may not remember their name, but she remembered their face– a feat I’ve always found astounding given how much people change from when they’re ten to when they’re, say, twenty. The former students always want to stop my mom to show her they turned out okay; that they’re in college, or they have a family, or they have a great job.

Over my life, watching my mom and her sisters not only teach, but also care for students, has given me a model for how I want to approach teaching. Educating is as important to me as researching.

I think it’s important to remind myself of that from time to time, especially when I feel like my first experience TA-ing has been nothing but a series of misadventures. It may not have been the perfect timing for me, but who knows? Maybe there’s a student that will change my life. Maybe I’ll change one of theirs. Whatever comes next, I’m going to try to write as much of the story as I can.