Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What I Learned During a Year of Leveling Up

76 º ~ gauzy sun, true spring temperatures finally arriving, privet blooms moving from white to brown on the way to seed

As most of you know, but for those who don't, after over a decade of teaching at a community college, I "leveled up" to a tenure-track job teaching creative writing to undergrads and graduate students at the University of Central Arkansas in August of 2015. Please note, I mean "leveling up" only in terms of now having different tasks and responsibilities. I do not mean that there is anything "less than" about teaching at the community college level. It has its own challenges and rewards.

That being said, this first academic year at a new level has been demanding, mostly in the best ways possible. At the community college, I taught Comp I and Intro to Creative Writing, almost exclusively. There are community colleges out there with broader ranges of creative writing classes; mine was not one of them, for the most part. This meant that, after 10 plus years, I knew the class material down in my muscles and bones, so I spent most of my time interacting with students. The biggest "shock" of this past year has been the shift to teaching many different creative writing classes and looking forward at the many different classes I'll be teaching in the future. This translates to hours and hours of prep time outside of the classroom as I attempt to organize and absorb all new materials. Of course, I'm well versed (hee hee) in poetry and in the rigors of creative writing in general; however, I've never had the time to get specific about transmitting my knowledge and experiences to others.

While conquering new class material has been the big challenge, it reminds me that I'm so thankful to all of my students and colleagues from the past. Spending my formative years as a college professor in the composition classroom taught me valuable lessons in classroom management that have served me well in my new environment. Those years taught me who I wanted to be as I interacted with students and colleagues. They gave me the chance to create and improve my professor persona. As one of my grad students put it last month, "You have a shtick; all good professors have a shtick."

Aside from the workload that stretches my mind and my stamina, there is one other big difference that I'm just now noting. I have a new relationship to my students. At the community college, we experienced "swirl and churn" in our student body. While I might have a few students follow me from Comp I to Comp II (when I taught it) or from Comp I to Intro to CW, these were rare exceptions. Mostly, I knew a student for one semester, often I knew a student intensely given the nature of writing classes, and then that student would swirl and churn away, either to other core classes or to transfer to a different institution. Now, I am in a program with a strong undergraduate major/minor in creative writing (that's stand-alone cw, not as part of an English major with emphasis) and I am part of the Arkansas Writer's MFA Program.

What this means is that I now have the opportunity to see a writer's work progress over several years rather than over several months. And while I've only just begun forming relationships with my students, there is a deeper level of engagement on my part, as I'm investing in longer-term goals with each writer. Again, this is not to say that deep levels of engagement don't go on at the community college level or in the first-year writing classroom. It means, that was not my strength in those classrooms.

Finally, I'll wrap up by saying that this year has been exhausting and sometimes frustrating, challenging and mind-expanding. It has been the most rewarding year of my teaching life and the worst year for my writing life (a whole other blog post). I am looking forward to gaining more sure-footedness in the coming year and to working toward a goal of more balance between teaching, writing, and homelife.

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