At the close of my career as a graduate student, I recognize the old aphorism, “by learning you will teach, by teaching you will learn,” still rings true—I am a better writer because of my brilliant students. My students’ unbounded excitement and insightful questions have encouraged me to reexamine the texts that have been formative to my pedagogic identity and redefine my values related to craft. They have helped to shape my identity as an artist and as a woman invested with the authority to teach a university-level creative writing course.
From the first day of instruction, I establish the high expectations I have for class conduct, performance, and behavior, stressing the significance of my trust in them; in my classroom, it is of utmost importance to me to grant my students a sense of agency in their learning environment, handing classroom discussion over as a collective responsibility and honor. From W103: Intro to Creative Writing, to W280: Literary Editing and Publishing, each course requires individual engagement from each student: we sit in a circle, and I sit alongside my students as a physical marker of an equitable power dynamic between student and instructor-generated dialogue. The rigorous syllabus I have meticulously crafted for each course is populated by creative and craft texts that are both intellectually engaging and conscious of authorial and content diversity.
To quote my thesis director, IU Professor Ross Gay, a role model for privileging classroom experimentation, mistakes, and organic interpersonal dynamics, “My objective is to encourage my students to pursue what to them is most thrilling about a given subject. I have learned that it is, in fact, possible to make learning thrilling, and I expect my students to be thrilled!” In W203: Intro to Poetry, I provide students with opportunities to discover what is to them deeply compelling, offering a wide range of poetry collections to choose from to compose book reviews that may better inform their burgeoning identities as creative writers and formulate end-of-semester portfolios and artist statements. This past fall, I ordered over fifteen poetry collections (with the intention of having each student select only one) to the campus book store for my students to peruse at their leisure, creating as a pop-up poetry corner amid the chaos of students rushing to find Calculus textbooks. In my syllabi, I encourage students to read voraciously on their own in addition to weekly readings organized by a theme, and require discussion questions in response to corresponding course texts to be prepared and posed to peers. Although I generate a structured syllabus for the first half of the semester, I anticipate (and hope) that the syllabus might change towards the latter half of the course to accommodate the unforeseen questions, proposals for collaborative projects, and potentially productive digressions. I ask the students how the syllabus is working, and if it needs to be shaken up, and hold conferences to better discover projects that fascinate them. I believe the greatest gift a teacher can give a student is their time, and I make it clear to my students that they have my undivided attention and support, within reason.
When I teach a creative writing course, I encourage students to privilege questions about how poems work above answers about how they ought to work, or to question the customs, traditions, and power dynamics existent in literary publishing. I make it clear to students that I expect them to ask me questions, challenge authority, and make suggestions. As an outcome, my students can articulate their aesthetic preferences and choices made with intention, without losing sight of the mystery and surprise that led them to these insights.
By encouraging independent student inquiry and thereby student agency in this way, I am also trying to impart to my students the values necessary for thoughtful examination of spaces beyond the university classroom. I am trying to share with students a boundless sense of wonder and social responsibility. I expect my students to experience joy in their education, and I believe good teaching helps them do it. In my syllabus, I impart the values that led me to believe in the importance of poetry in my world: the bodily and physical nature of the poem. I play recordings of authors’ readings on YouTube to create an accessible environment suited to my students’ multiple intelligences as well as demonstrate the importance of poetry as an aural tradition, its existence beyond the page, and the beauty and wonder of meeting an author behind a work of art. Like Ross, I too believe that wonder very likely leads to joy. Some of my most joyful teaching experiences in the classroom occur when I invite active and established members of the literary community to meet with my students, from a Q&A session with Kingsley Tufts recipient Ross Gay, to a video chat with CLMP’s Director of Programs and Strategic Communications, to discuss opportunities in publishing beyond the scope of a university environment, to a donut-filled student poetry reading at Boxcar Books. I believe students and teachers are more likely to see clearly, and to take care of one another when we access wonder and joy.