To Teach Is to Learn
I’m on leave and not teaching this semester, but in many ways it seems that I am, and that’s okay. Teaching is something I love. Sometimes I love it as much as writing. Sometimes I love it less. Sometimes I put on my crabby pants and grumble about all the time that being a teacher takes from my own writing. Then I remember the way my father broke down his body working our farm and what it was like the year and a half when I left my undergraduate studies and worked in a tire repairs manufacturing plant, and I think how truly blessed I am.
Teaching happens in many ways outside the classroom. I’m currently directing four MFA theses, and I’m in the midst of a long reading period and conversations with my students. I’m celebrating with them their successes in the manuscripts they’ve prepared, and I’m talking with them about some things they can do to improve the work before their defense dates in April. To sit with a young writer and to talk passionately about the craft? Sometimes, I have a hard time believing that people pay me to do that.
I’m also reviewing manuscripts for various presses, delighting in the discovery of new writers, engaging with their work on a critical level. When I articulate what’s working and what’s not, and why, I end up learning something at the same time I’m trying to teach someone else. I love this learning. When it comes to the life-long apprenticeship that writing is, I’ve always thought of myself as a perpetual student.
I’ve served on two search committees this year, and that service is a form of teaching, too. To engage with candidates for creative writing positions and to talk pedagogy is all part of the interchange between two parts of myself: the faculty member I am, and the student I’ll always be.
I’ve also written countless letters of recommendation. I’ve praised students, current and past. I’ve talked about their work, their teaching, their citizenship, and each time I do, I think of all the people over the years who have done the same for me. Writing those letters reminds me of how fortunate I am to be a part of this family of writers and teachers.
Does it all sometimes seem like a burden? All the reading of manuscripts and service to my program and department, all the letters I write? Of course it does. And sometimes I complain a little, and sometimes I wish for more time for my own writing. Then there’s a day like yesterday when a graduate student sends me an excited email with the news that an essay he wrote in my workshop has been accepted for publication in a well-known journal. Or a day like today when I see that a former student will be teaching at a prominent writers’ conference this summer. I read his impressive bio. He has his own teaching position now, his own students, and I’m proud to be part of that chain, pleased to be a link, no matter how small or insignificant, in the generations that connect us all.
Like most people, I sometimes need to be reminded of all that blesses me. I remember one of my writing teachers at the University of Arkansas, Bill Harrison, telling those of us in his fiction workshop that if we could publish a little and get a teaching position, we could live a pleasant life. As with so many things, he was right. To be able to offer up this blog post is yet another blessing. To not be a part of this continuing conversation about the things that matter most to me? How miserable I’d be. “I’m not a teacher,” George Bernard Shaw said, “only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead—ahead of myself as well as you.” I love this journey and all the fellow travelers I’ve known and continue to know. I love each thing I learn every time I teach.
Thank you, Lee, for all the time you devote to teaching, and especially for your blog. I never fail to learn from you; that learning began on campus at VCFA a few years ago. I am grateful for the opportunity you provide to continue that learning.
Roberta, I have such fond memories of that workshop at VCFA. It was the first one I’d taught there, and I couldn’t have wished for a better group.