Monday, March 17th, 2014

How To Teach Creative Writing To Undergrads While Being A Feminist Harpy

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, writer, editor and MFA student Jia Tolentino tells us more about what it’s like to be a college writing instructor.

Jia! So what happened here?

I teach introductory creative writing at the University of Michigan, and I’d just finished this agonizingly detailed response letter to the 20th student story I’d graded in the last three weeks, and then I was printing out all this stuff at once and catching snippets of these sentences in my feedback that were just totally insane, about ghost cocks and specific apocalypse plausibility and whether or not so-and-so would have randomized her email before putting a thing on Casual Encounters, and all of a sudden I was just like, what am I doing? WHAT AM I DOING RIGHT NOW?

I mean, I like teaching, and I particularly like teaching creative writing because there’s no real end-game or (as far as I’m concerned) entrenched pedagogy—one of my favorite jobs ever was teaching poetry to third-graders in Houston, because we just played around and mapped out Fugees songs and they wrote better stuff than I do now. And I take the job seriously, and I am the beneficiary of a lot of absolutely killer workshops, and I place a lot of value on a Real Talk classroom where students can discuss what we love without anyone getting precious or fussy about it. But occasionally this year it has appeared to me that my Real Talk:Coddle ratio is just inherently fucked by the fact that I’m teaching an introductory undergrad creative writing course within a framework where the students are privileged and perhaps overly accustomed to taking themselves seriously, and the instructors are MFA students who most always have something to gain by continuing to prop up the frame.

You mentioned a few of your more noteworthy editing comments in that tweet. Are there any other especially good ones that you could share? And what is the strangest or most ridiculous story you’ve had to assess as a college writing instructor?

The hardest thing in creative writing classes, especially the intro ones, is when people bring their personal lives into their stories and make one impossible to critique without involving the other. (This is of course a problem at every level: Directionless people write directionless stories, misogynist writers have misogynist books, my characters tend to hide their emotions and process life changes through sex. Cool!) I am filled with dread when I read student stories where the author has placed something that is clearly very immediate and personal on the page for their sleepy peers to be like “But how could he not know she was cheating on him if it was with his roommate” or “I just didn’t understand why the girl didn’t go to the police.” People just really want to process their worst shit through writing, and stuff can get way too real.

But I am basically impossible to make uncomfortable, and so the only thing that really feels ridiculous to me is when people are rude. Last semester when I was teaching plain old composition, I got a couple of emails that were like “Hey Gia, I’d like to give you some feedback on your feedback! I really don’t feel like you did enough to reward me for my efforts, which were undeniably stellar.” I drafted and deleted so many gif emails to that kid. I also got a “research paper” about how the space program was defunded because of Obamacare and lax border control. That was, oh my God. Like, please don’t talk to me that way about space.

Lesson learned (if any)?

I should not, in retrospect, have titled my comp class “Cool Story Bro” last semester. At this point way too many parts of my life have started off as jokes and then become seamlessly entrenched in the real. I think I got a dozen bros in there who were expecting something different from what they got. For example, this little piece of feedback I got in my end-of-semester evaluations:

I didn’t say the word “feminist” once in that class. But I always push back on social issues. I’d never allow a student to get away with referring to a female character as a “whore” in a story or saying he won’t read female authors because they write about “women’s issues” (both of which have happened multiple times). Same with girls who talk about how much they hate girls, or kids who whisper the word “black” as if it’s disrespectful. The whole point of fiction, this fundamentally democratic medium, is to tap into the big well of common human instinct, to really get in there on how everyone sucks and is lovely simultaneously and in very similar ways.

Just one more thing.

Without that tweet, I’d never have this to love and cherish forever:

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.

23 Comments / Post A Comment

scrooge (#2,697)

Some women do just write about "women's issues", and some bros prolly don't want to read them. Give a bro a break, Gia!

idrathernot (#264,876)

@scrooge The problem is that we are socialized to believe the male perspective is universal, and therefore consider "men's issues" normal, and anything else as niche.

@scrooge If they don't want to read about women's issues, they shouldn't be in university and maybe they aren't really human. Also, commas go inside the quotation marks.

Where are the remaining 2000 words of this piece and do you have a newsletter I could subscribe to?

DavidDuke (#264,560)

"But I am basically impossible to make uncomfortable, and so the only thing that really feels ridiculous to me is when people are rude.”

Free healthcare is not a right. I shouldn’t be taxed to pay for other people’s healthcare because they’re lazy and frivolous and I’m conservative and shrewd. How uncomfortable did that make you?

idrathernot (#264,876)

@DavidDuke I think "uncomfortable" and "disagreeing" are two entirely different things.

Actually these 5,000 words a week will likely be the highlight of your career. Get over yourself. Its an MFA. You don't get issued a BMW, or any super powers, when you graduate. Your present super powers, mostly in the bedroom, are kinda it.

Nabonwe (#12,500)

@Mignon Kitsune Barnett@facebook Well aren't you charming.

BadUncle (#153)

Seems like she's a very patient instructor. I'd love to read more of Jia's work, despite the sprinkles of youthy oral vernacular by an otherwise precise writer, which like left me like OMG confused.

@BadUncle : That was, oh my God.

@BadUncle Shakespeare wrote in youthy oral vernacular.

BadUncle (#153)

@Luis Medina@facebook Shakespeare wrote poetry and drama, not essays.

BadUncle (#153)

@BadUncle FWIW, I think it's a hilarious article. Just saying the texty patois made a few of the points opaque, which is a shame.

oskomena (#232,608)

Feedback to student's feedback: "Student kept pushing misogynistic views during class, I like to keep my classroom ideology-free."

@oskomena : I just get in five minutes before class and do a little pre-class ideology fumigation with a can of Received-Consciousness-B-Gon.

Alternate take : "But I always push back on social issues." Just what I want in an editor.

mick (#8,468)

So. MFA candidate of privilege complaining about working (*gasp*) at the paid appointment she has(that other MFA wannabes would've slain for), all while learning to teach with kindness, grace and an actual desire to impart knowledge despite her lack of tolerance for the typically unformed undergrad mind. Cool story, Bro. And as long as I'm living up to the stereotype of one of the olds–her twitter style tells me all I need to know about her craft. I agree that she will look back on this as the absolute pinnacle of her career 10 years (months?) from now.

aesir (#264,662)

I'm a GSI for an intro science course at Michigan. I feel like the particular kind of privilege here is that of overachieving, coddled kids who weren't quite gunner enough to get into an Ivy. That said, I would much rather grade problem sets than read student papers. Definitely lucked out.

@aesir : "gunner."

Julie the T (#214,946)

Yeesh, what's with all the mean asshats on this thread? Y'all do realize you only expose your own insecurities and bitterness when you try to tear down a hilarious and interesting interview like this, right? Just checking.

Thanks for this, Jia!

Birch311 (#264,680)

Ughh why must the trolls ruin everything awesome and hilarious? I loved this piece!

KarenUhOh (#19)

Rilly didn't get what all was going on here, but payoff came in reading that she had written, "please don't talk that way to me about space."

tea_for_all (#264,857)

jia you are legit one of my feminist heroes. and your writing is ON POINT.

idrathernot (#264,876)

"The whole point of fiction, this fundamentally democratic medium, is to tap into the big well of common human instinct, to really get in there on how everyone sucks and is lovely simultaneously and in very similar ways." Beautifully said!

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