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

by Matthew J.X. Malady

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.

How will I even know I’m alive when I finish this MFA program & no longer spend 5000 words weekly critiquing undergraduate short fiction

— Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino) February 25, 2014

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.