The Expert

Are they learning anything from me?

Image: Sholeh via Flickr

“But am I teaching them anything?” This was the refrain, all fall, in the basement of the English department where we graduate students had been shunted into a series of shared offices. Coming back from class, slumping into an uncomfortable chair, dumping papers on a nondescript desk, getting the question, inevitable, “How’d it go?” and saying fine, and then pausing. Starting again: “But am I teaching them anything?” It wasn’t just that we were teaching Fiction I—or Poetry I, or Creative Nonfiction I—for the first time. It was that so few of us had any teaching experience. (Mine amounted to a single year, directly after college, when I was inflicted on two sections of Freshman English and one section of Sophomore English at a high school in South Texas. The most important lesson communicated in that classroom was the one I learned: don’t cry in front of your students.) It was the fact that I’d never taken an undergraduate fiction workshop and so was unfamiliar with the very class I was now leading. It was the fact that we weren’t sure, actually, that it was possible. Teaching fiction, teaching poetry—could it be done? It was right there in my syllabus: “There is no trick to writing fiction.” How had we learned, we wondered. Had that learning involved any worksheets to which we could now refer?

We were, it turned out. Teaching them, I mean. We discovered this partway through the semester when we heard craft terms we’d mentioned, terms we didn’t think we remembered seeing anyone write down, come spilling out of our students’ mouths, mid-workshop, mid-discussion. It was true, what everyone said: we’d read more books than our students had and we’d written more stories and that got us most of the way there. No matter that I only figured out that lecture was not only an appropriate but a necessary tool in the fiction teacher’s toolbox six weeks in. Trickle-down economics was a sham but trickle-down knowledge was not. And that’s when I discovered that being able to answer “yes” to the question “But am I teaching them anything?” didn’t solve the problem. The problem was I felt like a fraud anyway.

I came to fiction writing late and reluctantly, having run out of excuses to avoid pursuing the vocation I most powerfully desired. And while I came by that desire honestly, I confess I came by it by way of novels, that ungainly, too-long form uniquely ill-suited to the workshop model. In Fiction I, I was expected to teach short stories. I snuck some novels in—an excerpt from the third section of Zadie Smith’s NW here; the first chapter of Renata Adler’s Speedboat there—but my syllabus was almost all short fiction. Great short fiction, to be sure—Donald Barthelme and Charles Yu and Lesley Nneka Arimah and Flannery O’Connor—but that didn’t change the fact that teaching short fiction, standing in front of a classroom and declaiming about escalation in “The School,” about setting in “Who Will Greet You at Home,” I was pretending to be something I wasn’t: an authority; an expert.

It didn’t help that experts were everywhere out of fashion. Or rather, acknowledged experts were. Anyone might be an expert, if they had enough time on their hands. All you had to do was read the documents, the testimony, the reports, or say you had. Then it was obvious, how slanted the official line was, how the gatekeepers were distorting the evidence. I was university-sanctioned, which made me suspect. Most especially to myself. After all, I knew I was fraud.

Faced with feelings of inadequacy, what did the fraud do? I dressed the part. I wore long skirts and high-necked sweaters. I wore dresses that fell almost to the ankle and, beneath them, slips. Once, early in the semester, I wore blue jeans to class. My students talked less, raised their hand more infrequently. I never wore blue jeans again. No, I faked it until I made it to the end of the semester. I called that success.

My students, to be clear, were uniformly delightful. Their comments were insightful, their stories unexpectedly complex, surprisingly moving. The problem wasn’t that they weren’t learning, it was that the claim I had on instruction seemed impossibly tenuous. It was the possibility that they were learning the wrong things. To be a teacher meant knowing, or at least pretending to know. It meant the façade of certainty. In this way, it was like being a manager, a parent, an adult in the world, and I already knew or suspected all of these roles to be beyond me.

Fake it till you make it, the expression goes. But what if there is no making it, no being sure that you’re made, perfected, no getting there, always the worry that wherever you’ve ended up is the right place? In that case, I suppose, you keep faking it, over and over, different rooms—a classroom, a conference room, a living room—different roles, until it’s over, the semester, the meeting, the whole of your impossibly various, inevitably fraudulent life.


FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.