By Steffanie Triller Fry
This January, I returned to school full-time to earn an MFA in Creative Writing. This is a degree that I had coveted for more than a decade, and that I finally decided I was ready to earn. My program is a low-residency distance-learning program, so I attend seminars on campus for ten days in January and June, and submit the rest of my work via email to my faculty mentors and instructors.
On the fifth day of our first residency, my new mentor, a published writer whose work I knew, led a workshop on my own fiction submission. She began by asking each person in the workshop what my story was about. She then told me what she thought my story was about, and went through it page by page, pointing out the character details, descriptions, and turns of phrase that didn’t work. “I think you can keep about 30% of this story,” she told me.
By the time the critique was over, I knew what I needed to work on, but I did not know how to do it well, or if I had ever done it well. Yesterday, I prepared my third submission for this same mentor. My work was due at midnight, and I turned it in at midnight. Stymied by anxiety, I kept making revisions to my fiction moments before it was due. Plagued with procrastination, I had only begun the story days before, even though I had a month to work on it.
As an adult student, I bear much resemblance to our own SNL students. Though I regularly tell students to begin writing early, to explore various techniques for revision until they find what works, and to consider my feedback when they revise, I find it challenging to follow this same guidance from my own instructors.
With a different instructor, I’m taking an interdisciplinary studies course in travel writing. Our main assignment is to “write a travel story.” That’s it. That’s the assignment: “Write a travel story.” There is no word count, page limit, or suggested content. In the course we are learning the elements of a good travel story. We are reading multiple examples of published travel stories. We submit drafts and receive feedback. Some of my feedback includes comments like: “delete,” “change to,” “avoid dangling modifier,” “comma,” “this sentence is awkward and long.” Comments like “delete” and “dangling modifier” remind me of tendencies I am already aware of: to be unnecessarily wordy and to misplace my modifiers. But comments like “change to,” of which there are many, confuse me. These are edits; I will make them gladly, easily, but I will struggle to learn from them. Moreover, I struggle to see how these in-line edits connect to the instructor’s narrative feedback: that I need more personal information and a theme in my story. This feedback is painfully familiar: I offer it on nearly every student draft! But, I’m not sure which is more important or more humbling: my need to find a central theme in my piece or my need to be less lazy about my grammar.
I’m no neurologist, but I suspect that we use a vastly different part of our brain when we wear our teaching hats from the part we use when we wear our student hats. As I co-exist in the roles of both teacher and student, I’ve realized that I need to bridge the gap between teaching and learning for my adult students; moreover, I need to heed my own advice and be my own best instructor. After all, at SNL we operate on a definition of learning that requires the student to take what they already know and apply it to future situations. The more we can teach students how we teach, and how they can teach themselves, the better they will learn.
To better help students to teach themselves, here are three specific ways my teaching has changed since I have also returned to being a student:
· I do more meta-teaching.
I have theories behind why I do what I do, and I share them with students. On first drafts, for example, I offer little feedback, most of it narrative. I prepare students for this, and teach them beforehand how to read and use this feedback.
· When I offer both narrative and in-text feedback, I coordinate the two rather than duplicating my efforts.
So that a student, like me in my travel writing class, does not get a different message from the narrative feedback and the comments, I consider how I can offer comments that enable the student to enact the revisions suggested in the narrative feedback. I reserve highlighting for grammar errors, so that students can better separate the local revisions from the global revisions.
· I write clear assignments; or, if I want to leave part of the assignment up to the students’ discretion, I explain why.
As an adult student, I find myself in a tender relationship with my instructors. While they may not have more knowledge than me about writing, they have had more experience and more success with their skill. Leaving an assignment “open” respects that knowledge that students already have, if they are told why the assignment is being left open in the first place. This is different from failing to give clear guidelines and then marking a student down afterwards because they failed to meet invisible requirements.