On Teaching and Generosity
I taught my first solo class this quarter at UCR-- Introduction to Playwriting and Screenwriting. Though there were some minor guidelines, I got to build the class essentially from the ground up, picking reading materials, mapping out the schedule, amending the required writing assignments to my liking. I was thrilled to get to do this. I don't know when it struck me that I wanted to teach, but over the course of the last two years of my MFA, it's become painfully apparent that the classroom (undergrad level or higher, I ain't tryna fuck with <18) is where I want to be, and also where I thrive. Relatedly, I spent a good handful of my MFA workshops quietly co-teaching classes, sometimes with the appreciative recognition of the leading professor, under the nose of others.
I picked 4 pieces that I thought packed a fair diversity punch in a short time: Stop Kiss by Diana Son, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Thelma and Louise by Callie Khouri. I took the 2 required writing assignments--a short screenplay and a short stageplay--and made the length requirements better reflect the forms: a 10-15p screenplay that could be submitted to short film festivals if produced, and a 20-30p one-act play that would give students insight into building a longer arc.
We had our final class last night, and I told my students I felt a little spoiled this first time around. I had 10 undergrads, all dedicated, respectful, and hard-working. Classes were fun and easy; I got them talking and only occasionally felt like I was rambling on. I worked hard, too--I made a detailed syllabus, took care to put every assignment and every choice in context (because I think students deserve to know why you want them to do something, and still sent them an email after every class reminding them what was due, and including any extra materials based on things that came up in class. I sent detailed PDFs with additional notes for maximum understandability. I put time and thought into crafting each and every thing.
Too often, as educators, we take a one-size-fits-all approach to our students, and that approach is usually built on the assumption that they know how to do school. My mother worked at colleges since I was born, so I grew up on campuses, academia passed down like DNA. I was very much aware that it was a privilege to be familiar with how school worked, aware of how unfair the assumption is when teachers treat students like they should know what's going on. Teaching at UC Riverside took that awareness and made it palpable--it's one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, and has the highest rate of graduation for 1st-time college students. Kids at UCR are, for the most part, hard-working multitaskers, and many of them speak English as a second language and are the first in their families to go to college.
It does not take much more effort on my part to ensure that the system of our class is as clear as it can be, to give context for assignments (what I'm hoping students get out of them, how the assignments help them learn the desired skill), to devote attention to each student, to answer their emails and questions. The effort it takes on my part is a seed I'm willing to sow, to reap the benefits of a mutual respect and an open communication between us all.
After our last class, a few students walked me across campus.
"I just want to thank you for a great quarter," one of them said. "I could've spent six hours in your class every Tuesday. It was honestly one of the best classes I've had here."
The others nodded in agreement.
"And I'm just so appreciative of the time you took to answer my questions and talk to me. I've never had a professor invest so much time in just me and my experience."
I'm getting soft in my old age, and even if I didn't show it, I was pretty emotional. I don't often pat myself on the back, and I don't like compliments. But nothing feels better than knowing that the time and energy you invested in the hopes that students felt comfortable, safe, respected, and encouraged in your classroom paid off in just that. Not every student might have felt that way, but the vibe was good, the class was successful, and I watched and helped their writing grow from week to week. We had good discussions, and I made sure to get them talking by having round-table questions, pushing them to clarify their thoughts, and always treating their curiosities and comments with respect.
It could have all been a fluke--we'll see. I'm sure not every class will go so smoothly, or feel so good at the end. I'm sure I will have students who don't feel like they get a damn thing from me; I hope I'm able to notice that and adjust before it's too late. I've seen too many teachers treat the classroom like their own personal temple, a place for their voice to be heard and revered, for their opinion to matter the most. I think, as long as I'm able to keep my ego off that shit, I'll be okay.