What It’s Like to TA a Fiction Workshop

by Salvatore Pane

This past semester was my first opportunity to use a TA in one of my classes. It’s not common knowledge that any instructor can use a TA at Pitt, and I really had no idea until one of the senior faculty members pointed it out. I needed someone to manage the discussion boards–in my Intro to Fiction class there are literally thousands of posts–and cover classes when I needed to be out of town for campus interviews. Joellyn Powers was a student of mine in Advanced Fiction Workshop last spring, and I asked her to be my TA for Intro to Fiction because I knew she was applying to MFA programs and wanted to get experience teaching. In addition to coming to class, offering up suggestions, running the boards, and teaching the occasional workshop, I also asked her to read a few essays about workshop pedagogy–Madison Smartt Bell’s “Unconscious Mind” and Peter Turchi’s “Making the Most of a Workshop” both of which you can find PDFs of online with a small bit of searching–and a collection of MFA lectures by Charles Baxter entitled Burning Down the House. At the end of the course, I asked Joellyn to write a brief paper discussing her experience teaching a college class for the first time and her response to the reading materials above. After reading the essay, I thought others might find it interesting, and Joellyn agreed to let me run it on the blog. It’s a peculiar vantage point that many of us can relate to: that space between college and an MFA program. How do you analyze and effectively run a class you would have been in only a few semesters earlier? Let me know what you think, and check out Joellyn’s writing. She has work in Metazen, Bluestem, Big Lucks, and others.

I can honestly say this has been the most rewarding experience of my college career. I’ve always wanted to be a writer – it is the only career I have ever conceivably been able to imagine myself doing – but I was always told to think of the ‘practical’ side of things. In my senior year of high school, I was a teaching assistant for one of my English teachers. It was horrible. The kids were disrespectful and loud, the curriculum was outdated, and the tasks I was assigned to do were menial, at best. High school teaching was out, as far as I was concerned, and it seemed even more impossible for me to have a job that would allow me to function in society. When I got to college, though, the people in the classes seemed so much more involved – the students actually wanted to be there and the majority of the professors were so passionate about their subjects they could turn something as dull as American history into a topic I wanted to learn more about and excel in. College became a bubble of academia, where one subject could be looked at so closely it became the entire world of the classroom.

So in my last semester of college – a semester that was already emotionally taxing for more reasons than one – I did not think twice about jumping into the world of college teaching. And I can sincerely state that this position helped me in receiving a fantastic scholarship to a fantastic MFA program. It also helped me to realize that I am on the right track in my life and that this is something I am good at – this is a job I can actually do and be successful at.

It was strange at first, being on the other side of the class. Being in a position of even some type of higher understanding makes me nervous; I didn’t really want to be the one students turned to when they did not understand something. I realized just how much responsibility a teacher has to his or her students, but I also realized how this line of work is a constant cycle of education on both sides. Let me try and explain a bit. When I first began as a teaching assistant for Introduction to Fiction, I was just finishing up applying to MFA programs. I was creatively and emotionally exhausted by my own writing and drained from filling out applications. I did not know what I had to add to the classroom setting – what did I really know about anything? The first eye-opening experience I had was during the first lesson I taught. In the last ten or fifteen minutes, I asked the class if they had any questions about the English major at Pitt, about Pitt in general, or about applying to graduate school. I was shocked and flattered by how many people had thoughtful, legitimate questions. Even though the majority of the class consisted of freshmen, they were all eager to know what they could do with this major in the future. As I answered their questions to the best of my ability, I began to realize that I was providing them with knowledge I had only learned a few years, or months, or even weeks, before. As I learned more I would also know less, yes, but during that process I would also become more knowledgeable for someone else. It was a very humbling realization.

I’ve also realized how immensely satisfying it is to talk about short stories I myself draw great inspiration from. I got to have a discussion about Andre Dubus’s ‘The Fat Girl’ with the class, arguably one of the most influential short stories for myself as a writer, as well as Deborah Eisenberg’s ‘Twilight of the Superheroes,’ a story that, with a second read-through, I grew to appreciate on an entirely new level. I was also introduced to new stories in my lessons: Don Lee’s ‘The Price of Eggs in China’ and James Alan McPherson’s ‘Gold Coast.’ It was interesting for me to study these stories on a pedagogical level, rather than an academic, or even a writing, one. What do these students need to get out of these pieces of writing? How can I get them to see the techniques these writers use? I also got to recommend Aimee Bender to a student, which was satisfying on an entirely different level.

Running a workshop was also a rewarding experience. I enjoyed listening to the students’ insights into their peers’ work, while directing the conversation rather than merely inserting my own opinions. I did voice my thoughts on the writing up for workshop, but it was in a more directive way; I tried to be critical while also giving the writer another story to look at or a different technique to try. Looking back on this workshop experience after reading two essays on the subject of writing pedagogy, I can see how some people would think running a creative writing class is easy. From a distanced perspective it looks like a group of people talking about what they liked and what they didn’t like about a piece of writing; but when this group of people is thought about in a different light, it becomes something more complicated. The essay by Peter Turchi really opened this up for me. I was especially drawn to the line, ‘Your goal in a workshop, then, should be to help the writer understand what a thoughtful reader sees on the page.’ This line reminded me of the countless writing workshops I have sat through in my educational career, where the majority of the time was spent making comments and suggestions the writer would probably not even use in the first place. I see Turchi’s suggestion as a way in which to run an undergraduate – and even a graduate – writing workshop. I want the students to be able to see the writer’s intent, rather than merely the work’s merits and shortcomings. The intent should be the most important aspect – without a strong foundation, the story will not succeed.

The second essay by Madison Smartt Bell really spoke to me in its presentation of the unconscious mind. When I was enrolled in Introduction to Fiction and Intermediate Fiction here at Pitt, my instructors spent a lot of the time assigning us on-the-spot writing exercises. I’m the type of person who can never write on cue; the urge to write or the burgeoning of an idea always occurs when I’m least expecting it, so to be told to sit down and write from the perspective of a child, say, was more aggravating than inspiring. Watching from the sidelines of this Intro Fiction course, I have begun to imagine ways in which this ‘unconscious’ way of writing can be taught, without using those irritating in-class prompts. I think it would be important for the teacher to provide the class with his or her own struggles with writing. Seeing the instructor as a fellow writer is more helpful than viewing them as some unreachable, superior being. I liked feeling on equal footing with the students during workshop; it felt more like a discussion, rather than a lecture. Don’t get me wrong, I think some form of formal instruction is necessary in order to teach technique and to introduce students to important stories and writers, but, as Bell says, writing is such a solitary act in the first place that when the class comes together, it should be a collaborative forum, rather than one person taking the lead.

Then there is Charles Baxter’s collection of essays. These were strange, inspiring, irritating, and pretentious, all at once. I enjoyed reading the book, though, and I think that says something – that writing pedagogy can be read  without cringing. It doesn’t have to be something so academic it makes you gag. My favorite essay was ‘Against Epiphanies.’ I love that Baxter is arguing against the one, huge epiphany in literature, and that, ‘…sometimes the epiphanic insight is not so radiant. You discover that you are going to spend your life in Laundromats, fighting other people to get access to the dryers.’ That’s an awesome sentence in its own right, but from a pedagogical standpoint, I think it shows that teachers can fight against one way of instructing students in creative writing; there does not have to be one right way.

Basically, what I’m trying to get at is this has been an incredibly eye-opening, satisfying, and humbling experience. I have been able to see ways to combine my own writing with teaching, as well as ways in which to show students how to look at their writing differently. I am so grateful that I was given this opportunity, and that I will be able to use this new-found knowledge as I move into a graduate program.