Teaching Stuff: Going Forth

by Richard J. Chwedyk

Writers are not always the most sociable of creatures. We sit by ourselves and stare into screens, or blank sheets of paper. We’re locked away in little rooms, or sitting in cafés – but alone, tapping or scribbling away. Not always, but often enough. Solitude comes with the territory of getting our work done.

And yet, writers are often asked to teach. Many writers take to the change of pace with enthusiasm. Many others view this kind of employment with existential dread. Perhaps for good reason. Before you can teach, you need ask yourself what you know.

Scary stuff.

I’ve been asked by writers and former students who are on the verge of teaching their first classes: what should they do? What’s the most important thing they can do to make the experience most beneficial to teachers and students.

There are too many things to tell these writers in one quick reply. A lot of it won’t make sense and more of it won’t ease any of the anxieties they may suffer. So I try to boil it down to the most important stuff, in the way it was boiled down to me – one or two things. Everything else fits under them.

The first one I stumbled upon in the first weeks teaching my first science fiction writing class. I had some doubts about how the class was going. I ran into the department chairman, Randy Albers, and he asked me how the class was going. When I hesitated in my reply, he sensed my anxiety and asked if I wanted to talk about it. Demonstrating an unusual degree of good judgment for me, I said yes. We went to his office.

To allay any mystery, let me tell you what was worrying me was, of all things, the unbridled enthusiasm of my students. I was kind of overwhelmed and afraid I couldn’t control it – as if control were important. I didn’t know.

Randy listened politely. He asked me, after a moment, one question: “Is it good for the students?” The question cut to the chase in the most obvious way, I was embarrassed I didn’t think of it myself.

“Yes,” I said. “They’re enthused and excited by the class. How can it not be good?”

Randy nodded sagely (because he is a sage, after all). “If if it’s good for the students is what matters. That’s who we’re here for.”

In that instant, a multitude of doubts evaporated (not all, of course, but that comes with the territory).

The second one came to me way, way back, in the last century. I was about to go forth and teach my first Comp. 101 class – my very first teaching gig – and I didn’t have a clue as to what the hell I was going to do.

My unofficial mentor – a wonderful woman , an experienced teacher and an editor for a business publisher (not to mention a no-nonsense Army-brat-martinet) – could easily tell I was scared shitless, so she described to me how she threw up before class and how everyone else she knew who had taught threw up before their first class. “If you’re not vomiting, you’re already ahead.”

The appointed hour came and she had to go to her own class. Her class was up one flight of stairs and mine was down another. She wished me luck and I said something like “Luck be damned! What the hell do I do?”

She was halfway up the stairs already and she called back, “What do you love?”

I thought a moment and said, “Fiction. I love fiction. Science fiction.”

She nodded and shouted back, “Teach that. Teach what you love.”

It was the best advice I ever received, or ever will, about teaching – though it’s taken me over twenty years to figure out how to do it (somewhat).

I don’t know shit, but I LOVE this (whatever I’m pointing to right now).

And so I go into every class with a rough idea of what I might do (or what my syllabus prescribes), but ready to accept that something different may happen. And that’s okay.

So, for those going forth to teach, it boils down to:

1.) You’re there for the students, and

2.) Teach what you love.

The rest is in the hands of Fate.

•••

Richard Chwedyk is a Nebula Award-winning science fiction writer, poet and teacher. His work has appeared in Nebula Awards Showcase 2004Year’s Best SF 7Year’s Best SF 8Fantasy and Science FictionAmazing StoriesSpace and Time80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin and other publications. A collection of his “saur” stories is making the rounds. He lives in Chicago with his wife, poet Pamela Miller, and occasionally blogs at Critinomicon.

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