Teaching Fiction Writing Pt. 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold

[flickr id=”6166598334″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”original” group=”” align=”none”]

As a grad student, I figured that my teaching career would start with a section of Freshman Comp. That wasn’t how it went down. Last week,  I discussed the teaching work that I’ve done through the Fiction Writing department. Now, I’m going to talk about where that work has lead me, while also answering a common question about our graduate program.

Strap yourself in for some lurid tales from the life of a teaching artist.

Wikipedia, the apotheosis* of accuracy, says a teaching artist… “is an artist who teaches and integrates their art form into arts and non-arts curricula.”

ArtsandAging.org says a teaching artist is, “an artist with the complementary skills and sensibilities of an educator who engages people in learning experiences in, through, or about the arts.”

In other words, if you’re an artist who teaches in their creative field, you are a teaching artist. Usually, teaching artist work is part-time (so you have time to create, screw health benefits!) and not done as a part of an established academic institution like a college or public school.

My Columbia work (tutor training, classroom teaching and Act/Write) lead to me teaching the following over the last eighteen months: a writing workshop in a senior center, a journalism class where Chicago teens write stories for True Star magazine, and I have just started co-teaching writing/theater classes in the Juvenile Detention Centers in Chicago and the suburbs.

So, my experience has lead to a decent career as a teaching artist. Do I love it? You bet. Would I still like to teach writing at a college level? Absolutely yes, but unfortunately, that is extremely difficult to do through the Fiction Writing department.

Let me explain…

[flickr id=”6166608418″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”original” group=”” align=”none”]

In the 1980s, Columbia’s Fiction Writing department split off from the English department, to become a program that exclusively uses the Story Workshop teaching method. Since we are the only program that teaches Story Workshop, you have to learn Story Workshop as a Columbia Fiction Writing student before you can teach it. To teach Story Workshop at the college level, you have to take an extra 18 credits and receive an additional Teaching MA, to go with your Writing MFA. The Teaching MA is focused on teaching Story Workshop, so it’s a degree that focuses on a style of teaching that is only done in one department, at one school. And, like any degree, the Teaching MA does not guarantee you a job.

Since Fiction Writing is separate from the English department (which houses the Poetry and Nonfiction MFA programs), Fiction Writing grad students rarely teach the basic comp classes in the English department. The only person I know that has done it, already had a Master’s in teaching from another school. Meanwhile, the Poetry and Nonfiction grads that I meet have a lot more access to these opportunities, since they are in their department.

I wish that this divide between the departments did not exist. Though I’ve met grads from the English department through other on-campus work, it’s strange to not have the opportunity to interact with them in an academic setting. I could learn a lot about language from Poetry folks. I could compare notes on personal narratives with Nonfiction students. We’re all writers – we should be talking. And, we’re all MFA students – we should be able to teach college classes.

That said, I value the teaching experience that I’ve received through my department. I came to Columbia College Chicago wanting to teach, and am confident that I’ll be able to find other teaching work once I am done with my degree. I’ve been inspired and entertained by my students, and I learned a lot about myself, my craft, and the world around me through my work.

*If Ted Leo can use the word in a song, Chris Terry can use it in a blog post.


Since a big part of choosing an MFA program is getting a feel for the writing that it produces, I’m sharing a new link to Fiction Writing grad student work every week. Here’s “How Tommy Soto Breaks Your Heart” by Susan Hope Lanier. Sooz and I started during the same year. She’s from the DC area and has a background in photography. It’s always interesting to see how people who started in different creative disciplines approach writing. “Tommy Soto” is in Annalemma, a (mainly) online journal with a strong visual focus. It was started in ’07 by a former Columbia student and is well-respected in the current indie lit world.