Tag Archives: graduate school

It’s in the Syllabus

Calander 2In a week, I’ll be teaching two sections of an introductory English class using a syllabus of my own design, for my graduate program. I can choose the readings, assignments, and discussion topics, all within reason, of course (I probably wouldn’t be allowed to teach my students math; lucky them). While I’ve been a TA and writing tutor before, I’ve never been in charge of a class for a full sixteen weeks. And now I’m charge of two classes.

For a while, I thought of syllabi as surreal artifacts that came from thin air, or maybe from elves living in the College of Business. Even until recently, I didn’t think too much about the amount of work that can go into a syllabus. Some good friends have given me advice, and while a few peers have suggested I improvise the whole thing, I’d much rather work with a script.

Drafting a syllabus felt like writing a script more than anything else. There are formal parts, class goals and policies on plagiarism, but most of it is a kind of script. I worry that I may not play the role of “teacher” well enough, but at least I’ll have a day-to-day plan to navigate my way through the semester.

As a student, it’s easy to jump to the most important parts of a syllabus, the due dates and assignment descriptions (so we can know which days we should study and which days we can party), but for a teacher the syllabus is more than a binding contract with students. It’s a way of making the act of teaching much less daunting. I can worry less about sixteen weeks when I see those weeks compartmentalized into individual blocks of time: here, a discussion about a short story; there, a brief note about logos, pathos, and ethos; after that, a short paper is due.

I look forward to teaching in a week, and I’m terrified of teaching in a week. By next Monday, I’ll know what to say one day at a time, and if I get stumped, I’ll know the answer is in the syllabus.

-jk

 

Graduate School, Season Two

teapotAmong the many things coming this Fall is the second season of me being in Graduate School. This next year looks promising, and I’m looking forward to the goofy Nebraska antics, the creative writing classes I’ll be taking, and finally teaching a class on my own.

I hope the next year of Graduate School corrects some of the mistakes of last season. For example, the protagonist last year came off as exceedingly pretentious, especially in his attitude toward the setting. The protagonist spent too much time complaining about the Midwest, and while the “missing home narrative” was compelling, it got old quickly. I for one hope the main character does more than sit around making bad jokes about the prairies.

The next season will most likely see more of the main character trying to get published, and the audience will enjoy the conflict between devotion to graduate studies versus the effort it takes to write, read, submit, and convince literary magazines to publish his work. Many of last season’s episodes focused on various low-stakes self-contained stories that take place in the protagonist’s apartment or the English department, which is why I hope Graduate School will venture out a little more this season. As a show with a whole city for a setting, it’s strange that so much of it uses only two interior buildings to shoot in.

The show has many strange components: the romance plots are all backstory, the drama is all internal, there’s very little dialogue, and the protagonist doesn’t seem to have changed in the first season, at least not in ways the audience would hope for. Where’s his arc?

The real question is whether or not Graduate School will go on for a third season, or if the show will wrap up with the protagonist just getting a Master’s Degree and stopping his college pursuits after that. Future years of Graduate School could be quite worthwhile, but without major character development, this could be Graduate School’s last year. In any case, I look forward to the season premier, and I hope the coming year will be, at the very least, entertaining.

-jk

Reflections on a First Semester in Grad School

AcademyI’m twenty-five percent of the way finished with my Master’s Degree in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Most of what I’ve encountered is unsurprising: the workload is tough, the Midwest is flat. However, there are certain things I’ve learned, perhaps unique to my own situation, that I wish I’d known earlier this summer.

  1. Maturity is a state of mind. I’m the youngest person I’ve met in the creative writing segment of my department, and I’m often made to feel like a little kid, like I don’t quite belong, among the adults (at least among most of the writers I’ve met). Many are PhD students with an MFA or an MA. In truth, I don’t quite fit in with most of the other writers stylistically, humorously, or aesthetically. Both my writing and self are plain weird, and I’m surrounded by tradition and formality. I don’t want to sacrifice my identity to fit in, though. I’d rather be a transplanted weirdo in the Midwest than a converted Midwesterner. Growing up isn’t about leaving behind parts of myself that don’t meet others’ expectations; it’s about maintaining myself in increasingly diverse and challenging situations.
  2. Discussions of craft are not as important as craft itself. Every discussion of craft I’ve had so far consists of an extensive mythology of what other writers did to keep themselves writing, followed by the refrain, do what works for you; coffee, rum, fishing in the Missouri River, whatever will help crank out a daily three to four pages. My own method involves writing for those who inspire me, unhealthy amounts of caffeine, and hikes in nature (which I’ve yet to find near Lincoln).
  3. Nothing is more important than the writing. I came to graduate school to write, and to publish, and to understand literature and improve myself intellectually, but my primary goal is to crank out three to four pages a day, no matter what.
  4. Friendship is more important than the writing. Friends are increasingly hard to come by the higher I climb into academia. Allies are nice, but the few friends I’ve made are crucial to my survival. Without them, I’d have no support for my experimentation. Plus, writing can be lonely, and being cooped up all day is a good way to get cabin fever.
  5. Contradictions are okay (and inevitable). Graduate life, much like undergraduate life, is complex and full of numerous contradictions. Some are basic: a free ride still requires one thousand dollars of student fees per semester. Some are more complex: writing depends upon time and inspiration, but inspiration usually comes from things requiring time not spent writing (loved ones, caffeine, hiking). Fortunately, I now have the benefit of knowing exactly what I need to survive the next seventy-five percent of my degree: writing, friends, coffee, a place to hike, more confidence in my weirdness, and a few more publications would be tolerable, I suppose.

Look out, 2016, here I come.

-jk

Big League Academia

New WriterTwo months into my first year of graduate school, I think I’ve finally started to settle in. The workload is not beyond my management (I somehow function better with less sleep), the faculty are just as thoughtful and thought-provoking, and my descent deeper into the cult of academia is going smoothly; soon, I’m told, I’ll be a card-carrying postmodernist. The support my writing receives is frequent, and the possibility of a writing career is even starting to take shape.

For example, this past week I had the opportunity to meet with two agents and two editors, to have them critique a section of my novel-in-progress and discuss the publishing industry. They told me what they liked about the short section, offered insights, made revision suggestions, and allowed me to see the project in grander terms. I learned that when I eventually get an agent and editor, publishing becomes a collaborative effort, a group project. They offered to stay in contact when I have a polished draft. Suddenly, the fantasy of publication no longer feels so impossible.

Is this it? Is this the next step for my writing? Or is this just the next phase in my hike up the ranks into academia? I ask myself this question because I’m surrounded by people who have it figured out already. I’m surrounded by serious academics, doctoral students devoting years to studying, students fulfilling long-term plans. Many of them took a break after college to figure out the rest of their lives, get married, travel, go on adventures, experience things they can then write about. And here I am, fresh out of my undergraduate career.

Am I here because I want to be a writer, or because I want to be an academic? I feel like a kid who doesn’t yet know what he wants to be when he grows up, and time is running out. Do I teach? Get a PhD? Another MA? An MFA? Is there life after publication? Or should I let my ambitions dictate my future? Tired of studying tragedy but never taking that study out of the classroom, I still want to join a charity, volunteer in a hospital in Palestine or Afghanistan or Jordan, or work on an organic farm in Chile or Brazil. I want to see the world, because I know if I stay in the confines of an English Department, I’ll run out of things to write about.

I’m still just a kid, academically speaking, and I’m surrounded by intellectual adults. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked about my PhD, as if that’s the only end in sight, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve silently shrugged and changed the subject. I only have until next fall to figure it out, though. Do I become a career academic? Teach? Work? Let me know in the comments your own thoughts or plans.

-jk

Out of the Frying Pan, Into Graduate School

book boxes A few months ago, I attended the AWP Conference where eager representatives from MA and MFA programs stuffed fliers into my hands. They all offered the same possibility: a few years in paradise with nothing to do but write, read, workshop, and inevitably publish. I was drawn into the illusion that ignored the work, the expenses, the debt, and the difficulty in getting anything published.

While preparing for life after NAU, I knew that graduate school was not the only way to become a writer. I could serve overpriced coffee to people in suits, slipping them poems on their receipts to show them my talent, or I could work as a governess for a rich man with gigantic muttonchops who helps me publish my sad story. Or I could take the realistic approach and work, write, and submit short pieces to journals, like most writers I know, gradually building up a longer and longer list of published works.

After I returned from the conference, I received an email from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I had applied to eight schools last fall, and all rejected me but UNL; late in April they informed me they would offer me full funding and a stipend through a research assistantship. It was a lucky break, and I took the offer, not because I believed it was the only path I could take, but because I believed it was the best path for me at the moment. It’s the opportunity to get a Master’s Degree in English without any debt, which is just short of a fantasy these days. I don’t believe I deserve such an opportunity over other applicants, but because I have the opportunity now, it’s my responsibility to make the best of it that I can.

I’m not going just to improve my writing, though of course my emphasis will be in creative writing, and of course I intend to come out of it a better writer. But I also hope to become a more scholarly reader, a better student, a more disciplined person.  I was born into academia, and I can handle it a few more years without losing my mind. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity. So I’ll buckle down, pack up my four thousand books and my no. 2 pencils, and plunge into the fire.

-jk