Monday, September 15, 2014

Teaching English Composition

My first experience with teaching happened while I was driving down Alligator Alley late one afternoon. I was giving a very detailed lecture on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, rewording scholar Stephen Price’s Marxist angle on the commentary track to my highly enthralled (oh, and completely imaginary) class of Film Appreciation students. I was trapped in the fantasy caused by a long, lonely drive down a long, boring road, but the passion was real. Real enough for me to mime my points of interest in grand hand gestures that earned looks from every passing minivan. Real enough for to miss my exit. And real enough for it to take me twenty minutes to notice. Some part of me (perhaps the not quite sane part) wanted to teach or, at least, saw myself being able to.  
During my first term as a MFA student at Florida Atlantic University I was surprised at just how many of my fellow classmates were a part of the Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) program. My vision was too tunneled during my undergraduate studies. I was so focused on getting into the MFA program that I was blindsided  upon learning there were other options and possibilities available. You mean I could teach? No way. What would I teach? Oh, English Composition. How is it? Is it really work intensive? Oh, so it’s not so bad? I get an office? Yeah, I understand it’s a shared office but whatever, still cool. Well, maybe, I don’t know, we’ll see, I’ll think about it…
After many conversations with teachers, students, advisors, friends, family, and random strangers whose opinion seemed important during my time of doubt, I decided to apply for a GTA position.
The road to the GTA was not as narrow and straight as Alligator Alley. I was informed late in the Spring of 2014 that I would not receive a GTA. I was disappointed. My delusions of grandeur reverted from Captain my Captain moments back to my old fail safe—my Academy Award Speech for winning best original screenplay.
Questions of self-worth arose. Am I good enough? Do I belong here? Should I leave? Whispers spoken though a cracked confidence.
I spent most of that summer prepping for the upcoming term. I masked the disappointment of a missed opportunity under piles of thesis revision and new work I would need in upcoming workshops.
An email from my program advisor in late July rejuvenated my enthusiasm for both the MFA program and the future I could make in it—I was offered a GTA position. I’m not going to state exactly how excited I was, but it was somewhere between drinking an entire bottle of whiskey and doing complete cartwheels around my neighborhood. Twice.
Initially, I was too excited to be scared. I printed out a copy of the GTA offer letter and drove to my mother’s house. She was a public school teacher for thirty-five years and an adjunct professor at Nova University. She likes to take credit for any ounce of creativity I may process, so I thought she’d enjoy more affirmation. After that, I drove to my employer to put in my resignation. Management was almost as happy for me as I was that I’d finally be able leave behind the insane hours (and equally insane people) of the restaurant business.
I was excited most for that. Never have I been able to focus solely on school. I’ve always had to balance work, studies, and writing, and I’ve worried each area has suffered due to the sacrifices my juggling act has required.  I knew teaching would replace those restaurant hours, but the thought of staying on campus, constantly surrounded by like-minded people doing like-minded things was inspiring.
But I’ve had doubts. I’m too aware of my weaknesses not to. I’m terrible at giving presentations, I often overlook my own textual errors, and sometimes I waver off point and talk about ideas not relevant to anything. Like fishing, for example: I’ve never caught a Redfish before. I really want to. But I won’t eat it. I don’t like fish. But I love steak. So, anyway, you can see why I was concerned. Would my weakness affect my ability to teach and mold the eager minds of my students?
Well, the process is ongoing. It is, after all, only the end of the first four weeks. But those doubts, those fears, the moments of feeling like maybe I’m a fraud are shared. My fellow incoming GTA’s echo my fears, imagined or otherwise. I know my moments of anxiety will be calmed during the next group therapy section, otherwise known as Colloquium. The support offered within the program, from Colloquium, ENC 6700 and the more experienced GTA’s who have willingly offered guidance throughout the process, has made the experience of learning to become a teacher both worthwhile and rewarding.
My students are great, and some days I feel like I’m doing it right, that everything will be okay. Sometimes not so much. In front of my class, my grand hand gestures can cause confused looks from my students, as if my class were filled with twenty-two minivans drivers turning to peer into my sedan. But I just keep driving, thrilled I missed the exit.

Aaron Avis is a MFA student in Creative Non Fiction at Florida Atlantic University. He is currently in his first year of the Graduate Teaching Assistant program offered by the University.

Monday, September 8, 2014


If I told you how many times I've tried to give up studying English, you probably wouldn't believe me. You'd think I hated it. Not true. It just took me a long time to dig up that passion from deep in my subconscious, and draw it out into the open. Accept it.

The first time I tried to quit, I convinced myself I wanted to grow up to be an interpreter for the European Union. I lived in England at the time. I found out the hard way that I hated speaking French in front of my class. So how could I possibly do that in front of complete strangers? And to make a living? That year, I was sixteen, and it was the year I fell into the arms of Raymond Chandler and Edgar Allan Poe. Our love affair lasted another twelve months or so before I convinced myself I couldn’t commit anymore.

A few years passed and I moved to Tampa, Florida, to earn my bachelor's degree. I started out as a French major. What was I thinking? I knew it wasn't going to work out when more of my schedule was spent fueling my Shakespeare obsession than, well, anything else. My interpreting career quickly fell to the wayside.

In early March of this year, I found myself holding an acceptance letter to the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University. Yes, it belonged to me. The shaky hands, those tears wearing holes in the folds of the page, those were mine too.

We’re now on week three of my first semester as a graduate student, and the MFA at FAU has far exceeded my expectations. I finally feel I am where I’m supposed to be. It helps that the program offers funding, so there’s no worrying about when and where my next meal will come from. Maybe I’m still eating Ramen noodles and microwaveable pots of macaroni cheese; maybe this is a personal choice.

The people I’m studying with actually care about what they’re doing. My instructors and mentors are masters of their craft. It’s refreshing. But the biggest change since moving into graduate studies is adjusting to a schedule split between the classes in which I’m a student, and those I am teaching. The opportunity was one I couldn’t refuse: three consecutive years of teaching English, gaining professional experience in the field, and escaping from waiting tables at run-down beachfront diners. When I’m not studying, I’m grading assignments and planning lessons for my forty-four unsuspecting undergrads. There I was, convinced I’d given up on English forever. I’d never be a teacher. And yet, the faces of my students are already haunting my dreams. I suppose that shows how much I care about them. I’ve gotten so used to being part of the sea of drooping eyelids and blank faces, that I can’t quite believe I’m here; I’m on the wrong side of the podium and I think I could get used to it.

Rebecca Jensen graduated from the Honors College at the University of South Florida in 2014. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English (creative writing) with a minor in French. Her writing is mainly creative nonfiction, focusing on the themes of travel and identity. She has worked as fiction editor for the literary magazine Driftwood Press, and is a new member of the Coastlines editing team at FAU.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Writing Place

I still think of summer as inherently Jamaican – or at least, how summer should be: running through the prickly zoysia grass of my childhood home, dodging sprinklers, Devon Stout Ice Cream melting through my fingers. Those first moments before the air-conditioning kicks on in a car that has been left baking in the sun for hours. But I’m too old for that rubbish now, I guess.

Instead, for my internship at a high-end interior design magazine, I spent my summer in a cubicle, in an air-conditioned office – albeit a beautiful one: an office lined with glass doors and post-postmod paintings fresh from Art Basel Miami. An adult summer. But in that cubicle, summer is season-less, placeless. 

Which is ironic, because all I wrote about was place. My writing responsibilities focused on producing shop/destination guides for the magazine’s regional markets. The voice of each piece took on the speech of some upscale Indiana Jones; a woman who spent her summer days wandering through charming neighborhoods and compiling little lux retreats – the perfect place to have Vietnamese coffee in Austin or the absolutely best spot for handmade stationary in D.C. 

This was imaginary, of course. I never had Vietnamese coffee in Austin. I buy my generic stationary in bulk from the Target off Hillsboro. But for these blurbs I pretended. The visuals weren’t hard to capture with the help of accompanying hi-res pictures. But there was something else – some essence expressed in the way these little shop owners and barkeeps spoke to me about their work. There’s the sense that, if they get a chance, they will always be there – in Austin, in Colorado Springs, running their bespoke shop, making things, doing the daily work that’s needed to make a place that will last, that will be a hallmark for their communities. That if, when a customer does move, perhaps for a job in an air-conditioned cubicle far away, they will remember their store – their Vietnamese coffee, their handmade stationary – and feel sick to their stomach, but in a good way. In a way that makes them want to go back home.

This is, of course, what I have always wanted my fiction to do. To make you sick to your stomach. Make you want to go to these fictionalized homelands that, if done right, feel more final that your own.

Sometimes, when I’m back home in Jamaica, lying on my childhood bed, the fan cranked up on high, for some reason I find myself muttering “I want to go home.” This doesn’t make sense, except of course that sometimes the stories we tell about home are better than the real thing.

And sometimes, when I was done for the day, after turning in another copy about a place – detailed and shimmering in its polished fantasy (as much as 300 words can be) – I sat in my parked car and just let the hot air steam around me until I become pleasantly lightheaded. When you close your eyes in the summer heat, sometimes you forget where the hell you are.

Monique McIntosh is a third year MFA student at FAU. She is a fiction short story writer from Jamaica.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Perks of Being a Corporate Sellout

            “I might be dumber by the end of summer, but at least it’s a good resume builder.” Or that’s what I told my mom when I accepted an internship with a beauty magazine. Spending three months writing blurbs about makeup that are as much advertisements as they are “reviews” sounded about as stimulating as, well, spending three months writing blurbs about makeup. So imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying it. Yes, I was writing about beauty products, but it was still writing. And I like writing.
            The great thing about the beauty industry is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s completely frivolous, and the people inside the industry are just as aware of this as the people outside. My boss was educated, well-traveled and the first person to admit she never expected to wind up at a beauty magazine. She’s also one of the first people to admit: writing about beauty is fun. And I agree.
            I spent my days coming up with the cheesiest puns imaginable: “Inglot Cosmetics introduces a ‘scent-sational’ new fragrance line;” “Caffeine infused skincare, see what the buzz is all about;” “Worried about extra fat on your pooch? No, not your stomach, your dog.” (Did you know there’s liposuction for dogs now?! But don’t worry it’s purely for health reasons.)
            Aside from being fun, the perks didn’t suck. It was an unpaid internship, but there was a gym across the hall from me, an on site Starbucks where everything was free, a manicurist every other week (also free), and the occasional free beauty products. But corporate perks are never really free. Some part of your soul has to be sold. So what’s the trade off? What gets lost along the way?
            Artistic integrity. Coming from an MFA program where everyone seems to be aiming for different, where everyone wants to break through boundaries and do something surprising, and where I sometimes feel too mainstream (not that I’m complaining), writing about makeup is a big step in the opposite direction. It’s a world where facts sometimes go unpublished in favor of advertising revenue, and I know a lot of good writers who have moral qualms about that sort of thing. Luckily for me, I’ve never been one with an overdeveloped sense of righteous indignation. And chai tea lattes have a way of soothing my conscience
            Sure, maybe there’s something to be said for standards, for artistic integrity, for locking yourself away in a remote cabin in the woods to write a great American novel that no one will read until after your dead. At which point, moody high schoolers will rent the movie and glance through the CliffNotes. But there’s also something to be said for a building full of people sipping Americanos and getting paid to put words on paper. There’s something to be said for paying off student loans and not spending the last week of every month eating ramen noodles. There’s something to be said for making your art into your living. So don’t be afraid to trade in ten-dollar words for two-bit puns. It’s still writing. And as for artistic integrity, that’s what weekends are for.   
Shari Lefler is an MFA student and recipient of the President’s Award at Florida Atlantic University. Her focus is on non-fiction, especially travel and family memoir. Since entering the program, she has served as a non-fiction editor for Coastlines Literary Magazine, and Vice President of Graduate Teaching Assistants for the English Graduate Student Society. She has also worked as an editorial intern for digital content at New Beauty Magazine. She is currently organizing an underground group of rebel grammarians to join her fight against overuse of the exclamation point. To become a soldier for the cause, draw a semi-colon on a piece of masking tape and leave it outside your nearest Barnes and Noble. She will find you.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Welcome Back!

It's the start of a new semester - a time to review and renew your writing habits, goals, and progress toward your thesis. To that end, I thought I'd give you some programmatic information.

After 18 credit hours, you'll need to complete a Plan of Study. See me for help with this. Basically, the Plan of Study is your contract with the English Department and the Graduate College for the coursework that's required for the MFA. As such, it's an important form, and you'll need to stay current with it by filling out the Form 9 (Revision to Plan of Study) pretty much each subsequent semester.

If you're wondering what classes to take, check out our advising checklist and degree maps (for students with and without a GTA). Your degree is made up of 48 credit hours - 21 hours of Creative Writing Workshops, 18 hours of lit/theory classes, ENG 6009: Principles and Problems of Literary Study, and six thesis hours. It's recommended that you take ENG 6009: P&P as close to the beginning of your coursework as possible. Also, take workshops outside of your chosen genre! This will help to not only broaden your writing horizon, but will also enhance your chosen genre (I promise - there's a new energy you'll bring back after trying something new).

When you're ready to take thesis hours, come see me and discuss the process. Basically, you should email your prospective chair to set up an appointment. Don't ask your prospective chair during class or in the hallway - be formal, be polite, and take this request seriously. Your committee is made up of your chair and two other readers. Check out the faculty list for information on the professors' areas of study - consider choosing one reader from the non-creative writing faculty (they can bring a new perspective to your committee).

When you're getting ready to graduate, please see the degree completion page from the Graduate College. I recently sent an email around with Fall 2014 graduation deadlines - check it out, and if you're graduating this Fall, please be sure to set up an appointment with me as soon as possible.

We have some great readings lined up for the Fall, but I'd also love to be invited to readings you host (hint hint!). I'm planning a welcome back yoga class in the next week or so, so feel free to email me if you're interested in that. Don't forget to check out New Pages for information on journals and literary contests. Read Khristian Mecom's blog about publishing if you haven't yet.

I'm looking forward to a wonderful semester with all of you. My email is if you have any questions. Thanks!

MR Sheffield's work has been published or is forthcoming in Pank, Fiction Southeast, and Far Enough East - she's also your devoted English Advisor and an English instructor at FAU. Contact her at or (561) 297-2974.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Lana Thompson

I am sorry to relay the news that one of our beloved MFA alumni, Lana Thompson, recently passed away.  If you knew Lana, you know she was a true character, who loved classical music, ballet, cats--especially cats in cemeteries!--and travel. She also made a lifelong study of the rituals of death and dying, and so it probably won't surprise you to know that she faced her final illness with humor and forthrightness and awestruck curiosity.  The last time I saw her, she said, in a voice of sad amazement, "I just don't know what's going to happen at any second," and so I can only hope that right now Lana's enjoying knowing something the rest of us don't, and that she's found a whole new world of things to wonder about.  

Take care, Papatya