Friday, December 28, 2012

From Grad Student to Assistant Professor, Episode One: Time Management

            After almost ten years of higher education—of interacting with faculty and observing them on a daily basis—this past semester, it was finally my turn. I love my job even more than I suspected I would, though being an assistant professor is much more than I ever imagined it would be: more fun, more challenging, more exciting, and, yes, more work. I've learned a lot over the past few months, including: most aspects of this career are truly great, departmental meetings are not fun and will take twice as long as they were supposed to, and time management is everything.

            Being a faculty member is a curious mix of freedom and obligation. The biggest thing to change for me this semester is the way that I look at, understand, and manage my time. In some respects, being an assistant professor affords me a tremendous amount of discretion regarding how I spend my time, which I love. The only hours that are truly spoken for are the ones that I spend in the classroom. However, teaching and time spent preparing to be in the classroom is just the tip of the academic iceberg. As a grad student, I never really thought about the job of a professor as being a 30-30-40 time split between teaching, service, and scholarship. As a new professor, however, finding a balance between the three has been essential.

            The way that I looked at my writing, both creative and scholarly, also changed when I started my job. The reality of the academic system is that as soon as you sign a contract, the promotion clock starts and everything you do becomes a quantifiable measure of your professional success. For me, this was actually a good thing because it made me block out time every day devoted to writing and sending out work, establishing a routine that I've struggled with in the past. I've also learned that designating time is a necessity, because  if you don't claim time for each thing that you want to accomplish, that time disappears.

            The service category was somewhat of a mystery to me when I began my job last August, and in hindsight I feel a little silly for worrying that there wouldn't be enough opportunities (ha!) for me to fulfill this requirement. Fear not, future professors—service opportunities abound. Committees and meetings are a fixture of the academic environment, and I had no idea how involved and time-consuming they can be. Though meetings themselves can be tedious, I ultimately really enjoyed the service-related work that I did this past semester, which included being on a job search committee, running an essay contest, and volunteering at events.

            My first semester as faculty was a wonderful experience. I get to teach thoughtful, dedicated students in a fun, dynamic environment, and I also get to pursue my own writing outside of the classroom. While the first semester learning curve was somewhat steep, and I certainly wouldn't mind a few more days of winter break, I'm very excited to have a job that I love and I'm looking forward to getting back to work.

Courtney Watson is an alumna of the FAU MFA program and an Assistant Professor of English at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, Virginia. Her writing has recently been published in 100 Word Story, Into the Willows, The Inquisitive Eater, and more.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Quiet and Drudge

Offer your craft two hours a day. Twelve hours a week.

Easy peasy, but it doesn't always happen. The writing comes in gangly fits of productivity. So I was thinking: Why don't I have the focus to regularly perform this act that I spend all my time fussing about? Discipline. I'm bad at it. I added an oath: Exercise every single day for 100 days. The idea was that if I could make my body do the things it didn't feel like doing, then – in my writing cubby – I would know where the switch was, the bio-feedback leverage to pull so I would quit circling the act of sitting and writing and sit and write.

The project goes further than discipline. Of course people have already figured out the connectivity between physicality and artistic endeavor – Mishima – but the act of doing it differs from the concept in that one doesn't necessarily gain understanding. Perhaps it's because the processes call and respond to each other. With fitness – you can easily measure progress; numbers and time, but movement towards writing goals aren't so clear. Word counts don't always reflect progress. However, the number of variables in the actions are something like similar in so much as there are too many unknowns. As it was easier to write the second failed novel than the first one – you can do more pull ups than you could three weeks ago because you understand more of the weight you're trying to hold. Even if you're not altogether sure why it feels lighter - you know how to pull harder.

I've found that the quietness of simple labor can also bring about a clarity of artistic decision. Intrinsically, this quiet can't be reproduced at a laboratory-desk area; you have to mow the lawn or lift weights – hardcore open-eye meditation. Your body and most of your vision distracted – there's a good chance the chatter in your head-space will shut off. Out in the sun, moving the weight of myself and my giant, can-headphones – it's easy to enter a space isolated from the chatter of intellectual distraction – where you're not trying to think of anything except what you're physically doing. Fall off the push-up bar wrong and it's your teeth. Guaranteed time to not think about writing is a thing most of us who spend a good amount of our time thinking about writing should consider.

The writing life has more to it than writing, but for me – finding words seems to be a kinetic act.
This is not to suggest that process can function like an oil-well. There are days that the writing session fails too soon and not much happens. But you did it. You wrote. It's become another thing you do with your time. So when those big ideas come along – you'll be strong enough to reel them in. Your books will get written.

Jake Henson graduated from the MFA @ FAU in 2011. He is a writer, painter, and enthusiast making cool stuff in South Florida.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Escape Goating: Megan Hesse's First Semester as an MFA Student and GTA

Escape Goat. That was the moment I felt like a real, exasperated teacher, when I was reading a student’s paper and found the words “escape goat.” Presumably they meant “scapegoat,” except that they weren’t using that term right either. Grading papers has been a surreal experience for me. After all, it was only a little over a year ago that I was an undergraduate, and even right now I am still a student myself. So to be in the position of teacher is very strange. And then suddenly, escape goat.

I was terrified of starting the MFA program at FAU for a number of reasons that didn’t involve teaching. I had no idea what the community or the courses would be like. Even though my goal was always to be a creative writer, my undergraduate degree was in Literature and I’d never been among a community of writers. Instead of using guilt to harass my friends and family to read my work, I would finally have a group of people going through the same struggles and triumphs as me to turn to. But there were fears there too: everyone would be smarter, better, more talented than me; a chosen circle I had no hope of ever breaking into. Or classes would be too difficult, professors would look down on me in disgust, and I’d be doomed to be shunned for being mediocre.

My brain gets a little carried away sometimes.

But that’s not what happened. The MFA writing community at FAU contains some of the most helpful, welcoming people I’ve ever met and/or harassed. In just one semester I’ve learned a ridiculous amount from them and the professors, and I cannot wait to learn more. To finally be among other writers gives me an admittedly sentimental feeling of coming home that I would of course never publicly admit to having.

Oops. Don’t tell anyone.

My other fear though, was of time. How would I ever hope to balance teaching more than forty students with my own coursework and possibly have time for creative work besides? It was daunting, to say the least. After I finished undergrad, I took a year off and got a job tutoring high school kids for the SAT. The idea was to make money, and now that school was finished, have all the time in the world to write. Except I didn’t. What I did do was join a gym, watch a truly horrifying amount of Pawn Stars, and explore the uncharted edges of the internet. I finally had time, and I found myself doing absolutely nothing with it. Meanwhile, despite the forty-odd students and the coursework, I have written more in this one semester than I did in my entire year off. Somehow, though it’s meant many late nights and some frantic scribbling, I’ve found the time. I’ve started to grow and learn about myself as a writer in this program, and for me that’s pretty exciting, and well worth the occasional escape goat.

Megan Hesse graduated from the Honors College of FAU in 2011 with a BA in English Literature and is currently enrolled in the FAU MFA Graduate program. By day she attempts to publish stories and make a name for herself as a writer and by night she fights for justice as Batman.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Between a BA and an MFA

Being away from the university for six years gave me invaluable insight into the doings of the world, and this sounds corny, but many disparate experiences can occur within someone’s absence from a campus.  The two and a half years I spent in Hungary gave me many things, including a two fingered grip on a rich and complex language.  Upon returning to USA, I worked in the bus industry, including city transportation and private buses, which is another dichotomy rich with material for a creative writer to navigate, due to often complete income disparities, and even learning a city inside and out. I believe it is a plus to have had a school ‘break’ and to be in my early thirties, for after years of debating societal expectations, I feel at home here in the academy.  I guess it would be possible to cut and paste the narrative of The Alchemist here. 

Moving to a new state is a challenge for many new graduate students.  For some around the country the change may be slight, but moving to South Florida feels as though you have been transplanted to a different region entirely.  The culture is unlike any other in the United States, and exists at the far end of a peninsula; few parts of the United States, in my experience, can claim such diversity.  A newcomer can explore Caribbean, South American, European, and even the culture of the Northeast right here in Palm Beach county.  However, with the palm trees swaying and lines of pelicans crisscrossing the breaking waves, it’s easy to surmise the greatest benefit of living here is the ocean.  All of these new animals and objects with exotic names like mangrove, conch, and the ever present curly-tailed lizard offer a boon to the creative writer. 

It seems to me that having a gap between an undergraduate degree and master’s program gives a sense of validity, in the sense that you have tried other things and this is the conclusion you have come to. However, after a six year lull, one may view fundamental concepts like theses and criticism as abstract amoebas at first glance, but after concentrating, certain geometric shapes become more apparent.   A regained sense of keyboard adeptness that was caught in the sheets of propriety reemerges to form semi-colon trophies; in a sense you must learn how to remake your bed.   The community that I've been a part of here is much closer than it was in undergrad; this is a plus in my book, and many of the individuals you will meet share a common interest; I state the obvious because it should not be understated.

The reentry into academic life can look a little daunting, but after the first semester you get your sea legs back and in a sense become the captain of your own boat; it also becomes apparent that the helm of the boat is approachable. The multitudes of opportunities begin to take shape and present themselves along a coastal exploration of self.

Growing up Ian Rice lived in Georgetown, Texas, Cedarville, Arkansas, San Marcos, Texas, and Ruston, Louisiana.  He graduated from Texas State University in Spring 2006 with a degree in European Studies and then moved to Nyiregyhaza, Hungary where he worked as a conversational English teacher in Zrinyi Ilona Gim.  After leaving Nyiregyhaza, he moved to Budapest for six months where he taught ESL to business professionals after receiving his CELTA.  He moved back to Austin, Texas and took some creative writing classes at Austin Community College (while working in the bus business).  After gaining essential material and the rest, he applied to the MFA program at FAU, and voilà: he is an MFA candidate for poetry.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Advice for Second-Year MFA Students

You’ve been hearing whispers about the Plan of Study and you’re perplexed, concerned. What could a Plan of Study be, and why do you need one when you’re about 18 credits into the program?

Well, my friends, a Plan of Study is your contract with the English Department and the Graduate College; it says that no one can change your degree program, and hey, it’s required! But don’t fret, I think too often we hear the word “requirement” and a shiver starts somewhere near the backs of our knees and travels all the way up our bodies; yes, collectively we are somewhat alarmed, I think, by forms and deadlines, but we need not be. 

On the Plan of Study you’ll list the classes you’ve taken and the classes you will take. You’ll state the fact that you are a thesis student. If you have spoken to your committee members and they have agreed to be on your committee, you’ll list them on this form.

For your thesis, you will work with three committee members. Your committee chair will give you the most feedback; s/he (this is, I know, an awkward grammatical construction, but it’s my favorite of the gender neutral) will work closest with you on deadlines, requirements, and revisions of your thesis project.  

You should be thinking about this now, actually, second year MFAer! Who do you want to chair your committee? Who really gets you as a writer? It’s good advice to approach a CRW professor in whose class you received an ‘A.’

The other committee members will offer valuable feedback as well. Think now, while you’re in workshops, about who you’d like to have critiquing your work, about who you want to be present for your thesis defense.

Fully immerse yourself in the program. Attend lectures and events. Ask questions. Read literary journals to see what is published where. Talk to your peers and professors about writing. Establish a writing routine. Form a writing group with your peers. Play Exquisite Corpse together (not for any particular reason - really I just think it’s fun).

Remember, for the MFA degree you’ll take 21 hours of workshops, 18 hours of lit/theory classes, one required course (ENG 6009: Principles and Problems of Literary Study), and six thesis hours (see the advising checklist).

So, second year, are we clear? Make an appointment with me to complete the Plan of Study. Think about who you’d like to work with as your committee. Get involved in the writing culture and community. Look at your writing and think about what kind of thesis you’re going to create. What shape will it take? Why? How? 

Now is the time to ensure you’re taking classes that will assist in your thesis work. Allow your literature/theory courses to inspire you as well. Take in everything, take notes, and allow your work to grow like a passiflora vine; tend it so that it may bear fruit.

M.R. Sheffield is an instructor and the English Graduate Advisor at FAU. Contact her at Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Florida Review, Blip Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Pank, and other publications. She received her MFA in fiction from FAU. And her cat keeps a blog.