Friday, December 27, 2019

After the Fall (term) ...

Traditionally (well, for a year at least), I try to assess how things went during the fall semester. It was a hectic term, where I taught three classes for a time, as well as “running” the writing workshop for the Windycon local sf convention, as well as a writers group made up mostly of my former short story writing students. Add to that writing a couple of book columns for a science fiction magazine. I did a lot of reading and wasn’t able to get my own fiction-writing projects, the frustration over which I am still trying to cope with. 
Not only that, but the courses I taught at the college level were not exactly my “home turf.” Fantasy writing is in the neighborhood of science fiction, but not quite the same thing – otherwise, why call one “fantasy” and the other “science fiction”? I didn’t feel at home, and for good reason: I wasn’t. Not in the way I feel at home with science fiction. 
It wasn’t that I felt unfamiliar with the forms and conventions of fantasy, it’s just there are so many, and so many forms differ from one another. The gamut runs from Franz Kafka to Brandon Sanderson, from Lord Dunsany to J. K. Rowling. My predecessor set up her class to teach fantasy writing as a publishing category in popular fiction. Up until then, that’s what I believed her students wanted. I believed they wanted to be the next Patrick Rothfuss, or Tomi Adeyemi, or Django Wexler, or Kelly Link. Or something. 
Instead, I found that many of my students don’t even know who these writers are. And whatever it is they want to write isn’t necessarily geared to what is currently selling in the publishing world. Frankly, half the class seemed to have trouble identifying what fantasy literature is, exactly (or even approximately). A number of them told me their reading of fantasy was drawn from the worlds of manga, graphic stories, and gaming. And a couple of students seemed to have little familiarity with any kind of fantasy beyond the oldest and dustiest examples; they were of a “literary” bent, and were taking this class to explore what they might possibly do in the form. 
I don’t wish to disparage manga, or graphic stories, or gaming, or literary writers. Except for the latter, I don’t feel comfortably familiar enough with any of the forms to express any opinions one way or another. Luckily, I don’t have to, but for a while I wasn’t sure of that. The role of a teacher somehow gets inexorably muddled with the role of an “authority.” After all these years teaching science fiction, and short fiction too for that matter, I should have known better, but it didn’t occur to me soon enough. 
In fact, it occurred to me to me only after I lay in bed one early morning before class, worrying about what I was going to do, what I should do, and what I thought I was expected to do. I worried and worried and couldn’t get to sleep until a clear, sharp, direct little voice sounded in my head: “Hey, this isn’t your class. It’s your students’ class. You’ve got sixteen other minds at work on these same problems. Now, some of them are just trying to figure out how to get through this class with a passing grade and the least amount of effort, but the best of your group not only are here to learn something, but to contribute something to the conversation you started in the very first session: What is this kind of literature we call fantasy?” 
What I can’t teach them, they can teach me.
I felt incredibly relieved. 
Of course, it’s never as easy as that sounds. On the contrary, it’s total chaos and madness, but I get to share in the process. But that process, of necessity, includes trial and error, and getting things wrong. 
This was also true for the Fiction Writing Workshop: Beginning I taught. Trial and error. Getting things wrong. True, I managed to do a number of things right, and I believe that with a few notable exceptions my students did their best. They were a great group, too. I had at least three students who were already capable of work that could be seriously considered for publication; two more who were very close to putting out publishable work. The one thing I never have to worry about at Columbia is having enough good students for a class. Yes, there are plenty of students who aren’t uniformly great at every facet of the creative process, but still, so many of these students are extraordinarily gifted. Even an academic bumbler like me can look like a good teacher. 
But I wouldn’t want to be judged so on my performance this term. If anything, right now, I feel less than competent.  
But I know, I think, what I can do better next time. 
The learning process extends to me. If I’m to learn anything at this gig, I have to allow for my own mistakes. I have to allow that I can learn from them. And allow that I can do better next time. 
For the Fiction Writing Workshop, I give myself a B-. For the Fantasy Writing Workshop, a C+. Short Story Writing is a non-credit continuing ed class, Pass/Fail … I think I pass, but after 28 years, I should be able to get it right.  
Mostly, at least. 
If I teach these classes next year, I’ll be going for As. 
This spring, I’m scheduled to teach Foundations in Creative Writing, which I’ve never taught before. I expect to make more miscalculations, but I already have a batch of ideas that will at least be fun to try. 
My science fiction writing class was canceled because not enough students signed up for it. So it goes. I guess most students don’t think science fiction has anything to teach them anymore. A science fiction writer like me should feel a little bummed out – and I did. It took me a while to remember that one of the most important aspects of my view of what science fiction is – is really – rests on sf’s ability to subvert the norms of any system or culture it finds itself in. Here at CCC, that means cultural, literary, and academic. 
If you’re a science fiction writer, or even just a science fiction thinker, you don’t shed that viewpoint when you leave the science fiction cave, so to speak, and venture out into all the little elsewheres available. 
Wherever I go, I take my science fiction with me. 
If the students won’t come to science fiction, I’ll simply have to take science fiction to them.  
It may not be much, but it’s what I do.