Sunday, December 13, 2009

First Semester Wrap-Up

by Emily May Anderson

While I still have 24 freshman research papers to read and final grades to calculate, my first semester as an MFA student is pretty much over. I’ve been pretty absent from this blog recently, but let me try to recap the semester.

Since I’ve already mentioned teaching, I’ll start there. I taught one section of freshman composition, and I loved it. I enjoyed teaching, I felt like I was able to present the material in ways that made sense to them, and their writing did, in most cases, improve throughout the semester. I also really liked my group of students. I taught at 4:40-5:30pm MWF this semester; I thought I would hate the time slot, but I got used to it and really didn’t mind the lateness at all. My students were very active and energetic and talkative and informal – in both constructive and distracted ways – so I had to try to harness and direct their energy by being equally energetic and sometimes irreverent. It’s not at all how I planned or expected to approach the classroom; I thought I would be much more formal, but I realized very quickly that if I wanted to connect with this group, I’d have to sort of meet them where they were. There were a few days where I felt like I had very little control over them, but in general, they were good and they were invested in the class; they came to office hours, they submitted rough drafts early, they even brought me apples on the day my teaching mentor came to observe the class! She (my mentor) commented to me after class that I’ll probably never have another group of students this active, which is okay with me – they were exhausting sometimes – but they were really fun, and I’m really happy with my first teaching experience. I want to tweak the departmentally-provided syllabus a little bit before next semester, but overall, teaching was a success.

In addition to teaching, I also took three grad classes. The first was the infamous English 501: Intro to Graduate Study. It was, if nothing else, a bonding experience for all the first year students, MFAs and MAs together. We read a lot of critical theory and a lot of articles about the professions of both writing and academia. We also did a wide range of assignments, from textual analysis to writing abstracts for papers to researching potential publication venues (the most useful assignment by far!)

I also took The Writer in the Community, a hands-on “service learning” type of course. In addition to weekly class meetings with reading assignments, presentations, journals, etc, I also with two of my classmates started a creative writing group for international women in the community. Other groups of students in the class worked with middle school students in an afterschool program at a local youth center and with high school aged students at a youth shelter in town. This was a really great experience, and I learned a lot about teaching, writing, communication, and what it means to build community in a classroom-like setting. I wrote my term paper on the role of personal narrative writing, in terms of identity formation, building community, and literacy development. Even writing the 15 page paper was a really good experience. We (my two classmates and I) opted to continue running the group next semester, even though we won’t be getting course credit for it, but we’ve really grown to enjoy the company of the women who attend the group, and we see a very real benefit to what we’re doing.

And finally, my poetry workshop! Robin Becker conducted this fall’s workshop with a chapbook focus. I read, over the course of the semester, twenty-five chapbooks. Some I loved (Charles Wright’s The Wrong End of the Rainbow and Richard McCann’s Nights of 1990, though very different, both completely rocked my world and had me in tears), some I didn’t; but it was interesting to see the different ways people approached the short chapbook form. In addition to reading and commenting on chapbooks, I also wrote a poem a week for workshop, commented on my peer’s poems, drafted and revised a proposal for my own chapbook, researched and presented on a chapbook contest, and at the end of the semester submitted to Robin a preliminary sequence of fifteen revised poems that could potentially comprise a chapbook. Ten of the poems were from this semester; the other five predated grad school but fit the theme and arc of my collection. Visiting poets who read this semester were Elizabeth Alexander, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. The first two I only met after their readings, but Bonanno sat in on our class and we had lunch with her the next day. We also had three newer poets who’ve recently published chapbooks visit our class: Rebecca Foust and Penn State MFA alums Shanna Powlus Wheeler and Katherine Bode-Lang. Katherine, in particular, is really amazing!

I also attended events with fiction writer Rick Bass (who has a very dry sense of humor), nonfiction writer David Quammen (a very smart, very nice guy) – other fiction and NF writers were on campus, but I skipped some of those events. George Saunders is our Writer in Residence in the spring.

So, what else? I wrote a lot, I made friends, I fell in love (much to my surprise), and I know with every ounce of certainty that coming here was the right decision and that I want to write and teach for the rest of my life! (Sappy? Perhaps, but that’s me.) Oh, and this past Friday was the traditional end of semester MFA Variety Show – a very casual, humorous “reading” at which a group of us first-years performed a skit about writing an MFA Manifesto. Other people read found poems composed entirely of English department member’s facebook status updates, fake letters requesting advice, bitter MFA bumper sticker slogans, one-man plays, and much other craziness. 


  1. Sounds like a fabulous semester, Emily! I'm so glad to hear it's going so well.

    The end-of-semester skits and such sound awesome!

  2. I love, love, love what you did for your Writers in the Community group! That whole experience sounds amazing. It's great you're keeping it going next year.

    Your classes sound really interesting in that you were exposed to so much, you read so much. I find it hard to read now if it isn't for class credit lol. That's horrible, but true.

    Anyway, sounds like you had a great semester at a great school!

  3. Sounds like you had an amazing time Emily. I think I will be doing a write-up soon about my first quarter soon. From what you've written down here, my first teaching experience was eerily similar to yours.

  4. Sound great!
    I'd love to hear more about how people set up groups in their community. I've been wanting to do so but I haven't figured out a way to start :)

  5. Great post. Really interesting -- all of it. Thanks! I love hearing these end of the semester summaries.

  6. I'm looking into programs for MFA, and you really make Penn State sound like a great experience. Would it be alright if I could email you to inquire more about the program? Email if you would be interested, my email is wilhela2 at muohio dot edu. :D

  7. Lexi - Sorry I just now saw this. I sent you an email and would be happy to answer any questions you have, or at least try to!


Related Posts with Thumbnails