I’ve been teaching for going on eight years; half that time, I worked with middle schoolers, and the most recent half has been spent teaching at an online university and a local community college. I love it, and I’ve been working to integrate my writing and my teaching recently (starting with my pursuit of a MFA in Children’s Literature from Hollins University this summer). Teaching has influenced my writing, there’s no doubt, but my teaching career has also influenced the way I learn.
After earning my MS in Library Science in 2010, I’ve found myself teaching research methods regularly, both online and in-person. I teach a pretty specific formula which often drives my students crazy: before I assign a research paper, I assign an annotated bibliography on the upcoming topic, and only after they’ve spent time reading, analyzing, and synthesizing their sources do I give them the actual essay assignment. One of the reasons I teach this way is just good pedagogy, but I also try to teach them in such a way that will allow my students to avoid the mistakes and headaches I experienced as an undergrad.
I think research projects are daunting for a lot of students at all levels, because many of us don’t feel confident in our ability to find information, but there’s more at work than this lack of search skills; the better we know ALL the information (our supporting sources as well as whatever sparked the idea in the first place), the better prepared we are to write or talk about our topic.
In the past year, I’ve had the chance to practice what I preach: when I began my MFA courses this summer, I decided to approach my academic research the same way I’ve taught my students to do it. I had two papers to write this summer, and I approached each by (gasp) doing my research and annotations first before I sat down to write (rather than my undergrad method, which was to write the paper at the last minute and plug in sources here and there that supported what I was saying). Doing it the way I’ve taught saved me time, just like I always tell my students, because having my research in mind first allowed me to really think through the thesis statement/essay structure before I ever sat down to write. I felt really good about the two papers I produced over the summer, and given the feedback from my instructors, I’m allowed to be proud about my research.
And now, I’ve got the opportunity to do it again, although this time, instead of the isolated head space of a summer dedicated to study, I’m juggling an independent study course with two papers due with an online creative course, a full teaching schedule, and editorial and writing deadlines for my fiction. It was tempting to skip the careful research steps that I know will make my work better, but I forced myself to slow down and stick with my formula. Am I freaking out a bit, considering I’ve only drafted one of the two essays, and the semester ends in less than two weeks? Yes. BUT I’ve done my research, made my notes, and I’m ready to sit down and write the draft of the second paper this weekend. The blank page is intimidating, but the ideas have had time to simmer, and I’ve still got plenty of time for a few rounds of revisions before I turn these papers in.
I’m a total pantser when it comes to my fiction, and I’m realizing that I’ve always used the same approach to my school work, but not anymore. I’m glad I’ve had the past 8 years of teaching under my belt before beginning this degree, and it’s really cool to have the chance to practice what I preach…and realize just how well it works.