Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: teaching

My “About Me” page notes that I am, currently, an educator based in the Denver area, and I think I’ve mentioned I currently teach composition at a local community college. Previous to this year, I taught composition for a year at the University of Southern California, a name I don’t so much drop as note with gratitude; it was my great pleasure to serve my students there, as it continues to be to serve my students at my current institution. When I started blogging on MySpace, the idea of teaching hadn’t so much crossed my mind, and neither had the ideas of either Denver or Hollywood.

And I look around today, and I think: yowza. This, this is special. I’m extraordinarily lucky (and discover every day that the amount of luck I experience is directly proportional to the amount of effort I put into the work I do).

I mention this because I have now been teaching, at the college/university level, for more than a year, but today was the first day I was ever observed. I found out about the observation a few days ago, and just the idea made me nervous: ZOMG authority! What if they realize I’m a sham? What if they realize I’m, well, me, because no matter how many novels I write and how many people love my work and how many classes I teach, it’s still difficult to think of myself any differently. I’m just me, and I still feel like I’m goofy and silly and really lucky to be anywhere at all. Maybe that’s a self-esteem issue, or maybe it’s the truth. I don’t know. I just know that even though USC recognized me as an expert in writing, and even though I taught my students well enough that I went so far as to inspire them, in a few notable cases, it’s still difficult to realize that.

But today, the totally rad woman who is the composition coordinator of our department sat in my class to observe me.

Continue reading

Denver is cold and rainy today and supposed to remain that way all weekend. I can hear the patter of raindrops and the flow of rainstreams through my window, and the sky beyond is grey.

School starts Tuesday, but I plan to drive over on Monday to fully familiarize myself with the campus. Plus: make some copies, set anything else up, all the good administrative stuff.

In the meantime, I’m planning my syllabus. Somewhat difficult: never built one mainly from scratch before. I know what goes in one, of course, but otherwise? (any teachers/instructors: if you have advice for me, leave it in the comments. I could totally use some. Or generally: if you were taking a college class, what would you expect from your instructor and his syllabus?)

Besides that, I’m planning to clean up iTunes and finish a short story.

Have a good weekend.

What a couple of days.

Orientation over the weekend to get started at the college where I’ll be teaching. All day session, and I think the catered lunch made me ill, but beyond a perturbed stomach, I’m pleased to say it all went really well. I think I’ve mentioned it’s a community college close by, and I’ve picked up three classes to teach, which should be good, if intense. Two of them are already full, with 23 students, and I’m wagering the last one will fill up before Tuesday.

So now I’m lesson-planning and syllabus-building and suchlike.

One of the interesting things that’s come out of the orientation is the information that we, as teachers, can’t penalize for absences, but yet the school requires us to include an attendance policy on our syllabi. I’m not quite sure what policy they want given that penalization is apparently against state law. It’s like Eddie Izzard’s joke about career counselors: “I advise you to get a career.” I think my attendance policy defaults to: “Well, I advise you to attend, thanks.”

Other than that, it’s a good challenge coming up with the syllabus and familiarizing myself with a new curriculum. I’m still deciding how I’m going to grade.

And then on Tuesday I shook hands with a guy named Mike Fisher when he congratulated me on getting accepted into Regis’ MBA program. I haven’t decided whether to go general or concentrate in marketing, but I’ve got at least a semester to decide; I’ve first got to take some foundation courses about basic business stuff I never studied because I was too busy in labs and writing books.

Man, am I ever excited.

I read an interview with Andrew Gross yesterday (I can’t locate the link this morning. Sorry). Gross is a frequent co-author of James Patterson and a bestselling author in his own right, and he compared working with Patterson to getting both an MFA and an MBA at the same time. Point being: I think it’s going to help in the next few years.

And plus, it’s something I can use. I joked to both my mother and Fisher that, you know, I figured I got a degree in literature, and then I got one in writing, and now I think maybe it’s about time I got a degree I can actually, you know, use for something. Something practical, in fact, and in something I enjoy, to boot.

So I think things are about to get intense, but in the best possible way.

For some reason (probably that I hit the wrong button), this didn’t publish the other day. It was meant to post on Wednesday.

So I walked into my interview today hyped up, totally in the zone, and smiling.

And I walked out with a job.

I think that’s pretty cool.

Three courses in the fall. Which is two more than I’ve ever taught simultaneously, but I’m both up to and looking forward to the challenge.

Now I’m just wondering if I should open with “My students called me sensei.”


I don’t know why, but I’ve always wanted to post a blog from Leavey Library, here at school. I’ve posted from my office once or twice, but never from here. I come to the library fairly often before class–I like to arrive on campus early by at least an hour. Stop by the Writing 140 program office to pick up my mail, and then swing over here. Usually I read some magazines before class, or finish any last-minute preparation. I was going to read Wired today.

This is my last visit to the library. After I leave and go to class, I’ll probably never return. No reason to, really. No more classes.

In half an hour I’ll begin my final class at USC. Nothing to teach, of course; today is the day for the impromptu essay and students’ evaluations, and there’s nothing left to teach anyway.

It’s hard to teach writing, because often the most important aspect of strong writing is confidence, which you really can’t teach, anyway. Sure, talent is important, and craft, and work, and all the other stuff, but ultimately there’s that moment when you need to believe you’ve got something to say, and that singular self-belief is pretty much impossible to teach. Really, it shouldn’t be taught, anyway; that moment, that realization, has to come from within. It’s often less about inspiration than realization, and frequently, that realization is of the self.

Part of me correlates this idea with faith, which is why, I think, I favor more Eastern/esoteric spiritualities–they teach that true enlightenment comes from within. They don’t look to some barely famous rabbi for their salvation, nor place their entire faith and lives upon a myth. True faith, I think, is the kind of dirty that comes with real work–I think of Joseph Fiennes’ fingers in Shakespeare in Love. It’s certainly not easy.

Anyway, I’m off to say goodbye to my students, one last time. So far as they’re concerned, that’s all they wrote.

Class day. I’ve been trying to inspire students by empowering them; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. My prompt this time around uses Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking as an example of satire to examine the form’s efficacy in argument, commentary, and persuasion. Mostly, anyway. I mean, that’s the idea, at least. Really, the point of the prompt is the point of the class (and it’s very nearly the point of the movie): any intelligent person should be able to acknowledge every complex issue as beyond issues of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ and realize that every argument has its counter.

Today, one of my students surprised me. We had a speaker-series evening this week, where a Democrat and a Republican were meant to discuss the mobilization of young voters but which actually became a debate about technology and its efficacy. Which wasn’t bad, exactly, but seemed to be the wrong issue. The Republican called this “Politics for the iPod Generation,” and effused about how great technology is. At one point, he mentioned Live-Aid and how excellent it was that it had increased awareness of how many people in the world were starving.

I wanted to get up and say, well, perhaps, but how many of them are now eating.

Because awareness is all well and good, but should not be confused with action.

One other thing I mentioned was this iPod thing; not everyone has one, certainly. USC is smack between Compton and Watts, in Los Angeles; we get reports from the Department of Public Safety everyday, concerning muggings and etc. And I asked how many people around us actually had iPods, or access to the technology.

And my student raised his hand and said, sure, but one might wonder whether those people vote, anyway.

And it stopped me. Brilliant.

It brings up whole other issues, of course, but that’s beside the point. I was just thrilled to catch them thinking (rather than, you know, sleeping, which has occurred a few times this semester, now).

One thing I’ve noticed is that I think some of these students feel like those people who don’t vote. They seem to continuously seek “the right answer,” while the whole point of the course is that there isn’t one; there’s only their answers. Their papers don’t depend on what they say but how they make their case.

I think they’re getting it.

Here’s hoping.

By the way, new pictures over at Imagery.

One of the biggest challenges that came with becoming a writing instructor was a rather silly one; figuring out what my students would call me. Technically, professorship is a tenure-track position; my contract will be up in two months, and because I will graduate in May, I’m fairly certain it’s not extendable. Even if I wanted to stick around for another year, I don’t think I’d be allowed.

It’s been a question since at least as far back as I was a substitute teacher for a simple reason: I’m not comfortable with Mr. Entrekin. It just doesn’t fit me as an appellation. My father won’t let anyone call him “Mr. Entrekin”; when someone tries, he informs him that was his father, who has long since passed away–they can call my dad ‘Steve.’ (That’s his name, after all. Calling him Doug would just be off-putting.) It’s not a simple last name, either: ENT-ruh-kin is not obvious on first reading (many go with en-TREK-in, which is just plain wrong).

When I was a sub, I solved the problem by letting the students call me “Mr. E”.

But that didn’t feel right for a college classroom.

Some of my colleagues just let their students call them by their first names. But there’s something– in my head, my students are paying as much for an experience as they are for the information. They are none of them older than 19, which puts me a solid decade ahead on the age scale, but more than that; I feel I’ve earned some degree of distinction, to distinguish myself from them. I don’t feel as though they are my peers; I feel, in fact, as though we are in a relationship very much related to a business transaction, providing a service to them as consumers.

The thing is, though, it rarely comes up. They rarely need to address me. Which is why, last semester, it became a running question, for a few weeks, until a solution presented itself when a student settled on a title.

He called me sensei.

And it just fit.

It was perfect. Because Bob Kennedy taught me as much about writing and thinking as he did about faith, and he did so by forcing me to learn it. My feelings about writing are intricately tied to my beliefs about faith and spirituality and life, as well.

Later during last semester, I received a few emails generated by the college database, which addressed me as ‘Professor Entrekin,’ and so validated that title, in a way; if USC recognized me as a professor, I had earned the right to let students call me one.

But that other title, that student-chosen title, the one that came from one pupil who knew nothing of my background . . . that fit. I am a guide moreso than I am a teacher; I am there less to teach or instruct them than I am to help them learn.

It’s a subtle distinction, perhaps, but I think they sense it.

Conferences today (I’m writing this from my office); USC’s Writing Program requires instructors to do one-on-one conferences with each student once per assignment, of which there are 5. I’m basically, then, the one professor my students really connect with to some real degree.

I like that. It opens it all up to remind everyone that my class isn’t about the room it’s in.

It’s hard, some days, to pinpoint what it’s really about; writing is hard to teach. I’m teaching freshman composition/rhetoric, and it’s exciting and challenging, but I also find it extraordinarily difficult to teach because it’s made me realize I haven’t a clue how I learned in the first place. I know I’m pretty good at it (some days better than others), but the how?

I was a sophomore in college when I took a seminar in theology with Robert Kennedy. We mainly watched videos during lectures, but the real meat of the class was our own thought-time; we began the course in Genesis, and each week we tackled something new (following Biblical chronology). I was, by then, already lapsed in both Christianity and Wicca, and just starting to explore Buddhism, which made Kennedy perhaps a perfect teacher at that point in my life; he’s a Jesuit priest ordained in the White Plum lineage of Zen, and he wrote a book called Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, concerning questions of where the two intersect.

We finished the Bible two weeks into the second semester. We still had four months to go, and so we moved on: Hobbes and Dante and Joyce (oh, my!). Yeah, James Joyce in a theology class.

The real thing I learned most was how connected everything is. We’d watch a lecture, after which I’d go across to the library, max out my library card with five books, read them, and then come up with a compelling argument. He didn’t teach us how to write our papers, how to analyze the texts, how to support our own arguments.

He only listened.

That first semester I pulled a 3.5 after starting with a couple C+s.

The second, I earned a 4. It’s the single college grade of which I’m most proud, because it really did reflect how much I learned.

But how to teach that?

I’m still learning. Some days I struggle with it. I challenge my students to be bold and to really own their own ideas. Some think I’m too harsh a grader, others feel they earned what they get.

The thing is, the writing process is hard to teach. I’ve been writing for fifteen years, and I’m still learning every day. In a goal-oriented society, it’s hard to really convey the idea that some processes won’t end until you’re dead (and then, who the hell knows? There’s probably even more after that fact). Some of my students note that they still have trouble with it, and each time they do so I smile and I say: “Welcome to writing. It doesn’t get easier, but sometimes you do get better.”

I was eleven years old when I read Stephen King’s Needful Things and realized I loved stories and wanted to tell them myself. That King’s work prompted the realization and that my parents were both pretty avid readers while I was growing up were probably the two reasons I actually thought writing was a pretty certainly viable career option, or could be. One of the stories in my collection is called “Deluded,” and part of the point of that story, at least to me (and I’m only one reader of it, so consider this one personal take) is that there is, sometimes, a fine line between faith and delusion. Delusion and certainty. And that’s okay; I grew up with the firm belief that I was going to become a great writer through careful work and a lot of discipline, and could achieve success by way of the sheer force of my will to write better. Not better than anyone else so much as better than I realized I could, every word down.

For many years growing up, however, I also thought I wanted to be a doctor. I studied hard and started college with a major in premedical biology. In my high school yearbook, my life’s goals were: “go to med school, be a doctor, write a book.” I remember telling my parents I would start a practice and then, at some point, when my book became a bestseller, take a few-years sabbatical to concentrate on writing.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think that idea of a sabbatical was key; I think I was subconsciously realizing that I wanted the safety to support the more risky profession.

By the time I was a junior, however, I’d realized I’m not a doctor, and that’s still the way I think of it. Because, you see, I don’t believe that training and education make someone a doctor; one of my best friends is a doctor (and a successful one, at that), and I think he was a doctor when we were undergrads and roommates. He had to learn the anatomy and the surgery and the general stuff, certainly, but I think ‘doctor’ was part of his core to start. Me, I don’t have the confidence, I realized. I don’t have the self-certainty to stick my fingers into someone’s body, nor even to cut it open in the first place. I realized this the month before I was to sign up for my MCATs, but am glad I did.

What that meant was, after college, I floundered a bit. I graduated with (nearly) two degrees (six credits shy of a second in natural science) and honors and etc., but I hadn’t sold my book. So I needed a job. I fell into temping pretty much by accident and lucked into commercial production via a cushy gig on Madison Avenue. But it didn’t suit me as medicine hadn’t; advertising didn’t resonate with me, and I have trouble doing things I don’t believe in or can’t stand behind.

September 11th kicked me in the pants to figure stuff out. I thought I would by moving back home, regrouping, maybe subbing and then becoming a high school teacher, so I could write in my off time. I got set back, however, and fell into a six-month depression from which I emerged with shoddy credit and little in the way of real prospects. I became a personal trainer for a while, and then finally got into subbing, which was fine for what it was, but I’ve never been about fine with what things are. I remember being at a shitty Christmas party thing, though, and I remember thinking how much more fun it would be if the company throwing it had actually produced a book instead (they sold security systems, from what I recall of it).

So I got it in my head to work for a publisher. I considered moving back to Manhattan, but then found a gig five minutes from my parents’ house, where I was living, as an assistant editor for a healthcare publishing company. Felt like a perfect fit.

It wasn’t. I was there nearly three years, but never loved it. I discovered I couldn’t put my heart into it, and my performance suffered.

That was when I settled on graduate school, which opened my life. Moreso: teaching.

I became an instructor via USC’s Writing Program, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have to just be a writer anymore. I don’t have to try to rely on it for income; I can be a student, and an instructor, because I love to be both. It’s been a real relief, and oddly, it’s freed me to become a better writer than I realized I could be; this latest draft of my novel finally feels like the one, and I think it feels that way because I stopped worrying so fucking much about selling it or succeeding with it and just concentrated on telling that story as best I could.

Being a writer is probably a good gig, but I’m having much more fun just being someone who writes.

Teaching today. Picture at Imagery.

I might stop with the heads-ups; it’s getting pretty consistent across both blogs, now. We’ll see. Oh, and you can comment over there, too. Should work.

I’ve been reading John Scalzi’s blog for a while now, though not nearly as long as it has, apparently, existed. I first learned of it last year or so, in, I believe, an issue of Wired. Scalzi is a science fiction writer whose books I’ll admit I’ve not read; I really only know about (and enjoy) his blog.

Today, he posted about his thoughts on blogs and bookselling. Scalzi is a blogger who blogged before ‘blogging’ actually existed as a word (I believe the word dates back to around 2001. Neil Gaiman is another); which, coincidentally, was before Scalzi actually had anything to sell. Nowadays he’s a multiple nominee for multiple awards (and has won several, including one for best new writer), but I loved his last paragraph:

“Personally I think people think about all this crap too hard. The reason to do a blog is because you want to. If you do it for any other reason, people will be able to tell, and it’s probably going to fall on its ass. The reason I think Whatever does well is because I like doing it, and I’ve liked doing it all the time I’ve done it. Simple enough.”

That’s why you’re here, actually. I haven’t talked about it much, but by summer of last year, I’d basically had a MyMeltdown; blogging on MySpace had become akin to my years in corporate America, or perhaps more accurately, my years temping. The site seemed to have become about either bashing or the relentless pursuit of more popularity. When I got the letter accepting me into my lectureship, I realized that I needed to learn how to reconcile my teaching life with my writing life. I realized I’d be standing, soon, before a group of students and attempting to play a very particular role, and I wished not to deviate from it. I didn’t want them to think of me as pretty much anything besides their professor, because I never did until I was well out of college.

The other thing I’ve already alluded to; Rupert Murdoch’s already bulky pockets. For my second assignment last semester, I guided my students through a prompt on journalistic integrity; what does it mean, who has it and how did they earn it, and can blogging fill the same role. Many explored the idea of conglomeration; that having a certain company behind you can help your credibility, but it also creates problems if it’s the wrong company, or if said company is concerned almost solely with ratings, as many seemed to be. Most noted that they didn’t believe anything they saw on Fox News.

That assignment helped prompt my decision to start this up. I learned as much through that assignment as they did. And now, it’s good to be back. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t realized what I had until it was gone so much as I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I came back.

Thans for coming back with me. I missed you.