Thoughts on Being a Teaching Assistant Intern

By Cameron Cook ’12

“Masochism is being a teacher,” says my old high school math teacher. So is melodrama, from the looks of it, but there is definitely some truth to that statement. Maybe, to take it a step further, masochism is attempting to teach your friends. In a classroom setting. Like you’re some sort of prodigy.

I’m not, I swear, but I think I might have something to say about creative writing that they may not. To start—I’m at least mildly well read, and I like to think that I write more fiction than most of the people I know, but those things are the only tools that help the real reason behind my teaching the class. The main reason seems to come from some source of paranoia inside me. Paranoia may sound like the wrong word, but I assure you it isn’t. I am scared, deep down, that people are actually ignoring the most important aspects of fiction when working on their stories. Perhaps it’s an irrational fear, but it is a fear nonetheless.

I mean, what if there are whole legions of folks writing stories with no setting? What if there are just characters floating around in a sea of plot? Only, no, there would be no sea—that’s a setting. They’d just be floating, nowhere, in a place between darkness and light. We can’t let this happen. I feel that teachers are those people who understand these horrifying realities and work their entire lives to prevent them.

As a person who harbors these fears along with the other teachers in the world, I feel that it is my duty to fall in and start doing my part. At first, my part is a modest one. A job in the writing center won’t hurt anybody, but it’s certainly not the thing I want to do forever. So when Mr. Stutts offered me the opportunity to tag team his Creative Writing: Fiction class with him, I jumped at the chance. The internship was a way for me to gauge how much of this teaching stuff comes natural, and how much needs a little fine-tuning. Well, as it turns out, everything needs to be fine-tuned, and the only thing that comes natural is that little bit of anxiety that hits you like you’re about to perform Richard III in drag. I’ve never actually performed Richard III, but I can assume that the level of anxiety for any actor playing that part is approximate to my feelings before teaching my first lecture.

Teaching is not something that comes natural. I believe that the will to teach comes natural, and that the will to learn the tricks of the trade comes natural, but I believe that the actual art of teaching is something that takes a ton of hard work and dedication to perfect. In fact, I believe that teaching is a lot like creative writing. There is no natural creative writing talent. There are people who have the will to learn it, study it, and perfect it, and there are those who do not. People are not born with the ability to write eloquent stories about fly-fishermen; they are born with the intent of doing so, and then they do tons of hard work to follow up on that intent.

This past semester, I have been able to see a class from the other side. I have witnessed students turn in assignments very late, prioritize other classes, do lazy work, and procrastinate with disastrous results. I have also seen students take the work seriously, produce outstanding material, and do everything that was asked of them and more. And the most important thing to gather from these experiences, disparate as they are, is that the mark of a good student is not an IQ, or a knowledge of basic English grammar, but a willingness to learn and absorb and utilize the tools that a professor has to offer. Time and again, Mr. Stutts and I saw students who had a ton of confidence, and a background in creative writing fail at some of the basic architectural elements of a story because they could not follow instruction. On the other hand, there were students who, at the start of the class, had not ever written a story go on to produce excellent work because they had the will and the courage to absorb and utilize the information that the professor gave them.

In that last sentence, I mentioned courage, and perhaps that word came like a bolt from the blue. I believe that students, especially students learning in a creative environment, show immense courage when they take notes from the professor and change their work accordingly. It shows willingness to change, and a realization that their previous methods may have been lacking. There were some students in the class who showed a great deal of courage, and there were others who took it upon themselves to continue their lives without the hindrance of direction.

I realize that most of what I’m saying is more abstract than talking about what I did on a day to day basis or what I’ve accomplished with this internship, but it is very important to talk about these conceptual elements of the class. These lessons that I have learned will not only help shape me as a teacher, but they are also currently making me a better student. After seeing a class from the perspective of a professor, I can see exactly how I am supposed to be as a student. It is all about will. There are no natural talents; there is only a desire to perfect that talent. I believe that teachers carry the will to teach, and that they teach best to those with a will to learn. Perhaps that’s an easy lesson to learn, and perhaps that’s something that everybody already knows, but it is definitely the most important thing I’ve learned in this internship.