MFA Nugget: Teaching vs. Learning

I have a dilemma.

True, it’s a conundrum I don’t have to solve for another six months, but forgive me. Being here at my MFA residency on the campus of the Vermont College of Fine Arts is firing both my left and right brains, and that left brain is in deep planning mode for my final semester, which starts in December.

A view of our hilltop neighborhood in Montpelier from my dorm window. Yes, I’m taking the photo through my window’s mesh screen. Let’s pretend I chose to include that in the photo for artistic effect.

In our final semester, we write a 45-minute lecture on a topic of our choosing, which we give at our graduating residency (for me that will be next summer). I’ve attended a couple of graduation lectures already and have several more underlined on my schedule, the pink-paper security blanket I have on me at all times.

It seems there are two philosophies regarding a graduation lecture. You can identify a topic with which you struggle, and use the preparation for the lecture to learn more about the subject and, with luck and hard work, master it. Or you can choose an area with which you have some comfort going in, and focus on providing your own wisdom, supported by what else you learn, to your classmates.

With the former approach, the lecturing student learns a lot. I’m not sure how much the students in the audience learn, however, as the lecturer still is a bit of a novice in the subject. That tentativeness is readily apparent during Q&A.

With the latter approach, the lecturing student doesn’t learn as much, but has a greater chance of truly advancing the craft and knowledge of the lecture attendees, including going beyond the prepared remarks in Q&A.

A local resident walks her dog past my dorm. I think VCFA needs its own dog, a mascot they could give some literary name, like Poe or Flannery.

I came here with an idea for a lecture in my mind. It is a topic in which I wish to learn much more about, but I’m not convinced it would have a broad interest among my fellow students. Yesterday, over grease-conveying eggs and bacon (yum!) in the dormitory cafeteria, a fellow student suggested a lecture topic for me in which I have years of experience. Last night, I raised the possibility with two other students over drinks on a roof deck at a Montpelier watering hole (I had a Mojito, because when you think Vermont, don’t you think of an island drink?). One of my fellow drink-mates, who is a returning graduate assistant, said “Your main goal in your final residency is to complete your creative thesis (your creative writing). Why wouldn’t you choose a lecture topic that wouldn’t require a lot of time to produce?”

Because doing so would make me feel guilty of intellectual laziness?

That said, I find myself imagining giving that “lazy” lecture, to a hall that would have far more students than the one with the lecture in which I would learn more. And I think about that extra time for creative writing, time that might help me move my travel memoir to completion.

I have six months to decide. But, dear readers, you probably already sense what direction I am moving. Now I am just asking myself permission.

21 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Teaching vs. Learning

  1. I know nothing about MFA programs and I’m sure I’m missing a lot of the facts, but I don’t think it’s lazy to give a lecture on a subject you know well. It isn’t that you haven’t done the work… it’s just that you worked to learn about the topic earlier in your writing journey. Teaching is sharing and even though this lecture is required for your degree (which is for you), you’ll still be giving a lecture to students (for them). Give the knowledge you have and save the topic you want to learn about for a future lecture when you have more to knowledge to share.


    1. Hi Shary,

      I’m still learning what a student lecture is myself, but my inclination is like yours, that I should focus on providing value to the audience. Now I should still be able to do that with a topic I’m not currently familiar with, but it would clearly take a lot more work!


  2. Kate Arms-Roberts

    If the primary focus of the assignment is preparation for teaching, which I suspect it is, I would focus on the best lecture I could give – which would be the one I have most experience with.
    If you were teaching a semester long class and skipped an important topic because it was an area of weakness and you weren’t willing to learn about it, that would be intellectual laziness.

    Thing about your audience/students. For the duration of that lecture, you will be the instructor, not a classmate. If you have gained wisdom that would help them develop as writers, isn’t that what you should be sharing?


    1. Yes, Kate, it is absolutely about learning how to present a classroom lecture. There’s no doubt I would give a “better” lecture with the subject in which I’m somewhat versed.

      I love this: “If you have gained wisdom that would help them develop as writers, isn’t that what you should be sharing?”


      1. Kate Arms-Roberts

        The other thought I had is that you might get better feedback on your weaknesses as a teacher if you talk on a topic you know well. If you talk on a new topic, you may learn more what preparation is needed to teach well, but you are likely to learn less about how to present what you already know.


  3. I’d go for the topic for which you have the most… “jet fuel’! Ah, yes, Patrick. You have to stand up there and compel these folks for 45 minutes. In my opinion…info won’t sustain it — your energy will. (Note: I am not a teacher, so I know not of what I speak.)


    1. Well, I’m passionate about both topics, PJ, so my energy would sustain; just not sure the audience’s energy would for the one in which I was going to potentially fumble around a bit.


    1. Thank you for your endorsement of The Artist’s Road intellectual heft! πŸ™‚ Yes on the “passion.” We are supposed to put our passion into our creative output, right, so why not into a lecture on an element of the creative process?


  4. I’ll always fall down on the side of the creative thesis. It’s what led you to the MFA in the first place and what you need to put your energy into. And don’t worry, nobody’s MFA lecture could be worse than mine, which was held on the last Friday afternoon of the residency after a very late night the night before. Even my mentor fell asleep.


    1. “Even my mentor fell asleep.” OK, I’m keeping in mind here you’re a fiction writer! πŸ™‚

      You make an excellent point on the emphasis on the creative thesis, Charlotte, and you speak from experience. Than you for that.


  5. Oh, I don’t think that’s laziness at all — more like selflessness, since it will be helping others. Sometimes all you need is permission. And in case you have trouble giving that to yourself… I give you permission! (Ha!) *waves magic wand* You are now free to choose what you truly want to choose. πŸ˜‰ Good luck, Patrick.


    1. What a great magic want you have! Can you also give me more hours in the day? πŸ™‚

      “You are now free to choose what you truly want to choose.” That’s a good mantra for life. Thank you for that, Annie.


  6. Love all the other comments. I’ll also add that it’s intellectual selectiveness, not laziness. You have other, more important, intellectual fish to fry in your own creative writing. Besides your listeners needing to hear that lecture that would be less work for you, you also have many readers who need you to write your book. It seems to me the only one you’ll be letting down by not going with the more challenging lecture will be some unreasonably demanding straw man your inner critic has invented, frankly. πŸ™‚


    1. Sue, I like the “intellectual selectiveness” phrase, which echoes what Charlotte said above about my priorities with this program.

      I also like this: “[y]ou also have many readers who need you to write your book.” If I can count on you as one of those potential readers, I need to focus on getting this book to you even sooner! πŸ™‚


  7. Pingback: MFA Nugget: An Entire MFA in Writing Residency in One Post « The Artist's Road

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