Independent Studies

I have two students whose teaching internships I'm supervising this quarter, another student from another university doing a magazine internship, and two students who have planned independent studies with me during spring quarter. I had to tell all of them that my schedule might be messed up, that I'm not sure what my time will be like or what I'll be capable of doing. I find saying I have cancer with impending surgery seems a good incentive for getting them to come up with a research paper topic right away. (I hope, at least. I'm waiting for the topics.) When I told R that I might have to scale back, I realized I was smiling. It felt like an embarrassed smile. A cancer smile? A smile that says, I'm sorry to spring this heavy thing on you, sorry to involve you in my intimate life, but I have to since it affects our professional relationship. And I'm smiling because I feel sheepish because don't feel sick. But it's also the same smile I've felt when I have to tell a student he's doing badly. It still bothers me that I was part of kicking out a weak student from WRU's (Well-Regarded University's) graduate journalism program about 20 years ago. I remember telling her, You're skating on thin ice, which was a very vague thing to say. It was the introductory quarter and we didn't give letter grades, just check, check-plus and check-minus. She could have made it in the program, I think, in the long run; she was intelligent, not like the DC schoolteacher we had who was almost illiterate. Years later I met the sister of the "thin ice" student at a conference and asked how her sister was doing. It seemed she had recovered from her failure at WRU and was married, had kids. I don't remember if she had a professional life. I felt assured that we hadn't ruined her life.

I'm a gatekeeper now. I've been on seven admissions committees for the graduate writing program at WRU. Last time, O. was lobbying for letting a particular student in. Well, he said, if she doesn't do well, she'll get a bad grade and leave. I argued that we shouldn't let her in. I know the tendency of teachers (or at my own tendency) is to pass a student along. You think, Well, she was admitted, after all. She must have skills. Someone must have confidence in her. We ended up rejecting that applicant because I foresaw a basic failure to develop a voice. She could write well and had degrees and honors but her writing sounded almost like the voice-over of a movie trailer, a voice created by a committee. Her personal statement didn't indicate that she had enough awareness of the generic nature of her style, and a desire to break through it.

At the last info session for prospective students, one woman kept asking how much of each writing workshop was devoted to "process" and developing a voice. It took a while for me to get what she meant about "process." I told her we expect students to have a voice already. Afterwards she told me she's been writing features for WRU's business school and wanted to get out of formulaic writing. She wanted to know if the program would help her do that. I suggested she take a creative nonfiction course somewhere before applying. Now that's someone who's aware of her shortcomings. Our next admissions meeting is set for Valentine's Day. Will my breast be medical waste by then?

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