I hesitate to put a name on this—I’m afraid it will come across too much as a eulogy—but I wanted to offer an appreciation of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, where I just finished teaching what will likely be my last class.
The PCA and its sister organization, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, are going through extremely tough times right now (see here and here): there will be no fall classes at either institution, in a move designed to cut costs. After that, the future’s unclear.
Even before I heard this news, I had made up my mind to “retire” from teaching at the PCA. The reason has quite a lot to do with having a toddler at home and hating to leave in the evenings to teach until 9 or 9:30. It also has to do with my own career, both as a teacher at local universities and as a freelance writer, getting busier.
It certainly has nothing to do with the students who came through my classes.
Without a doubt, that will be the biggest thing I’ll miss about teaching at the PCA. Over five years of teaching fiction classes there, I’ve met so many incredible writers and people. Each class was an amazing reaffirmation of the fact that there is talent everywhere in Pittsburgh, that there are thoughtful, ambitious, inquisitive, and dedicated writers in places (and professions) where you would not expect them. As my teaching career has developed, with classes at the Community College of Allegheny County, the University of Pittsburgh, and Saint Vincent College, the PCA has consistently been a welcome and sustaining complement to teaching at the undergraduate level: I’ve gotten to step into a classroom with people who are hungry, often starving, to focus deeply on writing, to share their work, to spend time on it, even if it’s only three hours on a cold, snowy Thursday in the dead of winter.
The PCA was really integral to my development as a teacher, both in terms of forcing me to condense a lesson on point of view to 10 or so minutes, and pick a reading that will illuminate the key aspects of the topic, and advancing my career. I started teaching with an aim of trying it out: I proposed a class at the Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning at Pitt, it was accepted, and I stuttered my way through, well enough to find that I liked it. I taught one or two more classes before I took a job at Pitt, which meant I could no longer teach at Osher.
Looking around for ways to keep it going, I remembered having seen the occasional writing class in the PCA catalog, and reached out to the education director. That was all it took: in the winter of 2013, I entered the PCA’s children’s studio, with its low-to-the-ground tables and its chairs designed for children, and greeted my first class.
I’ve lost track of the number of classes I taught at the PCA. Over the past five years, I’ve taught at least one or two, sometimes more, each year. Along the way, I devised and taught several offerings of a class called Writing Studio, based on the observation that the biggest problem troubling most of my fiction students was simply finding the time to write and making themselves sit down and get the writing done. I’m very proud of what Writing Studio became, in particular because I adapted it each time to fit the needs and the writing goals of my students.
One of the things that makes me proudest as a teacher is that several groups of students have gone on to form writing groups based on the connections they made in my classes. This was a frequent piece of advice when I introduced the concept of the writing workshop and my particular rules for how it should run: the ultimate goal of being in a writing workshop is to connect with people who “get” your work and whose comments you find valuable; grab hold of those people, I said, and keep in conversation, keep sharing your work.
My teaching, and my own thinking about writing, has also been deepened considerably by the insights that have come up in class discussions. One of the most memorable came from using the first chapter of a Harry Potter novel to discuss detail. In the scene, the British prime minister is worrying by himself in his office, late at night, when a supernatural creature from the wizarding world appears to him, arriving through the suddenly-green fire in his fireplace. My intent with discussing this passage was to present the idea of verisimilitude, and to show how light a touch J.K. Rowling uses in seeding the scene with concrete details: the dark wood mantle place, the sooty fireplace, the heavy velvet curtains, all give a sense of the setting.
“Why do I see Oriental rugs on the floor?” asked a student. “And marble columns in the corner of the room?”
We explored this as a class, talking about what other details we’d mentally filled in, and where we’d smuggled them in from. It was invigorating to see something new in this passage, to investigate and deepen this student’s observation. I’ve mentioned it every time I have taught detail since then, and that lesson is much deeper because of it.
I’m very lucky to have ended with a Fiction I section full of smart, generous, and talkative writers. That talkative bit is important, because the class was only four people. That’s sometimes happened during my PCA career—that first class was a whopping 12 students, still the high-water mark for enrollment—and when I’ve gotten down to four students in the past, it’s sometimes been challenging. This time around, I promised the class on the first night that we wouldn’t often go all the way to the advertised 9:30 p.m. end time, only to break that promise again and again as students raised really interesting and perceptive questions about whatever topic we were discussing that evening, leading to fascinating extended discussions about characterization, plot, dialogue, and point of view.
Each first PCA class is a grab bag, a bit of a gamble—you never know who will turn up—and I’ve been extremely fortunate in the people who have chosen to take my classes. In fact, if there is anything positive in retiring, it’s that I look forward to taking off my teacher’s cloak and greeting these former students, if and when I see them—and Pittsburgh is still a small enough place that I suspect I will run into many of them (as I have already over the years)—not as my pupils but as peers, colleagues, and friends.