“If I’m not learning more than the student, then I’m not doing my job.”
Written by Jennifer Tatum-Cotamagana, Nonfiction MFA
Photography by Jacob Boll
Ann Hemenway’s office is bright and welcoming; piles of student work and class notes are organized in small stacks on the floor. Her office, like her personality, is very warm and inviting. Hemenway says she was drawn to Columbia College Chicago as an undergraduate, after attending a college on the east coast for a little over a year, because of the “variety” and the “wide range of students.” She cites this as her reason for attending and for her return to Columbia College Chicago after she obtained her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop.
Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction department uses the Story Workshop® method and having experienced a more critique based workshop method at Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Hemenway found that the Story Workshop® offered a more generative approach to her writing and to her teaching of writing.
“It’s [Story Workshop®] a more process driven approach which interests me as a teacher.” The process based nature of the Story Workshop®, according to Hemenway, allows students to work with each other and make identifications in their own work, rather than just having someone tell them where changes need to be made. “Don’t think that there’s no discussion of what’s working and what isn’t working, because there is.” There are positive aspects to both methods and it’s about figuring out what works best for you as a teacher of writing and as a student of writing.
Hemenway has over twenty years of teaching experience, and along with teaching Story Workshop® classes, she teaches Critical Reading and Writing Courses: Women Writers, Crime and Story, Novel and Story and the Short Story, all of which are researched based classes offering a critical lens for reading the published work of other writers and opportunities for students to develop skills for their “toolbox.” She is also the recipient of the 2011-2013 Distinguished Teacher Award.
As an instructor of writing, Hemenway says her students inspire her regularly. “If I didn’t [get inspired], I wouldn’t be teaching anymore," she says, and “If I’m not learning more than the student, then I’m not doing my job.” She learns from her students everyday and says, about her approach to the many ways that students learn and approach their writing, “Though my brain doesn’t work like that, my job is to figure out how to help them and understand what they’re after.” According to Hemenway, teaching is “improvisational” and it’s about” paying attention to what’s happening in that moment, and “It’s about listening.”
“We don’t go into this business to make a lot of money,” Writing teachers are graduating into a rough climate, one that she describes as “catch as catch can.” She teaches her students to be entrepreneurs, to look outside of their chosen field in order to financially support themselves.
Hemenway is a testament to her own words. She worked part time for six years prior to being hired in her current position and also did freelance work writing medical copy. She advocates the importance of knowing that you might have to teach part-time and find other ways to make money, but there is also good news; it isn’t all bad. Creative Writing MFA programs are sprouting up all over the place which means there are more job opportunities.
At the core of Ann Hemenway’s teaching practice is figuring out what works for students on a personal level and what will help them in their own writing and later on in their professional lives. She teaches from a place of encouragement and understanding, really listening to her students and offering them support, in their writing and outside of their writing. She says that “The basis of all writing is the element of story,” and she encourages students to find their own path and follow their own story.