Jaswinder Bolina

M.F.A. (University of Michigan, 2003) Ph.D. (Ohio University, 2010)

Website: www.jaswinderbolina.comJaswinder Bolina is author of the books Phantom Camera, winner of the 2012 Green Rose Prize in Poetry from New Issues Press, and Carrier Wave, winner of the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry from the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University. His work has appeared in numerous U.S. and international literary journals and in The Best American Poetry series. His most recent poems are included in current or forthcoming issues of The Baffler, Pleiades, Southeast Review, and Another Chicago Magazine. His essays have appeared at The Poetry Foundation dot org, The Huffington Post, The State, and other magazines. They have also appeared in or are forthcoming from anthologies including Poets on Teaching (University of Iowa Press 2011), Language: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press 2013), and The Task of Un/Masking (University of Georgia Press 2014). He is currently working on a third collection of poems and on a collection of essays.

Teaching Statement:

As a first-year college student, I spent many bitter hours over coffee with friends complaining that a Statistics course I was floundering through had little bearing on my work as a Philosophy major. I lamented that I would find no use for such abstract and esoteric mathematical knowledge outside of a math classroom. Thinking back on those frustrated rants in the years since, I realize that I failed to understand how a system of thought used in an academic discipline other than my own would help me. My problem with Statistics stemmed from my inability to recognize the broad usefulness of thinking mathematically, of solving abstract problems using methodical calculation. This inability resulted in a pronounced lack of interest in the class, which turned into a mild hostility toward the subject, which resulted in my failure to understand it. Only later, did I begin to understand that methods I used to solve math problems were—sometimes obliquely and sometimes overtly—helpful when I engaged with abstract ideas in my own work. Later, I realized that Statistics helped me become a better thinker and, by extension, a better writer. It is this realization that fundamentally guides my teaching philosophy today. I understand what it feels like to be the frustrated student who misunderstands the relevance of a subject or exercise, who resists new or difficult ideas, or who simply misses the point. I realize even smart, enthusiastic students might encounter unfamiliar concepts the same way I encountered Statistics and think of them as esoteric or irrelevant. For this reason, I put much of my effort into demonstrating how vital it is that we learn new ways of thinking about things we believe we already understand. I further encourage my classes to understand that the skills we learn in writing and literature courses are vital to many other areas of study and to our careers and lives long after college or graduate school.

In an effort to encourage new ways of thinking, my creative writing workshops employ a five-part method for the review of poems. This method offers a systematic approach to writing, discussing, and revising poetry. It encourages student writers to achieve critical distance from their work by considering it in terms of its linguistic innovations and shortcomings rather than in terms of its subject matter. Because it is a step-by-step tactic focused on language rather than subject, peer feedback tends to be specific, honest, and insightful rather than vague, cautious, or hurtful. I don't want to give the impression that the method is revolutionary. However, it does offer myself and my workshops an opportunity to replace vague, personal opinions with concrete and pragmatic criticism. As we engage in this process, I further encourage students to realize that maintaining critical distance, paying meticulous attention to detail, and being able to offer a concrete and thoughtful response to new ideas are skills that have a place in any number of fields and disciplines and in their everyday lives.

In survey classes, I similarly explain that literary analysis requires an understanding of associative as well as linear logic, that we engage with writing on literal and figurative levels, and that this ability to simultaneously understand multiple layers of subject and meaning is as important to engineers, physicians, and lawyers as it is to literary scholars. In all of my classes, students practice a system of analysis and extrapolation that identifies characteristics of strong writing and asks them to employ those characteristics in their own work. I explain that pattern recognition and emulation are precisely the same practices used by exceptional musicians, athletes, and artists. In these ways, whether I am teaching creative writing or literature, I emphasize method more than I do product. Further, I suggest that grades are more than a simple reward or punishment for the work we produce. Instead, they measure how well we are able to learn a system of thinking and how successfully we apply that system to new problems.

My teaching philosophy is founded upon the belief that systematically thinking about writing and literature by others can tangibly improve our own creative work. Further, I believe that such thinking can reveal as much about the world as any other discipline, and my teaching practices seek to convince my students of this idea. My hope is that they never find themselves frustrated and ranting about my courses in a coffee shop to amused looks from their friends. My further hope is that students leave my classrooms with an improved capacity for critical and original thought; clear strategies for improving their writing; and a better sense of the relationship between thinking, writing, and the world at large.