interview by Carla Dominguez
photography by John Dijulio
When I met with John Mclaughlin at the Anderson House for this interview the first thing he asked me was, “You’re not going to write about me as Mr. Mclaughlin, are you?” I asked him if he preferred Professor Mclaughlin, and he laughed. “I go by Jack,” he reminded me.
He had been my poetry professor for spring semester, and he had told the class the same thing. It was a stark contrast from many other college professors that raise their eyebrows disapprovingly at the first sign of informality. Jack had just wrapped up his MFA in Creative Writing at VCU, a program which can require you teach English classes along with your studies—not as a TA or student-teacher, but as a professor, with your own syllabus and office hours. It was interesting to see someone at the professor’s podium that was only a few years older than me. I could see his shift from student to teacher, where he would laugh with us at our awful jokes and then clear his throat and say, “Alright guys, let’s focus.” I wanted to learn more about this transition and VCU’s infamous Creative Writing MFA program.
Why did you pick VCU for your graduate education?
Mostly because they gave me money. But I read some of the faculty’s work, and I really liked it. It’s also a three year program instead of two years, and that appealed to me.
Did you finish your undergrad with the intention of going to graduate school for English?
I thought I knew. I knew what I wanted to major in from the moment I started college, but then I had to quickly come to terms with the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew that I wanted to write, and teach writing, and I wanted to teach at a college level. It kinda felt like, “How long can I put off real life?”
When did you teach your first class?
The first class I taught was in Spring 2013. It was intimidating. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But now, I think that I did, you know? If you learn enough about something, or care enough about something, then you’ll find you’ll know how to teach people.
What class did you teach?
Honors English 295. It’s a weird system. The honors college forces students to take that class. It’s weird because kids who wouldn’t take that class normally are there. I taught a class full of biologists and engineers. It works a bit, I suppose, because it exposes kids to literature. But there are some kids that feel trapped and they aren’t going to budge. It’s really strange to compare the two classes I’ve taught, one in Honors and one not. The hardest thing about the Honors College kids is getting them to care about literature, and the hardest thing about non-Honors kids is getting them to show up to class. I would much rather have the problem of less people being there, but the ones there care.
It’s the worst thing to know that you’re not getting through to someone, and to see them resisting it. You start thinking that maybe there is no point to writing a poem. It’s really easy for these kids that are studying to be doctors to argue about the pointlessness of my class. And it’s fair; it’s totally fair. Because my argument is that I just have this feeling that poetry matters, I just can’t really explain how. This wasn’t everyone, of course, there were many kids that I could see were interested and open. But the kids that weren’t stood out a thousand times more.
How did your students respond to the poems you showed them?
What sticks out is what didn’t go well. Poems that are about an atmosphere first were really hard for some to accept. Those poems didn’t really have a logical idea at their core. With people that are starting out with reading poetry, they always assume that there is some sort of “secret” behind it. So it’s especially hard with poems that don’t make sense, because many of them aren’t willing to take a step back and look at it for what it is. It’s poetry. It doesn’t always have to be about a “thing.” It’s an experience.
You were a student and a teacher at the same time. Did you find it hard to transition between those modes?
Oh, yeah. I found myself reprimanding students for stuff I would do when I was in class. It’s a really weird thing. A large part of it is how well you can put on an act. So it’s a weird balance between when to be a person and when to be a teacher. I think the workshop classes worked to my advantage, because they are more like a conversation and I could be much more relaxed. A teacher is an image, and sometimes I had to act out that image. Not in a bad way, but kind of like how you have to act a certain way in a nice restaurant.
Do you feel prepared to be a teacher? Is it something you want to continue doing?
Yes. Even though I have to work on what to do and what not to do. The biggest problem for me was that I would internalize the smallest things. If someone was bored with the readings, or didn’t show up, I would blame myself. You learn that you can’t win them all. Sometimes you have to step up, but sometimes you have to step down. ♦