Where Are They Now? | Alumni Spotlight: Tammy Atha '17

  • Tammy AthaEnglish Instructor, Southeast Community College in Beatrice, Nebraska 
  • MFA in Creative Writing and Pedagogy '17
  • BA in Creative Writing and Literature '13

Miami Experience

Why did you choose Miami for your undergraduate degree? 
I was slated to go to a community college because of financial reasons but because the terrific Miami financial aid package made it all possible, I ended up at Miami. I’m thankful for that because the four-year education I got from Miami is top-notch. 

What drew you to major in creative writing and literature?
When I started at Miami I was a music major and then I was a fine arts major and then I was anthropology and then I was like, ”no, no, no, not anthropology.” And then I took ENG 112 and I really liked my instructor and she was a creative writing major. My first introduction to creative writing was ENG 266 with professor cris cheek and I was kind of hooked because I wanted to be a fine arts major because I wanted to paint, but I can’t draw and I can’t paint really, so creative writing gives me a way to be the creative person that I am. cris cheek opened the door to what was possible in the field of creative writing.

How did your writing develop over the course of your academic career?
It started off more as experimental work and then in grad school fell more into documentary poetry and memoir. I’ve changed a lot and I feel like I’ve been around Miami for a lot of the major changes because I was in the same department my whole time (after that first semester of misguided majors). But the literature major kind of stuck because I liked it so much and creative writing major kind of stuck because I liked it so much. 

What prompted you to enroll in the graduate program at Miami?
I was just trying to find a better job and trying to do something else besides work in retail which was a miserable experience. I was vaguely interested in teaching and once I got back to Miami and had the first round of teaching ENG 111, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed interacting with students, I enjoyed hearing their thoughts and feelings, setting them up with these interesting writing tasks that ENG 111 asks us to do and seeing what they could make in the end.

Braving the Job Market

What advice do you have for those entering the job market?
When I finished up my master’s degree I applied mostly for teaching jobs at all levels and had the most traction with community colleges. The job market sucks; it’s terrifying.

The thing that I did and the thing that I think people need to do is to start early. I started applying for and searching for jobs in February 2017 and I didn’t get hired until late August/early September of 2017. If I thought, maybe I’m not qualified for this, I applied anyway because the worst thing that can happen is someone just tells you no. And you can’t take it personally, even if you had an interview and you think it went well. The market is flooded with lots of talented people. If you take it personally you will get destroyed. Eat your pint of ice cream and you’ve just got to get over it because if you hold onto all that baggage you’re going to take that into the next interview. I applied for a total of 43 jobs and I heard back from maybe half of them. You’ve got to search for the jobs, apply for them, and just do your best. I was still jokey Tammy and I was always myself and it worked in some areas so places and didn’t in others. Keep in mind that even if you think the job is the right job in the interview you might just not be the right person for them. Do you really want to work with people who aren’t going to like who you are?

I am so, so lucky that I found the job that was right for me –– a good fit for them, a good fit for me. They wanted someone who had writing center experience, had ESL experience, who was a poet, who was a creative writer. And I just so happened to tick all those boxes.

Working at Southeast Community College

Tell us about your current position.
I am an English Instructor at Southeast Community College in Beatrice, Nebraska. It’s in the middle of nowhere. I work in a cornfield, but it’s a very nice cornfield. If I look outside the window I can see cows. I am more one with nature than I’ve ever been. 

What do you like most about your job?
It takes all the skills that I built up in my master’s degree and applies them directly. I have English as a Second Language experience and even though we’re a rural community college in Nebraska we have international students here – students from Jamaica, Kenya, Australia. It’s a very sports-centered school so the international students who are coming here are usually runners or they play basketball or baseball. At Miami I taught a lot of classes for ESL through various different programs like the creative writing internship in China. I got to do that December 2015 and teach at Sun Yat-sen University and the summer of 2016 I taught the Global Partnership Summer School, so I taught students from a couple of different Chinese universities. At Southeast Community College I also teach students with low literacy levels which is to say students are underprepared for college who need to buff up their writing skills and so the ESL background works towards that.

They also wanted someone with a tutoring teaching background because our class sizes can be quite small. Right now I’m teaching four different classes, I teach Introduction to Reading and Writing which is for our lowest literacy level – our students who are building those skills and then I teach an Intermediate Introduction to Reading and Writing. Both of those class sizes are no more than 12 students. At Miami I worked in the Writing Center and I also worked at the Howe Writing Center for Excellence online –– so those skills transferred over. I also teach Composition I, and Composition II. 

How do you incorporate creative writing?
I’ve always tried to take creative writing and put it into the composition classroom. There’s a perceived divorce between those two things but they’re not that different from each other. I often have students write personal narratives and connect them to the texts that we’re reading. We read a book about how to become more productive and how to focus and one of my prompts asks them to narrate a time when things that they learned from the book about focus could have been applied to this personal narrative. In another of my classes they write a memoir. I’m still very much in the creative writing mindset but still very much marrying that to what I learned from Professor Jason Palmeri about composition pedagogy. 

What about this job has surprised you?
It’s different from Miami because it’s a two-year college. At Miami you have to have certain test scores, a certain GPA. There’s some weeding out of different communities who don’t meet those standards. At Miami my first-year composition students came to college mostly prepared if not totally prepared. At Southeast Community College, I had to take a step back and practice meeting my students where they are. In the beginning reading and writing classes I have students who are struggling on the sentence level and usually at Miami I had students who were struggling with connecting their major points together or supporting their thesis statement. I’ve had to recognize that so much of my students’ success comes from me meeting them where they’re at when they come to my classroom and making sure I’m not leaving anyone behind.

What's the best thing about working at a community college?  
I value that where I work now it is open enrollment so anybody can come in and enroll for classes. I have single moms who are trying to do better and gain skills and be able to get work. I’ve got students who are right out of high school, who struggled in H.S., and had the realization that a four-year college wasn’t going to be for them initially, but they wanted to go there eventually. It is super rewarding when I’m going to get to see students who had me at that beginning reading and writing class where we’re working on sentence structure, and I’m going to see them apply for four-year schools and get into four-year schools, when that coming out of high school wasn’t even an option for them. I could potentially see someone go from building their skills level all the way to writing 15 page papers. That’s exciting for me –– that I get to help someone build a literacy level that they didn’t even know they were capable of building.

Teaching creative writing at Sun Yat-sen University – December 2015

Internship teaching creative writing at Sun Yat-Sen University