10 Years of Online Teaching

The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers started because of outrage, curiosity, and a love of teaching. I’d been teaching part-time for a community college and when I looked at what I was getting paid versus what the students were getting charged, I thought the discrepancy was pretty big, even when I factored in the support system and structure the college provided.

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Google Hangouts had just started, and when I looked at the feature, it occurred to me that it was pretty well suited for a small class. I was curioous how that might work, and so I put the word out online and started teaching that six week class on my own. After a while, it seemed to me that some sections needed to be their own classes, because we were spending so much time on them. In answer to that I created classes like Literary Techniques for Genre Writers and Creating an Online Presence for Writers.

Things weren’t entirely painless. Google was prone to changing Hangouts features pretty regularly, and the help docs were invariably a few versions behind. But among other things, it let me record the class sessions, which meant I could not only offer those recordings to the students, but I could go back and look at what worked and what didn’t. Other pain points were time zones — when someone’s dialing in from Australia at 2 AM their time, they can get confused by time zone changes, and I soon learned that days when the US changed to Daylight Savings Time required extra reminders ahead of time to students that the time switch would be happening.

A few years in, it occurred to me that I knew some pretty good teachers as well. I asked two good friends if they’d be willing to try the experiment with me, and they agreed. Ann Leckie came in and taught how to write space opera (in the process inspiring the book I’ve got coming out next year by wistfully saying “I wish someone would write a space opera in omniscient point of view) while Rachel Swirsky taught poetic techniques for speculative writers, how to work with myths and fairytales, and how to break writing rules and find inspiration in the process.

As the school evolved, it became clearer what its niche was: not beginning writers so much as people who already had some of the basics down. Many students were at that stage where they were getting plenty of rejections, but each one said “this is close, send something else.” One of the great joys of the school has been watching my students start breaking in. Fantasy Magazine, a magazine I once edited, was recently relaunched, and one of my students or mentees has appeared in every single one of the first three issues. How amazing is that?

Fantasy and science fiction writers embrace a philosophy of “paying things forward,” helping others in the same way people have helped us, and so early on I implemented the Plunkett scholarships, named for Edward Plunkett, aka fantasy writer Lord Dunsany, providing three scholarship slots for each class. That’s been something that’s helped make the school more interesting, bringing in a wider range of people, and making it more accessible internationally.

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Plunkett scholarships are needs-based. Applicants simply have to say that they couldn’t otherwise afford the class. Over a decade, several hundred students have benefited from the Plunketts.

My philosophy in seeking out new classes for the school is to find people that I want to learn from, teaching things that I want to know. In recent years, the school has featured some truly amazing teachers: Jennifer Brozek, Tobias Buckell, Henry Lien, Seanan McGuire, Judith Tarr, Fran Wilde…to name just a handful. And more are getting lined up in 2021, including a class on urban fantasy with L.L. McKinney. In a purely selfish sense, I’ve had the benefit now of learning from some of the best in the business, and I know I’m a better writer as a result of working with the school.

I’ve also tried to keep the faculty diverse, not just racially, but in terms of gender, sexual orientation, neuro-diversity, and disability. I have learned so much from my students, and my teaching practice has gotten better as a result of the challenges they’ve given me at times. And I am a better person because I teach. There are times when I don’t want to let my students down, or when I ask myself, “What would the Cat Rambo in their heads do?” Because that Cat Rambo is the version of myself I’d like to be.

It is both pleasing and a little startling to me that the school is a genuine small business by now, providing a good chunk of my yearly income. It’s certainly something that has made me work hard and stretch myself to meet its demands. To teach a class on how writers should create an online presence, I had to do a lot of research, and I still constantly check new platforms and resources, particularly with a mind to updating my book on it for its 3rd edition in 2021. I have a number of regular faculty members now, and two (very) part-time employees. As my own marketer, I had to learn advertising basics (including how to do things like writing keyword-rich Medium stories to drive people to a specific sale) and how to create basic graphics.

My friend Caren Gussoff introduced me to the Teachable platform a few years ago, and I’ve used that to provide a branch of the school aimed at people who want to work at their own pace. Now there’s close to twenty different classes there (again with more to come!) and I’ve learned so much about teaching in putting those together. If you’re curious, there’s a sale right now through 1/1/2021 where the classes are $5, enabling you to pick up every class offered for less than $100.

In 2020, a third component of the school came into existence. I took the Discord server associated with my Patreon and made it our virtual campus. Nowadays there are multiple co-working sessions, as well as weekly sessions for playing writing games, story discussion, and hanging out to chat, as well as Discord channels like #what-does-this-title-promise and #critclub for writing discussion (as well as trivial things like #cutebreak for cat pictures and #writingtools for fountain pen talk).

I’m looking forward to what 2021 brings the school. With such a great ten years behind it, it’s got a great start on this next decade.

World Fantasy and Nebula-nominated speculative fiction writer/editor. I read and write a lot.

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