Although I still have one more set of finals to grade, my semester is over. As some of you may remember, this is my first semester back from a sabbatical last fall. And it likely won’t surprise you that I was both excited and frustrated at the same time. It was great to get back into the classroom and work with students, though it took me some time to accept that I would have to put my research agenda aside for a few months, especially after finally finding my rhythm with this new book project.* But most importantly, I was excited to try something new with one of my classes, a graduate level Thesis Workshop.
Without question, my class was success. By the end of the semester, the students had produced thoughtful, compelling thesis proposals that outline projects exploring multiple discourse communities and engaging in interdisciplinary thinking. Sure, they have a great deal of work ahead of them, and these projects will no doubt change over time. But the goal of the course was to get students to the point where they can begin a long-term thesis project, and these students are absolutely there. Just as importantly, they are excited about their projects. But most importantly – to me, anyway – is how they got to this point.
As I noted in my earlier post (linked above), I wanted to engage in what one friend has called “intellectual cross training,” and to help students to develop practices that inspired them to think and work creatively. Because my department’s graduate program is designed to encourage interdisciplinary work, I needed to get students thinking across disciplines, as opposed to merely using research from different disciplines. How, in other words, do different fields define research questions, and how do they engage those questions? Again, all we did was start on this path, but I am happy with where my students are headed. Both students, at different points, came to class concerned that they did not know enough to understand some of the materials they collected for their annotated bibliographies. Both students told me that, in order to understand this work, they had to go to other resources to understand how people in those fields think and write. That impulse right there is a good one, and demonstrated to me that, while they have much work ahead of them, they are approaching that work properly.
I like to believe that one reason students were able to do such work is because we spent a fair amount of time talking about, thinking about, and exploring creativity. For instance, we spent one week discussing Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, where the students had to do some of the drawing exercises she assigned her students, and talk about their process. We also spent a week listening to different versions of “My Favorite Things,” and explored how artists take existing songs, melodies, phrases, and play with them in order to create something that is both recognizable and new.
Another reason that the students were open to this kind of work is that they both have undergraduate degrees in Creative Writing, and continue to work on their art. These students were familiar and comfortable with the workshop format, and came to our workshops (4, over the course of the semester) knowing that what they brought was going to be later revised into something new. They knew that the goal of the workshop was to develop the piece, to ask about what else it could do, or where else it could go. That is, they came to class knowing that the work was not yet done, and that even if they could not yet see where else it could go, the workshop would help them figure that out.
I was also thankful that the students were open to my efforts at “mindful movement,” and at times they were thankful for it. Once, we did move some tables and do some yoga in class to take a break from the intellectual work. But mostly, we spent our time walking. First we took short walks around the building, to really explore the physical space we were in. But for the most part, we went outside and walked around campus. Our conversations were about whatever popped up (though music was a favorite topic of ours***), but always led us back to where we needed to be. We found that we couldn’t escape talking about class, no matter how hard we tried. And that was a good thing. We left the room, went outside, told jokes and stories, randomly hit on topics, and found our way back to the class discussion through new connections, coming at issues from new angles. In fact, we did some of best “thinking” for this class while outside, walking around campus, investigating a wooden bridge or a tree that looked interesting.
And as I have thought about this course during the semester****, I kept coming back to on question: why are we not requiring students in my department to take Creative Writing courses?
I have long complained about students’ aversion to risk taking and creative approaches to their writing. (I’d link to various blog posts, but I touch on this so often I can’t pick just one blog post.) And many of my colleagues – and friends across academia – have made similar complaints. We can point the finger wherever we like, and while that might make us feel better, it doesn’t solve the problem. And sure, I do a fair amount of finger-pointing, but at the end of the day, I’d rather solve a problem than complain about it. And I think one way we could attempt to solve the problem is to force our students to take Creative Writing courses.
In order to earn a BFA in Creative Writing, students must take at least 6 courses devoted to analyzing literature. This is, of course, a good thing. I firmly believe that students become better writers – better artists – by approaching literature as thoughtful, critical readers as well as craftspeople. Literature majors, however, do not need to take a single creative writing class. Is it not just as important for people studying literature to have done some work approaching literature as craft, and not just as an object of study?
Admittedly, some students will end up taking a Creative Writing class in order to fulfill a General Education requirement.^ However, I encourage my students to fulfill that requirement outside of the department, in order to spend some time engaged in an art they may not otherwise engage. But more importantly, I do not believe that we should allow the General Education program to do work that I increasingly see as vital for my department majors.
I know what some of you may be thinking: we already teach “writing” in the Literature program. Students have to take courses in academic writing, and they will develop their writing in upper-division literature courses. And hell, isn’t all writing really just the same thing? (OK, none of you are thinking that. Or at least, I hope not.) But isn’t that how it’s commonly taught? Learn the basics – which you get in Freshman Writing and other lower-division courses – and the rest os just practice? In other words, why are we demanding that Creative Writing students take multiple workshops to improve their writing, but Literature students don’t have to take any? Sure, some faculty may have students do some writing workshop work in the classroom, but I suspect those classes are few and far between.^^
Admittedly, one reason for this – and is my reason for not doing more of this work right now – is that class sizes often prevent it. Creative Writing courses are already unjustifiably large. Literature courses are even larger, and doing effective workshopping with 29 students in the class just isn’t good pedagogy. Small class sizes – not to mention better facilities – would go a long way to encouraging faculty to do this kind of work, work that I suspect everyone would agree is valuable.
But if we cannot turn every Literature class into a writing workshop (at least in part), can’t we have them take creative writing classes?
If we want our students to embrace creativity, to approach writing as a craft and not just as a means to an end^^^, why do we not require them to work with our Creative Writing faculty, faculty who have spent years approaching writing as a craft?
It certainly cannot do them any harm, and will undoubtedly serve them well.
*I also had a fantastic opportunity come my way, the chance to contribute a couple chapters to a forthcoming volume in Oxford UP’s History of the Novel in English. This required reading some new – and very long! – novels, and the realization that I am in no way capable of doing justice to the topic, American historical novels after 1940. I ended up having a great deal of fun with this, and developed a profound respect for people who do this kind of work well. I’m glad I got to do this, because it forced me to do a kind of writing I have never tried before. I’ll get back to this idea later in this post.
**One of my pet peeves in research projects – at any level – is when students see “research” as an exercise in finding quotations in published work that they can drop into their work to prove they did research.
***For reasons I don’t remember, we spent a fair amount of time at the end of our classes playing music videos, and ended up looking at quite a lot of hair metal. Those of you who know me well know that I unapologetically love hair metal. Often, I swear, this was related to some aspect of our conversations about their research. One class, where we discussed obvious sexual imagery in art, led me to show my students what I believe to be the least subtle of all the hair metal works. You’re welcome.
****I’ll save for another time how I plan on incorporating over time these various lessons into my other classes. You know, once I figure out that plan. But I will slowly work aspects of this pedagogical approach into my teaching on a fundamental level. It will take time, but I have a long career to work this out.
^I have recently joined the university’s General Education Task Force, which is charged with re-thinking our General Education program. This is very important work, and I am encouraged by the spirit of change and openness to new ideas reflected by many on the task force. Instead of trying to “fix” what’s wrong, we are planning on completely redesigning the program. This is about blowing it up and building anew, and not tweaking what currently exists.
^^Although I never had the opportunity to study with him, my friends from grad school all speak about the wonderful work Prof. Tom Jambeck did in the classroom. If memory serves, he had students engage in “wrangling” exercises, which were intense workshops for the graduate students. These exercises were not merely about content, but were honest workshopping events, geared to help the students become better writers as well as better thinkers. It would not surprise me to learn that some of his students continue that practice in their classes today.
^^^I had a student this semester, a very smart student, who does not at all approach writing as a craft. He’s bright and thoughtful – and over the past few years has come a long way in his thinking – but a terrible writer. If spent half as much time to writing as a craft as he does to thinking about abstract ideas, he would be one of the department’s best students. Sadly, in all the years I have known him, he has not spent any significant time trying to become a better writer, despite all the time he has devoted to becoming a better reader.