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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

My Dream Courses
December 17, 2013 - 4:37pm

With another semester over, I like to dream of courses that, in a perfect world, I’d get to teach someday. As the world is not perfect, and my position requires me to spend at least 2/3 of my time in the first-year writing trenches (Not a complaint!), these dreams will likely never come to fruition.

But I find thinking about these “dream” courses makes me reconsider my approaches to the courses I do teach, how I can bring the dream closer to reality, if you will.

A two-semester advanced composition course

Composition might be the wrong term but, “heavily-researched piece of narrative writing/reporting including both primary and secondary sources,” isn’t quite as snappy. Imagine something that would’ve been published in the New Yorker before Tina Brown got her hands on it, or a New York Times Magazine feature.

I’d like to spend the first semester guiding students as they draft a fairly long (10,000 plus words) and involved piece of writing on a subject of their interest that requires primary observation, original interviews, and secondary research, and then the second semester having them revise, edit, polish, and publish it.

I taught something close to the first semester during my time at Clemson, but it’s the second semester I’m longing for.

My motivations are multi-fold. One is that I think it’s good practice to write something really long, the kind of thing where there’s no hope of keeping the material all in your head. There’s also a benefit in terms of developing non-cognitive skills like persistence, when assignments are more marathon than sprint. The course would go so against the usual rhythms of college that I can’t help but think they’d develop some different intellectual muscles.

Second semester they would work in teams where, in addition to revising their own work they are editor for one other student, copy editor for another, and designer for another. The goal here is to experience what happens in all aspects of the publishing process. They’d also learn concrete skills like editing and proofreading, as well as gaining some working knowledge of design and layout software.

My hunch is that students would find the second semester horrible and tedious, particularly when they spend a couple weeks copyediting manuscripts, but my hope is that they would have the kind of breakthrough I’ve personally experienced when I’ve had drafts move to finished product and learned what it takes to get the writing from “good enough” to “can’t be better” and how difficult, time consuming, and important that is.

Genre-based novel writing course

Short stories are the primary form in the undergraduate creative writing classroom, but most of my students who are interested in writing want to write novels, and as Cathy Day notes in her experience teaching novel writing, most of them want to write genre fiction: historical fiction, fantasy, romance, sci-fi.

If NaNoWriMo can get thousands of people to write novel drafts in one month, I figure I could drive 20 motivated students to do the same in 16 weeks.

As with the advanced composition class, it would be highly collaborative, with students working in “interest” groups, exchanging drafts and giving each other feedback. In her class, Cathy Day reads a limited number of partials a week to make the feedback manageable.

The grading would have to be based on page counts, or some other metric because it would be impossible to read, let alone comment on, 20 novels.

I think creative writing instruction tends to over-privilege instructor feedback anyway. I’m imagining this course for advanced students with lots of workshop experience already, and the sooner students learn to not worry about what some authority figure thinks, at least while they're in creation-mode, the better.

If I’m being greedy, I wouldn’t mind this being a two-semester sequence as well, with the second semester dedicated to revision.

First-year writing course based in comedy writing

It is my belief that writing humor is excellent training for writing anything. Above all, writing humor requires attention to the two pillars of composition on which I rest my philosophy: 1. Good writing takes into account your audience’s needs, attitudes, and knowledge, and 2. The precision with which we express our ideas matters as much as the ideas themselves.

These principles can be practiced with something as straightforward as trying to write a single joke for a Leno or Letterman-style monologue. It’s an excellent tool for illustrating Twain’s lesson on the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. It’s much much harder than it looks.

Writing humor and comedy also requires a deep knowledge of subject and consistent cultural engagement. Through my editorial position with McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, I’ve had the pleasure to come to know people who work, or have worked at The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion, and the very nature of their jobs requires them to read with both breadth and depth. They need to be on top of what's going on in the world, and in order to find the humor, have to employ critical thinking skills that dig well under the surface.

In short, the work requires the habits of being, for lack of a better word, “smart.”

As with my other dream courses, the assignments would be largely collaborative, with a final project something like preparing an opening bit for Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert, an edition of The Onion, or Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live.

Am I the only one who conjures these “dream” courses? Has anyone ever had the chance to teach one?

If you have your own, please share them in the comments.

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As people share their dream courses, I shall Tweet them to the world: #dreamcourse.

 

 

 

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