Questioning the Undergraduate Creative Writing Workshop
We've had a robust debate about lectures lately. I think all methods should be open for discussion.
In the midst of the great lecture debate of the past couple of weeks, I was intrigued by Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman’s argument that one of the reasons lecture remains popular is because academics, likely having been “ideal” students (“front row kids”) themselves, gravitate to a mode that serves that sort of student.
I was a “back row kid” in college. Sometimes, if the lecture was large enough, I was a “back row kid who brought a newspaper.” Often, I was the “still sleeping in his bed kid.”
Having been that kind of student influences my teaching. My default assumption is that my students are not enthused by my course (this is particularly true with first-year writing) and that I must first do the work of demonstrating how the material is not only interesting, but relevant. I use a wide array of techniques (including the occasional lecture) in order to try to stoke student interest and engagement because without engagement, learning is impossible.
Reading the great lecturing debate caused me to reflect on a format that’s ubiquitous in one of my fields, the creative writing workshop, and wonder if something similar is happening.
The workshop model – where a group of students and an instructor read and discuss student work, one story at a time - was birthed at the University of Iowa, and remains, as far as I can tell, the dominant format in creative writing instruction.
Like the lecture, for many years, the workshop model was handed down without much consideration. Iowa was first, and has indeed produced legions of accomplished writers, ergo, this is how it must be done.
But must it?
I still view the traditional writing workshop as a valuable tool to employ in the creative writing classroom. I think it’s a great vehicle for getting students to look closely and critically at texts, to practice the core skill of “reading like a writer.” The workshop is a way for each writer in the room to consider what matters to them when it comes to the construction of narrative art.
But I also believe the workshop has its limits, and that its legacy is perhaps largely driven by the same phenomenon Schuman claims about the lecture. The good students replicate the practices that worked well for them. Our university creative writing faculty, were, at some point or another, workshop superstars.
Even so, the creative writing workshop is a fraught emotional space for writers at every level of experience and ability. Sharing your creative work with others and listening to their judgments (no matter how cogent or gentle they may be) is difficult. I’ve had beginning students admit to vomiting prior to class. Even as a grad student, I would feel the urge to cry (frustration/relief/who knows?) after my own workshops.
To an extent, the workshop is a useful tool for managing these inevitable anxieties. If you’re going to put your work in the world, people are going to judge it, and experiencing this in the relatively safe space of a college or graduate course has some utility.
Creative writing faculty who have achieved the (very significant) success that allows them to practice inside the academy have been forged by the workshop model, and even though they likely have horror stories of their own – because everyone who has been through a workshop does – perhaps even those horrors seem to be a necessary part of their development into the successful writers and professors they’ve become.
I’m not so sure about this.
That ambivalence isn’t waffling or caution, but a reflection on my own experience. I am a product of the workshop, and I’ve achieved more success as a writer than I ever would’ve dreamed.
Building the resilience to withstand the emotional buffeting of the workshop has likely served me well in the larger writing world. There is not much left that can wound me.
But I also know that I have never gone on to publish a story that has been discussed in a writing workshop. I’m not sure I’ve even submitted a story for possible publication that has been discussed in a writing workshop. Something about the process seemed to destroy my interest in the work at hand. I believe I am not alone in this.
However, I also know many others who say that a workshop comment has caused them to unlock the key to successfully finishing a story.
Works for some, not others, kind of like lectures.
I have other qualms and cautions about the creative writing workshop. Even though it’s an ostensibly democratic process, the professor usually remains central, often rendering a kind of verdict at the end of the discussion. Students have explicitly expressed to me that the only opinion they cared about was mine, and while this is perhaps flattering, long term, I think it’s dangerous for them to center their work around the opinions of a single faculty member.
I also question whether or not the kind of resiliency the workshop requires has all that much utility at the undergraduate level, particularly in introductory courses. When it was first conceived at Iowa, the workshop model reflected a belief that everyone in that room desired a life as a publishing writer. At the time, this was likely true. It is likely still true at the graduate level even as the number of graduate programs has proliferated.
But is this true in the vast majority of undergraduate workshops?
As students get their feet wet, I believe that it’s more important to lay a foundation of curiosity and self-motivation, as opposed to group or instructor criticism and/or validation. Experience tells me that validation from others is insufficient to sustain a writing practice and premature or inappropriate criticism has the potential to silence student voices, particularly students who already find themselves on the margins.
In fact, it is this idea of writing “practice,” that I make central to my courses. We need to be building the skills that a writer’s practice consists of, the behaviors and habits of mind that seem common to writers. Giving and receiving criticism is among them, but I don’t know that it must be central, at least not out of the gate.
To be effective, I believe teaching must flow from the instructor’s most deeply held values.
While workshop will always be a part of my work (just as lecture will be), for me, the workshop process – as I understand it – does not embody that values that are central to my teaching practice.
Of course, my practice is not someone else’s. One of the unfortunate byproducts of these debates is we’re asked to form camps. You can be for active learning or for lectures, but not both. I don’t know if this is true or not. I don’t care.
I tend to believe that as long as an instructor is thoughtful, and practices according to his or her own values, and puts student well-being at the center, both the kids and the professors will be all right.
 Though many will testify to having experienced workshops that feel decidedly unsafe. There are also many workshop leaders that will do whatever it takes to avoid reading reviews of their own work.
 Can anyone say “anxiety of influence?”
 Of course, Flannery O’Connor famously said when asked if writing workshops discouraged writers, “Not enough of them.”
 Or worse, to stifle that curiosity just as it’s starting to bloom. Most of these students are not going to go on to writing careers.
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