• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Thinking Context: No More Writing "Workshop"

Changing language changes attitudes in my creative writing classes.

June 17, 2013

I think about the language I use with my students a lot.

For example, even in the sentence above, I notice my instinct to use “my” in conjunction with “students,” connoting a kind of ownership.

Or is it responsibility?

Is this a good thing, turning these people on the class roll into my students? Doesn’t it suggest that they may not have identities outside of their relationship to my course?

Sometimes in class I will call them “kids,” though this does not sit well with me and I try to correct myself. I’ve seen other instructors refer to students as “my kids,” or “the kids in my class,” or even, “babies,” as in “the babies were unruly in my class today.”

I’m a firm believer that every teacher needs to make these choices for themselves, and while I recognize it as a term of endearment and caring for those who use  it, I think calling students “babies” is an insult to both them and the profession of teaching, even if students do occasionally remind us of babies.

But “kids” isn’t much better, and I’ve vowed to stop using that word and to limit the use of “my” when I talk about  or to students. This is not a shift in philosophy, but a bringing of my discourse in line with my existing principles. I say in the course policies for all my classes that I intend to make the semester “a shared inquiry into the subject at hand,” and by assuming ownership, “my class,” “my students,” I am undermining that ethos. I will be striving to use the language of collective work, “our class.”

Similarly, I want students thinking of each other not as classmates or friends (or foes), but as “colleagues.” Dictionary.com tells me its origins are in the French legere which means “to choose, gather.” It is a word that is associated with work and action which pleases me. “Classmates” has the whiff of captivity (inmates), while “colleague” is a reminder of shared responsibilities.

I have other, smaller shifts in mind. (Though maybe these are all small things, except not to me.)

I’m training myself to no longer use the label “freshman composition” for what my employer uses the much superior “academic writing.” “Freshman composition” suggests that it is something to be done and then discarded during a student’s first year, as opposed to a skill we believe is necessary throughout a college career.

I will no longer speak of “research papers,” but instead use “researched essays,” because students often have counterproductive pre-conceived ideas of what “research papers” are and how they are produced.

And no more “peer critique,” or “peer review.” From now on it shall be “peer response,” because this is what readers of works in progress do, respond.

A couple of years ago I made my most significant break with the language of creative writing orthodoxy when I stopped calling my class “workshop.”

In creative writing, “workshop” is where students bring stories to class that are read and then commented on by their colleagues as well as faculty mentors. The theory is that the collective critique will shed light on the story’s flaws (and virtues, one supposes) and allow the author to return to her private writing space and fix those flaws. The term and the process originates from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the oldest and most prestigious graduate writing program in the world.

But I’ve never liked this format or the connotations of “workshop.” A workshop is a place we go to fix broken things, or, at best, tinker within the existing margins of what the world already knows. A workshop is the exclusive province of craft, and as a word, doesn’t hold much room for inspiration or surprise. By using language that signaled to students we were gathering together to try to fix something that was “broken,” I was encouraging them to treat each others’ stories this way. This led to most students approaching the in-class discussion of their work with dread, a firing squad of critics waiting to lay waste to their work.

For a while, I tried ironic air quotes whenever I said “workshop,” but this was unsatisfactory for all kinds of reasons, the most important of which was my wiggling fingers signaling that the exercise shouldn’t be taken seriously.

So I went looking for a new word and the one I decided on, is “laboratory.”

Now, when we gather together, rather than assessing a story and seeing where it successfully resembles what we’ve experienced vis a vis stories in the past, we are engaged in experiments, experiments where we are not meant to judge and critique, but to observe and respond.

Practically, the laboratory hasn’t proven to be all that different from the workshop. We still sit in a circle and take turns sharing responses, expanding upon or challenging each other.

If our expectation is that a good short story produces several shades of purple, but the one we’re discussing actually produces green and also yellow, we no longer try to tweak the experiment so it’s more purple, we seek to understand what makes it green and yellow.

I believe it’s the context of laboratory instead of workshop that makes a significant difference. There is no such thing as a failed or worthless experiment provided some learning is taken away to be made use of in the next experiment. It also deflects the discussion from the work and author at hand to larger questions of what these writing experiments do and how they work. My observation is that it allows students whose stories are not under discussion much more time and opportunity to consider their own work in the context of each day’s experiment. They’re no longer tasked with providing “helpful” advice to the author so she may “fix” something that’s broken. Instead, we’re trying to be collectively smarter and wiser than we are individually.

I know this is working because rather than repeating the same boilerplate responses of showing v. telling or scene v. summary, I find myself surprised by fresh personal insights drawn from the discussion that I can then share with my student colleagues. It often energizes my own writing. I believe this is what they’re referring to when the discuss the link between scholarly activity and teaching.

The context is especially useful in the introductory creative writing that I teach, where students often have fully-formed aesthetics, but lack the experience necessary to turn their responses into specific editorial advice or direction.

Students themselves often question their own standing to offer critique in the workshop format and spend far too much time for my taste deferring to the instructor’s judgment. The laboratory mitigates this anxiety.

The end result, I hope, is students who are eager to experiment again and again and again because not only is this ultimately how we learn and good work is produced, it is the act that they will find most pleasing and fulfilling.

They will learn to privilege the means over the ends, where our focus is necessarily on process, rather than product.


Twitter is more laboratory than workshop. Or maybe it's a playground? Cesspool?




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