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Creative Writers: Fill Those Seats, Save the Day
September 24, 2010 - 5:45pm


A friend in another department asked a few months ago how my semester was finishing out. I told him about my classes, which included a lit lecture with 240 students, a creative writing workshop, and an independent study, as well as two or three honors-project students. He said, “You taught more IUs [instructional units] than my entire department.” I laughed, and he said: “No, really.” (I also did readings and interviews and otherwise tried to promote my novel that semester as I was putting final edits on the brief nonfiction book.)

With the movement I’ve heard described as “going to the Michigan model” (converting lecture-discussion sections of 24 or 36 to lecture-hall classes of 160 or more), the worry of the humanities of being relevant to students who will soon be looking for jobs in a struggling economy, and the universal need for efficient staffing on dwindling budgets, administrators are looking for new opportunities to get money coming in and to prove to the college and the campus that their departments are relevant. Mr. IU is here to help. Unless tenured faculty sense something good they might want to grab for themselves, they’ll probably be happy to let adjuncts like me teach giant, gen-ed lecture classes to bring visibility and funds that will permit the real work to happen, which we know occurs at higher levels.

Since I’m mostly a creative writer, let’s call the class “How Writers Read.”

It seems obvious to say that teachers of the course will teach according to their own strengths and interests as writers, poets and readers. Maybe less obviously, they should use fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and other forms not by mandate or quota but as deemed necessary to make lessons—illustrating how and why they themselves love literature—comprehensible to undergraduate students, many of whom will not be majors. The number of texts used should depend on not just length but also density, with teachers making realistic estimates of students’ ability to finish and consider material in order to achieve teaching goals. This is another benefit of using different forms in combination.

As a result there’ll be natural range and diversity in the material presented, not only in form and style but also in period, topic, nationality, and so on, unbound from categories imposed by other types of courses in the department. The responsibility (and pleasure) of this class for the writer-teacher then becomes to shape a coherent story out of the material, day-by-day and overall, as a semester-long narrative. Done well, which is to say thoughtfully and entertainingly in the way of good writing itself, it could be the sort of class anyone on campus might want to take, making for economical increase of IUs. The micro-readings performed in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature might not be every teacher’s thing, but that sort of enduring interest and value to the reading public is worth aiming for.

It’s well-known that writers who suppress their personal aesthetics to say “all writing is equal, it’s just a matter of opinion” meet their ends in biles and piles. Anyway, why be coy? Articulation of their beliefs is something writers who teach can offer apart from more scholarly approaches—discussion of, for instance, the presentation of consciousness by writers as different as Dostoevsky and Pynchon, and what is gained or lost in the teacher’s view in either case. Yet part of reading successfully, writer or not, is being able to value other ways of seeing, and the teacher of the course will model that too, pointing out the beauty and function in styles far different from her own.

Instead of writing a prolegomena for the course, let me give some examples of things I’ve done in other big lectures that might work here:

  • Looking at how the same narrative spine can be fleshed out in different ways. Students read Frankenstein, for instance; looked back at the Prometheus, Golem, and Pygmalion myths; watched clips of films of the same story, each informed by its own time (jeremiad on technology, parody); and read Galatea 2.2 (with an in-class discussion with the author).
  • Questioning the very idea of “story,” wherever it appears, in poem, nonfiction, short story, or novel. What is “storyness”? When is “storyhood” achieved? What quality makes something feel different from anecdote, incident, or image? For years I’ve started some classes with a short-short story on the overhead, which we read together, line-by-line. I ask what they see as we go, what makes them say that, and what the piece means to them by the end. At a glance it seems the story is about nothing—that is, it’s not a story at all—but students always come to realize and articulate that it’s about their changed view of two cowboy guys, who serve as rough secular priests in administering last rites to a guy trapped in a car wreck. It’s about humanity and compassion. Hemingway’s famous “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” and other flash fictions can be used for the same discussion. (I also have a few failed stories I often tell verbally and ask them what went wrong: A ramble that never comes to a point, a punchline without a joke, a ghost story that’s only weird, etc.)
  • Asking how a writer became that writer with that body of work. In a three-week mini-unit in one class, we started with a biographical approach to Hemingway, trying to parse how the life, the myth, and the writing intersect. We read In Our Time as the product of these intersections—war experience and mentors in expatriate Paris, for instance—and looked at the manifestos for the Imagist poets to see what influence friend Pound might have exerted on IOT. This could easily become a semester’s work, reading the writers Hemingway says are in his tradition, and asking why: Chekhov leads back to Turgenev, who leads back to Flaubert. Or it could start in the past and come forward to our time, so Franzen is seen in light of Tolstoy, for example.
  • On influence: Why is Chekhov so valued by American prose writers? There are many good essays on this, from Welty to Francine Prose, and of course the stories, letters, and journal entries of Chekhov himself. Along the way, an inquiry into whether or not a scholar’s claim that “all of Chekhov is epistemology” holds true for all short fiction. Can we say that stories are “about” what we know, how we think we know things, and how we’re mistaken in our surety? Or, is somebody like Robert Olen Butler more or less correct when he says all fiction is about the “yearning at the white hot center”? [Um, as my young friend says.]
  • Students sometimes complain that “all literature is about bad stuff.” Is that an inevitable consequence of the act of seeing? Stories as different as Tolstoy’s “Day in the Life of Ivan Ilyich” (spiritual transcendence) and Erdrich’s “Red Convertible” (bearing witness), both about bad stuff, can be used to question what this “little machine made of words” does to us, what its purpose is, and whether we should be happy about it. (Narrative poems by Levine, Hall, and Goldbarth would be good on this too.)
  • Trying on Virginia Woolf’s (and Forster’s) idea that writers work less in historic, national, gender, or race traditions, than they do in something more like worldviews or personalities. For her, writers are Truth Tellers; Romantics; Character Mongers and Comedians; Psychologists; Satirists and Fantastics; or Poets [even in prose]. As Gertrude Stein said, “Gertrude Stein never corrects any detail of anybody's writing, she sticks to general principles, the way of seeing what a writer chooses to see, and the relation between that vision and the way it gets down.” That relation, which is so nearly tangible yet so difficult to explain outside complicated narratologies, is the feeling, the flavor, of a writer’s work, what Schott at the New York Times called today “donegality.”

In big lectures I've had two graders assigned to help me. At the start of every class I asked a very focused question on the readings for that day. Students took five minutes to write what I call a microtheme on an index card. They were graded by the TAs and also used for attendance. I started the lecture that day by asking students about their answers and having them point us to relevant sections of the texts, which worked well to get discussion going even in a hall of that size. Then I’d lecture and close with Q & A. We had a midterm and a final exam in those classes, a mix of matching, fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and essay, which the TAs also helped grade. The page count of student writing was pretty high in the end, though there was no real opportunity for revision, and student evaluations were high.

See? Businessman at heart, and you thought I was all daffodils and moonglow.


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