I remember well my first class in graduate school, now 10 years ago, because I was only somewhat prepared for it. My pencil pouch held a full canister of lead, but, when our creative writing professor asked us to go around the octagonal seminar table to sign up for our workshop dates, I had to ask, “What’s a workshop?”
“Well,” the guy next to me said, “you sit in the middle here, blindfolded, and we all take turns -- ” He held up his fist as if to throw a punch.
There is a kernel of truth in his humor: the cloth covers not your eyes but your mouth. On the days you “are workshopped,” as it is said, the class discusses the merits and faults of the writing you submitted the week before, and you’re not allowed to talk during this discussion. It’s called the gag rule. The main reason for this rule is that ungagged authors are too compelled to defend their writing -- but a workshop is not a defense. There is no passing or not passing the workshop. You simply gather feedback, take what you’d like and disregard the rest.
The stakes couldn’t be lower, in other words, so why is it commonly such a bruising experience?
“It’s just … not … good,” a student said in my second class, the first workshop of the semester. Ouch. The most infamous comment I heard in my years in graduate school was, “When I read something like this I think, ‘Oh, he must be writing in his underwear.’” I’m not sure what he meant, exactly, but we all caught the drift.
There’s another kernel of truth in my classmate’s comment: there’s something about a workshop that allows fists to fly, and I’m not above reproach. I regret once saying a page of dialogue was “like a soap opera script.” Another time, when I was workshopped, a classmate said, “I don’t see the point of reading this.” Afterward he came over to me and said, “That came off way more antagonistic than I meant it to.” I said bitterly, “You’re not a good reader.”
Is this how one becomes a master of fine arts?
Many say we can do better, for reasons personal (flying fists) and pedagogical (lack of evaluation of what students actually learn -- and tacit permission of flying fists). Sum it up in the title of a book by writers and teachers Carol Bly and Cynthea Loveland that came out in 2006, Against Workshopping Manuscripts: A Plea for Justice to Student Writers.
After graduating, I began to teach creative writing classes, and, resolved to do justice, I tried alternatives to the workshop. I taught forms and principles and assigned exercises. I modeled how to write like a good reader -- which is to say, how I imitate writing I admire (and try to conceal this imitation). We studied “how to write” books -- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, and On Writing Well by Howard Zinsser. I wanted to scrutinize the methods and techniques of producing writing, rather than student writing itself. The closest we got to workshops were small groups in which students shared their work -- with no gag rule.
It was OK. Not great. The students seemed to like the class, but as a teacher, I felt like I was trying to cook on a feeble campfire, the water never getting to a full boil.
There is something valuable, I’ve since realized, in turning up the heat on students. In other classes, this heat comes in a term paper or a final exam, a culminating moment that tests student mettle, that makes students do the best they possibly can. In a creative writing class, this heat comes in a workshop.
Meanwhile, something else occupied my teaching life: I began teaching some of my classes online. My classes are asynchronous, meaning that while there are deadlines, there is no live interaction. The weekly conversation between students and myself happens on the discussion board, on which students respond to prompts I give them and comment on each other’s ideas. In my first-year composition class, they also review and edit fellow students’ drafts.
I love the discussion board as a teaching tool for several reasons, including how I can manage the occasional flying fist. The weekly, graded discussion board assignment asks students to give thoughtful feedback -- in agreement or disagreement -- and a nasty comment almost always stands in place of thoughtfulness. So, if a student writes something offhanded, snarky or just plain mean, I can get ’em where it counts: I take off points.
For doing so, in my anonymous student evaluations I once took a jab myself: “Taking off points for something the teacher took personally is crap.” I’m all but certain I know who wrote this, and it delights me to mention that, after my reprimand earlier in the semester, his discussion board participation was excellent, not to mention civil, and he got an A in the class.
As for his parting shot, well, I suppose I did take it personally: no one is going to be mean in my class.
With this capability, I’ve now returned to teaching creative writing workshops -- this time online. After a few weeks of preliminary exercises, much like I did in the classes I taught after graduate school, students spend the rest of the semester workshopping each other’s poetry, fiction and personal essays on the discussion boards. Students get full scrutiny of their peers -- the heat is up -- and when the time comes to administer student justice, I’m ready.
I’m surprised to say I’ve even instituted the gag rule, something I loathed as a student in workshops myself. It’s valuable for authors to see how little they control their readers, so long as I can control the readers from doing their worst. I have also been surprised to realize that, as it is often said of online education, students are welcome to come to class -- and write -- in their underwear.
Brian Goedde has an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and teaches writing at the Community College of Philadelphia.