English literature and composition

Essay about an experience with a writing assignment that didn't go according to plan

How many weeks does it take to get over a bad semester? Is it like the end of a bad relationship? Too painful to talk about except with one’s closest friend… or with a complete stranger?

You are my stranger.

Kari (I should use her real name but I won’t) had trouble with writing grammatically; she had trouble with phonetics, even. When she typed, she couldn’t see the difference between building and blinding.

When she read her work aloud, she didn’t seem to understand what she herself was saying. As far as she let on, in our office conferences (that I called her in for), she was not in need of our college’s excellent Access-Ability program, though I think she was and I tried to suggest it could be useful for her to find out.

She had never had problems with her writing before, she said. She had always earned Bs in English.

Why did she want to be a journalist, I asked. Yes, she was a journalism student in the last journalism course I will ever teach.

I’m hemming and hawing, because I don’t want to get to the story.

The story is that I was going to fail Kari, even though she tried. I was going to fail Kari because she was a journalism major and she did not have a grasp of writing in English. She had lived in America for 10 years and she was 21. In my experience with first-generation students, those who arrive before age 16 adapt to English very quickly. Kari didn’t have much of an accent; she had grown up in… let’s call it Asia. She lived in Queens -- with two other large families in one house. Her family had the basement apartment, and in the summer all three families liked to hang out in it because it was cooler there. She wrote a “personal” piece about that living arrangement. It was not as clear as I’ve summarized it. I thought that the students should hear and read aloud their own articles; some were terrific, some were bad. When Kari read her piece aloud, she continually stumbled and had long squinting pauses wherein she seemed to be trying to decipher hieroglyphics.

She was, on the other hand, as she claimed, a good listener -- to her fellow students and to guests. She asked visiting writers O.K. questions. The children with learning disabilities that I used to work with had clear and vibrant strengths that sometimes masked their dysfunctions. But in a journalism class, Kari’s dysfunctions were loud and clear almost every day.

I was going to fail her. To my shame or pride (your choice) I had never flunked a student who tried and did all the work. Kari tried and she did most of the work, much more than many of her could-be competent classmates. I appreciated that she attended regularly and was polite and pleasant. I liked her; but she was illiterate. She was not illiterate in that mean way we say when we talk about our distracted students; she was functionally illiterate in the way that someone can be legally blind; she had various perception gaps and fogginesses.

So I was going to flunk Kari, but then, toward the end of the semester, I went to one of my old standby assignments, the observation of a public space. I write down simple emphatic instructions and hand them out; I read the instructions aloud and ask for questions. They say, “I get it, I get it!” And usually they do.

Each student plants herself in a spot that is public to any member of the college community. She only has the class hour to go find the spot and sit herself there and start writing down everything and anything she hears, sees, smells. Objective. She isn’t to stop writing. Usually students like this; they realize they are taking in so many details they usually overlook. They catch actual language. Their hands get tired. I love the assignment. We did that and the next day reviewed our work. Kari’s illiteracy did not get in the way of her ability to accumulate details. It was a fine observation really. It was ungrammatical, but I understood it. Her language seemed at the level of some of my weaker developmental reading and writing students.

A week later, I had them repeat the assignment.

The next meeting I asked them to write about and then talk about the differences between their two observations. One of the students mentioned feeling self-conscious, because someone came up to her and asked her what she was doing. She took down the whole conversation, including, “Hey! You’re writing down what I’m saying!”

We laughed.

Another student, whose dial was always set on “Complaint,” said she felt creepy watching people. I pointed out again that there are cameras everywhere we go; we are continually photographed, filmed and electronically identified by nameless organizations; whereas in this modest assignment, we are only individuals looking at other people.

“That’s stalking, pofessa!”

“When did people-watching become stalking?”

Kari raised her hand. “Professor, I got looked at too.”

“What happened?”

“I was sitting there at the Starbucks and I was writing… and this psychology professor -- I heard someone call to her and say, ‘You’re my psychology professor,’ and that’s how I knew that detail, professor -- ”

“Good!”

“And she kept walking around me and trying to look at my paper. I didn’t like that, but I didn’t do nothing and I just kept writing like you said and she kept coming over and then she went to the doors near the fishes, the fish tanks, and made a phone call on her cell phone -- I wrote that down -- and like a few minutes later a police car came up to the outside doors and the security guys got out and she went to them, and I saw her point at me.”

“What!?”

“And they came by and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ and they made me give them my purse and my notes.”

“Oh, my god!”

“See, Professor!” said Complainer. “You got one of us arrested!”

“Then what happened?”

Kari told us they told her to follow them to the security office and then she got interrogated there about why she was writing about the arrangement of chairs and how many people were in line at the coffee stand and who told her to do this? …

“You told them who! You showed them my instructions, right?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I wanted to see what would happen.”

I realized at that moment: So, I’m not going to flunk Kari.

I was astounded by her description of the actions of the campus police and I was delighted with Kari. She was after all a journalist! She couldn’t write, of course, but she was a journalist at heart. I would pass her.

“So what happened?”

She explained to them she was just writing, that it wasn’t their or anybody else’s business.

“You’re making people really paranoid,” the interrogating officer told her.

And they let her go.

“That’s incredible!” I said. I regretted the assignment now, even though it had brought out Kari’s latent journalistic skills; arrested! That was unbelievable! It was a violation of civil rights! Of freedom of speech!

The students were taunting me, “See, see! Your assignments be getting us in trouble!”

I tried to justify it again. “But nothing really happened, finally -- except I’m going to go see the security people.”

“No,” said Kari. “That’s O.K. I still want to see what happens. You can just give me a note that I’m a student in your class so I can get my purse and my ID card back.”

It was just a few weeks after the Boston Marathon tragedy and the officers at our entry-gates were being careful about identification checks again. She needed her card.

I wrote her the note and said, “You sure you don’t want me to go with you to Security? I want to go. I’m really upset about this.”

“No, no. I can handle it. It’s my story, right?” She flashed her big eyes at me and nodded, begging me.

“Yeah, O.K.”

But I was uneasy.

Later that afternoon I went to a meeting and mentioned to a colleague what happened to Kari and she made me repeat the details about the psychology professor ratting out the student; she said the arrest was outrageous and I agreed. “What are you going to do, Bob?”

“I don’t know yet.” Why did I hesitate? Why didn’t I march over to the security office?

After the meeting, I went to my department mailbox and Kari had left her notes from the observation as well as the last draft of her last article.

                                                                                                       ****

What was I going to do?

On the subway home I read her observation notes and got even more outraged at the security officers -- and even more unsettled with myself for not having already confronted them about it. I started reading her article. It was not her article. Every sentence was grammatical. It seemed to be not one but two professional articles stitched together (which I discovered later it was).

All right, she’d get an F.

But meanwhile, her rights had been violated. I couldn’t let that go.

The next day at school, when I asked Kari to see me at the end of class, she came up and I told her I was about to go to the security office. She asked me to please not to; it was her story.

“Yes, that one is,” I agreed. I opened my folder and pulled out her three pages of plagiarism. “But this is not your article.”

“Yes, it is. I gave it to you.”

“But you didn’t write it.”

“I made it.”

“You made it?”

“I researched it. You said to use research.”

“This is not research. This is two articles from the Internet you’ve put together.”

“I put it together. I wrote it.”

“You didn’t write it.”

“The tutor helped me.”

“This is plagiarism, Kari.”

“No.”

“You didn’t write these words and yet at the top of the page you write, ‘By Kari M --.’”

“Yeah,” she sighed, “I see your point.” She nodded. Meeting my eyes, she said, “O.K., so I’m going to fail now?”

“Yes. But I still want to get to the bottom of your run-in with security.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“It matters to me.”

But I didn’t go to the security office. I ran into a senior colleague, a former journalist, and told him about Kari’s arrest. I knew by his puzzlement that he thought I should have already gone to security. This was an important matter.

And yet… that plagiarism.

Instead of walking to the security office after my last class of the day, I walked to the subway and sifted the situation through my head: “I’m going to go to the defense of a plagiarizing student …” (she had plagiarized her first article too; I might’ve thought of that earlier, but when it happened, she had convinced me she had only been confused about using sources) “…a double-plagiarizing student who is illiterate and whom I’m going to fail.”

The next day, a non-teaching day that I spent at home, my conscience gnawing at me, my cowardice sitting up straight at my computer, I wrote an angry email to the security director. I should say -- I have to say -- at the last second I cc’ed the dean of the college on it. (I wanted action, Jackson!) The security director responded immediately by email, thanking me for bringing the matter to his attention and saying he would investigate and get back to me as soon as possible.

Two days passed. I let the weekend go by and on Monday morning when I showed up in the department office, my chair greeted me, shaking her head. “Your student? -- Unbelievable, huh?”

“Which part?”

“That she made the whole thing up!”

“She what?”

“You didn’t hear? From the security director? He was pretty upset at you too.”

“Oops.”

“She just wanted not to fail, so she made it up.”

I was blinking in disbelief.

“She confessed, Bob!”

Let me confess, at first I thought that explanation was too simple, that Kari must’ve been bullied into saying she had lied... and lied...  and lied. Oh, yeah.

I winced, retreated to my office with my tail between my legs and emailed an apology to the security director and the dean.

Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.

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Review of Carl H. Klaus, A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing

Intellectual Affairs

Not long ago, this column took up the perennial issue of academic prose and how it gets that way. On hand, fortunately, was Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly, a smart and shrewd volume that avoids mere complaint or satirical overkill.

Bad scholarly writing is, after all, something like Chevy Chase’s movie career. People think that making fun of it is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel: to borrow Todd Berry’s assessment of his comedic colleague, “It’s as easy as looking at fish in a barrel. It’s as easy as being somewhere near a barrel.” Besides, it’s gone on for at least 500 years (the mockery began with Rabelais, if not before) so it’s not as if there are many new jokes on the subject.

But Billig did make an original and telling point in his critique of pure unreadability – one I neglected to emphasize in that earlier column. It has come into clearer view since then thanks to a new book by Carl H. Klaus called A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (University of Iowa Press).

Klaus is professor emeritus of English at the University of Iowa and founder, there, of the Nonfiction Writing Program. He is also a practitioner and critic of the genre of the personal essay, and A Self Made of Words seems largely addressed to the students, formal or otherwise, who want to learn the craft. Scholarly discourse rarely assumes the guise of the personal essay, of course. But Klaus’s insights and advice are not restricted to that literary form, and his book should have a tonic effect on anyone who wants his or her writing to do more than paint gray on gray.

To put it another way, A Self Made of Words doesn't stress writing in the personal voice, but rather the persona that always operates in writing, of whatever variety, whether formal or informal, autobiographical or otherwise.

Klaus wrote an earlier book called The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa), which I have not had a chance to read, but I assume he there goes into the original use of the word persona, meaning, in Latin, a mask, of the stylized kind ancient actors wore on stage to project a character. The author of even the flattest and most objective or empirically minded paper creates or displays a persona while writing: one that is self-effacing and indistinct, yes, but that manifests its authority through self-effacement and the absence of first- and second-person communication.

Impersonality, in other words, implies a persona. So does the introspective voice and intimate tone of a memoirist, with countless shades of formality and casualness, of candor and disguise, possible in between. The persona is not something that stands behind or apart from the written work, though it may seem to do so. The raw material of the persona is language itself -- not just the vocabulary or syntax an author uses, but the differences in intonation that come from using contractions or avoiding them, from the mixture of concrete and abstract terms, and from the balance of long and short words.

Klaus devotes most of the new book to how those elements, among others, combine to create effective writing -- which is, in his words “the result of a complex interaction between our private intentions and the public circumstances of our communication.” It is not a style guide but a course of instruction on the options available to the writer who might otherwise be unable to craft a persona fit to purpose.

Which, alas, is often the case. Michael Billig did not discuss the academic author’s persona in his book on how to write badly and influence tenure committees – at least, not as such. But it is implicit in his argument about how apprentice scholars orient themselves within the peculiar, restricted language-worlds their elders have created while fighting to establish their claims to disciplinary claims.

In effect, they learn how to write by wearing the personae they’ve been given. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in itself; the experience can be instructive. But the pressure to publish (and in quantity!) makes it more economical to rely on a prefabricated writerly persona, stamped out in plastic on an assembly line, rather than to shape one, as Klaus encourages the reader to do.

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Poem of application for a tenure-track position

D. Gilson appeals to the search committee.

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Review of Salinger book and trailer (essay)

I’ve just finished Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, and all I can think of is the eulogy that Owl Eyes offers for Gatsby: “The poor son-of-a bitch.”

Robert Boynton: “And then there’s this crazed paparazzi, investigative-reporter approach” (qtd. in Chapter 14 of Salinger, “A Terrible, Terrible Fall”)

This “official book of the acclaimed documentary film,” presents enough contradictions to keep us busy until the publication of those new Salinger works promised in the final chapter. The title of that last chapter is “Secrets,” which sums up the tawdry tabloid-like endeavor of book and film combined. If Shields and Salerno had stopped with two-thirds of the material on World War II, they might have produced a slim book of value. Meanwhile, this quasi-oral-biography — it’s closer to a pastiche — just goes on and on; it’s a fine example of what Joyce Carol Oates, who is quoted here, along with other critics, actors, nursemaids, and lovers, would call pathography.

J. D. Salinger: “I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me . . .”

But not, apparently, Salerno, whose writing credits include "Armageddon," "Alien vs. Predator," and "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem," or Shields, who is probably best-known for his 2010 book, Reality Hunger, a collage “built from scraps” about what people really want from literature.

Michael Clarkson: “I started thinking. . . . He’s never given [his fans], really, two cents.”

Who, you may ask, is Michael Clarkson? The introduction promises 12 “conversations with Salinger,” — “revealing encounters” that will “place the reader on increasingly intimate terms with an author who had been adamantly inaccessible for more than half a century.” The first conversation features Michael Clarkson, who wrote a 4,000 word-essay about his hounding of Salinger and whose previous 15 minutes of fame involved a People magazine story about his “encounters with Salinger.” The second and last encounter started with the uninvited Clarkson staring in through the glass doors of Salinger’s home and inventorying the contents.

As he told Salinger, “Jerry, I wouldn’t have bothered you — I wouldn’t have barged in like this — if you’d answered my letters.” Clarkson feels perfectly justified: “He’s never given [his fans], really, two cents.” Really? What about those four books?

This book is riddled by these sorts of unquestioned contradictions. First there is the form and nature of the book itself, a companion to a film that was based largely on another book (Paul Alexander’s Salinger: A Biography; Alexander’s voice is just one in the chorus here). So we have a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in scraps.

Salerno and Shields point out that Salinger would have hated this book; they assert, repeatedly, that Salinger’s absorption in Vedanta Hinduism destroyed his writing (also variously referred to as “work” or “art”) and then they — or at least Salerno — list a series of forthcoming manuscripts. (Salerno’s absurdly wordy “Acknowledgments” section ends with “I look forward with great anticipation to reading the work Salinger diligently produced from 1965 until his death in 2010"; Shields isn’t as excited — the work may be “genius” or it may be “inchoate” (Chapter 20, “A Million Miles Away in His Tower”). In this book, Salinger can’t get a break.  First he’s slammed for “writing for the slicks” and for wanting to publish in The New Yorker; then he’s slammed for not publishing. (And Shields calls Salinger “completely contradictory” and “hypocritical”! See Chapter 19, “A Private Citizen.”)

Billy Collins: “He actually made you feel that you weren’t alone. . . I think he had the best influence on my sensibility. And I think it helped me kind of pursue that sense of being different, being an individual.”

Wait, that’s Collins talking about Jean Shepherd on the back cover of Eugene B. Bergman’s Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. It’s Edward Norton and John Cusack who say similar praiseworthy things about Salinger and Holden Caulfield. Playwright John Guare, however, thinks that there is cause to be “very, very troubled” by the fact that “three people used [Catcher] “as the justification for killing somebody” (see his entries in the print companion and his featured scene in the sensationalistic trailer). That’s three readers of a book “that has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide,” according to Salerno in an earlier chapter. Salerno continues: “And if 65 million people have bought the book, that means that hundreds of millions are likely to have read it” (Chapter 10, “Is the Kid in this Book Crazy?”). You can, however, read all about those three people here in a lengthy chapter called “Assassins,” and in which you’ll learn that Mark David Chapman also liked "The Wizard of Oz" and the Bible.

Holden Caulfield; “I hate the movies like poison.... The movies can ruin you.”

Shields and Salerno note several times that Holden Caulfield (named for two movie stars -- just one of a number of connections they miss) says he hates the movies but is in fact drawn to them. The movies, of course, aren’t real. Have you seen the trailer for Salinger? It looks like the sequel to "Armageddon."

Shields and Salerno: “What he wanted was privacy” (Introduction, Salinger, “The Official Book, etc.)

But really, according to Shields and Salerno, echoing Paul Alexander, Salinger wasn’t a “true recluse”; it was just a ploy to get attention. And so on the book goes, rehashing not only news stories and faux news stories but the stories of Joyce Maynard, Margaret Salinger, and Ian Hamilton, along with accounts of legal proceedings, speculations about Salinger’s first wife, and detailed accounts of snacks (popcorn), meals (“Birds Eye frozen Tiny Tender Peas, not cooked, but with warm water poured over them,” for breakfast and the $12 roast beef plate at dinners at the First Congregational Church), and beverages (hot chocolate and urine). The tone of the book veers from gleefulness to somber proselytizing; it exhorts and chastises; it often seems angry.

Buddy Glass: “A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet”

In contrast to Salinger’s style, the writing here is over the top: The “main impulse” of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” “is to protect [Salinger’s] death-dealing soul” (Introduction to Chapter 14: “A Terrible, Terrible Fall”). Other examples of overwriting include describing Catcher as “an assassination manual”(Introduction to Chapter  18) and Salinger’s life as “a slow-motion suicide mission” (Shields and Salerno, Chapter 21, “Jerome David Salinger: A Conclusion”). We’re told that  “Salinger walked into a concentration camp and never walked out” (Salerno’s line: one he likes so much that he repeated it on "The Colbert Report"), and that “The cure never took, because he was the disease” (Chapter 21).  And then there is Shield’s exegesis of Nine Stories, “Follow the Bullet” (Chapter 12), which is just too depressing to revisit.

Holden Caulfield: “You mean to go a psychoanalyst and all?... What would he do to me?”

Much of the limited information is repeated several times, culminating in the penultimate chapter, Chapter 21, “Jerome David Salinger: A Conclusion,” which offers a précis of the preceding 590 pages, a sort of guide to the guide. Taking a quote from one of Salinger’s letters, “I’m a condition, not a man,” Salerno and Shields list “10 conditions”, beginning with “Anatomy” and “Oona” and ending with “Detachment” (“War” comes in at third place, “Girls” at eighth).  One condition that seems overlooked is generational: men and women of Salinger’s generation just didn’t talk about “it.”

Shane Salerno: “There is no question that the manuscripts exist. The question is, What are they?”

An informal survey of the breakfast crowd at the Seaview Restaurant in Wickford, R.I., where I finished reading Salinger: The Book, revealed some interesting alternate predictions for the contents of the vault:

Thousands of blank pages beneath a single cover sheet that reads: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “Silence.”

Copies of hundreds of pulp fiction stories and crime-noir novels published between 1965 and 2008 under pseudonyms that include Elmore Leonard and Stephen King.

Thousands of pages filled with the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Thousands of pages filled with “Praises to the Buddha, or something like that.”

30 pristine typed copies of The Catcher in the Rye.

“Just [a] cigar, in a small nice box. Possibly with a blank sheet of paper enclosed, by way of explanation.”

Shane Salerno: “Finally, I want to thank Jerome David Salinger for living such an extraordinary life and one that I devoted nearly a decade to telling honestly” (“Acknowledgments”).

Holden Caulfield: “I felt like I was disappearing.”

The title alone of D. T. Max’s new book on David Foster Wallace -- a phrase that Wallace liked so much he used it several times -- seems more insightful about Salinger than do the 500-plus pages between the covers of Salinger: “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.”

I mean, Jesus H. Christ, enough already.

Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emeritus of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.

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Study finds that too many adjectives and adverbs detract from academic writing

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Too many adjectives and adverbs spoil academic broth, scholar argues.

Essay on a job search to move from elementary school to college

When Jessica Wells Cantiello applied for jobs teaching writing in college, some were surprised when she said she would benefit from experience in an elementary school.

 

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A poem on student-professor writing conferences

I’m conferencing with students
On their first drafts
And this one has taken the course
Twice before and failed
And he brings me only two pages
Of the six I assigned
And he says he’s having trouble
With the summaries
And also should he put the thesis
In the introduction
Or just where do I want it to go
And I say it depends
On if you want to start with a question
And then examine
How others have responded to it
And then your answer
Would be your thesis in your conclusion
But then I realize oops
He’s standing before a vending machine
And I won’t take his dollar.

 

Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University.

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Essay defending the way creative writing is taught

Creative writing has its share of detractors, those who believe that the study of and teaching of creative writing produces deleterious effects for students and for literature. For example, in "Poetry Vs. Ambition,"  Donald Hall worries that invention exercises (writing warm-ups which help writers find their subject) in writing classrooms "reduce poetry to a parlor game," producing "McPoems" on assembly lines. "Abolish the M.F.A.!" states Hall with an exclamation point, and then, in Latin, he cries, "The Iowa Writers Workshop must be destroyed."

Hall’s essay reflects a particularly unproductive strand of criticism aimed at creative writing that has arisen of late. Anis Shivani is perhaps its most recent practitioner, with a soapbox on which to stand, but certainly not the only detractor. Indeed, when Shivani’s critiques of creative writing programs emerged, preceding the publication of his book Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011) many of us were approached by creative writing colleagues wanting to know what we thought of this brash new critique of the workshop. What they didn’t understand was that his assertions weren’t new at all, but by boldly ignoring the scholarly conversations that had been going on about this subject for many years — a fact made plain by what is missing in the book, specifically in the works cited — Shivani was able to create a scholarly stance that acted as if they were.

In fact, what Shivani, Hall and others practice is better termed a "new old criticism" — new because it proliferates in electronic social media, old because it rehashes simplistic assertions that have been around for decades. This argument has three major problems: First, its rhetorical stance is far more appropriate for talk radio than for a serious scholarly or public debate; its practitioners refuse to engage with the actual arguments of those with whom they disagree. Second, this new old criticism is rooted in dated and limited assumptions about what creative writing is and can be.

In reading this criticism, one can see that it is aimed at the Iowa Writers’ Workshops as they are said to have existed in the 1950s; there is no admission of the diversification and complexity of creative writing that has flourished in the decades since then. Third, this new old criticism is stuck within a narcissistic worldview. It perceives an age-old challenge — the difficulty of writers finding readers in a world where print technology proliferates — as a personal affront. The new old criticism drapes itself in a narrow banner of great art, adopting the hubristic stance that a writer can actually know with certainty that he or she is producing such great art in the moment of creating it.

So should everyone associated with creative writing programs pack up and shut our doors? This isn’t going to happen. The horse is out of the barn. Creative writing classes are more popular than ever, in part because they offer not just a means of expression but an alternative to theory-laden literary analysis.

The real questions are: How can we best design our curriculums and our classes to best serve the needs of our students? What can we do to ensure that creative writing — the teachers, the students, the courses, the programs — has a positive impact on contemporary literature? Which aspects of creative writing — the writing itself as a process and as a product of our efforts — can be taught, and what are the best practices for such teaching? How does creative writing fit into English departments, into the liberal arts generally, and into the colleges and universities where it is housed? Finally, in our breathtakingly tight economy, what kinds of careers and lives are creative writing students being prepared for?

Given the scope of its critical mass, creative writing stands as a knowledge-based discipline. Rather than associate knowledge with certainty as traditional academic models often do, the knowledge in creative writing is in the discovery that takes the writer beyond the routines and in the questions that arise and that are answered through the writing process. Study of writing through reading and writing is the methodology we use; this mode of knowledge acquisition leads to new conclusions. Knowledge through practice, through doing, through thinking about and talking about what we’re doing. To wit, we have observed that the "flipped" classroom, in which students absorb lectures online outside of class and come to class to work hands-on with the material, has become the latest trend in college teaching.  

By engaging students in hands-on work on their own writing and that of others, the oft-maligned "workshop," which has evolved over the years to suit varying constituents, undergraduates, graduate students, general education students and majors, has modeled a "flipped" classroom almost since its inception. This conversation about creative writing also speaks to what has become recently known as the crisis in the humanities.  Helene Moglen, in the latest issue of the Modern Language Association's Profession, gives a convincing overview of a crisis that goes back to the 1980s, with the report called "A Nation at Risk." Among the few causes of the crisis in the humanities that Moglen defines are "internal disagreements about the appropriate development of our disciplines" and "prevalent social attitudes toward education that assume irrelevance of humanistic study."

David Fenza, of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, points out, in his history of creative writing in higher education, that "creative writing classes have become among the most popular classes in the humanities." To meet demand, creative writing programs have at least tripled in number in the last 30 years, and many of us are housed in English departments. If the humanities are in crisis, creative writing is not. In fact, creative writing is not only healthy within the academy but has relevance beyond it. Contemporary literature, after all, is written by creative writers, whether or not they have earned an M.F.A. This relevance offers an example for other disciplines, a way to resist prevalent social attitudes that overlook the value and contributions of the arts and humanities to our culture and our daily lives.

Finally, many creative writing programs have recognized that while most students won’t necessarily go on to become the next Jonathan Franzen (just like most violin students won’t play with the National Symphony, or sculpture students exhibit their work at the Hirshhorn), they do want to work in creative industries. A survey of the curriculums of many of these programs, which usually offer courses not only in creativity and craft but also in new media, editing and publishing, reveals that they prepare students to do just that.

The sniping about what’s appropriate for our discipline or whether creative writing should even be an academic discipline emerges, however, from within our ranks. Hall has taught workshops and visited creative writing programs to read his work, and Shivani is a creative writer as well as a critic. Airing our internal disagreements and pitting writers against each other — outside or within the academy — does few of us any good and invites a sense of crisis in creative writing when there isn’t one. Let’s do our research. Let’s have productive conversations.

People who shoot the occasional salvo at creative writing aren’t really interested in taking part in a conversation, but we are, and we invite others in our midst to join us in this ongoing conversation about our discipline. This discussion can shape the healthy development of creative writing, position us positively within academe, and shift social attitudes toward a better future for literature and learning.

Tim Mayers is author of (Re) Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing and the Future of English Studies. He teaches at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

Dianne Donnelly is the author of Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline, editor of Does the Writing Workshop Still Work and co-editor of Key Issues in Creative Writing.

Tom Hunley is an associate professor at Western Kentucky university.  His books include The Poetry Gymnasium, Teaching Poetry Writing and Octopus.

Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter  She edited Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom. She teaches at Chapman University.

Stephanie Vanderslice is professor of writing and director of the Arkansas Writer's M.F.A. Workshop, at the University of Central Arkansas.

 

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English teachers' group criticizes machine scoring

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A new position statement from the National Council of Teachers of English says machine scoring of essays is easily "gamed" and can't grasp the same elements people can.

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