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2017

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Susan Dunn-Hensley, Visiting Assistant Professor at Wheaton College, IL

 

 

“Do you feel my pain, / This anguish like no other / From taming with the words of France / This heart that came to me from Senegal?” (Leon LeLeau; translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy). These are the final lines of Caribbean poet Leon LaLeau’s poem “Betrayal.” I teach this poem to my History of English Language (HEL) classes as part of the unit on world Englishes.  Although LaLeau is speaking specifically of the French language, his lament for the loss of his language and culture echoes the concerns of many English speaking postcolonial poets, novelists, and playwrights. Reading LaLeau’s poem and other postcolonial works as part of a unit on World Englishes allows students to explore the varieties of World English resulting from colonization and globalization. These works also reveal the evolution of the English language in these postcolonial contexts and help students understand political and cultural factors involved in the spread and development of language.

 

 A few years ago, as I was teaching the History of the English Language in the same semester that I was teaching freshman composition, it occurred to me that the material that we were covering in HEL would benefit the students in my English writing classes. In particular, I began to consider how learning about language – the tool that all writers use – could actually help English writing students become more careful, sensitive, and effective writers.

 

In Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser argues that one of the great enemies of analytical reading and writing is the transparent theory of language, which presents words as if they were a clear window through which to view meaning, a meaning which can somehow be accessed without attention to language. As I thought about this assertion, I realized that many of our native English-speaking students grow up with the type of language privilege that makes it difficult for them to recognize the power of language to shape identity. As such, some students fail to appreciate the importance of gender nonspecific language and culturally sensitive language. Seeing the ways that reading about linguistic imperialism and post-colonial reassertion of identity helped my English majors better understand the power of language to both subordinate others and to assert and shape one’s own identity, I began to realize that this lesson could be particularly useful to non-English majors who may be headed for careers that would involve intercultural connections and the need for sensitivity to English language politics and privilege.

 

In order to help my freshman writers understand language in more complex ways, I decided to take components from my HEL class and modify them to fit an English writing class. Writing classes at the liberal arts college where I teach tend to have themes, so I decided to structure the class around the theme of Globalization and Language.

 

First, I began the semester not with my usual introduction to academic writing but with Brian Friel’s play Translations. The play, set in 1830s Ireland, dramatizes the replacement of Irish hedge schools with National Schools and the topological surveys of Thomas Frederick Colby and the royal Engineers that mapped and renamed Ireland, Anglicizing the landscape.

 

My students and I discussed the fact that language forms our identities and connects us to our own culture; however, language can also be a tool used to oppress, control, and redefine others. Beginning the course with a reminder of the power inherent in the tool that they were wielding gave many students a greater sense of the importance of their roles as writers.

 

Second, I focused our writing on language and global interconnections. One assignment asked the students to research the political and cultural ramifications of the English as a world language. The students selected a “variety” of English and researched the socio-political issues that accompany the use of English in that country or region. The variant could come from any number of places – Australia / New Zealand; South Africa; West and East Africa; India; Hong Kong; Jamaica; or Canada. The students simply had to select a variant and consider particular conversations and controversies pertaining to that variant. For the research paper, I allowed the students to select their own topics, but I required that the topics in some way address global interconnections.

 

Third, I incorporated Caribbean poetry into our lessons on analytical reading. Each poem that I selected dealt specifically with the complex interconnections between language and culture. Analyzing poems such as Grace Nichols’ “The Fat Black Woman goes Shopping,” Mutabaruka’s “Dis Poem,” and LaLeau’s “Betrayal” reinforced lessons about the connections between language and power structures. However, it also reminded the students that, although English writing classes do teach students to write in Standard English, non-standard dialects are not linguistically inferior - but are, instead, an expression of identity.

This semester I am teaching a graduate course on creative writing pedagogy, and I have a student who is quietly but persistently trying to shift the murderous and tortured language with which I, and so many other writers, talk about the writing process to something more positive.  Why, he asked last class, do we talk so often about how hard writing is rather than what a joy it is?

 

He has a good point.

 

Of course writing is hard. And often one of the first things a professor must teach a class of creative writers is to hold their writing to a higher standard. I often tell my graduate students that they must treat writing as a job. I often tell them that nothing—no job, no blank space of time, no amount of caffeine—makes writing easy. And I tell them—often—that they must make sacrifices—live cheaply, be open to jobs all over the country, get up early, stay home—if they are serious about their writing. From the outside it might seem as if I am not teaching students how to write so much as I am persuading them not to even try.  And I suppose there’s some truth to that—some dreamers need to be woken to realities, and creative writing programs are full of dreamers.

 

But still—I write because I love to write. Why don’t I talk more often about that?

 

I suspect to some extent the writer’s trumpeting of her own suffering is a defense against the world’s suspicion that she is getting away with something—being paid, however modestly, to play.

 

Once when I was visiting my parents during a winter break, I lay on their living room couch, decidedly doing nothing, and my father turned to my mother and said, “Do you think she is writing right now?”

 

They laughed so hard I departed the room for my childhood bed where I could lie around doing nothing uninterrupted.

 

I then heard my father say, “I don’t think she’s going to dedicate her prize-winning collection to us.” At which point, I may or may not have slammed my childhood door.

 

Because let’s face it, sometimes writing looks exactly like doing nothing. And this, I think, is one reason writers emphasize our struggles so much. Because writing looks easy when in fact it is hard. But what is the effect on ourselves when we do that? Wouldn’t joy and fun bring us more quickly to the desk? Wouldn’t a sense of play as Karen Russell described in her keynote address at the 2015 AWP conference benefit our writing?

 

My student really does have a point. And I’m going to make a much greater effort to shift my language toward the positive—and to introduce more playful exercises into my creative writing classrooms next semester.

 

This semester my creative writing pedagogy course meets in the music building, and as I walked its hallway last week, I heard one music student say to another, “I have a blister on my tongue.”  At least writers don’t have that, I thought to myself at the time. But maybe I wish we did—a mark of our own hard work might alleviate some of our need to prove it.  Maybe with blisters to show for our efforts, we’d feel free to boast about how much fun we’re having.

Every semester and every class is uniquely its own which means its students are, too. In my most recent course I’m teaching, Expository Writing—a Gordon Rule writing course that teaches students how to fine tune their description skills—many of my students have self-identified as not a writer. In fact, many of my students are biology majors, pre-med, or engineering students, and some of them, I’ve come to find, were not looking forward to flexing their pens. So, at the beginning of this semester, my challenge lay ahead of me.

 

Early on, because of this unique mix of students, I decided it was important to actively implement participatory design: an approach to design that attempts to involve users in the designing process to ensure best usability. It’s a broad term or approach that can be applied in any field, whether it be software design, architecture, or the university classroom.

 

Now, this doesn’t mean that I sit back and let my students run the show, but it does mean that I ask a lot of questions and place value in their answers. Some things I ask include: What’s been the most helpful text we’ve read so far in class? Which writing exercise was most useful to you as a student? Would you prefer to submit your first essay to only me, or to start with a paired workshop right off the bat? If you start the semester with participatory design in mind, it’s easy to remain flexible and adaptable, shaping your teaching to your unique students’ needs. And, new research has even found that designers, or in this case, instructors, create more innovative concepts and ideas when co-designing with a group, or in this case, our students.

 

The advantage to keeping participatory design in mind is that, by staying open-minded and malleable in your teaching decisions, you can best adapt to student needs, offering them, perhaps, a more valuable classroom experience. For example, when we hit mid-semester, I noticed that my students weren’t responding as well in classroom discussions, and that some were even dozing off while I was trying to engage them in a lively discussion. Some of this is normal, but I also asked myself what I could do to liven this classroom up? I took another brief survey and found that my students were wanting more in-class writing exercises, and this was something I could easily facilitate and incorporate into our time. After a few new lessons and in-class writing exercises, I saw the classroom energy instantly turn around and pick up speed again, gaining the momentum they were needing during that mid-semester slump.

 

The best thing, though, about participatory design is that it includes students in the process which:

 

  1. Removes a hard-lined authoritative teaching style
  2. Better assess and responds to student needs, and
  3. Empowers students, giving them agency and stake in the classroom

 

Ultimately, participatory design leads to these outcomes where students are more engaged, and where they are transforming from mere students-at-the-desk to the co-creators and colleagues they will soon become in their futures.

This post originally appeared on the blog on 9/14/11  

 

We are finally—I believe—past the time of the unexamined assumption that literary fiction is automatically high art (and therefore worthy of our imaginations and ink), while genre fiction is intrinsically lowbrow or mind-wasting (and therefore not worthy of those things. Or not for academic credit, anyway).

 

My sense is that the past decade has seen a growing acceptance of genre writing in the workshop, or at least a growing acceptance of work that flirts with genre. And I wonder if this is because more writers who teach these workshops are themselves flirting more with genre. (Kim Wright recently published this essay about the phenomenon of literary authors jumping into the genre pool.)

 

Still, potential arguments remain for emphasizing literary fiction, particularly literary realism, in the workshop:

 

  • Literary fiction is generally more “character-based” than genre fiction.
  • Instructors are more comfortable teaching their own area of expertise, which is usually literary fiction.
  • Each genre has its own conventions that don’t necessarily cross genres or apply to literary fiction, whereas (the thinking goes) the lessons of literary fiction more readily apply across all genres.

 

Maybe the most compelling argument is that conventions themselves—especially character types and clichéd plots—are precisely what we teach students to resist. In a “hard-boiled” detective story, the detective is, well, hard-boiled. He also solves the crime. Always. In the romance, the couple falls in love and gets together. The genre story, particularly its outcome, is largely determined by the conventions of the genre, rather than by the particular characters and their situations. When these conventions get substantially subverted, they are not generally considered genre stories any longer. Rather, they are something else: not a crime novel, but Lolita; not a science fiction novel, but Slaughterhouse-Five. Not a ghost story, but Beloved.

 

Yet there are also some persuasive reasons to allow, maybe even encourage, genre writing in a workshop:

 

  • Genre fiction is what many of our students are reading and is what inspires some of them to pursue creative writing in the first place.
  • If the workshop dwells only in the domain of literary realism, how can we in good faith assign stories by Márquez or Barthelme or Borges (or contemporary authors like George Saunders and Kevin Brockmeier)—or anyone at all who strays from the “real”?

 

Although I do promote literary realism, especially in the beginning workshop, ultimately I want—and ask—students to write what they’re most driven to write—provided they are careful not to make artistic decisions based on what “always happens” in a particular genre. If a story involves time travel, there needs to be a reason why it can’t simply involve flashbacks. If a troll is guarding a bridge, he’d better not be guarding it “because that’s what trolls do.” That troll needs a history and personality every bit as fleshed out as a character in a “literary” story. In this way, I try to help students develop the habits that stay with them for their next story, and their next, regardless of genre.

 

A final thought: This issue seems particularly salient now, I think, because we have a whole generation of creative writing instructors who grew up on Stephen King teaching a whole generation of students who grew up on J. K. Rowling. And this is a good thing, indeed—because Stephen King and J. K. Rowling happen to know a thing or two about writing compelling stories.

 

Your thoughts?