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Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Happy Endings

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Jan 31, 2018

One of the most common complaints I hear in my undergraduate courses is how depressing literature is. And in my creative writing classes this translates to: Why do we have to write literature that is so depressing? Doesn’t anybody get a happy ending? 

 

The challenge, most of the time, is that the writing we’re doing—essays, short stories, poems—is, by definition, short. And all, or almost all, of it has to start with conflict to get a reader’s attention. So how, in a short space, do you believably get from conflict to happiness?

 

In my classes, I like to use “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin as an example. The short story follows two brothers, an unnamed narrator and his younger brother Sonny, who are in conflict most of their lives, but in the last scene have a believable moment of connection. So how does Baldwin pull it off?

 

  1. Baldwin creates an achievable goal—not that the brothers get along generally, but that the narrator learn to listen to Sonny.
  2. He creates two characters capable of change—who want change.
  3. He covers a long period of time during which movement towards change can occur.
  4. He shows the brothers trying repeatedly—and failing—to change.
  5. He has each character first go through a major life event—the kind of thing that might trigger other changes.
  6. It’s not a huge change, and is, therefore, a plausible one.
  7. There is no happily ever after—there is merely a moment of understanding that bodes well for the future.

 

Now key to his success is Baldwin’s amazing manipulation of time (well documented in Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction), but still, at least we see it can be done.

 

So maybe literature doesn’t have to be so depressing after all?

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen Kolba, Digital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida 

 

Each semester, I teach an Introduction to Literature course for non-English majors. One of my goals in this course is to break down an idea they tend to bring with them from their high school English courses: there is one right way to interpret a text. We talk about our personal frame of reference for seeing and understanding the world and the role that this plays in how the meaning of a text is constructed. However, it’s easy for undergraduates to fall down the slippery slope of “we can each understand this work differently” to “literature means anything” or “any interpretation is correct.”

 

To reach a middle ground in the way my students understand interpretation, I turned to concept artist Sol LeWitt. Starting in the late Sixties, LeWitt created instruction-based Wall Drawings. He would write instructions for a piece of art and then a group of artists would execute the actual drawing. I’ve always found LeWitt’s Wall Drawings compelling since the instructions, while fairly simple and clear, can be interpreted differently, depending on the reader, and inevitably yield a different result reliant on the group executing the drawing. These drawings felt like a wonderful visual metaphor for literary interpretation.

 

On the second day of my literature class, I bring in a large roll of paper. I write the instructions for one of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings on the whiteboard. As students file in, I cut large squares from the paper. I usually get a few apprehensive glances. Class starts and I put students into groups of three or four. I ask them to:

  1. read the instructions on the board and write them down
  2. take one sheet of large paper for their group
  3. find a hard surface in the classroom or hallway to execute the instructions

 

Students disseminate with their groups and paper. On their way out of the classroom, some usually ask me to clarify a sentence or two in LeWitt’s instructions. I answer by telling them to give the instructions a close read, break them down part by part and examine the relationships between the sentences, and work together as a group to make sense of them.

 

I wander between my students. They chat happily, debating interpretations of the instructions and how to best execute their drawing. Students come alive when tasked at creating something in the classroom, especially creating in collaboration (which means the activity serves a secondary purpose as an ice breaker in the first week of school).

 

As each group presents me with their finished product, I tape them up in the classroom, side-by-side. Then, students free write in response to three discussion questions:

  1. What do you notice about the drawings in front of you?
  2. Who is the artist of the drawings? Who can claim ownership over the creation of these drawings?
  3. What does this activity have to do with literature?

 

The class discusses their answers to the three questions. Virtually all my students come to the consensus that there are many similarities between the drawings, due to the fact that parts of the instructions are more objectively understood. However, they point to differences in the way some more complex parts of the instructions are interpreted by each group. There are some facts we can agree on in the instructions, but other areas required interpretation. Thus, it’s not surprising that my students then slide into a discussion of the way that our interpretations of literature can be grounded in facts, but influenced by the way we read and construct meaning.

 

As a bonus, the second discussion question prompts my students to debate the roles of writer/artist and reader, raising questions about authorial intent, how much space a reader is given in co-constructing meaning, and how these dynamics impact our interpretation of a text.

 

Sol LeWitt not only serves as a way to introduce my students to the questions that literature raises and to think about interpretation, but it also gives the class a memorable touch-point for the rest of the semester. Students reference our “LeWitt activity” discussion as we interpret new works. And when my students start to say that “this poem can mean literally anything” I can remind my students of their drawings and the way they constructed their interpretations. 

Many students these days are Bio Med, Finance, Marketing, or Nursing majors to name a few. These students are accustomed to 200-person classrooms where watching long PowerPoints and taking notes for the upcoming exam are common pratices. 

 

Writing classes, however, are often hugely different. With a cap of 22 students per class, we, as writing instructors, are able to learn our students’ names, and create a more engaging classroom environment by utilizing participatory techniques.

 

I’m almost positively sure that my students do not want to hear me lecture every class for an hour and fifteen minutes. By 2 P.M., if I were to do this, they’d be falling asleep while sitting up.

 

Enter: The Think-Pair-Share—a teaching technique I learned in a previous practicum course where students are asked to think individually about a set of questions, then exchange ideas with their peers, all before coming back to discuss together as a class.

 

More specifically, it works like this: My students read a brief piece of writing in class and are then given a one page set of about five questions. They are given 10-15 minutes to quietly write their own answers before they pair up with a classmate sitting next to them to exchange each other’s ideas. When this happens, the classroom breaks from quiet study hall to nervous laughter, smiling, and the exchanging of names. This is often how they meet one another for the first time. Then, after discussing their answers with their peers, we come back together as a class and I ask different groups to answer the initial questions handed out.  

 

The Think-Pair-Share works well for many reasons.

 

  1. It puts the onus on the students to articulate responses to in-class texts and allows for an interesting way of using class time (versus a one hour and fifteen minute lecture).
  2. It allows students to think both individually about their answers and also allows them to collaborate or exchange ideas after they’ve answered questions on their own.
  3. Instead of cold-calling on students, this method allows students time and preparation to thoughtfully articulate well-developed answers and gain the confidence they need to answer in front of the whole class.
  4. It allows them to have fun. They meet their neighbors, talk to their classmates, and while they are engaging with the text, questions, and answers at hand, they are also forming classroom relationships and rapport with their peers, breaking the pattern of staring into phone glows and computer screens.

 

In addition to lecturing, Think-Pair-Shares have revitalized my classrooms, have given students agency, power, and room to speak, and have strengthened the rapport between my students, and with me, their instructor. Because of the many positive outcomes associated with Think-Pair-Shares, these exercises have become, and will remain, mainstays in my writing classrooms.

As I gear up for the new semester, I’m finalizing my course syllabus, and again, as before every semester, I find myself curious about the best strategies to balance my desires to convey important information to my students and to create an engaging document that students will read. This school year, I’ve focused on two components of the syllabus: the content/structure of the syllabus and the use of the syllabus after the first day of class.

 

Inspired by strategies David Gooblar presents in “Your Syllabus Doesn’t Have to Look Like a Contract,” I carefully consider the visual choices I make in presenting syllabus content. Depending on the course, I model the writing and structure of documents that I expect my students to create throughout the semester. Then, I provide other necessary course information.

 

In my fiction workshop I ask my students to write letters responding to their peers’ work as well as their own, and so my syllabus for the course begins with a letter from me to my students. In the brief letter, I outline the three units of the course, provide an overview of our workshop structure, and make the final portfolio requirement clear. On the other hand, in my professional writing course, my students create professional documents, from emails to grant proposals to memos, and so I open the syllabus with a memo to my students. The memo format models the genre conventions of memo writing, and it clearly and succinctly conveys introductory information, including course structure, contact information, and office hours.

 

Many of my students have been under the impression that the syllabus is a single-use document, forgotten or discarded after the first day of class. To counter this, I make clear, both verbally and in writing, my expectation that the syllabus be a guiding document—a road map—to follow throughout the semester. I ask my students to bring their copies of the syllabus to each class and each class I return to it.

 

Specifically, I speak to the course goals and student learning outcomes, sections I include in every syllabus I write, regardless of course. (Many instructors, I’m sure, are required to include similar sections.) I find each is useful in helping students see the expectations I have for their learning and the tangible work we will do to achieve those expectations.

 

For example, when introducing or reminding my fiction students of their reading responses, I’ll ask them to return to the syllabus with me and recall the established goal of “understand[ing] primary and advanced tools of engaging creative writing.” Then I guide them to the corresponding learning outcome: “craft thoughtful responses to assigned readings, identifying the tools used in each.” I find this practice useful near the end of the class when I ask students to review what they’ve learned and I remind them about their homework.

 

I find the regular use of the syllabus serves several purposes. When I encourage students to use the syllabus as a functioning, working document in class, I find they turn to the syllabus for questions they might have about the course—my office hours, major assignment deadlines, etc.—before asking me. Students also return to the letter and the memo when looking for examples of document structure and design. Finally, since we continue to use the syllabus and reiterate course goals throughout the semester, when I ask students to identify what they’ve learned at the end of the course, they are able to, with specific examples. With these approaches to the syllabus, it lives throughout the semester as useful and important as it was on the first day of class.

When I introduced the first peer review assignment of the semester to my professional writing students, there were clear groans and noises of frustration and reluctance. I pressed them for explanation. “What’s so bad about peer review?”

 

“It’s not helpful.”

 

“It feels like a waste of time.”

 

“I don’t know what to say when I peer review.”

 

In response to these frustrations, I suggested that perhaps peer reviewing in a different way might make the process more helpful to students in their revision. First, I reiterated our purposes for peer reviewing: students get time and space away from the pieces they’ve been working on; they receive feedback from multiple readers, rather than me alone; and they develop connections with other writers in the class, which can extend long after the course ends. Then, I reminded my students that they have authority in their writing and they can choose what changes to make based upon the feedback they receive. Finally, I introduced them to a method of response that encourages this authority over their work, a modified version of Liz Lerman’s “critical response process.”

 

Instead of commenting on whatever strikes them, reviewers respond to specific questions asked by the writer. The writer, then, is in control of the feedback they want to receive on their work. As a result, the writer shapes their peer review process so it supports their writing goals.

 

To facilitate this peer review, I ask students to prepare a list of specific, yet open-ended questions about their work, such as: How might I restructure my essay so my ideas are more clear? How does the document design affect the argument I’m making? Which statements are confusing to you, or need more evidence? This requirement of developing thoughtful questions helps students critically reflect on their own work prior to submitting it to their peers. Since students know their own work best, they usually have a sense of where they’d like to begin with feedback.

 

With the list of questions in hand, students respond to the work of their peers. When responding, I ask my students to be as specific and clear as possible. I encourage them to cite assignment guidelines, our course readings, or other sources. These detailed responses support not only the student who is being reviewed but also the reviewer since they can later turn their critical eyes and reflections to their own work.

 

Once reviewers have answered their peers’ questions, they then pose open-ended questions of their own, such as: Why did you choose to structure your essay this way? How might a different color scheme affect the design of the document? What response do you hope to receive from your audience? The purpose of these questions is to help the writer reflect on elements of their writing or documents they might not have considered, and as writers respond to the new questions they gain a stronger sense of elements they need to revise.

 

Following their first attempts at peer review using this process, I asked my students what was most useful. They unanimously agreed that being in control of the feedback they received made the peer reviews helpful. They discovered that their reviews helped them think about their own writing more carefully. They also asked if we could continue peer reviews this way for the rest of the semester, and we have, finding similar success each time.

 

This peer review process can extend to other writing classrooms, from professional writing to composition to creative writing. When students are control of the feedback they receive, they are more receptive to concerns from peers and confident in their ability to revise and strengthen their work.

 

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen Kolba, Digital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida 

 

I expected the worst during finals week my first year as a teacher: a huge stack of papers to grade, frustration over revision advice not taken, late nights to meet grade submission deadlines. While I certainly had a lot to grade, what I really struggled with was unexpected: boredom at the conformity of my students’ work. Their writing was polished and it was evident that their skills had improved over the semester. But the writing lacked energy, originality, and their own voices. I found myself wondering what they had really learned.

 

In preparation for the next semester, I re-examined how the course learning goals might still be met while allowing students to present their learning in a more individual and authentic way. If students could tell me how they would best be able to present their learning, then maybe they would engage with the final project with more investment. And when students are invested, they spend more time, produce higher quality work, and engage in the work more deeply.

 

Enter, the “pitch your own final” final exam. A final exam designed to give students agency over their own learning. What I’ve detailed below is how I present Pitch Your Own Final in my Introduction to Literature course (a writing-intensive general education class offered at my university), although different iterations of this same final can be applied to courses throughout the English discipline. How it works: 

 

A month before the end of the semester, I introduce the final exam. The guidelines are as frustratingly open-ended as they come: “Engage with at least one course concept in a new way to demonstrate what you’ve learned in this class.”

 

It’s important to note that I’ve scaffolded this kind of project into my course. Throughout the semester, my students have been given a little more agency over each assignment that they complete, in order to prepare for an almost instruction-less final.

 

The class is usually in a mild uproar at this final project. They ask question after question to try and get me to tell them what I want. I ask them to tell me what I want. This makes them furious. They beg for examples. I learned early with this kind of project to not give them examples (a practice I otherwise offer in my class) because what many produce will be a near copy of that example. I ask them to trust me, as they’ve done all semester, that they’ll get much more out of the project if they’re in control.

 

Students then develop pitches for their final projects. This is a critical step. It allows me the opportunity to give students feedback about their initial direction. I can jump in early to make sure students are either doing enough work for a final project or not too much work (I’ve had students pitch me ideas that would turn into a book if executed as they describe). What I usually receive is a mix of analytical and creative work, synthesized together to demonstrate the student’s evolved understanding of what literature is.

 

On the last day of the semester, students present a portion of their work to the class, and the results are diverse and astounding. I’ve had students examine literary translation through dance choreography, create video games, and one even live-coded music. They’re invested in the work because they’re allowed to take what they’ve learned and connect it to a mode that they already know (either in the form of their major, hobbies, or a medium they’re familiar with). Many, as they present, tell the class that they discovered that they knew much more about literature than they thought and that it relates to their own interests in relevant and unexpected ways. 

 

I step out of the classroom that day with arms full of large, weird textual/visual/analytical projects and an inbox full of links that will lead me to a new and surprising project and perspective. I’m looking forward to grading, at this point, because with each new project, I get insight into a completely new, non-conforming perspective.

 

Quick end note: As you can imagine, I’ve implemented this type of final in courses in which I’ve had the freedom and luxury to design the class myself. While I’ve used this final to meet departmental and university-level learning outcome requirements, I acknowledge that assigning a final exam like this is a luxury afforded to those with complete creative teaching control.

 

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? 

Last month I shared the Point of View Menu, a tool I use to help students see the effects of their point of view and tense choices in a story. My students were floored by the possibilities, and they were particularly interested in learning more about second person point of view. Given the range second person point of view offers, I developed a tool to focus on three options of second person paired with the simple verb tenses past, present, and future. My students promptly dubbed this new tool the “Secret Menu.” (They then had to explain to me that a secret menu at a fast food restaurant is one customers can order off of, but only if they know it exists.) They were thrilled at the prospect of understanding a technique they had not deeply explored before.

 

To teach the “Secret Menu,” I review the indicators of each tense and some of the reasons why a writer would choose to write in each, as we discussed with the original menu. Past tense allows for reflection, present tense provides in-the-moment reaction, and future tense allows for prediction. We review the purposes of each point of view: first person gets us right into the speaker’s mind, third person gives us distance from the characters, and second person lands somewhere in between providing space between the reader and the characters.

 

The “Secret Menu” tool allows us to dissect this space second person offers. That space can shrink or grow, inviting the reader deeper into the story or putting up a wall, depending on the way the writer approaches the story. I then offer to my students three possible uses for second person.

 

Second person can be used as a masked first person, that is, the story is written with a “you” character as a protagonist that reads similarly to an “I” character. In this use of the second person readers can get almost as close the protagonist’s mind as in first person.

 

Second person can also be used to invite the reader into the story. The actions of a “you” might come across as if they are directed to the reader.

 

Finally, second person can be used to offer directions or suggestions.

 

Similarly to our first menu, I grid the three possibilities for second person and the simple tenses alongside each other. Again, as we fill out the resulting boxes, students see the many combinations of storytelling available to them. It’s important to note that many stories in second person fluctuate among these three uses, so I use dashed lines to indicate fluidity. A story might read as a masked first person and also read as a series of directions and suggestions.

 

 

Past—reflection

Present—reaction

Future—prediction

2.A—masked first = fairly up close and personal

Reflection fairly up close and personal

Reaction fairly up close and personal

Prediction fairly up close and personal

2.B—speak to the reader as a character = invitation

Reflection w/ invitation

Reaction w/ invitation

Prediction w/ invitation

2.C—directions and suggestions

Reflection w/ direction

Reaction w/ direction

Prediction w/direction

 

One of my favorite short stories to teach with the secret menu in mind is Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer.” Together, students look at Moore’s technique at the sentence level and identify how the second person point of view might read different ways depending on readers’ interpretations.

 

After this discussion, I find students are eager to re-read other second person stories with attention to how they might pull off this tricky technique. I then challenge them to try writing their own stories in second person, experimenting with these possibilities, and the drafts they submit demonstrate thoughtfulness and confidence in the voices they choose.

William Bradley

Writing as Revenge

Posted by William Bradley Expert Oct 20, 2017

This post originally appeared on the blog on 2/10/12      

 

I read Lorraine Berry’s Salon article, “Dear Female Students: Stop Writing about Men,” with great interest.  She gives good advice that all college students ought to hear: You’re not defined by your relationships; you are more than who you choose to date; a breakup is not the most significant or interesting thing that has ever happened to you.  But I was surprised to see her focus her essay on female students, and to learn that, in her experience, “The females in the class tend to write about a romantic relationship, and the males do not.”  I have had almost the exact opposite experience.  I can only recall one female student ever writing about her own romantic troubles, but I’ve read—as either a student or a teacher—the “guy’s break-up narrative” easily a dozen times.

 

To be sure, I don’t think I’m talking about the male equivalent of the type of essay Berry is talking about.  She writes that “only once or twice in the nine years I’ve been teaching these courses has a guy expressed his need to understand why a relationship has fallen apart.”  I haven’t really read that essay either.  The type of relationship essay I’ve read from male writers tends—more often than not—to be more angry than reflective.

 

I first encountered this type of narrative during my senior year of college, in a workshop where a fellow student ended his own end-of-the-affair narrative with the triumphant line, “I was sick of playing that bitch’s games.”  Even typing that line now, fifteen years later, I cringe both for her and for him—she was, after all, a fellow student on a campus of just over two thousand, and he certainly had no idea how committing such a line to the page and handing out photocopies to the class made him seem… well, less than gentlemanly. 

 

This trend continued in grad school.   There was the guy from my M.A. program who gave a paragraph to each girlfriend in a five page essay, each paragraph devoted to chronicling the woman’s flaws. And I’ll never forget the guy from my Ph.D. years who described—in pornographic detail—the sex with his ex-girlfriend while Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” played on his stereo. 

 

The above examples come from former classmates, but I’ve occasionally received these types of essays from my own students, too, and it always seems to me that the men who write these narratives of the break-ups—with their unflattering descriptions and their potentially embarrassing sexual revelations—are writing not to reflect on “why a relationship has fallen apart,” the way some of the women Berry has taught do, but are instead writing as a form of revenge, an attempt to “get back” at those who either broke their hearts or somehow became a romantic disappointment.

 

I was talking about this phenomenon with my own nonfiction students last week—before I even read Berry’s article— as we were discussing Dinty W. Moore’s observation in his anthology/textbook The Truth of the Matter that “A helpful way to approach the question of memory in creative nonfiction is to occasionally investigate your own motives.  Are you remembering something a certain way in order to make yourself look more like the hero of the situation, or in order to cast your lazy brother-in-law in an even more unpleasant light?  If so, you are being dishonest.”   I would say the same thing is true when writing about relationships—in fact, I think it’s even more true.  It seems to me that a failed romance provides fertile ground for self-deception and self-serving excuses, which will inevitably lead to a dishonest essay or memoir.

 

I don’t want to tell my students not to write about things that make them angry, or that they have strong feelings about—such subjects might lead to brilliant insight, either in their writing or in their lives.  But I do caution them to ask themselves, honestly, if they’re ready to write about these subjects.  Can they reflect without being overwhelmed by their emotions?  Because if the answer is no, and the piece of writing lacks that critical, honest interrogation of the self, then the essay or memoir will ultimately be unsuccessful.  And above all else, I try to discuss with my students why we write what we write.  If a student is genuinely trying to come to an understanding of an experience, trying to figure out something about himself or an event or relationship he lived through, awesome.  That’s the point.  But, I caution my students, if the whole point is to vilify, degrade, or humiliate another person in front of a classroom full of people, then perhaps this is an essay that ought not be written.  Once it’s written down and submitted for workshop, it’s out there, and can’t be taken back.  And I doubt too many of us would want to be judged by the things we say—or write—in the heat of an angry or heartbroken moment. 

Samuel Cohen

Sports Pages

Posted by Samuel Cohen Expert Oct 5, 2017

For William Bradley

 

I’m not the sports fan I used to be. The combination of getting older and busier and moving away from the New York of my Knicks has turned me into the kind of fan who opens the sports pages and wonders what happened to all the players he used to know and who the hell these guys are. Outside of watching English soccer on weekend morning TV and traveling on the endless circuit of my sons’ soccer games (and writing some poems about youth soccer that accidentally got published), my interest in sports is not a rooting interest. What it has become is a cultural interest—an interest in what sports means to people and to the communities they live in.

 

So naturally I’m planning a new course for spring semester called “Sports/Writing.” It will be about sports in American culture and all kinds of writing about sports—fiction, poetry, essays, reporting. I’m also revising my literature textbook, Literature: The Human Experience, and am trying to put together a couple of clusters of selections on sports as, well, part of the human experience. This seems like a happy synergetic moment from which all sorts of reading selections should flow, and I’m gathering a giant pile of good ones, but it turns out I’m developing a case of syllabus/table of contents block.

 

I want to muster the usual suspects that I use as excuses for writer’s block, but I think there’s something more interesting going on. Next to the growing stack of possible selections, important sports-related events keep happening. Just this past week saw the explosion of Colin Kaepernick’s protest of racial inequality in policing and in American life into a multiple sideline, multiple player protest. This already knotty situation was then complicated by team owners responding to Donald Trump’s angry social media comments saying team owners should fire kneeling players by joining in a linked-arm gesture alleged to be about unity, a unity cynics might characterize as the response of rich white men to another rich white man telling them what to do with their property. A scandal involving sneaker companies, coaches, recruiters, and agent erupted in college basketball. Further evidence emerged of the seriousness of brain injury in football.

 

It seems like there’s no talking about sports these days without talking about money and race and politics. This should be a good thing—an embarrassment of riches for me, really—but it’s making it hard for me to put together a selection of works that I can imagine teaching.

 

I’m not a teacher who shies away from political and social issues in the classroom, and I’m not a teacher who pretends not to have opinions about these things; what I am is a teacher who makes it very clear that all I ever want from my students is that they think hard and that they form conclusions from evidence and solid arguments, and I have never had reason to believe that students felt seriously pressured to agree with me about anything.

 

But I do live in a Midwestern state (as some point out, a Southern Midwestern state) that was targeted by David Horowitz on his “intellectual diversity” tour of state houses a few years ago, a tour that resulted in the presence of a form on my university’s web site that students can use to report their professors for having opinions about these things. And I do teach at the university where in 2015 the football team threatened to sit out a game as part of a protest of the university’s handling of racial issues, a development that has cost the school funding from state legislators who cynics might characterize as white men telling other white men what to do with their property. These legislators also got a friend and colleague fired for her small involvement in this protest. So I’m always aware of how reports of my teaching would play on social media.

 

Similarly, I don’t shy away from including political works in LHE and 50 Essays, but I am aware of the reality that there are textbooks that don’t sell in Texas because of the kinds of things I select and, much more importantly, I’m aware that the instructors who use these books will have to deal with teaching selections that touch on issues that some readers will be sensitive about.

 

It turns out, knowing who I am as a teacher and what I want for my students and students who use my textbooks doesn’t make this any easier. The more I think about it this week, as I stare at my screens and watch America twist itself into knots over the posture of athletes whose games haven’t started yet, the more I’m coming to realize that what’s getting in my way is the same obstacle we all come up against when teaching literary works about any of the things that people love: when people are devoted to things, they don’t want to hear them criticized.

 

The word fan, of course, comes from the word fanatic, which means a person with excessive zeal—a zealot. A turn of phrase people use when they say they love someone or something: I’m crazy about it. This fanaticism, this craziness, is part of what makes sports so important in culture (in addition to economics, institutions, identity); it’s also what makes it hard to examine sports critically—that is, to not simply negatively but with an eye toward understanding that requires not unthinkingly accepting the common wisdom, the things people who work in and around sports says about sports. When we look at what people are worked up about this week in American sports, we see the intersection of two institutions that people love—sports and nation—and the inextricable presence of race and money. It’s hard, beyond the most innocuous of pieces of literature—“Casey at the Bat?”—to think of selections for teaching that don’t quickly become about more than the thrill of pure athletic competition.

 

The same is true when you teach works that brush up against ideas of America, of romantic love, of heroism. We are all attached to these things, and have strongly held and largely unexamined beliefs about them. When we ask our students to read works that reflect critically about them—asking them to think about darker moments in our national history, about how ideas about gender sexuality shape the way people are allowed to love each other, about what acts by which kinds of people get called heroic—we are encouraging them to do something that they don’t necessarily want to do. But the things we unquestionably love and hold dear might be the things—the institutions, the beliefs, the ideas—we most need to look at if we are to develop ourselves as thinking, contributing members of our communities. Which in one model of higher education is the goal of all of this.

 

In the end, if you value making your students think about the things they read and the world they live in more than you value protecting them from discomfort and the things they believe in from scrutiny, you assign reading that questions the things they love and believe in. You don’t force answers on them; you lead them to questions. And yes, I’m talking to myself.

 

Michael Kardos

You Write, Too?

Posted by Michael Kardos Expert Sep 28, 2017

This post originally appeared on the blog on 12/22/11

 

I’m always surprised when, weeks into a semester, I’ll say something in class that prompts a student to tilt his head at me and say, “Wait—you write, too?”

 

Meaning—you don’t only teach this stuff, but you actually do it?

 

I’m not talking about my upper-level or graduate students, who enter class with a sense of their professors’ professional interests and activities. But my introductory students are often surprised to learn that when I’m not in the classroom or at office hours, I’m at home doing exactly what I’m asking them to do: writing.

 

We sometimes take it for granted that our undergraduates know what it is to teach at the college level—that creative writing instructors are also creative writers. That we, too, struggle for the right form for a poem or the best way to end a story or the most honest and vivid way to present an essay. We, too, drink coffee; we, too, stop ourselves from wasting time on the internet. We doubt ourselves, and then we think we’re brilliant, and then we realize that, no, we aren’t. We fret over deadlines. We fret over fretting. We worry that no one will “get” what we’re writing; we worry that everyone will. The biggest difference between us and our students is that we’ve read more books and written more words. We’re further along in an apprenticeship that only ends when we’re in the ground.

 

But why should our students know any of this? It might seem obvious to us, but why should they suspect that the person who reads their work and directs the discussion and ultimately grades them is a writer as well as a teacher—especially if I haven’t talked to them about that part of my life?

 

In the past, I’ve tended to shy away from such talk, believing that the focus of the class, after all, is on them, not me. In my own experience as a student, I never much liked when a teacher went on and on about his or her own work. It felt like showing off. However, I’ve come to believe that in a workshop, students appreciate a modest amount of disclosure and candor, and I’ve become more comfortable talking—in moderation—about what I’m working on or struggling with, without feeling as if what I say needs to have a foreordained pedagogical objective.

 

My question to you: How, and to what degree, do you bring your own writing life into the classroom?

 

Allyson Hoffman

The Point of View Menu

Posted by Allyson Hoffman Expert Sep 21, 2017

My introductory fiction students excelled at identifying the point of view in the stories we read—first person has “I” or “we,” second person has “you,” and so on. Identifying simple verb tenses—past, present, and future—also came easily to the students. However, when it came time to write their own stories, many of the first drafts my students submitted had irregular or inconsistent points of view and tenses. I saw the shifts stemming from something deeper than typos or inattention to details; I saw the shifts as indications that my students hadn’t quite decided how they wanted to tell their stories.

 

As a result, I developed a tool to help students consider the subtle effects of point of view and tense. “It’s like a menu!” a student once exclaimed, and ever since I’ve called the tool the “Point of View Menu.”

 

To introduce the menu, I first review the common indicators of each point of view with my students, then turn to identifying why as writers we might choose a particular point of view. To guide our discussions, I suggest we look at the relationship between the characters and the readers each point of view offers. While we recognize there are no absolutes, we develop some generalizations to gain a comprehensive perspective.

 

First person gets the reader up close and personal to a character—that is, the reader can see into a character’s mind.

 

Second person offers some space between the reader and the characters, but because of its inviting nature, readers can still get close the story and sometimes see into a character’s mind.

 

Third person offers some distance between the reader and the characters, because readers hear thoughts secondhand through narration.

 

Then we look at verb tenses, keeping it simple by focusing only on past, present, and future. We review common indicators of each, and again we turn the conversation to ask the question of why writers would choose to work with each tense.

 

In past tense, the events have already occurred. The time between the events and the telling of the story, then, allows for reflection on the events.

 

Present tense lends itself to reactions in the moment. My students offer suggestions of action films with fight sequences sliced into a punch, then a kick, then a slam—they feel as if they are experiencing the events in real time.

 

Future tense leans into the unknown and predicts what will come. It can also allow the writer to leap through time.

 

Once they have gained a sense of what point of view and tense offer separately, my next challenge to my students is to examine how they work together.

 

I grid point of view and tense and their purposes alongside each other, creating the backbone of our “menu.” In groups, my students fill in the resulting boxes where each point of view and tense meets. As the boxes fill, my students visualize the outcomes of possible narrative choices. A first person story written in past tense offers reflections up close and personal with the speaker. A third person story written in future tense offers predictions with some distance from the minds of the main characters.

 

Past: reflection

Present: reaction

Future: prediction

First: up close and personal

Reflection up close and personal

Reaction up close and personal

Prediction up close and personal

Second: some space

Reflection with some space

Reaction with some space

Prediction with some space

Third: distance

Reflection with distance

Reaction with distance

Prediction with distance

 

The menu then becomes a touchstone tool in our discussions of class readings and in workshops. We discuss where the stories we’ve read belong in the menu. Students quickly realize stories, especially second and third person stories, might fit in multiple spaces. We also spend time exploring how and why writers employ several combinations, looking to stories such as Junot Diaz’s “How to Date a Whitegirl, Browngirl, Blackgirl, or Halfie” and Jennifer Egan’s  “Safari” for guidance.

 

The point of view menu makes clear to students the subtle differences among storytelling options. As a result, students grow confident in identifying how writers employ these choices in stories, and students are empowered to make thoughtful narrative choices in the stories they write.