Saturday, June 2, 2007

Final Thoughts (for a While) on Teaching Creative Writing

A few recent emails, and the responses I've gotten to my announcement that I am now taking on private students, have gotten me thinking again about creative writing pedagogy. Thus I am posting another (and final) piece from my as yet unpublished essay on the teaching of creative writing. These observations, like those in my other posts, regard undergraduate teaching. Furthermore, most of my teaching has not been at elite institutions, and most of my students (first generatin college students for the most part) in either literature or creative writing courses (but particularly in the latter) have not had literary backgrounds.

I hope that some of these thoughts will prove useful and/or interesting.

Academics and writers frequently mention the challenges of teaching students who know nothing about poetry, who have no idea of what poetry is. While I have encountered many students who have never read literary poetry (as distinct from the poems of Jim Morrison, for example), I have never encountered students who had no conception of poetry. Indeed, overcoming their firmly held ideas about poetry is a major part of my teaching task. As I have written earlier, most students’ ideas of poetry come from greeting card verse and popular song lyrics, and they often resist both the idea that these may not represent the pinnacle of poetic achievement and reading poems that don’t fit these models. For many of them, poems almost always rhyme (usually in couplets); poems use and should use archaic, flowery language (because it’s more “poetic”), including inversions of normal word order and constructions like “thee” and “’tis”; and vagueness is better than specificity or precision, cliches preferable to original phrasing and imagery, “because then everyone can relate to them” or “everyone can put what they want into the poem.”

Resistance to such notions is dismissed as mere personal opinion, and as we know, everyone’s opinions are not only equally worthwhile but equally true: which in this context means that the instructor’s opinions are in fact less valuable than everyone else’s, since he is both an outsider to the group and of a minority opinion. (On the other hand, this outsider role can also free the instructor to voice things that some students may think but are reluctant to openly express for fear of antagonizing their fellow students, who are after all much more important in their daily lives than any mere professor.) Similarly, when writing fiction, students tend to consider such notions as plausibility, factual accuracy, and descriptive precision irrelevant. That a good story might depend on such elements is something of which it’s often hard to convince students, especially since, as one class explained to me, these are not considerations in their enjoyment of movies or novels.

On the other hand, students tend to resist poems that are more complex and challenging, that are not easily and immediately reducible to a subject or a topic, whether they are by their peers or by poets they are assigned to read: such poems “don’t make any sense” and thus aren’t any good. Or students leave their response at the level of “I have no idea what this is about, but I like it,” assuming both that if it’s a poem by a fellow student it must be good and that anything not immediately graspable on a first, quick read is inherently incomprehensible. (Perhaps because of the exigencies of student course schedules, poems are rarely given a second or third read.) For some, poetry is defined precisely as something that doesn’t and needn’t make sense. In poems, "anything goes."

In some ways this bias toward subject matter and immediate graspability is built into the workshop format: more narrative, straightforward work, whatever its flaws or virtues, is more easily assimilated and discussed in the ten or fifteen minute block usually assigned to each poem. Since work is sometimes not distributed until the day of discussion, there may not even be the opportunity for a response based on a second or third reading.

Nonetheless, the constraints of the workshop format are not at the root of such tendencies and presuppositions, although they do exacerbate them. An instructor’s support of more complex or subtle work is sometimes taken as proof that that students are just being forced to read things that only egghead intellectuals who are out of touch with real life could like. That real life could be larger, stranger, and more multifarious than students have imagined it to be is one of the most important prospects that reading literature opens up.

To get students to see that their poetry is part of an ongoing tradition and practice, with a past, a present, and a future, and that it can and must be judged by the criteria of that tradition and that practice (as opposed to the commonly held conviction that the judging and critique of poetry is completely subjective), is necessary to make it possible that they could one day write poetry.


Anne said...

That is so depressing. What do they think they're doing? Do they want to be famous or something?

Here in England, there's been a longstanding anxiety to make reading 'relevant' to students' experience. That anxiety focuses on situation and content, makes no allowance for imagination let alone consideration of style, let alone the literary context. It's as if art appreciation homed in on the gap between the fingernails of Adam and God and left out the rest of the Sistine Chapel, the Church, the 16th century, mixing pigments, etc.

Andrew Shields said...

"the other worlds it makes available": they are indeed what the mainstream educational approach to literature all too often denies, even as, in various ways, the idea of reading literature in class at all depends on those other worlds.

Patricia Lockwood said...

Your grammar is so shining, Professor Reginald. This reminded me of a scene from a Lorrie Moore story called "You're Ugly, Too":

"You act," said one of her Senior Seminar students at a scheduled conference, "like your opinion is worth more than everybody else's in the class."

Zoe's eyes widened. "I am the teacher," she said. "I do get paid to act like that." She narrowed her gaze at the student, who was wearing a big leather bow in her hair, like a cowgirl in a TV ranch show. "I mean, otherwise everybody in the class would have little offices and office hours." Sometimes Professor Hendricks will take up the class's time just talking about movies she's seen. She stared at the student some more, then added, "I bet you'd like that."

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Andrew,

I completely agree with you that the standard approach to literature in secondary education--making it "relevant," hunting out the themes as if they were hidden Easter eggs, treating the text as some kind of puzzle to be figured out and then discarded--actively discourages student interest, and closes off possibilities for them.

If I hadn't already decided that I liked poetry before I was taught it in the public high school I attended in Macon, Georgia, I would definitely have hated the stuff. In my own teaching I try to provide a corrective or at least an alternative to that approach.

Dear Tricia,

I love Lorrie Moore's work, and particularly that story you quote from. I remember reading "You're Ugly, Too" in graduate school and thinking, "God, I hope I never end up like that." Several years later, a student in one of my poetry workshops (in smalltown Illinois, as it happens) said, in class, "You act like you know more than everyone else in the room." I had to explain that I did know more than they did, than all of them combined did, at least about poetry, and that she would have had cause to complain if I didn't.

I was struck by her basic misrecognition of the classroom situation. I was also amused that I had trumped Lorrie Moore: life had proven stranger, and more outrageous, than fiction.

Take good care, and thanks for reading and responding.

all best,


Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Anne,

Thank you for your comment. I hope that I haven't seemed too hard on my students. Most of them have had very inadequate educations, and really have been let down by the educational system from first grade onward, whose priorities are just to move kids through with the minimum fuss.

In Florida at least, when public schools are held to standards, it's only to the extent that their standardized test scores maintain a certain level. In public schools, teachers basically just teach the statewide tests, and have little time for anything else. Schools are financially penalized for low test scores, which seems exactly the wrong approach.

So most of the students with whom I've dealt have not been prepared for college level work. And in America, extensive reading and writing has been deemphasized in the public schools, again in favor of standardized tests. So they are somewhat alien activities even to many of my writing students, some of whom want to be writers more than they want to do the hard work of actually writing. As a student in one of my Introduction to Poetry course said while we were studying Shakespeare sonnets, "I can understand this when I work at it, but I don't like having to work." I actually admired his candor.

And there is also the general prejudice that you discuss, the conviction that content and subject matter are the only things that matter, and that everything must be directly relevant, something to which students can immediately "relate." This does students a disservice, both by cutting them off from some of the real possibilities literature offers, the other worlds it makes available, and by underestimating what they are capable of grasping and appreciating if given the chance and the proper preparation.

Take good care, and thanks again for reading and commenting.

all best,


Steve Fellner said...


Can't wait to buy this book that this essay appears.

I think that students are often afraid of admitting that they don't understand something. In my advanced poetry workshop, they have to write a critical essay about a poem of their choice listed in the Poetry Daily or Verse Daily archives. The paper has four parts (one paragraph dedicated to each part) 1.) Thesis 2.) Talk about ONE forml strategy and how it is an extension of the content 3.) Talk about ONE foraml strategy and how it is an extension of content and 4.) Loate a specific workd or phrase or line in the poem that confuses you, explain why, and then try to use text from the poem to make your best guess as to why the author is doing what she's doing.

We workshop those papers. Interestingly, the fourth part of the paper is actually where the student "gets" the poem: what confusees them the most is where the artistry in the poem (or the ambiguity if you want to talk about content) I often tell them this.

They can rewrite the papers if they want.

Also: I like that you talk about the 10-15 minutes teachers usually assign to a workshopping of a poem. I always hated that. Each student in my class is workshopped at least once. But they have to tuyrn in a portfolio of 4-5 poems, and then as a class, we take 45 minutes (out of a 90 minute class) discussing their work, so that as a teacher I can focus on something that I like (usually the most flawed yet interesting poem) and talk about repeating problems, etc.

Thank you so much for these wonderful posts.


Andrew Shields said...

When I taught my first freshman English course in 1990-1991, the first course I taught was with someone else's syllabus (there's an explanation for that, but I won't go into it here). So I was reading the material at the same time the students were. It really struck me, then, that I saw more in each text than all the students put together (as you put it, Reginald).

That was when I realized that I *had* learned a few things since my own freshman year, eight years before that.

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