That was a long time ago. Yet flexibility came in handy here at the beginning of this semester at Texas A&M. I was scheduled to teach four sections of composition, a class I’ve taught many times before, and I had my syllabus prepared and my books ordered and I was ready get in the classroom do some educating.
But when I got down to campus on the first day of classes, everything changed.
One of our colleagues had been hospitalized the day before, and was out for the semester, and I was suddenly assigned to teach his classes. So three of my comp sections were taken away, and I was given two sections of intro to creative writing and one section of advanced creative writing.
It was time for me to be flexible, to improvise. The two sections of intro weren’t much of a problem—it’s a class I’ve been teaching now for about six years, and I know what to do. But I’d never had an advanced class before.
During a job interview last winter, the chair of the search committee at a nice SLAC asked me how I would teach an advanced class. It was something I had given a little thought to, some vague thought, but not hardly enough vague thought. I heard the question, and had a quick flashback to my own undergraduate education in creative writing. Back in the day I had the same professor for the intro to fiction writing class, and for the advanced workshop. And you know what? It was the same class! We read the same book, we had the same assignments, we used the same damn syllabus with only the course title and the due dates changed! In retrospect, that kind of sucked.
And there I was on the phone for a job interview, holding my phone in my hand, a wave of sadness and regret washing over me. I suddenly wished I’d had better classes as an undergrad. I felt cheated. I said to the search committee, “Well, I guess an advanced class should be different than an intro class….”
It was a horrible, vague, mumbling answer--a moment when I wasn't able to improvise!--and of course I didn’t get the job.
But, now, on the hectic first day of a new semester, I was suddenly given a chance to do something new.
Most fiction classes at the college level, intro or advanced, concentrate on short stories, which makes a kind of sense: classes are always constrained by time, and so if you concentrate on short stories you can read a variety of works by a variety of writers, and students can produce several stories in a semester. However, this traditional approach disregards the truth that the short story is a difficult genre with a tight, restrictive structure, and that students can become frustrated by an inability to master it. Also, the traditional approach ignores the fact that literature is more than short stories.
So, faced with a new class to put together and having only about a day to do it, I decided was to do something different. I decided that we would write “extended narratives”—novellas or short memoirs, the beginnings of full-length novels or memoirs, or perhaps a series of tightly connected short stories. I set students the goal of writing 20,000 words over the course of the semester. At the end of the semester, students will revise the first 15-20 pages of their extended narrative and submit that for a grade. I’m also giving them an outlining assignment, and they’ll give presentations on the readings.
The full syllabus is here on my teaching page, along with my comp syllabus and my intro to cw syllabus and a few other documents.
Two weeks into the semester, I’m pleased with this class. I think it’s going to work out well. I’ll certainly be posting updates….
Things to look for:
Novelist/Professor Cathy Day is teaching a novel class this semester at Ball State University. You can read about it on her personal blog, The Big Thing, and on her class blog #amnoveling. She’s doing thoughtful, important work.
A wonderful book on flexibility and improvisation is Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. Essential reading for all teachers and writers.