Read and listen and learn and have at least a little fun....
Very early in the semester students become aware that I usually begin almost every class by saying something like:
“So—what’s going on today?”
I ask this question with the hope that a student will speak up and tell me something they have done since class last met. Maybe the student will have had an adventure—gotten arrested or fallen in love—or maybe they will have done something as mundane as taking out the trash. If no one volunteers a story I’ll usually ramble on with a story or three of my own.
Every semester there is a student or two who are very annoyed by this in-class storytelling. They really do get mad! I can see it in their eye-rolling in-class faces and I can really see it in their end-of-the-semester class evaluations.
I find their annoyance both amusing and sad.
I find it amusing because these students are apparently unaware that the class will last a mere 50 minutes no matter how many stories get told.
I find it sad because these students are apparently unaware that stories are at the very heart of what we do in class. Whether through poetry or prose, this class is devoted to increasing our individual and collective understanding of the world we live in. And stories are one of the most important ways we gain this understanding.
Remember this at all times: You have a voice. Your voice is unique. No one knows the stories you know.
Time is limited. Time is running out. Someday, sadly, you will be dead and your untold stories will die with you.
So: seize every chance you get to tell your story....
In my Craft of Fiction class last week we were discussing the prescriptivism of textbooks in general, and of our textbook in particular, and what the implications of prescriptivism are for us as learners and writers. And I thought back to Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
What you’re supposed to do in most freshman-rhetoric courses is to read a little essay or short story, discuss how the writer has done certain little things to achieve certain little effects, and then have the students write an imitative little essay or short story to see if they can do the same little things. He tried this over and over again but it never jelled. The students seldom achieved anything, as a result of this calculated mimicry, that was remotely close to the model he’d given them. More often their writing got worse. It seemed as if every rule he honestly tried to discover with them was so full of exceptions and contradictions and qualifications and confusions that he wished he’d never come across the rule in the first place…A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phaedrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to work the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it sounded right, and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculation, because that the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn’t pour. But how’re you supposed to teach something that’s not premeditated? It was a seemingly impossible requirement. He just took the text and commented on it in an unpremeditated way and hoped the students would get something from that. It wasn’t satisfactory (156).
How do you avoid being a “stuck-up Eastern ass” and still be coherent? How do you “teach something that’s not premeditated?” I think we’ll be discussing this more as the course progresses….
Last Tuesday I conducted a 22-Minute Draft in my general literature classes, as a warm-up for the upcoming midterm exam. I commented about my class on Facebook (you all need to friend me, you know? Then you'd know about this already), and several people asked what a 22-Minute Draft was/is…
So. The 22-Minute Draft is an exercise I came up with the first semester I taught composition at Texas A&M. I later wrote about it in an essay I wrote for a grad-school pedagogy class….
…The students I identified as resentful (and, really, I kind of identified with those students, too) seemed to be all hanging in there, and the more-willing participants actually seemed to be having fun, but still there was stress and anxiety over the upcoming major assignments. Students asked about them in class, and a few even came by my office, and the questions were all pretty much the same: “What should I write about? How should I get started?” Our required text had an elaborate series of steps students should take, a complicated process of pre-writing and outlining that to me seemed nothing more than absurd and obsessive. I couldn’t in good conscience tell them to look to the book. Nobody sane writes like that.
Robert Pirsig writes:
… (H)e became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculating premeditation, because that’s the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look (156).
On a Sunday night I came up with an idea…I went into class the next day and told the students that they were going to write their paper in class-- right then. I told them to get out six sheets of paper. I had them ponder their topics for a couple of minutes. Then I set them to writing for twenty minutes straight. Every three or four minutes I had them turn the page and continue writing on a fresh, empty sheet of paper. The object was to get six pages of writing done in twenty minutes. I yelled at them if they slowed down. I told them to go faster, and faster. I told them that the object for them was not to think but to write.
The results of this were—and always have been—positive. About two-thirds of the students use what they produce in class as an elaborate outline for their formal papers. The other third seem to lose interest in their topics, and that’s a positive thing, too, I think: the students realize that their topic won’t hold up as the basis for a decent paper, and so they have to go looking for another, stronger topic. As this exercise evolved, I’ve expanded it from the original and totally arbitrary 20 minutes, to 22 minutes. I break it down to 5 minutes for the first and last pages—for the introduction and conclusion, and 3 minutes for each of the middle pages. (We take extra time later to go over citations and quotes and other necessities.) The basic thing this exercise stresses is to get words down on the page, words and ideas that can be happily jumbled and confused and completely ephemeral. Once there, the words can be mulled over and revised, and turned into something worthwhile.
My method has changed a little since I wrote that essay. I now run the exercise in 22 minutes and four pages--6 minutes for first and last, and 5 minutes for second and third.
And the thing is, it works. I’ve even started using it in my own nonfiction writing—I write for 20 or so minutes straight, then take a break for the rest of the hour, then write again. It works. The words come--still, often happily jumbled and confused. But still they come. The words won't desert you.
One of the things I’ve been doing recently—one of the many things I’ve been doing—as this semester winds down, and my time at Texas A&M winds down, is saying goodbye to the classrooms I’ve taught in over the years.
All these rooms have ghosts, right? Memories. These were rooms full of good students and rotten students, nice students and rude ones. Sometimes I did some good teaching. Many times education happened!
The first classroom I ever taught a class in was Blocker 105, and I’ve written elsewhere about that first day—how I stood there, going over the syllabus for my composition class, and I looked up and out at the back of the classroom, and there was this—stain—on the wall. Stains. Big damn grease stains from where the heads of bored, sleepy students had been bumping and staining the wall—for years. A feeling of futility filled me right there and then! All those generations of bored students! But as I thought about it, I decided to be a teacher whose students weren’t all bored and falling asleep. And I sort of think I have been….
At any rate, the Blocker 105 was remodeled a couple of years ago, and the grease stains were painted over—and now, I guess, the grease stains are ghosts, too.
During a break a student came up and asked for help with his novel. He was stuck. Of course. I’ve been expecting people to get stuck in their extended narratives. It’s a long semester, and I’m asking the students to do a lot of work. Everyone’s bound to get stuck at some point.
“But what can I do to get unstuck?” he asked.
“Weed!” a girl said.
“No,” I said. “Don’t tease. Be serious….”
“Jack Daniels!” she said.
“That won’t work, either,” the stuck student said. “I can’t have booze in the dorm….”
I was thinking—a laborious task for me, sometimes.
“Well,” I said, “there are several things you can try….”
And I told him a few things. Tricks, maybe.
Like having a door open and a new character come through it. What conflict will result from the new character?
Like skipping ahead in the outline to another scene, bypassing the resistance of the current stuck scene.
I’ve used both of those in my own writing. They can work. There’s no telling if they’ll work for my stuck student or not. I kept thinking. Came up with nothing immediately useful.
Then, on the way home, in a moment of academic esprit d’escalier, I thought of Robert Pirsig. He spends a lot of time discussing stuckness in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Chris brings out the paper again. "Now help me," he says.
"Okay," I say. I tell him getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all. Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.
"Like what things?" he asks.
"Well, what do you want to tell her?"
"About the trip."
"What things about the trip?"
He thinks for a while. "About the mountain we climbed."
"Okay, write that down," I say.
He does. Then I see him write down another item, then another, while I finish my cigarette and coffee. He goes through three sheets of paper, listing things he wants to say.
"Save those," I tell him, "and we’ll work on them later."
"I’ll never get all this into one letter," he says.
He sees me laugh and frowns. I say, "Just pick out the best things." Then we head outside and onto the motorcycle again.
So, basically, we’re back to the outline again—or, perhaps a new and updated outline. A list of places you might want to go—but not an itinerary, a list of places you have to be at a certain time—rather, a list of possibilities. A “list of all the things you want to say in any old order.”
And part of that, of course, could be having a new character walk in through an open door, or skipping ahead in the old outline.
The first [problem] is stuckness, a mental stuckness that accompanies the physical stuckness of whatever it is you’re working on. The same thing Chris was suffering from. A screw sticks, for example, on a side cover assembly. You check the manual to see if there might be any special cause for this screw to come off so hard, but all it says is "Remove side cover plate" in that wonderful terse technical style that never tells you what you want to know. There’s no earlier procedure left undone that might cause the cover screws to stick.
If you’re experienced you’d probably apply a penetrating liquid and an impact driver at this point. But suppose you’re inexperienced and you attach a self-locking plier wrench to the shank of your screwdriver and really twist it hard, a procedure you’ve had success with in the past, but which this time succeeds only in tearing the slot of the screw.
Your mind was already thinking ahead to what you would do when the cover plate was off, and so it takes a little time to realize that this irritating minor annoyance of a torn screw slot isn’t just irritating and minor. You’re stuck. Stopped. Terminated. It’s absolutely stopped you from fixing the motorcycle.
This isn’t a rare scene in science or technology. This is the commonest scene of all. Just plain stuck. In traditional maintenance this is the worst of all moments, so bad that you have avoided even thinking about it before you come to it.
The book’s no good to you now. Neither is scientific reason. You don’t need any scientific experiments to find out what’s wrong. It’s obvious what’s wrong. What you need is an hypothesis for how you’re going to get that slotless screw out of there and scientific method doesn’t provide any of these hypotheses. It operates only after they’re around.
This is the zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It’s a miserable experience emotionally. You’re losing time. You’re incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take the machine to a real mechanic who knows how to figure these things out.
It’s normal at this point for the fear-anger syndrome to take over and make you want to hammer on that side plate with a chisel, to pound it off with a sledge if necessary. You think about it, and the more you think about it the more you’re inclined to take the whole machine to a high bridge and drop it off. It’s just outrageous that a tiny little slot of a screw can defeat you so totally.
What you’re up against is the great unknown, the void of all Western thought. You need some ideas, some hypotheses. Traditional scientific method, unfortunately, has never quite gotten around to say exactly where to pick up more of these hypotheses. Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination... "unstuckness," in other words...are completely outside its domain.
So: Don’t force yourself through the stuckness. Don’t think yourself through it, either. Instead, feel your way through it.
Feel. Okay. But—how…? And what?
Easier said than done, right?
ZMM had an incredible impact on me when I first read it as a morose 16 year-old, and then again when I was in graduate school and teaching composition for the first time (it’s often overlooked that the whole middle part of the book deals with teaching comp). I think Pirsig might have useful things to say about stuckness/unstuckness for our creative writing class, and perhaps we’ll explore that a bit next week and see what happens....
Things to look for:
Someone put all (apparently) of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance online, here.
But you know what? It's always better to read the actual book! Buy it here....
And here is a website devoted to Pirsig and his work....
At this point in the semester, we’re getting into the heart of the class—writing and workshopping.
At my university the creative writing classes are large—25 in the intro class, and 19 in the advanced class. This makes using the traditional workshop a bit difficult. Because of their numbers, students simply don’t get as much feedback as they would if they were in a smaller class—their work gets discussed twice a semester, if they’re lucky, and usually only once. And, in the classes I’ve observed, only a handful of students actually seem to do the reading and then participate in discussion.
Since I began teaching creative writing some five years ago, I’ve tried to work around the class size problem by having students work in small groups. It’s been pretty successful, I think. Students get into groups of three and each reads her or his work aloud to the others, who then comment.
Still, I’ve changed the workshops around a little this semester. The classrooms have projectors in them, so each week I take the work-in-progress of two students and put it up on the screen. The student reads their work aloud, and then talks about their intentions for the work, or problems they’ve been having, or anything else they want to talk about. Then the class comments, and then I say a few words. We do this on Monday in my intro classes, and on Wednesday in the advanced class (it’s a three-hour class).
Then in the next class session, students break up into their workshop groups and go over their work. I also then call up students for individual conferences. If my scheduling goes right, all the students will have their work discussed by the whole class at least once, and will meet with me individually at least once (of course, they can meet with me as often as they want during office hours or before or after class), and will discuss their work in groups about ten times.
So far—it’s working.
Below, Catherine Wright's novella-in-progress, "Deviant," up for discussion on the classroom projector....
When I worked at the IRS I learned to be flexible. There were many times when the Section Chief would suddenly erupt from her office and rumble across the floor and announce that production on the programs for 1040 or 1040-A or prior years or whatever was falling behind and had to be kicked up and shifted, and so we managers would scramble around reassigning work to the transcribers, setting up new quality review schedules, listening to the transcribers complain…it was a lot of work, and it changed all the time. We had to improvise. We had to be flexible.
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.
I had a job interview last year that went weird quite unexpectedly.
It was a phone interview, and the email confirmation said that the search committee would call between 8:00 am and 10:00 am CST. (“AM”—that’s the morning, right?) So I got up in the morning and got my job materials all ready to reference, and I waited…and waited. No call at 8:01 am, not at 8:30 am…9:00, 9:25, 10:00…no call at all! At 11:00 I sent them a polite email: “Perhaps you lost my phone number”…Still no call. In mid-afternoon I called the school and got voice mail.
Late afternoon I went to my class at the prison, and when I got out, just before 8:00 pm, I got into my car and headed home. As I was driving through the gate, at just after 8:00 pm, my phone rang. Yeah, right.
But all that’s background, and only moderately weird. They were mixed up about the time. Very mixed up. Or crazy. I guess it happens.
So I pulled over in front of the prison and talked to the two members of the committee. They asked basic interview questions—about my dissertation, about how I teach composition, about my writing, about my work at Callaloo.
Then one of the interviewers asked, “So, tell me, how do you know when your students are learning?”
I talked about assessment, about the rubric I put together for creative writing…I don’t know, I talked about…learning things.
When I finished the other interviewer asked something or other, and I answered.
Then the earlier one asked, “I want to go back to my previous question. How do you know when your students are learning? I mean, how do you really know?”
I was parked in front of a prison in the dark. Cars were going down the street. Headlights flashing in my eyes. This is the weird part. Much of my writing is based on the idea that people are very mysterious—that you never know what’s going on with another individual, you never know what’s going on in their mind or in their heart. Never! Yet here was that question challenging that idea—I was being asked how I knew something perhaps essentially unknowable. I found that really…weird. I had a strange image of hanging around a dorm room with a bunch of stoners: “Dude, how do you REALLY know if somebody knows something? I mean, REALLY?”
I started to say something—then I stopped, and started to say something else. Then I was silent for a second. Then at last I was honest: “Uh…I guess I don’t know.”
I didn’t get the job, of course. (A sad loss for that department, since I’m a damn good English teacher).
But—after I gave it some thought over the next few days, I had an esprit de l’escalier moment, and I figured out what I should have answered.
How do I know when my students are learning?
I know when I see them change.
I know when I see them think.
I know when I see them put into practice the concepts we’ve covered over the course of the semester.
I know when ideas become action.
The Young Scholars I taught this semester at A&M reached this level over the past couple of weeks. It was remarkable to watch—and fun, and moving. They led discussions, they gave presentations, they turned in outstanding writing. They changed. They learned—we all did.
Our semester at Texas A&M begins tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to getting started and meeting all the new Young Scholars. These are the books we’ll be reading in class….
For my two sections of composition:
§ Modern Language Association. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New York: Modern Language Association, 2009.
§ Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. New York: Penguin, 2006.
§ Miller, Char. Fifty Years of the Texas Observer. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2004.
My experience as a composition student took place many years ago, but it continues to traumatize me. Our professor was an old fart whose pedagogy was based on reading the comp handbook out loud. Yeah. No kidding. Reading the handbook out loud. For the whole 50 minutes we would read aloud fascinating factoids about comma splices and sentence fragments. I hated that book, and I hated the class, and I hated the professor, and I go on hating them: every time I teach comp I have evil flashbacks, a sort of Post-Traumatic Comp Disorder. (I elaborated on this disaster of a class in an essay, “Comp: a Personal and Pedagogical Narrative,” which is scheduled to be published in an anthology at some point next year).
I guess that ancient class left me with some lingering disgust or distrust of composition books—I don’t even like thinking about them. Still, I’ve got to use something, I guess, and so I started looking around for a basic comp handbook. And then I was totally shocked and appalled—the prices! They’re ridiculous! I see no reason to force students to spend a fortune on a book that will be used as little more than a reference. (Really, does anyone actually buy these things for the exercises? Can’t you come up with your own?)
So I turned to the good ol’ MLA Handbook. It has most of the necessary information the Young Scholars need (anything else they can get off Purdue OWL), and at a more or less reasonable price.
My Freshman Year, by “Rebekah Nathan,” is a book I’m looking forward to teaching, even though I’ve never met anyone who actually likes it—including me. I read it through in pretty much a single sitting, and found it quite frustrating and annoying and depressing. At the same time I think the author does raise some interesting questions about the culture of students at a university, and I hope that the Scholars—who will probably dislike this book as much as me or anyone else—can use it as a starting point for reflecting on their own college experience. (Next semester I might add Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, another book I didn’t much care for, to the list to go along with Nathan. The YSs could then mount a defense of their generation and its use of technology).
We’ll also be using one book I like very much. Fifty Years of the Texas Observer, edited by Char Miller, is an excellent collection of well-written, short essays about the place we live. I always enjoy teaching this book, and it seems to go over pretty well.
For my multi-genre creative writing class, I chose the following books:
§ Addonizio, Kim. Ordinary Genius. New York: Norton, 2009.
§ Casares, Oscar. Brownsville. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2003.
§ Fountain, Carrie. Burn Lake. New York, Penguin, 2010.
§ Singleton, George. Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 2009.
§ White, Lowell Mick. Long Time Ago Good. College Station: Slough Press, 2009.
Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius does a terrific job of de-mystifying poetry. It’s great—a generous and open discussion of how poems get made. I talked a bit with Kim last spring at AWP, and told her how I used her book. “That’s what the book is for,” she said. Well, yeah! I use it in my prison classes, too…I think the world of this book.
Oscar Casares’s Brownsville is a wonderful story collection set in an area of our state—our nation—that is often overlooked. It’s great when I get a Young Scholar from the Valley who says, “I didn’t know you could write about Brownsville!” It’s almost even better when a YS from the suburbs of Dallas says the same thing. It’s a book full of revelations.
Last spring I had my book order almost ready to send out—had everything except the poetry selection—when I went to Carrie Fountain’s reading in Austin. By the second poem I knew I wanted to teach her book, Burn Lake—a collection of very tight, well-observed poems about New Mexico. This is going to be fun.
George Singleton’s Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds is a cool collection of aphorisms about the writing process. It’s funny, too, with charming little drawings to illustrate the points he makes. The advice is good, the presentation effective. I’ve listed this as “Recommended” in semesters past, and have now kicked it up to “Required.”
Oh. Yeah. And we’re covering one of my books, too, Long Time Ago Good. At first I worried a little about the morality of requiring my own book, but I came to the conclusion that it was more or less okay. This is the second semester I’ve used it. I try to walk the Scholars through the stories, pointing out the decisions I made at different stages of composition. It works, I think.
Stuff to look for:
Kim Addonizio’s website.
Oscar Casares’s website
George Singleton’s website
Purdue University Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL)—a great resource for teachers and students
Carrie Fountain’s website