In the creative writing workshops, craft, and literature classes I teach at the undergraduate and graduate level, I approach each class with a unifying question: How can our experience in the classroom best initiate conversations we carry into the future? I think of this conversation as expansively as possible. It’s not just the discussions and close readings we’ll have in class, but the way students interact with texts that will cause us to investigate our positions in the world. My hope, I tell students, is that our class will help us trace the arcs of our interests and thinking over time. While it might be a truism that learning is a shared pursuit, I nevertheless encourage my students to reflect on how we might use our unique positions to help one another and build comfort with ideas that challenges our beliefs and perspectives.
In creative writing workshops, I stress the value of generosity, both through attention to the text and in the way we encourage one another as writers. To accomplish this, my classes center conversations on the work students produce, rather than on the students themselves. During workshops, I first ask the writer to identify their ambitions for their pieces. This moment allows us to refocus class discussion from subjective valuations of each other’s work to a shared attempt to help the writing best realize its ambitions. I remind students I myself am just one reader, in order to lessen assumptions of classroom hierarchy and to give students agency. Workshops proceed by setting the student’s work in descriptive terms, before discussing what choices the text is making to realize its ambitions. Finally, I ask the class to suggest how the text can further realize its ambitions. Scaling the discussion in this way helps students avoid blanket statements (i.e. “doing this would make the piece better”) and requires them to frame their suggestions in terms of their own positionality. When students offer concrete guidance for the writing, these suggestions focus on structure, form, and language on both a macro and micro scale, and respond to the question of what the piece wants, rather than what the student wants the piece to do. Throughout workshops, I include the writer’s voice, particularly at the discussion’s onset, by asking them what questions they have to help us address the work in descriptive terms. This moment reinforces to the class that we are here to describe a piece of writing and help it realize its goals, rather than to simply turn it into a reflection of our own preferences.
In the literature and craft-focused classes I have taught, meetings are structured around discussion-based investigations and close readings of texts. Bringing a collected attention to a text allows the class to function as a space where unique minds and backgrounds converge. Class discussions nurture variety among students, as well as between student and text. I build this variety in two ways: First, I present my classes with writers who diverge from a genre’s traditions and whose perspectives come from places historically marginalized within the genre. Second, I encourage process-based learning that provides alternatives to class discussions. In a graduate class entitled “The Poet’s Essay,” which examined contemporary intersections of poetry and essay, creative writing students engaged in a semester-long project incorporating a daily writing practice within an experimental style, based on texts we read from writers such as Renee Gladman, Jennifer S. Cheng, and Maggie Nelson. This was done not only to provide students another way to reflect on our class texts, but also to underscore that the act of writing occurs within “the real world.” The project stressed the way our lived daily experience—the identities and contexts with which we are positioned within a society—shapes our writing practices. In asking students to examine their experiences contextually, my classes help them understand themselves as citizens within a community. When the semester ends, I want my students to know that, even if we are finished writing a piece, we are never really finished thinking about it. Texts are living, changing organisms, and our experience of them requires us also to experience ourselves as parts of larger socioeconomic and cultural contexts.
I also ask my students to realize their job as writers and thinkers is to develop an understanding of how their environment shapes their daily lives and the texts they produce. In my rhetoric classes, students engage in activities that help them contextualize the communities they live in. In an undergraduate seminar at Case Western Reserve Univeristy examining the history of the funeral industry, I asked students to write a first-person work of journalism about a local cemetery. In a class examining the history of monuments and symbols at the Cleveland Institute of Art, students’ final project was to write a researched object lesson about an overlooked feature of their environment, such as a lamp post or trash can, in order to examine its social history and the role it plays in their lives. Both exercises encouraged students to gain a greater sense of their community, particularly important since Case Western and CIA are located in heavily gentrified neighborhoods in Cleveland, and the assignments asked them to learn more about how socioeconomic contexts affected the environment they inhabited as well as their place within it (i.e. Where are streetlights most concentrated and what does that say about public services? What is the trash pick-up system for different areas of the city based on socioeconomic level?). In addition, students regularly conduct interviews and complete place-based assignments in creative writing classes in order to bring them into conversation with their communities.
All together, these strategies allow students to develop a care and attention towards both each other and the texts we read. They prepare students to have a lifelong conversation not just about these texts, but the ways that these texts inhabit the world.
Selected Teaching Materials
Sample syllabus for The Poet's Essay
Sample syllabus for Narrative Forms
Sample syllabus for Spaces of the Dead
Click here to view teaching responsibilities for recent classes.
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