Creative Writing Pedagogy in Literature Courses: A SSAWW Roundtable

In November I went to the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) conference in Denver (which, if you have never attended and study American women writers you should because it is the best mix of scholarly rigor and friendliness that you will find). I gave a presentation on a panel about capitalism and labor in the 19th century and also was lucky to be invited to be on a roundtable about teaching creative writing in the literature classroom. I want to write a little bit about this roundtable here. It was organized by Angela Sorby and featured scholars from grad students to full professors and from literature scholars who don’t identify as creative writers to poets, fiction, and non-fiction writers. It was nice to have perspectives from scholars in different positions and also to have some time to open up discussion with the audience.

Since I’m writing this in December, I’m not sure I have the memory to give detailed overviews of everyone’s presentations but here were some of the main assignments that were discussed by the presenters:

  • Anthologies of poems that included original work by the students
  • Imitation poems where students write in the style of a poem studied in class
  • Dialogues to respond to song lyrics
  • Multi-media texts to accompany a piece of literature
  • In-class outlines of stories using the conventions of plots

While all of these approaches were different, in my opinion, the general consensus was that such projects are fun but they aren’t just fun. By giving students permission to create, they flex their intellectual muscles in ways that just consuming literature does not allow them to do. They are more inspired, more engaged, and more clearly able to understand what it means to create the works they are studying. From a teacher perspective, it seemed that many of the panelists and audience members felt a sense of freedom when they challenged themselves to think beyond the close reading paper and were occasionally surprised and often happy with the projects that students came up with in their nontraditional assignments.

That doesn’t mean that adding creative writing literature assignments is not without its challenges. One of the big topics of discussion was assessment. Do you assess the students creative writing as a piece of creative writing? Or are there other means of assessing the projects? The approaches to the assessment varied. Some of the panelists do assess the creative writing while others assigned tasks like reflection papers with the assignments and gave more weight to those in their assessment. Regardless of the means of assessment, there was agreement that what was being assessed needed to be clear to the students. It should always be apparent to the students why they are doing what they are doing. This is the case in traditional and nontraditional assignments. A great piece of advice that I once received was that you need to teach your students how to do the assignments that you are asking them to do. This is especially true if you are asking them to do a little bit out of the norm of what they expect.

Because creating new assignments can be, for lack of a better word, scary, we also discussed how to mitigate some of the potential pitfalls of the assignments. One of the biggest tips would be to think through the assignment not only from your perspective as the teacher but also from the perspective of your students. How might they see it? What are outcomes that you might not have thought of that they could come up with? I would also add that you will make mistakes, and you might not fully be able to anticipate those mistakes, but if you add time for your students and you to review the assignment and think through their plans, then some of those difficulties can be averted.

via alyssa

Two of the individual roundtable presentations had their origins in PALS posts. I talked about how I stumbled upon the idea of using creative writing assignments in the classroom when I created an in-class activity for my introduction to literature students that involved writing the plot to a detective story. I wrote about this activity for PALS here. The students that I did this activity with were mostly taking the course for a general education requirement, so I didn’t make the connection that they would want to explore their potential as writers. I didn’t make this connection even though I had already spent years telling my composition students that they were all writers. This was obviously a failure of my imagination. I think of this as my “aha” moment of how fun and useful thinking like a creative writer can be for students.

The second PALS post that was represented in the roundtable was this piece by Melissa Range. Range talks specifically about using imitation poems in the literature classroom and writes about the concept that “placing yourself in the writer’s position allows you to think about each decision she has made in crafting her work.” Additionally, Range was one of the panelists to advocate for having students write a reflection about the process of their imitation, including comparison of their work and the original.

Finally, Angela Sorby, the organizer of the roundtable, was kind enough to provide an overview of her presentation for this PALS post. Please find her explanation below:

Like Marla Anzalone (a co-presenter), I assign curated, themed micro-anthologies in a lower-division genre course for non-majors. Part of my aim is to get students to engage with poetry across historical time periods, so I require that they include—along with an original poem and three from contemporary sources—one Emily Dickinson poem. These disparate poems must form a thematic group; when I last taught the course, one young woman chose the theme “body dysmorphia,” while another, a nursing major, chose “hospice care.” Students are asked to title their anthologies; to choose illustrations; to write headnotes for each poem (including their own); and to compose an editorial introduction. This project generates a small, accessible conversation with no outsiders: the student, the chosen contemporary poets, and Emily Dickinson are all posited as working poets, jointly exploring a common topic through language and form. Rather than groping for a “correct” reading of Dickinson, students are empowered to find what they need in her poems. This is not a traditional scholarly approach to Dickinson, but it mirrors the way many passionate non-academic readers (and some poets, even in the academy) tend to read poetry.

PALS would love to hear more from you about how you teach creative assignments in the literature classroom. Feel free to leave a comment here or find us on twitter @PedagogyAmLitSt.

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Becoming an Archival Expert

When I teach nineteenth century American literature, I always want students to delve into the archives, and so I demonstrate a few digital searches in class and make it a requirement to include at least one archival source in the final research paper. But I wanted more investment, and not just for their papers. I felt that despite my commitment to bringing archival elements into the classroom, students were not getting totally immersed in the time period in the way that I wanted—in a way that would help them understand how nineteenth century readers might’ve approached the works we were studying, rather than reading everything through a twenty-first century lens.

With a class on nineteenth century American poets coming up (a class I hadn’t taught for four years), I had a great opportunity to make a change in this direction. So I thought, well, what’s one way to get a feel for daily life in the nineteenth century? I hit upon the idea of having students read nineteenth century newspapers. (I’ve written elsewhere about using digital archives in teaching nineteenth century African American writers. The archival expert assignment grew out of things I was noticing about working with newspapers in that class.)

What does poetry have to do with news? For one thing, in the nineteenth century, most newspapers had a poetry section, unlike newspapers today. But that wasn’t even the initial reason I wanted students to try this assignment. I wanted them to see if they saw any connections between the issues making headlines in the newspapers and the issues that poets like Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Walt Whitman, and Paul Laurence Dunbar (among others) addressed in their poems. We read the news today to get a sense of what is going on in the world, what is deemed important; conversely, if something doesn’t make the news, we feel that it may not be as important, or we may feel frustrated because the media seems to dismiss something that feels important to us. (In our own era of “fake news,” of course, all of these issues feel very fraught, and I think students were aware of that as they did this assignment.)

What we did: the assignment sheet

What follows is the text of the assignment sheet I gave the students. If you like it, please feel free to use as-is or to adapt.

This term, you will be in charge of leading one class as the “archival expert.” Your assignment is simple: I want you to read the newspaper. Using three of the library’s electronic databases—America’s Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers, and/or Accessible Archives—you will make use of digital archives to provide historical context for the day’s poetic selections.

Here’s what to do for prep work, step by step:

  1. On the date you’re signed up to be the archival expert, look at when the poet published his or her book of poems. (So, for example: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects in 1855.) If there’s no publication date, as for Schoolcraft and Dickinson, then try as best you can to determine a year when these poets would’ve been writing poems.
  2. Determine a location that is relevant to the poet, if possible. For Harper, this could be Baltimore (where she grew up), Philadelphia (where she lived and worked as an adult), or Boston (where she frequently lectured).
  3. Now choose a newspaper that is relevant to the date and the location of the poet. If you want to get even more specific, you can (for example, you could look at an abolitionist newspaper for Harper or a Civil War newspaper for Melville; you could even look at some of the newspapers for which Whittier served as editor). If you can find one, you can also choose a newspaper where the poet published.
  4. Select an issue of the newspaper and read the whole thing: news, editorials, poetry, even the advertisements. (Be forewarned, the print is tiny and there’s a lot of text.) As you read, make note of anything at all—newspaper poems, news items, even weather—that you feel gives interesting context to the poems the class will be discussing.

From here, you have the tools to give the class some interesting historical contexts. During class, be prepared to give us around 20 minutes of historical context, drawn from what you read. Feel free to read us excerpts from articles or poems. Don’t feel like you have to cover everything in the newspaper—two or three things will be enough. Make a Powerpoint, Prezi, or handout to share a few images with us. Give us your reading of both the culture that produced this poet (particularly how the poet fits, or doesn’t fit, into the historical context) and anything you notice about how historical context informs one of the poet’s poems, or a section of the poem. (Don’t feel like you have to force the poet to neatly fit into the contexts the newspapers provide. Even the absence of the poet’s concerns from the newspaper will tell you something about the poet and their poems.) To facilitate a good discussion on what you’ve found, be prepared to ask the class a few discussion questions to get the conversation going.

Written component

You don’t have to write anything formally for this assignment, but I would like a works cited page (in MLA style) and a copy of your notes / outline / Powerpoint / handouts. Emailing all of this to me is fine.

Archival expert assignments will be graded according to how well they:

  • Thoroughly they give us historical context to the poet and their poems (50 points)
  • Demonstrate archival research skills (30 points)
  • Engage the class in discussion (20 points)

How it worked: connections students made

I’ll use three examples from three different presentations to give you a sense of what students did with this assignment. (Other poets we covered in this ten-week class were Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.) Wherever possible, we read complete books, or book-length poems, by these poets, rather than reading selections from anthologies. Schoolcraft and Dickinson were the exceptions, since they did not publish collections in their lifetimes.

The Boston Evening Standard and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855)

Overall, my students hated The Song of Hiawatha, as I figured they might; although they admitted they found the trochaic meter fun to read (and to imitate), they were angered by what they saw as Longfellow’s clueless paternalism with respect to the Ojibwe characters he creates (adapting them, of course, from tales from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches [1839] that were themselves adapted from oral stories from Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Henry’s wife, and those of her mother). An archival expert presentation on Longfellow, then, was an opportunity to understand the context in which this poem was written.

The student who presented on Longfellow chose the November 10, 1855 edition of the Boston Evening Standard, since Hiawatha was published on that date and since Longfellow lived in Boston. There is a notice (unfortunately rather illegible, as you will see below) titled “Longfellow’s New Poem!” in the paper, so we could see that Longfellow was famous enough that the publication of a new book was a newsworthy event.

longfellowpoem

The student also noticed, with irony, an article entitled “The Landing of the Pilgrims,” a romanticized historical piece that makes no mention of Native peoples. Speaking of the pilgrims, the article’s anonymous author says, “Their landing; the history of their future toils, dangers; their struggles and privations; their heroic self-denial and unconquerable trust in God, are among the proudest recollections of our history.”

Transitioning from this article, the student brought up the fact that the Yakama Indian War, a three-year dispute about land rights between the U.S. Government and the Yakama and allied tribal groups in central Washington state, had just begun the month before, in October, 1855. There’s no mention in the newspaper about the progress of this war. Even more glaring was the fact that the Battle of Union Gap, between the Yakama and the U.S. army, had begun the day before and was not mentioned at all. The charitable interpretation is that news had not had time to travel across the country yet; however, we went in another interpretive direction. The student thought about the fact that Longfellow’s poem was so immediately popular, and we wondered if the American public generally preferred to read about mythologized Native Americans, like Hiawatha, rather than real ones, like Kamiakin, chief of the Yakama tribe at the start of the war, pictured in this sketch, below.

kamiakin
Kamiakin, chief of Yakama Tribe, 1855
by Gustavus Sohon, courtesy Washington State Historical Society 

In this issue of the newspaper, Native peoples are ignored or not included. Longfellow’s poem seems to be their only presence in the issue. Twenty-five years earlier, there would have been articles about Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, but in 1855, Native issues are not at the forefront of the general public’s consciousness, if this newspaper is any indication.

The Salem Register and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snow-Bound (1866)

Sometimes, the students looked at the poems in the newspapers and made connections and comparisons with the poems we were reading in class. Here’s a poem printed in the Salem Register for February 15, 1866:

littlefeet

(Yes, the date on that says November 12, 1866, which can’t be right, but it is what is printed in the Feb. 15 issue of the Register—I double-checked!)

 We had been talking about sentimentality in Whittier’s poem Snow-Bound the class before, with some of the students coming down pretty hard on what they saw as Whittier’s overly nostalgic view of the rural New England places and people of his childhood. However, reading the poem “Little Feet” put that into perspective. We discussed the different ways Whittier guards against this kind of too-easy feeling and ideas in his poem (particularly focusing on the complexity of the way he elegizes his younger sister, Elizabeth). We also spent a long time talking about the rhyme scheme and meter of both poems, since they are both written in iambic tetrameter and are largely in rhyming couplets. We discussed how Whittier’s diction and his use of enjambment create a complex rhythm and more lofty tone than “Little Feet” is able to achieve. And we also discussed how smart Whittier was to stay away from refrains like “Patter, patter, little feet” in his elegy, which would’ve wrecked the gravitas of his poem.

The Cincinnati Gazette and Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt’s That New World (1877)

Because we had begun the term discussing the child elegy genre in the poetry of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, then revisited it when we read Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Emily Dickinson, students had the analytical tools to approach Piatt’s elegies for her two children in the searing book That New World, but they were still shocked by the grim, direct nature of this poetry, which sometimes feels like a wrestling match between a grieving Piatt and a detached God who doesn’t care how mothers feel about the children he takes.

Since we had been talking so much about death, the student who presented on the November 6, 1877 issue of The Cincinnati Gazette started there, showing us articles about some gruesome deaths by murder (which included the dead body then being put in a church and the church set on fire to destroy the evidence), falling from a wagon, being run over by a train, and fire again. The student asked us to compare how the deaths were reported on in the newspaper with how Piatt talks about death in her poems, particularly “No Help” and “To a Dead Bird.” One thing we immediately wondered was if the death of children from disease or accident was so common that it simply wouldn’t make the news. The only “report” of a child’s death might come through poetry. We thought about what poetry does that news doesn’t, and vice versa.

This class occurred on Election Day, so the student also had us think a little bit about Piatt and politics. After pulling out a few articles and headlines about local politics, the student asked us to think about how Piatt feels about monarchy in her poems “If I Had Made the World” and “A Queen at Home.” (The answer is—she doesn’t like it!) We had a great discussion about Piatt and democracy, even looking back to Whitman to compare how Piatt expresses democratic views in some of these poems versus how Whitman does the same.

 Assessment

Overall, this assignment worked very well. It accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish: the students got more invested in (even excited about) the time period. I liked how the assignment was specific, but also allowed them to go in pretty much any direction they wanted with both the newspaper and the poems. Students had fun with it, often pointing out humorous ads or articles and sharing them with the class. The only times the assignment failed were when students did not follow the instructions or when they made wild surmises about connections between the poet and what was in the newspaper (the latter of which could be gently corrected in class). Overall I would rate this assignment as a success, and I plan to do it again.

“But I don’t have access to these subscription-only archives,” I hear you saying. Never fear, this assignment will also work with open-access archives, like the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, which has thousands of digitized newspapers to read for free. If you try this assignment, or some version of it, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!