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.

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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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PALS Roundtable: Writing Better Teaching Philosophies

 

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If you have ever put together job applications or promotion packets, you know how difficult it can be to write a teaching philosophy. Most job documents feel more clear cut than the teaching philosophy—outlining your research, for example, is something that we have all practiced with every abstract that we have written. But the teaching philosophy is more amorphous. It is supposed to be at once practical and theoretical. It is supposed to show who you are as a teacher but not be too focused on yourself. It should present the current you and give the committee a vision of the future you. How does one go about achieving this? A lot of the generic advice out there is pretty bad, so we at PALS have put together a post that gives some tips on how to approach your teaching philosophy in order to make it a useful document which shows off your strengths as a teacher and allows anyone reading it to get a glimpse into your classroom. First, we start with some resources. Then, we think about the big picture goals of the philosophy, and finally, some advice for revision. The usual caveat to our PALS advice–that we are all Humanities, specifically English trained–remains true for this roundtable.

Before you Start:

Advice on Resources from Randi Tanglen

There are several excellent (and free) online resources available to colleagues writing their philosophies of teaching and learning. Here are a few that have been useful to me and the faculty members I work with at the Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College.

Neil Haave’s short article “Six Questions That Will Bring Your Teaching Philosophy Into Focus” asks instructors to link their past experiences as learners to their current teaching practice. By reflecting on unforgettable learning experiences as students, instructors may be able to better articulate their own teaching values and goals in a teaching philosophy.

The Faculty Focus blog offers a free report on “Philosophy of Teaching Statements: Examples and Tips on How to Write a Teaching Philosophy Statement.” However, you must sign up for their free newsletter (a great teaching resource, and they won’t spam you) in order to download the report. This 21-page report includes several short articles on approaches to the teaching philosophy genre depending on audience, purpose, and discipline. I especially appreciate the last article in the report, “Writing a Teaching Philosophy Statement: Why, What and How” because of its practical, nuts-and-bolts advice. Those on the job market will like the article right before it, “Teaching Philosophy Statements Prepared by Faculty Candidates.”

A Google search will lead to any number of college and university teaching center sites with sample teaching philosophies. I have found the site at The Ohio State University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching to be particularly useful with concrete tips and several samples of teaching philosophies from a variety of disciplines, including one from English.

I hope these resources are helpful to those writing their teaching philosophies. Best of luck!

As You Work:

Caitlin Kelly on the Aims of a Teaching Philosophy

There are two main routes you can take when you are beginning to craft a teaching statement: philosophical/theoretical route or the applied/practicum route. In the former, you set out your overarching theory of teaching and in the latter you focus in specific activities and assignments that you use in your classes. In my writing center work with doctoral candidates and postdoctoral fellows, I’ve seen both approaches but the most captivating teaching statements, regardless of discipline, always lean toward a focus on application. My advice to job applicants then is to try to find a balance between the two that fits your discipline’s expectations and the type of job to which you are applying. I tend to lend toward a 15/85 split between theory and practice. That said, I’m applying for teaching-intensive generalist and writing faculty positions, and it makes sense that they would respond favorably to more a focus on classroom application where that might not be as appropriate for a research position. Plus, for generalist and writing positions, which are often NTT, those hiring processes often do not included campus visits–in those cases, the teaching statement is doing the work of the teaching demonstration.

So here’s what I do: my teaching statement is just a bit short of 2 pages single-spaced, and each paragraph includes 1 or 2 vivid descriptions of assignments or class activities. Because of the type of jobs I apply to, I need the document to be as versatile and efficient as possible, and so I make sure that my examples represent activities that would work in both literature and composition courses and everything in between. I also unify the document by identifying a single goal—for me, that’s cultivating curiosity in my students. So, after I identify and describe why I focus on curiosity in my courses, the following paragraphs outline the key approaches and strategies I rely on for doing that. Those paragraphs are then supported with the vivid examples I described earlier. I return to the common theme of cultivating curiosity at the end of the statement. Thus, the theoretical or philosophical approach acts as a framing device, supported by my vivid descriptions of assignments and activities.

I’d also highly recommend that advanced graduate students and NTT faculty in particular check in with their campus writing center and faculty development or teaching centers for help crafting and revising teaching statements and other job materials. We often don’t think of these units as resources for us, but many writing centers these days serve faculty as well as students, and most teaching centers and faculty development offices are happy to work with graduate students.

Time to Revise:

Brianne Jaquette on Revising with a Critical Eye

I remember the first teaching philosophy that I ever wrote, which was more like a list of courses that I taught than any concrete explanation of my teaching. In my second philosophy, one of the first things that I did was take out the lists—of classes I taught, of texts I taught, of goals I had for my students. I had wanted to be comprehensive, but after seeing examples of teaching philosophies and getting advice on writing one, I realized that it should be less about giving the scope of your teaching and more about allowing the reader a glimpse into the present of your teaching. I don’t mean present as in explain the gift that you are to the teaching profession. I am suggesting that the reader should feel immersed in your teaching from reading your statement. The first thing I do when I revise a statement is ask: at what distance am I keeping my reader? Is this an overview of my whole teaching career or a look into what I am trying to achieve as a teacher? (In my opinion, it should be the latter.)

My second piece of advice is to look for moments when your text has energy and revise with a focus on spreading that energy throughout your text. I always love to write about moments in the classroom. My teaching philosophies are best at that level. When I revise, I think about how I can make my discussion of assignments as dynamic as my talk about what an exciting lesson is like. I still remember the first time I felt that energy from a teaching philosophy. I read the opening of the teaching philosophy where the teacher described an in-class activity, and I thought, “Oh, I want to do that in my class.” This happened several years ago, and at this point, I only vaguely remember what that activity was, but I remember who wrote that teaching philosophy, and I remember that moment of recognition. If you can find those moments in your own statement, then you should use them to guide the shape of your essay. Can you lead with that dynamic energy and then take your reader to a more practical or a more theoretical level (depending on where teaching comes alive for you)?

What that excellent teaching philosophy did was connect to my interest as a teacher. I would also suggest that it is useful to remember that your audience is primarily other teachers. Connect to the reader as a teacher. You don’t have to drop the latest pedagogy terms or name the theorist everyone is discussing. What you have to do is to connect the teacher in you to the teacher in whoever is reading it. I would think about what gets you the most excited about teaching and also what parts of teaching you love to chat about with other teachers. Tap into that feeling, into that excitement and draft your philosophy from that place.

Finally, the best teaching philosophy advice I ever received was about the arc that your philosophy should take. For me, it is important to not just stay in the nitty gritty of the classroom (because that is where I would stay if given the chance). I want to give the readers the scope of my teaching from moments in the classroom to the big picture of my course. I always try to hit the classroom experience, then discuss assignments or bigger themes in my courses, and finally I move to the bigger takeaways of my teaching. This order might be different for you depending on how you shape your essay, but as you revise, think about the levels on which you need to describe your work. Your philosophy should move the reader from the start to finish through time and space in your classroom. A too narrow focus or a too broad one does not allow the reader to obtain a sense of your vision as a teacher. Sometimes we think of this as showing who you are as a teacher. I would rephrase this slightly and think about what goes into your teaching and how you can weave the semester together from beginning to end and from tiny moments to overarching narratives.

Shape and Reshape and Shape Again:

Shelli Homer on Packaging that Statement for Application Requirements

After you have read all the tips about writing your statement of teaching philosophy, read samples and found strong models, drafted your own statement, and revised and revised that statement into a beautiful final product, it is time to acknowledge that it is never done and you will be required to hack it all to pieces over and over again to meet requirements of each job to which you choose to apply.

Even a document like a teaching philosophy, which seems like it would transfer across job positions because it is your philosophy for teaching, is individual to each job application. Are you applying to teach literature or writing courses, or both? What does your teaching philosophy need to do to reflect your awareness of that.

The 2-Page Teaching Philosophy

It is fabulous to have 2 single space pages to fill with your teaching philosophy. You can breathe; you have the time and space to develop your philosophy on the page for your readers. As the advice above suggests, you can describe what your classroom looks like, how certain assignments function, what students take away from both of those things, and discuss what you value as an educator. You can build a complex image of yourself as an instructor. You might end up with multiple versions of this document to meet the various needs of the different positions you will apply to.

The 1-page Teaching Philosophy

Then a job app asks for a 1-page statement of teaching philosophy. You have to speed up your pacing, cut pieces of explanation or examples that you spent a lot of time crafting in the longer document, and pare down your overall philosophy.  You are essentially creating a new document. In paring down your philosophy, you might go slightly broader so you can still get in the main concepts you want to articulate. Or, you might go more narrow, showing one piece of your overall philosophy and frame it as such. Since you are choosing this piece to represent you, it can be helpful to let readers know both that it is one small piece and why this is the piece you are choosing to showcase.

The 2-Paragraph Teaching Philosophy

Now we have a job app that asks for your teaching philosophy to be incorporated into your cover letter, along with everything else. Perhaps that cover letter is a 2-page document; you will go back to that 1-page draft of your teaching philosophy and figure out how much of it you can use. But a cover letter is a document with a different tone and the way you discuss your teaching philosophy could likely look very different.You are now reshaping it to fit within and make sense connected to what you include in the rest of the letter.

The 1-Paragraph Teaching Philosophy

Finally, let’s take this a step further and imagine that the requirements for that cover letter cut it down to a 1-page letter, which cuts your teaching philosophy down to 1-paragraph. This isn’t a lengthy paragraph. Now you have maybe one sentence to do each of the things listed in the above advice. If it was challenging to give a hiring committee a sense of who you are as a teaching in 2-pages or 1-page, it is an entirely different kind of challenge to articulate it in 1-paragraph. In many ways, all of that earlier advice goes out the window. It is time to get very direct.

After You’re Finished:

Our teaching philosophies should be alive. Every course we teach, every learning experience we have, and every student interaction should refine how we see ourselves as teachers. Don’t get stuck in the past. And sometimes revising that document means opening a new one and not looking at your previous versions at all.

If you want to keep practicing the newly minted skills you have developed while writing your teaching philosophy, consider pitching a guest post to PALS. As is true with all writing, doing it makes you better at it. Practicing writing about teaching with a PALS guest post will sharpen your vision of your own pedagogy and make the next philosophy that much easier to write.