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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Making Space for Voice and Choice: Assignment Design in an Online Course

PALS welcomes a return guest post by Jacinta Yanders. You can find Yanders’ first post here. In the following post, Yanders explores the assignment choices she made in an online summer course. Further writing from Yanders is available on her blog, Teach to Learn. Learn to Teach.

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Kristine Full

I recently had the opportunity to teach a summer online section of my department’s Introduction to Fiction course. As is the case with many introductory courses, most students were not English majors or minors. Instead, most were enrolled in the course to fulfill university requirements. The main goals assigned to the course are primarily geared toward enabling students with skills and experience necessary for evaluating and analyzing works of fiction. I wrote a post on my own blog about the broad strokes of teaching this class, which can be accessed here.

In face-to-face classes, I’ve incorporated a variety of culminating projects into my course construction. These projects have included traditional essays as well as somewhat unfamiliar assignments, such as the creation of a digital transmedia extension or making a short documentary. While each option is usually developed in such a way that students have a fair amount of flexibility in their approaches, I’ve generally always assigned them to do the same sort of thing.

However, in recent semesters, I’ve been thinking more and more about student ownership in the classroom and working to provide opportunities in which students have a hand in shaping the course. In the spring semester First Year Writing course I taught, for example, I had students generate the assessment criteria for their essays and vote on what they believed to be the most important elements of that criteria. By this point, students had seen and worked with sample essays as well as given feedback on drafts from their classmates. They had some sense of concrete moves that came across well to them as readers and other choices that hindered them. Collectively, they were responsible for setting the stakes for the essays and ultimately revising their work to meet those stakes.

Bearing that experience in mind as I began constructing my summer course, I thought about ways I could make space for students to assert their voices and exercise their agency. To an extent, the discussion board posts – a core component of most online courses I’ve ever seen – fulfilled part of this goal. In these posts, I asked students to share their reactions to the readings, a discussion question related to the readings, text-to-text/text-to-world/text-to-self connections with the readings, and connections between the readings and lectures I provided on critical lenses and literary terms. I made these requirements because even though I’ve never taken online classes myself, I’ve observed other people taking them. I’ve also been enrolled in face-to-face classes that have used discussion boards.

Via both, I’ve come to know that discussion board assignments can easily become stale and burdensome. And often, it seems that students don’t necessarily see the value in completing such posts beyond the simple fact that it’s part of the grade. In providing these specific guidelines, I wanted to explicitly show students how texts are relevant to culture and their lives beyond our class. I also wanted them to be able to articulate personal connections to (or distances from) what we were reading. Interestingly, inasmuch as this experience was a bit strange for me given that I’m the sort of person that generally thrives on getting to know my students via face-to-face interactions, I actually found that I knew more about how each individual students analyzed and understood the readings than I likely would have in a face-to-face class because they were writing about their individual experiences of reading. In their evaluations at the end of the semester, students often commented that they enjoyed being able to think more consciously about their reading and being able to see how their classmates interacted with texts differently.

Before the class started, I sent my students a survey to get to know them a bit. This was especially important for the online class, I believe, because I wouldn’t be interacting with them in person. On the survey, I asked them to respond regarding why they were taking the class, if they’d taken online classes previously, what types of things they like to read, etc. Importantly, I also asked them about other commitments they had during the summer. In doing so, I found that many of them were working multiple jobs, a fair amount were taking multiple classes, some were studying abroad, some were in internships, and some were taking care of family members. In short, they were quite busy. I don’t think this is particularly uncommon or unique to my students, and thinking about this more consciously influenced how I shaped the class and what I expected students to be able to contribute. I think that one difficulty with teaching online classes, especially condensed versions, is the expectation that they will be exactly the same as in-person classes except digital.

Setting aside the improbability of a 6-week summer course being equivalent to a 15-week semester course, it’s also just the case that different spaces afford and foreclose different options and opportunities. I believe there’s certainly elements that are transferable between both, but it’s also necessary to think specifically about the individual situations. What did I actually need students to demonstrate by the end of our six weeks working together? How could I get them to zero in on something specific that they could take with them as they moved on to their next classes?

Ultimately, all of this is how I came to the set up for their final project. For this assignment, I gave them three options to choose from: (1) a traditional analytical essay using one of the critical lenses we studied in class, (2) a creative writing remix in which they rewrote a portion of one of the novels from the perspective of a different character paying close attention to how such a shift would necessarily change the story, or (3) an analytical mixtape in which they identified a theme in one of the novels and developed a playlist that corresponds to that theme. The latter two options included explanatory portions in which students had to justify their choices and explain the significance. The assessment criteria for all three options were the same and were aligned with the aforementioned goals. The target word counts for each option were also the same.

I set the final project up in this way for a few different reasons. First, I ultimately decided that students did not need to demonstrate a full understanding of every single aspect of the class at the end. But if they could show a good grasp on how to read a text via a particular critical lens or how POV affects reader experience or how themes shape narratives, then they were taking something useful away from the class. I also wanted the students to consider their own interests as well as their own schedules and do something they were invested in. This particular class does not have an embedded essay requirement, but I imagine most students enrolled expecting to write traditional essays. I wanted to provide that option for students who really gravitated toward it, but I also wanted students to see that there are other valid and viable ways of engaging with and thinking about literature.

In truth, thinking about familiarity, I’d actually expected most students to choose the essay option. However, almost half chose the creative writing remix, and the remaining students were split almost evenly between the other two choices. As I was reviewing the projects at the end of the summer session, it became quite clear to me that many of the students who chose the creative writing remix relished the opportunity to try their hand at fiction writing. And they were also thinking carefully about how to enter a different character’s mind and how the POV shift would impact the narrative.

In addition to the comments about the discussion board posts, student evaluation comments also often reflected an appreciation for being able to choose what they wanted to do for the final project. And particularly, many students often noted that they appreciated having the chance to be creative, which suggests to me that students tend to not feel like they can be creative in their course work. For me, there’s at least a couple significant implications here. First, I’m thinking about ways to incorporate more explicitly creative options into my courses. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I’m also thinking about how to actually bridge the gap between the traditional and the creative. Rather than choosing one or the other, how do I also provide opportunities for students to do both simultaneously? These are questions that I will work with going forward as I continue to make spaces for student voices and choices in my classes.

Contributor Bio

jJacinta Yanders is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at The Ohio State University. Her primary areas of research are Television Studies, Film Studies, and Popular Culture. Jacinta is currently working on her dissertation, which analyzes the impact on narrative construction and audience reception that occurs when television remakes change key elements of characters’ identities. Her previous work addresses topics such as the intertwining of television and social media, representations of the Black Lives Matter Movement and police brutality on television, and the reconfiguration of the Syfy network as a potential space for progressive representations.