My Next Big Thing: Literary Citizenship

For the last few years, I’ve ended my classes with a presentation/pep talk on Literary Citizenship (basically this post as a Power Point). But next semester, I’m going to teach a whole class on Literary Citizenship.

Course descriptions are due this week, so I just wrote this up:

A literary citizen is an aspiring writer who understands that you have to contribute to, not just expect things from, the publishing world. This course will teach you how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by your campus, regional and national literary communities and how you can contribute to those communities given your particular talents and interests. It will also help you begin to professionalize yourself as a writer. You will learn how to 1.) create your own professional blog or website, 2.) use social media to build your writing community, 3.) interview writers and publish those interviews, 4.) review books and publish those reviews, 5.) submit poems, stories, and essays to literary magazines, 6.) query agents and editors regarding book manuscripts, 7.) apply to graduate programs and write an effective statement of purpose, 8.) deliver an effective public reading of your work, 9.) pitch to an agent, 10.) craft a professional résumé. Students who complete the course in an exemplary fashion will be eligible to apply for internship positions as Social Media Tutors at the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie July 25-27, 2013. 

I really hope that the internship positions mentioned above will be PAID positions. See, one reason why I haven’t been posting here at the Big Thing lately is that I’ve spent the last month writing a grant that would provide fifteen paid internships to Ball State students so that they can participate in the Midwest Writers Workshop (MWW), an annual writers’ conference which takes place in Muncie. I’ve written more about it here. 

This past summer, I convinced four of my students to work as Social Media Tutors. Basically, the tutors taught the attendees how to start a blog, how to use Twitter and Facebook effectively, how to create a platform (or as I like to call it, how to connect meaningfully with people).

Me and the Tutors. From left: Maye Ralston, Ashley Ford, Spencer McNelly, and Tyler Fields. They’re wearing T-shirts with their QR codes on them. Photo provided by Maye Ralston.

Really, it was just a matter of putting a bunch of people looking for new media skills into the same room with people who had those skills. I got the idea one day when I received an email from Writer’s Digest about an online class they were offering, “Social Media 101,” taught by Dan Blank. I read the course description (and saw the price tag) and thought about my friend Cynthia Closkey, who I paid to help me set up this blog and taught me how to use Twitter. I thought, Couldn’t my creative writing students get freelance work offering “author services” like website development, social media consulting, and developmental editing? Certainly, they don’t have as much experience as Cindy, or the credentials of Dan Blank, but hey, everyone has to start somewhere.

Similarly, Hope Mills talked about her job recently in The Millions. She works at a “creative agency” that offers advertising, publications, websites, branding, and communication strategies.

I chose these four students because they were already using social media in a professional way. I mean, check out their bios. They were already literary citizens. They already had a student group called The Writing Community. (Students at Ball State have been learning this from my colleague Sean Lovelace for years.)

So, I tried to explain what I thought a social media tutor was. The students said, You want us to teach other people how to do what we basically do for fun?

I said, You don’t know how many people out there are desperate to understand the things about social media you guys just take for granted.

And it worked. The students felt like professionals, got a line on their resume, and the attendees were enormously grateful for their knowledge.

For the last few years now, I’ve been thinking about professionalization in creative writing programs, about whether we “should we make it our business to teach the business of being a writer.”

What brings most people to the creative writing classroom isn’t simply the desire to “be a writer,” but rather (or also) the desire to be a part of a literary community. Perhaps this is why so many undergraduates want to pursue an MFA, because “more school” is definitely something they know how to plug into. They want to be writers, and they think an MFA is what comes next. But I want to show my students that being a literary citizen can also provide that sense of community and connection they’re longing for.

So here I go again, trying to figure out how to teach yet another class I’ve never taught before.

Literary Citizenship is my next Big Thing.

I’ll keep you posted here. I also created a course blog here.

Literary Citizenship Teaching

11 comments

  1. Chad says:

    This sounds great, Cathy. I’m looking forward to hearing how things go. I would definitely like to try something like this–or maybe adapt parts of it for the Senior Portfolio class I’ll be teaching in the spring.

  2. Erik Deckers says:

    It has never been enough to write something and then “put it out there” in the hopes that it’s discovered. But I don’t know how many writers expect to be judged solely on the merits of their writing, and yet refuse to do any promotion.

    Mediocre writing gets published because it gets noticed. Great writing goes unread because the writer did nothing to support it. This sounds like an awesome class.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Yep, I definitely want to teach them about promoting their work, building a network, “getting noticed,” etc., but I want to make sure they do it meaningfully, ethically, genuinely.

  3. Jon Sealy says:

    Cathy – Looks like a great class, and I think your students are lucky to get such a wonderful introduction to professionalization.

    I know you haven’t asked for crowd-sourced ideas here, but one thing that made an impression on me as an undergraduate was that my fiction professor required everyone to subscribe to a literary journal. I don’t even think we had to make a presentation or anything, just subscribe. His reasoning was that writing is one of the few art forms you can both practice and patronize. (Visual artists can’t necessarily afford to collect art, for instance.)

    One thing I would observe is that at nineteen, I didn’t even know enough to know what an idiot I was. I’d open The Georgia Review and read one story by someone maybe named “Larry Brown,” who was already a southern legend, and another story by someone who was and would remain totally obscure, and both of these writers were just names to me.

    But after ten years of dutiful literary citizenship, you can open almost any major lit journal and at least recognize some of the names. More than likely, you’ll see someone whose work you follow, and possibly you’ll see a friend or two. So your experience with this world becomes richer after you’ve participated in it for a while, but you do have to have that immersion phase where you wouldn’t recognize an icon to save your life.

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