This Blog is Lore: How We Talk about Teaching Creative Writing

This Blog is Lore: How We Talk about Teaching Creative Writing

This is me in 1997 when I got my first TT teaching job at Mankato State University.

This is me in 1997 when I got my first TT teaching job at Mankato State University.

This blog began because I like to talk about teaching. I always have.

I stepped in front of a class for the first time in 1991.

I was a rookie grad student, and once I got over my stage fright, I realized that teaching is like an incredibly interesting puzzle or math equation that always needs solving.

It’s absorbing, fascinating work.

And I love to talk shop. It’s my virtual teacher’s lounge.

Teaching Creative Writing

Next semester, I’m teaching a grad course called “Teaching in English Studies: Creative Writing,” which is offered every other year.

Given how much I like to talk teaching, you’d think I’d be really into teaching this course, and I am! But it troubles me, too, and it relates to the things that trouble me about the position of creative writing in English departments, and the things that trouble me about the work I put into this blog.

Let me explain.

I took no course on teaching creative writing in my graduate training. I took a course on teaching composition. This isn’t unusual. Few graduate programs require a creative-writing specific teaching methods course before placing students in undergraduate creative writing classrooms; however, it’s wonderful that more and more schools ARE offering and/or require such a course.

But anyone who has been charged with teaching a course on “Teaching Creative Writing” is confronted by the problem of how to teach it. How do you teach a course you never took yourself?

Normally, you look for models that already exist. I could draw from the companion course in my department, “Teaching in English Studies: Rhetoric and Composition,” which is also being offered next semester.

Here is the description:

Any reflexive writing teacher wonders how to get better at teaching. Daily, teachers confront issues, questions, and situations and need to make informed choices on how to act. This course gives students two key tools for addressing pedagogical questions. First, students will be acquainted to the rich field of Composition Studies and will learn how to look to the existent literature to put their current queries into the context of the field. Specifically, students will learn about major theories, pedagogies, and epistemologies of writing from the past half century. Secondly, students will learn how to shape a research question and conduct qualitative (teacher) research to study classroom environments. Learning how to study one’s own teaching is invaluable in improving one’s craft.

The problem I face as the teacher of the creative writing version of this course is that there is no “rich field” of Creative Writing Studies from which my students can draw.

Another is that I won’t be teaching my grad students how to shape research questions and conduct qualitative research.

Because the “research” that creative writers in the academy are expected to produce is their own imaginative writing.

Novels. Stories. Poems. Essays. Memoirs. Screenplays.

How did you learn to teach creative writing?

A few years ago, I had a long conversation about this issue that was published by the Fiction Writer’s Review. My friend Anna Leahy said:

I hesitate to turn to composition studies for guidance because that field is heavily influenced by social science methodology (and also because there’s a practical risk in aligning with a so-called service discipline, or one often without a major). We shouldn’t start with the tools of another trade. Instead, we should begin with issues in our body of knowledge, then develop methods and tools to answer our field’s questions.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about this blog, what it’s for, why I do it. In essence, I love to “swap recipes” about teaching.

And I’ll bet that’s how you learned to teach, too. You incorporated the “best practices” of your favorite former teachers. Borrowed a few syllabi. Did a little Googling.

If someone asks you, “What do you do in the classroom, how do you do it, and why do you do it that way?” what is your answer?

A lot of creative writing teachers can’t answer that question very well.

That’s what brings many of them to this blog.

Except that this blog is not “contributing to the rich field of Creative Writing Studies.” Because these posts aren’t vetted. In essence, I’ve been self-publishing creative writing pedagogy for the last three years.

Creative writing is a marginalized discipline in the academy and in English departments. When I blog about teaching creative writing rather than publish scholarly articles about it, I become part of the problem rather than the solution.

This blog, you see, is lore. And lore is a tricky issue–not just for me, but for my discipline as a whole.

What is “Lore”?

Lore, according to Stephen North in The Making of Knowledge in Composition (1987), is the “accumulated body of traditions, practices, and beliefs that influence how writing is done, learned, and taught.”

Lore is the teacher’s lounge. Lore is sitting around talking about what works. It’s a kind of recipe swap.

Lore is how knowledge is passed down in creative writing.

Lore isn’t academic. Lore isn’t serious. Lore isn’t scholarship.

Let me illustrate.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Anyone who has ever applied for an academic teaching position has had to compose a Statement of Teaching Philosophy.

A job applicant with a PhD in Rhetoric & Composition goes about the task of writing it by situating her teaching in relation to the body of published work in her discipline. She believes in A because of her understanding of Peter Elbow and does B in the classroom because it combines Donald Murray and Linda Flower. Another job applicant defines himself in relation to Paulo Freire or James Berlin.

(If you don’t recognize these names, they are Rhetoric and Composition theorists. Forgive me for linking to Wikipedia, but it offers the simplest explanation.)

Like I said, there’s no equivalent body of published work on teaching creative writing that the MFA graduate can draw upon.

In order for creative writing to have that body of work, at least half of us would have to stop (or slow down) publishing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction and start publishing articles about pedagogy, move away from “Creative Writing” towards something like “Creative Writing Studies.”

There are quite a few people who believe we should do that. Here’s something you can read (if you have a way to access JSTOR). This one doesn’t require a password. Here’s something else, too.

In “Teaching Lore: Creative Writers and the University,” Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice argue that:

most scholarship in creative writing either has focused on practical lesson plans or has simply cataloged the history of the discipline. Both approaches fail to interrorgate that pedagogy and history in relation to graduate program design, undergraduate curriculum development, and professional development for teachers in the field.

When my colleagues in Composition “talk to each other” about teaching writing, they write articles that are published in journals. These articles “count” in the academy.

When creative writers in the academy “talk to each other” about teaching writing, they talk on Facebook or Twitter, or they blog, which produces almost immediate results, but doesn’t count in the academy and doesn’t contribute to the discipline, doesn’t produce a theoretical well from which we can draw.

Nobody I know wants to stop writing novels or poems in order to be the next James Berlin or Peter Elbow.

In order for you to reference me in your Statement of Teaching Philosophy, I would need to stop blogging about all this stuff and publish an article or a book.

But can I give you that AND the historical novel I’m trying to finish?

I don’t know. I’m thinking about it.

What do I do with all the stuff I write about teaching?

The way I see it, if you want to share your thoughts/research/ideas about teaching creative writing and have some sort of influence on the discipline, you’ve got a few choices:

  1. Blog about teaching–what I’m doing
  2. Talk about teaching at AWP–what I’m doing, but then I “publish” my talks on my blog rather than in magazines or journals, which isn’t smart.
  3. Publish pedagogy articles in academic journals–think Wendy Bishop
  4. Publish craft articles in trade magazines–think Benjamin Percy, who, being the smart fellow that he is, has turned his essays into a book called Thrill Me forthcoming from Graywolf
  5. Write a textbook–think Janet Burroway
  6. Write a craft book–think Charles Baxter or John Gardner
  7. None of the above. Write fiction and creative nonfiction, damnit. That’s all you’ve got time for, and please note that #1 doesn’t count (much) for promotion and tenure, nor does it make you any moolah, which numbers 4, 5, and 6 do.

Most writers who move in the direction of pedagogy “go trade” (4, 5, and 6) instead of “going academic” (2, 3).

Most of the people I jive with in academia are people with a foot in each world–scholarship of teaching, scholarship of discovery–but it’s really, really hard to remain highly visible in both disciplines at the same time.

Where am I going with this?

Suffice it to say, I’m thinking a lot about the purpose of this blog and the purpose of the class I’m preparing to teach. If you’ve been following me for the last year, you know I’ve been thinking a lot about how I spend my time, too.

I’ll continue this discussion next week.

The title of that post is: “This Blog is a Waste of My Time: Thoughts on the Three-Year Anniversary of The Big Thing.”

Don’t worry. I’m being ironic. Sort of.

Teaching

11 comments

  1. Does sound like you’ve got a book in the making, at least one day. And what’s truly ironic is that lore becomes something else and counts when it’s expanded and put between book covers.

  2. CD Mitchell says:

    What a wonderful, thought provoking discussion. I guess the only guidance I’ve had is from the lesson plans that made the biggest impact on my own writing and from simple things I have discovered on my own. I agree with your point that Expository writing has a methodology for doing research to gauge the effectiveness of their pedagogical practices, and that such an approach to creative writing is difficult.
    Perhaps you should create a blog for this purpose, seek out guest submissions that discuss theoretical approaches to teaching creative writing. Those posts would be vetted by you or a team and would include discussions on potential outcomes, approaches to achieving those outcomes, and model lessons that serve those purposes. I would definitely read such a blog–and you could likely publish a book from it.

  3. You raise a lot of important issues, as usual, Cathy. You kindly mention my wife’s article that she co-wrote with Kelly Ritter. People interested in the discipline of creative writing pedagogy should also look at the book Can It Really Be Taught: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy by Vanderslice and Ritter; also their handbook for teachers of creating writing, Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates; finally they might want to look at my wife’s book Rethinking Creative Writing in Higher Education. All are crucially valuable for getting a handle on what exactly we’re up to, or should be up to, as teachers of cw. I know you know about these texts and others, but newcomers to the discipline might not be aware of exactly how much has already been writing about teaching cw. It’s only an eye dropper’s worth compared to what’s been written in rhetoric, of course, but it’s there.

  4. Lowry Pei says:

    These are troubling issues, I agree. What I’m troubled by, however, may not be what troubles others. I’m bothered by the structure of professionalization in which smart, dedicated, innovative teaching “doesn’t count.” In essence, we’re relying on publishers for legitimation of our efforts as teachers, while we are (I hope) telling students they’d better not do the same as writers.

    Personally, I view the creation of a field called “Creative Writing Studies” as potentially a major diversion of energy from what we’re really about. If every single teacher of creative writing were required to publish in “creative writing studies” in order to keep her job, there would be many fewer hours available to students, less room in the teacher’s heart and psyche for understanding each student’s learning as a writer. I spent over half my career administering expository writing programs; I’ve read a lot of articles in that field, and I’ve taught a writing pedagogy course for over 20 years, aimed at people who want to teach academic writing. I don’t deny the value of having a literature about that kind of teaching, but then I think of all the thousands of articles and books on it that I have *not* read and contemplate the fact that I’ve gotten along quite well without them . . . it gives one pause.

    Is the field of teaching creative writing supposed to be populated exclusively by people who can BOTH write novels (collections of stories, books of poetry) AND publish studies of the field itself? Is that going to lead to better novels, better teaching, and better outcomes for students? Or is it just going to bring creative writing in line with the rituals of legitimation prevalent in the academy in which, whether we like it or not, theorizing is the highest-prestige activity?

    Or to phrase it another way, relevant to your recent posts, just how much capacity for overwork does it take to be a professor? Where’s the limit? Do we draw the line somewhere, or is there no line?

    Is the academia we know now even sustainable anyway?

    And what about the fact that so much good work, like your blog or my website full of novels, is simply given away?

    I don’t have answers and I don’t expect to; I prefer to focus on my students. But that’s easy for me to say because I’m no longer in the middle of my career.

  5. T J Geiger says:

    Thank you for these honest, intruging thoughts about creative writing pedagogy. I began to learn about some of these issues as I worked on my dissertation. I’m a rhet/comp scholar and did my dissertation on undergraduate writing majors. The students in those programs I looked at often took courses in creative or creative nonfiction alongside rhetorical theory, digital writing, or other writing courses. Students’ struggles to integrate the range of knowledge and practice they were learning have encouraged me as a compositionist to try to learn more about creative writing pedagogy so that, even if I’m not teach those kinds of courses, I can help students make connections.

    You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  6. Banjo A.P says:

    Good thoughts and ideas. I teach creative writing to my year 6 children and I wonder how contributions from this blog can help me improve my methodology and practice

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