Our students need more “stars to steer by”

Our students need more “stars to steer by”

Teaching

My #AWP17 panel was at 4:30 PM on the second day of the conference, just at the point where all the introverts need to escape to their rooms and the extroverts need happy hour.

I was also competing with a reading and Q&A with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This was the line waiting to get in. So incredible. I would have been there, too. Believe me.

In the end, turnout was light, so I’m sharing my opening remarks here.

Stars to Steer By:
Rethinking CW Curriculum for the 21st Century

The 50th birthday of the AWP Conference is a perfect time to reflect. I’ve been a part of our discipline (as a creative writing student, then teacher, then administrator) for 30 of those 50 years. And these are the questions that have brought me here.

Question 1: Why do so many of my students believe that unless they become published writers and/or college professors, they have somehow failed?

Question 2: Have we built creative writing programs that (intentionally or not) funnel undergrads into graduate programs? and graduate students into academia? A revolving door?

Question 3: If so, why does this happen, and should we do something about it

Thousands of people earn graduate degrees in creative writing every year, but there are typically only about 100 tenure-track jobs to which they can apply.

[This is where I asked my fellow panelists this question: In all your years of teaching CW, how many of your students have ended up in tenure-track positions? For me, the answer is: 1, and she was actually in the audience, which was cool. For Mary Biddinger, the answer is: 1. For Terry Kennedy, the answer is: around 10. For Porter Shreve, the answer is: around 10]

Instead of tenure-track jobs, my students’ post-MFA choices include:

  1. contingent faculty positions (some with health insurance, some not, some full time, some not, some well-paying, some not) or
  2. a non-academic career they often feel unprepared to pursue.

Remember too: many more thousands earn undergraduate degrees in creative writing each year.

Based on my own experience, the number of undergraduate creative writing majors and minors is high. That’s the good news. The bad news is that undergraduate creative writing majors feel just as clueless about what to “do” with their degrees.

I put this panel together because I want to advocate for a paradigm shift in which we are more deliberate about showing students a variety of ways they can lead writing lives–rather than just hoping that they’ll figure it out for themselves.

I want to talk about how new curricular models could facilitate such a paradigm shift–both specific courses that can be added to a creative writing degree and completely new configurations with new requirements.

Putting this panel together was easy. I just thought about writers I know who have administrative experience. People like:

Mary Biddinger

She is Professor and Assistant Chair of the English Department at the University of Akron, where she is on the faculty of the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Since 2008 she has edited the Akron Series in Poetry at the University of Akron Press.

Terry Kennedy

He is Associate Director of the MFA Writing Program at UNC Greensboro, Editor of the online journal storySouth and Associate Editor of The Greensboro Review. In addition to coordinating the visiting writers series, he teaches the undergraduate poetry workshop and a course on entrepreneurship & independent press publishing.

Porter Shreve

He directed the CW program at Purdue and then moved to California and created a new kind of writing program which he now directs: MA in Professional Communication at the University of San Francisco.

But I also invited:

Ashley Mack Jackson

She was my student at Ball State’s MA program in CW. She represents, I think, the next generation of CW students, the ones who will enter a different landscape than the one I entered in 1995. She studied at Howard University, earned a BA in CW at IUPUI, an MS at University of Maryland in Non-Profit Management, and an MA in CW with us. She adjuncted in Indy for awhile, then returned to Ball State as a full-time academic advisor, and then got a full-time teaching position at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis.

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

I teach at a university that made a big commitment to experiential learning about 10-15 years ago. Our department now offers five experiential-learning courses that count towards the English major:

  1. Book Arts Collaborative: year-long course in which students learn book binding and letter-press printing, as well as how to sell creative products and offer classes to the community.
  2. Broken Plate: year-long course in which undergraduate students edit a national literary magazine
  3. Digital Literature Review: year-long course in which undergraduate students edit an online scholarly journal of undergraduate research, led by members of our Lit faculty.
  4. Jacket Copy Creative: year-long course in which undergraduate students staff a creative agency (design, social media, professional writing) serving their primary client, the English department. This is taught by our Rhetoric faculty.
  5. Creative Writing in the Community: semester-long course in which undergraduate students teach kids in underserved communities how to write their own stories and poems (akin to the 826 model) taught by CW and English Ed faculty.

The problem is that at the moment, only some of these classes are “on the books.” We offer them using various special topics course numbers. Which means that not all of these classes are “visible.

What if we required students to take one of those classes as their “bridge” class? It could serve creative writing majors in a different way than it does now: Instead of asking CW majors to decide their genre (fiction, poetry, CNF, or screenwriting), our curriculum would prompt them to think about what kind of writing life they envision for themselves— entrepreneurial endeavors (book arts), literary publishing (Broken Plate), academic publishing (DLR), professional writing/marketing (Jacket Copy), or non-profit/literary advocacy (CWiC).

STARS TO STEER BY

I started using that phrase “Stars to Steer By” when I became the Director of Undergraduate Studies in my department. It’s how I’ve come to describe the connection between the English major and career outcomes.

The prospective students and their parents ask: So: Creative Writing? English? What can you do with that?

“Just about anything,” I always say. “There are as many potential careers as stars in the sky.”

It’s like the poem “Sea Fever” by John Masefield, which says, “…And all I ask is a tall ship and star to steer her by.”

(I wish I could say I got the idea for this phrase from an English class. No. I got it from an episode of Star Trek.)

What are those “stars,” those potential careers for creative writers?

Here are a few: archivist, social media strategist, communications director, publicist, content manager, librarian, high school teacher, non-profits, alt-ac positions at universities in student affairs and career centers, fundraising, event planning, law, legal assistant, tech writer, editor, literary agent, author, public relations, human resources, marketing, advertising, journalism, corporate communications, creative agencies…I could go on, but I’ll stop.

But here’s the thing: We don’t ever point out those stars to our students. The only stars they see are us–especially if they’re first generation college students, as I was. CW faculty aren’t “stars” as in “celebrities.” We are “stars” as in “examples of what you can do with a degree in CW.”

So is it really any surprise that, lacking other navigation coordinates, students follow the exact routes we ourselves took when we were their age? I must admit that this is exactly what I did. Unconsciously. My college professors were the first writers I ever met. Is it any wonder that I followed in their footsteps?

WHAT I’VE LEARNED AS AN ADMINISTRATOR

If the name of the major doesn’t imply the career outcome, students won’t choose it.

For example, our Rhetoric and Writing major is very small, but if we changed it to Professional Writing or Professional Communications, it would get larger. All we’d have to do is forsake the word rhetoric, which has been the foundation of a classical, liberal arts education for thousands of years. You know. No biggie!

Many students (in my department) choose creative writing as a major because they think it implies the career outcome.

Creative Writing seems more practical to them. Egads! And to make matters worse, they often feel as if they have failed to “use their major” if they don’t become authors. Conversely, they believe that unless they have a creative writing major on their transcript, they can’t be a writer, or unless they have our Film/Screenwriting minor on their transcript, they can’t be a screenwriter.

College is not an identity store.

Students want to know what they’re supposed to “be.” Everyone’s been asking them for years and years, and they desperately want an answer. They choose majors that will provide an identity from the outside in. You major in journalism; you’re a journalist. You major in marketing; you’re a marketer. But creative writing, English, the arts, the humanities don’t work that way.

A year ago, I met a young woman at a small liberal arts college who was majoring in German. A friend asked her, “Why are you majoring in that? Do you want to be German?”

College can be an identity machine.

At other schools where I’ve taught, the first question creative writing students are asked is “Which genre are you?” Their friends and professors ask, but so does the curriculum itself. But at Ball State, we require students to work in two or three genres. There’s no opportunity to specialize at the undergraduate or graduate level. I really like this approach, but one of its flaws is that when a student wants to apply to an MFA program, and you ask them, “So what genre are you?” they don’t know how to answer the question—because the curriculum never asked them to choose a star to steer by.

I started thinking: If a curriculum can be constructed in such a way to help students identify their preferred genre, could it also be constructed in such a way to help students find their stars to steer by? their direction after college?

I’ll stop there for now and share the comments and ideas of panelists in a later post! The plane is getting ready to board…

But I want to say this to conclude: I don’t think I’m going to use the AWP panel as a way to create a conversation about curricular/higher ed/writing program matters anymore. Panels like this don’t fare well against the competition. And that’s fine. Everybody goes to AWP for slightly different reasons, and my reason is probably only shared by a small percentage of attendees. Maybe there’s a better way to spark a conversation about how structural change can be accomplished? I will keep thinking about that, and I welcome your ideas.

Thanks.

So, you want to write a novel? I can help.

So, you want to write a novel? I can help.

Teaching

Less than a quarter of the people who start NaNoWriMo actually finish the challenge and write 50,000 words. Your chances of finishing a crappy first draft of a novel in November are greatly improved if you prepare in October.

That’s what my class for Midwest Writers Workshop, “It’s Time to Start Your Novel,” is all about. 

Registration is now available!

Starts October 1.

Testimonial

A few years ago, I offered a version of this course via my blog, and I’m so pleased that my friend Gail Werner challenged herself to dive in. I think it really changed her life.

Here’s her story of how it happened.

Course Description

This course is for everyone who ever thought, “I think I might have a novel inside me.” Understand though: you will not “write a novel” in this course–you will prepare yourself to start (or re-start) one. Think of it as a cooking course in which you spend the first class cleaning the kitchen and prepping the ingredients. Think of it as a marathon-running course in which you spend the first class buying a good pair of shoes.

Your chances of drafting an entire novel increase exponentially when you spend some time preparing yourself for the journey ahead.

You’ll learn a great deal about your process without having to fret about the quality of your work. You’ll generate a lot of writing about the novel you want to write, get to know your characters, learn to think in terms of scenes not sentences, and make some crucial early decisions about point of view and structure that will save you a lot of time down the road.

At the end of the course, you’ll be ready and excited and poised to start writing your novel. 

Learning Goals

  • intense focus on the writing process and on developing a writing regimenwriting assignments which will help you gather material, develop your plot, and get to know your characters
  • practice creating an outline or storyboard of your book
  • analysis of a novel that will serve as a model

The course is broken down into four big-picture units. Each unit offers a series of mini-lessons (about 10 minutes each) that build on each other. It will take you about five full hours to go through all of the instruction. You can pause to write when inspired and review the material on your own. Lessons are presented as audio-visual lectures that you can watch on any device (video/screencast).

What the Course Includes

  • Four hours of instructional lectures that you can listen to or watch on your own time, at your own convenience
  • Weekly assignments for completion at your own pace—designed to help you put what you learn into action.
  • Connection and community with others—including me.

Schedule

Week 1: Preparing Yourself

First, you’ll develop a writing regimen and come up with a concrete plan about how to fit writing time into your life. Second, you’ll figure out how to hold yourself accountable by sharing your writing goals with others. Third, you’ll assess your writing process (everyone’s different) and what circumstances make you more likely to get the writing done. And last, you’ll read the short novel Election by Tom Perrotta, paying special attention to how novels are structured and what keeps us turning pages.

Week 2: Characters

Eudora Welty said that in order to enter into your characters, you have to love them. In this unit, we’ll begin that process by getting to know our characters. They drive the plot—not you. Otherwise, a novel reads like a puppet show in which the reader sees you pulling the strings. You’ll complete a series of writing exercises to flesh out and get inside your characters.

Week 3: Through-lines

A novel isn’t just one story. It’s the skillful weaving together of multiple stories, what I call “through-lines.” Other names include character arcs, plot layers, and subplots. A through-line is the rope that the audience uses to pull itself through your novel. How you decide to structure them determines the form of your novel. You’ll identify the possible through-lines of your novel, assign each one a different color, and create a storyboard of your novel.

Week 4: Scene

The scene is the building block of all novels, and a good one enriches the characters, provides necessary information, and moves the plot forward. A scene paints a picture and brings us into what John Gardner called “the vivid, continuous fictional dream.” What novel readers want is to be so caught up in a novel that they forget they’re reading. You’ll learn how to sketch and then flesh out memorable scenes.

I’d love to work with you (or someone you know) through this online class.

It’s time to start that novel…

Confessions of a Gadfly

Confessions of a Gadfly

CW Programs Higher Ed Literary Citizenship Teaching

You may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?

In 2014, Hanover College selected The Circus in Winter as its Common Reading, and I came to campus to talk to students. I loved the campus, the view, the students. On that first visit, sociology professor and writer Dr. Robyn Ryle told me that, like a lot of small, liberal arts colleges, Hanover had experienced an enrollment dip.

I found this news surprising and very worrisome. Hanover isn’t my alma mater, but I did go to a very similar kind of college—and The Circus in Winter had been the direct result of the quality liberal arts education I received at DePauw University.

So, when Hanover invited me back in 2015, I widened the scope of my “professionalization” concerns–which over time had morphed from a concern about creative writing students, to a concern about English majors, and now to a concern about liberal arts majors.

I gave the first-year students at Hanover a pep talk about why they were at the right school and screw all the haters who were saying, “What are you going to do with that?”

I called the talk “Stars to Steer By.” I haven’t published it yet, because I wrote it as a power point, but I will–just as soon as I can finish a draft of this novel of mine.

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How I Taught Then, How I Teach Now

How I Taught Then, How I Teach Now

Teaching

Last April, I was on an AWP panel moderated by Joseph Scapellato which included Matt Bell, Jennine Capo Crucet, Derek Palacio, and moi. The title was “How I Taught Then, How I Teach Now,” a subject that is near and dear to my heart.

Description:

Matt Bell discusses "the privilege of early access."
Matt Bell discusses “the privilege of early access.

When experience forces us to challenge the assumptions that underpin our teaching philosophies, how do we sensibly revise our syllabi, course element by course element? In this panel, five teachers of writing share what they grew into knowing. They will describe how an active awareness of their changing assumptions changed their courses for the better. Practical before-and-after examples of course materials promise to make this panel useful for beginners and veterans alike.

Topics covered:

  • Matt talks about what he calls “the privilege of early access,” a way of framing workshop discussion.
  • Jeannine had some great suggestions for teaching students how to better analyze craft.
  • I talked about helping students to develop a writerly identity.
  • Derek describes a semester-long reading/craft project using Prezi.
  • Joseph read a great and hilarious essay called “Respect.”

Many thanks to the folks at AWP for turning our conversations into this podcast.

 

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Want to take a class with me?

Want to take a class with me?

Teaching

This summer, I’ll be teaching a one-day intensive fiction workshop at the Midwest Writers Workshop here in Muncie. Here’s the scoop:

Short Story Fellows Workshop 

Those accepted into this intensive will have the opportunity to have their 5-10 page short story critiqued by me and by the whole group.

Specifically, you’ll be working to improve your facility with scenecraft (when to dramatize, when to summarize), point of view, setting, suspense, and readability.

All work will be discussed anonymously and read aloud.

To apply, send a 5-10 page writing sample in manuscript form (as an attachment) to Cathy Day at cathy@cathyday dot com. Applications will be taken from the day MWW registration begins (February 12) to midnight on March 27.

You will be notified of your acceptance by April 15 so that you can sign up for another intensive if you’re not selected.

Why you should apply

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30 Easy Pieces for English Majors

30 Easy Pieces for English Majors

Teaching

This morning I woke up early, made myself some coffee, and got back into bed with my husband and my dog.

I needed to do a brain dump, a blog post, but I was too lazy to walk into another room and get my laptop.

So I grabbed my phone and started tweeting as @bsuenglish, the Twitter account for my department. And an hour and a half later, I’d tweeted 30 pieces of advice

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This is what I’ve become, part 2

This is what I’ve become, part 2

Teaching

A few weeks ago, I started thinking out loud about my new job. Here’s part two of my thoughts on the subject.

Don’t all 46 year old professionals wonder if they’ve made the right life choices?

Becoming a bureaucrat

For the last few years, I’ve been able to translate my teaching and writing into interesting blog posts for you, faithful readers.

But I don’t know if you’re that interested in what I did on Friday:

  • Inputted the schedule requests from four different academic areas in my department into a grid.
  • Approved some course equivalencies for a young woman studying abroad.
  • Met with an advisee who doesn’t know what to do with his life.
  • Met with an prospective student who knew exactly what to do with her life.
  • Proofread upcoming blog posts.
  • Tried to find people to teach unassigned classes or cancel them. Why are they unassigned? I can’t talk about it.
  • Answered 50 emails about lots of different things I can’t talk about.

Basically, I’m a bureaucrat.

My mad, bureaucratic, communication skillz:

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