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.

 

I actually ran out of time and didn’t get to talk about all the items on my list, so here it is.

How to Help Students Feel like “Real Writers”

These days, I’m less interested in teaching students “to write” and more interested in giving them the chance to feel like “real writers.”

That means helping them to:

1.) form an identity as a writer (or realize that no, they don’t want to “be” writers)

2.) take the next step in their career (toward a writer’s life or toward a writing-related career)

Story about when that moment happened for me:

I can tell you exactly the moments in my life in which I felt like a real writer. Most of them happened at the desk, from the inside out, but one happened when I got my first full-time teaching position at Minnesota State University Mankato.

My mentor Rick Robbins was helping me with my taxes, and he said, “You should file a Schedule C. Profit or Loss from a Business.”

“What business?” I said.

“Your writing,” he said. “You’re like a small business owner, really.”

That’s the day I realized that, in addition to being a college professor, I was the owner of a small business called Being the Writer Cathy Day.

Another example: It’s become common practice in creative writing classes to require students to submit work to a real literary magazine. These are the kinds of active learning assignments I like to use in order for my students to feel like “real writers.”

Here are some other ways:

Help them join a community writers and readers. Change what they see when they look at FB and Twitter.

  • If there’s a class you teach regularly, create a group on FB and require them to join. Or create a hashtag on Twitter and require that they use it.
  • They will meet each other and former students, even alumni.
  • These groups have become communities in which I can easily share advice and opportunities. They are places where we continue discussions we can’t finish in class.
  • Changing what they see on Facebook or Twitter helps them to see themselves differently.

Show them that writing isn’t “homework” and social media isn’t “private.”

Show them how to buy a domain name and/or start a blog. WordPress. Tumblr. Whatever. Because there’s something about becoming “Google-able” that’s important to identity creation in a networked age.

Use Google Docs in your class rather than Blackboard—because Blackboard is “school” and Google Docs is not.

Require them to create a professional email address such as cathyday@gmail.com instead of their edu address and instead of their first email address, which was probably something like ColtsFan287@yahoo.com or OneDirection4Ever@me.com.

Make them sign up for your Google Docs folder with that email address.

Have them use this new email address to sign up for their blog and create (if necessary) new Twitter accounts as well as LinkedIn, etc.

Show them how to transition to a more professional use of social media. Give them a few writers to follow who you think do it well.

Dedicate one of your classes (intro, intermediate, advanced) to helping students develop a regular writing regimen. In most classes, we put the most points at the end, in the portfolio. We assess the work that’s been revised and revised. Try this instead: require students to write 2 or 3 thousand words a week—of any quality. Put the most number of points in your course into the process, not the product.

Teach your students not just how to submit to literary magazines but to agents and editors as well. That’s something we almost never talk about in creative writing classes–not at the undergraduate level, and not even at the graduate level. So what if they aren’t ready for it? Someday they might be. And even if they don’t ever publish a book, they will be more informed readers when they understand the process a book goes through from artist to reader.

Teach your students how to pitch their novels. Every week when my students turn in their words, they have to preface them with a logline—one or two sentences that describe the story’s premise, like a film description in TV Guide: When BLANK happens to BLANK, s/he must BLANK or face BLANK. Or something like that. I look at their words, but I give feedback each week on those loglines.

Have your students write the jacket copy of their own novel or someone else’s. It’s very hard to synopsize a whole novel, yes, but it’s also like a scale model of the larger architecture of the novel. Summarizing can teach them a great deal about what’s going wrong and right in the novel as a whole.

Now that they have logline and jacket copy, they have what they need to write a letter to an agent. This is where I try to use a cross-class assignment.

  • Class A studies Agent Profiles online. They create a faux agent profile with photograph, bio, and the types of books they’re looking for.
  • Class B (the novel class) studies these profiles and submits their manuscript to the appropriate agents.
  • Class A receives vets their manuscripts and corresponds with Class B via rejection or acceptance letters.

My novel-writing class is the most unorthodox class I’ve ever taught. And the most popular. My evaluations are always positive, even though it’s the class in which I spend the LEAST time responding to their writing on the sentence level. – an example of how using the “privilege of early access,” Matt’s term, can lead to interesting learning outcomes.

The biggest difference between how I taught then and how I teach now is that the more I get out of the way and let my class be like a club, the happier my students are. And this astounds me, because I grew up learning in an entirely different way.

Final Note:

Some of you know that I’m on sabbatical this semester. I deactivated my FB and Twitter in November, but I reactivate them every 2-3 weeks just to check in, see my nieces and nephews, and deactivate again. But I wanted to come up for air today because I saw that this AWP podcast was up and wanted to share it with you!

I’m sorry that I haven’t been blogging a lot for the last few months. I started a blog post about why that is, but then I didn’t finish it. :-) Suffice it to say that I will be back soon, and I appreciate your patience. I’m on Instagram (I find that it doesn’t devour as much time because it’s not conversation oriented) and you can always reach me via email.

2014: My Year in Review

2014: My Year in Review

Writing

Was it a waste of my time?

In 2013, I posted to this blog once a week and enjoyed some pretty great stats. 47,000 unique page views. Up from 20,000 the year before.

But at the beginning of 2014, I declared (a little facetiously) that this blog was a waste of my time. Instead of posting once a week, I posted sporadically. About 17 times total.

And a funny thing happened: I still got about 43,000 page views.

How did this happen?

  • Well, I think I got Googled a lot because of the musical.
  • A lot of my old posts about Statements of Purpose and LORs, etc. still get read a lot.

Truthfully, a lot of my blogging energy went into this blog, maintained by my department at Ball State. If you read the post I’ve linked to, you’ll see the stats, etc.

Lately, my blog posts have been about administrating in higher education and my personal life rather than teaching and writing. I guess that’s what happens as time passes–the things that occupy space in your brain change.

I’ll be happy if you continue reading, despite these changes. Thank you.

My year in review

My husband published an essay at the Rumpus on the occasion of the death of chef Charlie Trotter.

The Indy Star did a nice story about me.

Spoke about Literary Citizenship at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop “Paths to Publishing” event. Reunited with Erin Flanagan and met Kirby Gann and Steve Saus.

The night I came back from Yellow Springs, my dog was hit by a car. He lived. We rejoiced.

Seattle
Seattle

Went to Seattle with my husband for AWP 2014. Loved Seattle. For some reason, I felt compelled to blog about my marriage while we were there. I put them on Tumblr rather than here. I don’t know why. “Traveling as a Couple,” “AWP Spouses.” And this one, too.

I wrote about my fear of and desire to be looked at on my Tumblr blog. (I wasn’t sure if these personal stories were appropriate for the Big Thing. I guess I felt safer posting them in this little corner of the internet where you might not see it.)

Took part in a roundtable discussion on Money and Creative Writing Programs with some amazing writers (Dinty Moore, Robert Hass, Elizabeth McCracken, and Yiyun Li. ) for Scratch Magazine.

10565229_10152593054361672_7229724189396453769_n
My mom celebrating her first blog post.

Helped my mom start a caregiving blog.

Redesigned this blog. Click around. It’s kind of pretty.

Started a new job as Assistant Chair of the English Department.

Gave a talk at Hanover College because my book was the “common read” there. What an honor.

Published a two-part essay in Inside Higher Education about starting over in academe. Part 1. Part 2.  (This essay started as a blog post, which I sent to IHE instead of posting to my blog.)

Published an essay about the value of a degree in English at The Millions. (This too started as a blog post that I sent out rather than posting here.)

Taught with Dinty Moore at the Grailville Retreat Center for the Antioch Writer’s Workshop.

Found out I’m going to be an aunt again. To a girl this time.

Read with Ben Clark at the R.J. Julia Bookstore and at the Mark Twain House and Museum. What an honor.

West Baden
West Baden

Went to French Lick for a book signing that went bust, but got to stay at West Baden.

Did a webinar for AWP’s Career Services on Requesting Letters of Recommendation.

Saw two of my former graduate students publish books: Karin Lin Greenberg and Katie Coyle.

Saw a new production of The Circus in Winter.

Launched my department’s first e-newsletter. 

Lost two members of my extended family to cancer.

Reunited with an old high school friend and started trading work. Thanks to a new set of eyes, I got excited about my novel again. Worked on it a lot over Christmas Break and have applied for a sabbatical so that I can get that baby out the door.

In Conclusion

I started writing this post feeling like “Man, I don’t feel like I accomplished much this year,” but now I see that I was as busy as ever in 2014.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Have a great year!

 

Everything I know about Letters of Recommendation

CW Programs

Note: This is about LORs for the academic job market, not for applying to MFA programs. That post is here. 

True Story

Screenshot 2014-10-20 18.48.32A few years ago, a writer I knew (I’ll call her Chris) sent me an email asking me for some information. A graduate creative writing program had asked her to speak with their MFA students about “going on the market.” How to do a CV. How to write a good letter of application. How to read job ads. How to ask for LORs. That sort of thing.

The problem was that Chris was not on the faculty of that (very prestigious) MFA program. She was visiting and had only been on the job market in a limited way. So when Chris asked me if I would share my job search materials with her to share with MFA students in this program, here’s what I said:

You know, no. And I’ll tell you why.

First, I think that it’s the responsibility of the faculty of that very fine school to mentor their students. Not mine. And really, not even yours. THEY need to make their CVs and job letters and wisdom available to people who worked really hard to get into that school. That is why one works hard to get into that school–for access to that sort of thing.

Second, my materials are for my students and for my friends. If YOU want to see my letter, my CV, really ANYTHING, I would give it to you in a heartbeat. But not to them.

Continue reading

Come upstairs and see my route book?

Come upstairs and see my route book?

The Circus in Winter Writing

Route books are a gold mine of circus history. They’re a yearly archive of a show’s acts and travels, meticulously recorded for posterity, then printed and given to circus personnel as a keepsake.

I have one that belonged to my great great uncle Henry Hoffman, superintendent of the menagerie for the Great Wallace Show.

When I started doing readings for The Circus in Winter, I took lots of pictures and put them in scrapbooks. I wanted to remember as many of those wonderful moments as possible.

But I noticed that many of the pictures from those years featured me standing behind a podium or sitting at a table.

That isn’t how I remember readings and events. I remember looking out at a sea of faces.

So for the last few years, I try to take a picture of the audience at all my readings.

Check out the new Route Book page

When I was creating my Route Book page for this website, I decided to do more than caption the photos. Where. When. I decided to share my memories of those events, and what I realized is that I’ve met and re-met so many people by going on the road.

Readings are hard on me. I have a bad back. I have anxiety issues. I’m an introvert. But I also love the experience of being in the room when people are experiencing my work or reacting to my ideas.

So feel free to follow the link and thumb through the pages of my route book. Maybe you’re in one of the pictures?

Check out the new Events page

I’ll be adding lots of pictures to the Route Book page soon; I’m going to be on the road a lot this fall. For more information, check out the Events page.

And may all your days be circus days. 

 

Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

CW Programs Teaching

My plan was to release the survey results one question at a time via ruminative blog posts like this one on whether MFA programs are “anti-novel” or not and this one on the “professionalization” question.

But I’ve changed my mind. Many people wrote to me privately and said, I want to see the results! I’m curious! 

Also, I’m going to be under the weather for the next few weeks.

So: here are the results of my Novel in MFA Programs survey.

The faculty results.

The student results.

Tell me what you find interesting, surprising in these results, and when I’m back to my desk, I’ll talk about it!

How I Answered the AWP Survey

How I Answered the AWP Survey

CW Programs Teaching

Take the survey! You have until March 22. It’s important. I filled it out the other day, and I found that I had so much to say in that little comment module I decided to cut and paste it into a document and share it with you. FYI: I also provided my email address on the survey, so I didn’t say all this stuff to them anonymously.

[Question 21. We welcome any additional comments, feedback, and suggestions you would like to share with us through this survey or at conference@awpwriter.org.]

Continue reading

Survey Results: 56% say MFA favors story over novel

CW Programs Teaching Writing

It is possible to teach novel writing in MFA programs, and many do. My panelists (David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) prove it here, by sharing their syllabi with you. You’ve got everything you need to design your own novel-writing course. You’re welcome!

Opening Remarks: “A Novel Problem: Moving from Story to Book in the MFA Program.”

About a year ago, I submitted an essay to The Millions titled, “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from Story to Book,” which the editors were kind enough to publish, but with a more provocative headline: “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.”

The essay touched a nerve. I got a lot of reactions, from faculty and from students in both residential and low-res programs, and from people who opted not to pursue an MFA because they felt programs were “anti-novel.”

They are not alone in this opinion. Continue reading

Novel-Writing Class Best Practices

Novel-Writing Class Best Practices

Teaching

If you’d like to teach a class in novel-writing but don’t know how, have no fear. My panel is here!

David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and I have all taught the course, and we’ve compiled a Best Practices handout: syllabi, exercises, and other resources to guide you on your way.

Some of us focus on the early stages of writing a novel–generating ideas, writing a summary or treatment, studying published books as models, getting scenes on the page–while others focus on later stages and include all-group workshop of novels in progress. There’s 16 pages of material here, and we hope you find something that works for you.

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

CW Programs Teaching Writing

“Of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form.” Chad Harbach said this in his n+1/Slate essay, “MFA or NYC?” Do you think he’s right? I want to know. I’ve created two Survey Monkey surveys, one for faculty, one for students (past and present).

Survey for Graduate Faculty

Survey for MFA Students (Past and Present)

Remember: this is about graduate creative writing programs, not undergraduate.

Because your response will be anonymous, I hope you will provide honest answers. 

Survey Sample 

  • True or False: It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program.
  • True or False: The best way to learn how to write fiction is develop some level of mastery over the short story before moving on to novels.
  • True or False: It is the responsibility of MFA programs to “professionalize” students about the business of fiction writing.
  • True or False: Mentoring a novelist takes more of a faculty’s limited time than mentoring students in other genres and forms.

Each survey asks 10 questions requiring a simple True or False answer. Each survey asks the same questions. And I’ll be honest here: one of the things I’m curious about is whether there’s a disconnect between what MFA faculty believe they are doing and what students perceive.  

Should take just a minute or two. Please consider the questions carefully, answer, and then (this is important) please share this post widely via social media so that I can gather a range of responses.

I’m doing this in preparation for my AWP panel, “A Novel Problem: Moving from “Story” to “Book” in the MFA Program,” which is scheduled for Thursday, March 1 from 12:00-1:15 PM in the Lake Michigan Room at the Hilton Chicago. I’m moderating, and the panelists are, David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I will share the results of the survey at the panel in Chicago.

So: help me out here. Take the survey. Share it with your friends and colleagues. And let the discussion begin.

Description of the Panel

Short stories are often our main pedagogical tools, but the book is the primary unit of literary production. When are apprentice writers “ready” to write novels, and how do we review them in a workshop setting? How can we create courses that encourage students to move toward and complete book projects? This panel will explore the challenges of accommodating the novel or the novel-in-stories within the structure of an MFA program and in the classroom.

Statement of Merit

A recent essay on this topic by the panel’s organizer prompted a good deal of response. Some claim that MFA programs are subtly (or deliberately) “anti-novel.” That theory is disproved by the faculty panelists, who have experience mentoring in MFA program settings. They will share their best practices with the audience. 

Resources

Here’s a brief list of other articles that have come out in the last year or so related to the topic of our panel: 

Brian Joseph Davis,  “Why MFA Programs Matter.” Huffington Post.

Anelise Chen. “On Blowing My Load: Thoughts from Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme.” The Rumpus.

John Stazinski, “A Novel Approach: Learning to Write More than Stories.” Poets & Writers, the January/February 2012 issue, print only. 

Celebrating (and Celebritizing) Teaching Creative Writing

CW Programs Teaching Writing

 

Today, Fiction Writers Review is running “Where Are We Going Next? A Conversation about Creative Writing Pedagogy (Pt. 1),” a co-written article by myself, Anna Leahy, and Stephanie Vanderslice. This lively, wide-ranging conversation took place during the summer of 2010 via email exchanges.

I just want to thank FWR for publishing this article. You might be wondering why it appears there and not in, say the AWP Writers Chronicle or a pedagogy journal. Well, the truth is, we did submit it to the Chronicle, but they passed, as is their right, of course. When we got the very kind rejection, we discussed what to do next. Where else do you publish an article about teaching creative writing? (I’ve discussed this problem at some length here.) Since most creative writing teachers don’t (won’t?) read pedagogy journals, we decided to shoot for more mainstream publishing venues. Our first priority was making these ideas “findable” and “share-able.”

I’d like to take this opportunity to make two suggestions that weren’t included in this conversation:

A keynote address on Teaching Creative Writing at the annual AWP conference. I would pay good money to hear anything Charles Baxter or Peter Turchi or Janet Burroway had to say about teaching. Why can’t Good Teachers be “celebritized” at AWP alongside the Good Writers?

More “teaching-creative-writing blogs.” This blog has invigorated my teaching in many wonderful ways, and it’s brought me many new friends. Yes, it takes time, and I know we all struggle to find the time to write, to teach, and to live our lives. In the midst of a busy life, why make time to write about teaching when it doesn’t “count” for tenure and promotion?

Because when you force yourself to articulate what you do and how you do it, your teaching improves.

Because. Teaching. Matters.