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

Teaching
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. Continue reading

Most Words Drafted–Fall 2013

Teaching

Here are the winners of the Most Words Drafted competition in my novel-writing class. The whole semester of this course is archived here.

First place: Liz Winks

LizLiz wrote 64,309 words this semester. Her satirical novel is entitled The Grand War: or, How We Screwed Over the World to Get What We Wanted. She plans to keep writing during the break and the spring semester until she’s got a first draft–and given her amazing productivity, I have no doubt that she’ll do it, too.

You can follow Liz’s main character Otto von Visscher on Twitter. He’s a scientist.

I asked Liz to talk about how she got all this writing done this semester. Here’s what she said. Continue reading

Do the Math: Part 2

Teaching Writing

Last week, I talked about “doing the math” (and by extension time management) here at The Big Thing. This powerpoint contained a slide that got my attention.

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 8.30.56 PM

I use Google Calendar to schedule meetings and appointments, but not writing time, teaching time, etc. I don’t compartmentalize my day that way–although maybe I should. My novel writing students and I were talking about time–how there’s never enough time to work on novels–so I showed them the picture and said, “C’mon. Let’s log in how we spend our time for one week.”

I went first.

How do I spend my time? I was already asking myself that question a lot because my P&T document and materials were due this past Friday.

FYI: “P&T” stands for Promotion and Tenure. It’s basically a résumé, and the supporting materials (i.e. evidence) is organized however your institution prefers: binders, folders, hanging-file crates. (Here is an example of a P&T vita I found on the Ohio State English Department’s website, for example). For P&T, I divide my job as a university professor into three categories and account for my activity in three categories:

  1. Scholarship: publication, grants, readings, public appearances, the “writer me”
  2. Teaching: in class, in office hours, grading, thesis supervision, class prep, the “teacher me”
  3. Service: committee work (in my area, my department, my college, and my university), service to my profession, mentoring students, the “citizen me”

You can click on this calendar to see it more closely. And find out when I take showers.

How I spent my time last week. Roughly.

How I spent my time last week. Roughly.

Key to My Activity Calendar

White = Scholarship: I’m working on a novel, and I wanted to get all the pages I’ve written over the last two years compiled into one document to share with my husband and my P&T committee. I wrote about 2000 new words last week as I pulled it all together, plus made lots of tweaks to all 294 pages. Also, I carved out time for the keynote address I’m delivering this Thursday at the 2013 Indiana College English Association conference.

Green = Teaching: I’m teaching three courses this semester, three separate preps, one graduate course and two undergrad. I taught two books this past week (A Visit from the Goon Squad and the last third of Julianna Baggott’s Pure). I’ve read them before, but I needed to refresh my memory. My undergrads take a quiz every time they read something for class, which I must grade. I also graded and gave feedback on six student blog posts and 10 four-page writing assignments. I met with students during office hours, etc.

Red = Service: I spent a lot of time on the P&T document and materials. I’m also on the College Curriculum Committee (CCC) which meets on Mondays, and we had a CW area meeting this week, too. I also spent some time writing letters of recommendation for former students.

Blue = Communication: The truth is that, if I’m using my computer, I’m usually checking email and social media at least once an hour, if not more. In a sense, I’m communicating all the time. Emails. Social Media. Posting to my blogs or replying to comments on those posts. But this category denotes time in which I’m not multitasking, but rather spending dedicated time taking care of communication.

[Last week, I read this great post, "Ten Email Commandments," which made me realize (among other things) that I use my various inboxes as "to-do" lists, which explains why, when you send me a message on FB asking me to do something, I often forget that you asked me, because FB messages aren't visible like email messages are.]

Yellow = Personal time. It’s kind of sad when you have to count “showering” and “eating dinner” as “personal time,” but it’s true.

Totals

Gulp. I worked 72 hours last week.

I have avoided adding up this figure for days. Ever since I made the calendar, I have avoided tallying it all up. I didn’t want to confront the fact that I worked 72 hours last week.  My husband just came into the room, and I said, I worked 72 hours last week! And he said, “Uh-huh.” He’s not surprised.

That time was divided thusly:

  • Scholarship = about 16 hours
  • Teaching = about 24 hours
  • Service = about 21 hours
  • Communication = about 11 hours

Suggested Reading

As I worked on my activity calendar this week, these articles were published about how we spend our time in academia and/or online. How appropriate!

Reflections

I don’t want to hear oh how dedicated I must be, blah blah blah. Because the truth is that while I was working on my novel this week, and prepping for classes, and reading course proposals for CCC, I was also letting myself get sucked into checking messages and reading stuff on the internet. I mean, MY GOVERNMENT SHUT DOWN LAST WEEK. People were lighting themselves on fire. I found time to tweet at my congressman every hour for an entire day. I found time to order pictures of my new nephew and text my mom about my dad’s birthday.

By sharing my week with you, I’m not trying to set myself up as some kind of ideal.  In fact, I’m sort of horrified about this. I’m full of questions.

Was it necessary to have worked that many hours?

Are those hours completely misleading since I was online most of the time? If I spent 11 hours doing pure “communication,” plus I was online a great deal during the rest of the time, how much time did I spend online?

Is this a situation of my own making, or is it a situation all academics are facing these days: a work week that bleeds into our evenings and weekends? Why is it bleeding? Is it our fault, or is it the job’s fault?

If this was 1993, not 2013, and all other circumstances were the same, would I still have “worked” 72 hours this week?

Do you count the time you spend writing as part of your work week? If not, why don’t you? Because you absolutely should–although, yes, I know, it’s especially hard from the middle of the semester onward.

Stay tuned, dear readers, until next week. I have more to say. [This post was actually twice as long, so I turned it into two. ]

Why don’t you keep an activity log this week too? The more the merrier. Or the more depressed.

Teaching Tuesday: Learn their Names

Teaching Tuesday: Learn their Names

Teaching
The names of all my students this semester.

The names of all my students this semester.

On the first day of any class I teach, I learn all their names.

First, I call roll. I request that they tell me:

  1. what they prefer to be called
  2. the name and location of their hometown

I learned a lot about the states of Alabama, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania this way, and now that I’m teaching back home again in Indiana, I’m familiar with most of the towns they name.

Every once in awhile, I’ll get a student from Peru, Indiana, my hometown. Last semester, I had a young woman from Peru who was the cousin of a boy I “went with” in the 8th grade (although I didn’t tell her that).

I try to have a brief conversation with each student about where they’re from, where it’s located, what it’s famous for. Something. Anything. I make a connection. This can take awhile.

Then I go down the roll sheet again and try to identify everyone—and remember their hometowns.

Then I put the roll sheet down and go around the room, point to each student, and try to recall their first name. I keep going until I get them all right.

I tell them this. “I might see you in an airport five years from now, and I’ll remember your face and where you sat in my class, but I will not remember your name. At the end of this semester, I do a brain dump.” But for now, I want to know who they are.

Then, and only then, we go over the syllabus, etc.

How many names are we talking about here? When I taught undergraduate general education classes, I often had 35 students per class. Now I teach mostly majors, and I tend to have 15 or 20 students per class, three classes per semester. So: at maximum, we’re talking 60 names. Usually less. This semester, it’s 40.

At The College of New Jersey, I once had a class with seven Matts. I kid you not.

I’ve noticed that many of my students seem startled that I’m making this effort to learn their names.  I’m not sure why this is.

I learn their names because I think it sets a good tone for the semester. I want them to know that I care about who they are as individuals. Sometimes students will work harder if they feel like you might be disappointed in them if they slack off. I want my class to be at the top of their priority list.

I do this because I think that students very quickly make up their minds about whether or not they like a class and their teacher. I know I did when I was in college, and this study bears that out. That first day, they’re taking stock of their semester, what’s on their plate, with whom they’re going to be dealing. I want my class to be their favorite, if at all possible–although if it’s not, that’s okay. (It’s taken me a long time to accept that, actually.)

I do this because being a good teacher isn’t just about your syllabus, how smart you are, how knowledgeable, how you’re perceived in your discipline. It’s about whether or not you have the ability to get through to people. Sometimes, I’m capable of  this. Not all the time (and I’d be happy to show you my evals, which are sometimes mixed), only sometimes.

I try for “most of the time.” And spending most of the first class learning all their names is a good start.

The Next Thing: Professionalization in Creative Writing

CW Programs Literary Citizenship Teaching

Careers (job search)Not every Creative Writing major wants to go to grad school, and to be honest, I’m not even sure if most of them want to be published writers. What brings them to our classes, I think, is a desire to be connected to the world of books. This essay by Dean Bakopoulos speaks to that desire.

Creative writing isn’t a pre-professional discipline. We’re not like some academic majors which prepare students for a concrete, discernible “next thing,” such as graduate study, this job, that career path. When my students say, “What I can do with this degree?” I talk about “transferable skills.” I point them in the direction of the career center. Continue reading

A Story about Creativity

A Story about Creativity

Teaching Writing

A long time ago, I was asked to be a part of a study about Creativity. I’m not supposed to reveal who sponsored this study, but suffice it to say it was well funded. Let’s call them the Company.

The Company sent me 50 poems, 50 stories, and 50 essays by 8th graders and said, “Using whatever criteria you desire, arrange each pile from Most Creative to Least Creative. In the top right hand corner, write a big ‘1’ on the Most Creative piece and so on down to 50. Then send the stacks back to us.” Continue reading

Last Lecture: What matters more: Story or Sentence?

Last Lecture: What matters more: Story or Sentence?

Teaching Writing

Every time I teach novel writing, I end the semester with a “Last Lecture” on a topic that’s been on my mind all semester long. Last spring, I wrote about learning to self-identify as a writer; this post, “Am I Writer?” has been viewed about 1,500 times. And Google Analytics tells me that people spend an average of eight minutes on this post–which is not that surprising when you consider how urgently people need an answer to that question. This semester, I’ve decided to write about whether a novelist should focus more on The Story or The Sentence.

Kameron and Kayla won my “Most Words Drafted Contest”? Why? What set them apart? 

Both wrote scene-driven fiction with lots of dialogue. They took my advice and “sketched” their novels, temporarily suspending concern for “good writing” at the sentence level and focused on “getting the story down.” Continue reading

“I can’t do this anymore.”

Teaching

I’m having a real crisis.

I’m starting to wonder if teaching a novel-writing class with 15 students can really be done.

Let me explain.

This semester, I taught Advanced Fiction, a 400-level course at Ball State which I teach as a novel writing class. The course is capped at 15, and so, because I was assigned two sections, I had 30 students writing novels for me this semester.

Let’s do the math.

  • Each student wrote 2,250 words a week (about 9 pages of any quality) for 12 weeks.

Multiply that by 30 students, which means my students produced:

  • 67,500 words (270 pages) a week
  • 810,000 words (3,240 pages) over 12 weeks

They turned in their Weekly Words via email. I created a special gmail account to receive these messagess so that they would not get lost amid the 50-100 other emails I get every day.

  • 30 emails a week over 12 weeks = 360 emails to open, digest, file away.

To make this process easier on me, I asked them to include the following information every single week:

  1. their logline (a one-sentence description of the plot)
  2. the context of the words (“finishing chapter 2 this week,” or “This week, I banged out a lot of plot points,” or “random scenes,” or “I journaled some questions and concerns for awhile, then moved into some scenes from what I think will be the prologue.”)
  3. Then they attached the document that contained their Weekly Words.

I’ve already written about how I “read” these email attachments, which is to say that I look them over but don’t respond.

  • Logging in their Weekly Words takes about 2 hours a week.
  • Meanwhile, I read and grade other things they write. Their quizzes (I give really long in-class reading quizzes), their reverse storyboard projects (where they take a book apart and write about what they learned), short response papers, etc.

This will not surprise you: it’s really hard (but not impossible) to absorb this many stories coming at you at once. But within a few weeks, I do get to a point where I remember what each of them is writing about.

For twelve weeks, they send me the fragile stirrings of their novels. It’s weird feeling to receive those 30 emails every week, something strangely intimate and kind of a privilege. I treat their words very carefully. I acknowledge the receipt of their Weekly Words by sending a brief reply. I don’t say much other than “Thank you,” or “Keep going!” or maybe “I liked the scene at the party.”

It’s way too early to say anything critical.

And pedagogically speaking, it is relatively easy to read through words and pages I don’t need to respond to critically. Yet.

The Consequences

Still, it’s a lot of words coming at me. Even if I’m not commenting, I’m still making room in my head for all those words and stories. There are definitely consequences.

  1. I watched a lot of TV and movies this semester.
  2. When friends and former students asked me to read drafts of their novels and memoirs (this happened about once or twice a month), I had to say “No. I don’t have any more room in my head.”
  3. I worked on my own book project until about Week 8, and then I had to stop. This happens most semesters, though, even when I’m not teaching novel writing.
  4. Eventually, I *do* have to read and respond to them all. (More on this later.)

Comparison

Now, if this were a different class, a “normal” fiction workshop, I wouldn’t be quickly reading 270 pages a week. I’d be carefully reading maybe 50-150 pages of fiction due to be “up” in my workshop that week.

And so would all 30 of my students.

See, the students in my classes aren’t looking at 270 pages a week. Only me. There is no all-group workshop in my class. They’re expected to spend a lot more time writing their own stuff than they spend reading the work of their peers.

In fact, for many weeks, they really have no idea what anyone else is even writing about.

The Climax of the Semester, or Shit Gets Real

Then, in week 14, they have to turn in a partial, which I define as the first 25-50 pages of the book.

By this point, I’ve put them in small groups—the ones writing realism, the ones writing fantasy, etc.—and they read only those partials. I don’t even call these discussions “workhop.” I call it “beta reading.”

But—and you saw this coming, right?—I have to read them all. This is when things get really, really hard.

25-50 pages times 30 students = 750-1500 pages.

This is how I do it

  • I’ve been an MFA thesis advisor. This is nothing at all like that. No way. Thesis advising involves reading at both the micro and macro levels. This is macro only.
  • To keep myself from doing line edits, I send the documents to my Kindle. This keeps me from marking all over them. I try to “just read.” I make a few notes to myself.
  • I don’t type a critique. Each student makes a 30-minute appointment, so I give my feedback orally. They walk out with a rubric where I’ve marked the things they need to work on for the revision (due at the time of the final).
  • I spread these appointments out over 2 and 1/2 weeks, doing about four a day. Which means I read just four a day. That’s all I can hold in my head.

So Tuesday, for example, I had four appointments scheduled, plus a meeting and a class to teach. I read one partial Monday night before I went to bed, then got up about 6:30 to read the other three. Got dressed. Went to school. Taught. Conferenced. Came home. Had dinner.

As I write this now, I have five appointments scheduled for Wednesday which means five partials or about 200+ pages to read, and I’ve only read one of them. And my morning reading time is gone because I’m teaching from 9-12 in the morning.

So every word I’m writing here is cutting into the time it’s going to take me to read those 200 pages.

But I needed to do the math.

Conclusions:

  • There’s a good reason why very few people teach novel-writing classes comprised of 15-20 students. BECAUSE IT’S REALLY REALLY HARD.
  • Even spread out over 2 and 1/2 weeks, I couldn’t handle that many pages coming at me and that many conferences in an otherwise already full life. My physical therapist and my yoga teacher/masseuse and my husband tell me all the time, “If you don’t have time to take care of yourself, something’s wrong.”
  • The traditional workshop structure guarantees that you read works-in-progress at a reasonable rate, one at a time, a few a week. Not 30 at a time in dribs and drabs for 12 weeks and then boom, 30 manuscripts fall in your lap (or into your Kindle).
  • There must be a way to make this work. I think I’ve ALMOST got it figured out. 
  • I can’t ever teach two sections of this class again. Luckily next semester, I have just one section.
  • Rather than schedule individual conferences, I’ll be a part of the beta reading groups.
  • But how can I do that when they’re all discussing at the same time in small groups? Aha. I’ll put them in groups 3 groups of five. The week I spend discussing the mss. of Group 1, Groups 2 and 3 will get in-class writing “studio” time (which they already do anyway). So:   I only have to read five partials a week for three weeks, and I don’t have to schedule conferences because they will have gotten my feedback in class.
  • I’m also considering reducing the partial to 10-25 pages, which is actually more in line with the industry standard anyway.
I started writing this post because I was convinced I couldn’t teach this class anymore. You can only do what you have the resources to do. But of course by the end, I think I’ve figured out a way to make it work better.

More Math.

These are the numbers that count.

Most Words Drafted Contest (top 7) 

ENG 407-2

  1. Kayla Weiss 85,007
  2. Scott Bugher 65,878
  3. Andy House 62, 353
  4. Sarah Hollowell 52, 025
  5. Amy Dobbs 38, 365
  6. Jackson Eflin 32, 971
  7. Samantha Zarhn 27, 393

Each of these students wrote more than the required 2,250 words a week.

I’m convinced that the real test of teaching is figuring out a way to make your students feel like they’re working and learning WHILE ALSO making sure you yourself are staying productive as a writer. Because how can I expect them to write if I’m not? I think I’ve almost got this class to a point where we’re all writing and nobody’s buried. 

I’ll report back next semester and let you know.

Last Lecture: “Am I a writer?”

Last Lecture: “Am I a writer?”

CW Programs Teaching The Biggest Things Writing

At the end of the semester, I give presentations in my novel-writing classes about the publishing business. Many students are seniors getting ready to graduate. Hence, they are full of anxieties. The first thing they say is: Why didn’t anyone teach us about this sooner!

This is what I tell them.

Continue reading

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!