Pedagogy Disguised as Humorous (But Completely Serious) Essay

Pedagogy Disguised as Humorous (But Completely Serious) Essay

[The composition history of my essay, “The Big Thing,” now titled “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis,” is up at The Millions on 1.18.11.]

  1. In January 2010, I write an informal mini-lecture to deliver to my graduate fiction workshop.
  2. I adapt said lecture into a real, honest-to-goodness pedagogy article (with end notes and everything). I submit this article to the AWP Writers: Chronicle (30,000 subscribers), a magazine that should be familiar to anyone who resides in or emerged from a creative writing program.
  3. A few months later, I receive word that AWP is considering my article for their pedagogy forum on their member-only, password protected e-Link.
  4. Wow. I had no idea there was such a thing as the AWP Password-Protected Pedagogy Forum. It contains many great “exclusive” articles about teaching. In particular, I admire “Toward a Pedagogy of Process for the Creative Writing Classroom by Jenny Dunning and “More Than Just Mentorship and Modeling: Creative Writers and Pedagogy” by Gerry LaFemina. Here is the link. I hope you can access it.
  5. Unfortunately, AWP decides not to publish my essay. Not in the print Chronicle. Not in their Password-Protected Pedagogy Forum.
  6. Damn. [feel disappointed]
  7. Okay. [get over feeling disappointed]
  8. Make important realization. An essay about Novel Writing can be submitted to a magazine like Poets & Writers, Writer’s Ask, Fiction Writer’s Review, etc. But an essay about Teaching Novel Writing cannot, because that’s pedagogy. And nobody likes the p-word.
  9. But every time I post a status update on Facebook about teaching, I get beaucoup notifications. Everyone I know (granted, a particular segment of the population) wants to learn more about teaching creative writing, but nobody seems to know anything about the AWP Password-Protected Pedagogy Forum.
  10. Instead, everyone is still talking about Louis Menand’s New Yorker essay/review of Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era.
  11. Anis Shivani publishes a provocative article on MFA programs in the Huffington Post. [dialogue/shitstorm ensues]
  12. What to do with my pedagogy article? A colleague suggests that I submit it to Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. This publication would “count” as serious scholarship. But if my creative writing teacher friends can’t find the AWP Password-Protected Pedagogy Forum, will they ever find my article in Pedagogy? I mean, College English devoted its January 2009 issue to Creative Writing, and wow, didn’t THAT just rock the world. [no dialogue/silence]
  13. On The Rumpus, Anelise Chen publishes “On Blowing My Load: Thoughts from Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme.” [dialogue/shitstorm ensues]
  14. Someone suggests that I send my pedagogy article to Creative Writing: Teaching, Theory, and Practice. Again, wow. I had no idea there was such a thing, and again, I find great essays about teaching creative writing. But no one hangs out at this journal which has been around since 2008. Its online forum contains two topics and a total of seven posts. Meanwhile, over at HTMLGiant, Roxane Gay writes an essay about teaching and receives 73 comments, a response which represents but a small fraction of the number of eyeballs that have been on that piece.
  15. Inspired by other writers (here and here and here and here and here and here) who occasionally blog about or share info about their teaching, I start a blog called “The Big Thing” to talk about my experiences teaching a novel writing course in which all class members (including myself) participate in National Novel Writing Month.
  16. Anis Shivani publishes a provocative article on the Huffington Post. [dialogue/shitstorm ensues]
  17. One night, a writer friend of mine posts a casual Facebook status update in which he muses about the difference between writing short stories vs. novels. Do the two forms require different kinds of training? [dialogue ensues]
  18. Okay. Okay. I decide to revise my pedagogy article into something more provocative so that my ideas can reach a wider audience. I hope that a dialogue will ensue. Not a shit storm. [feel nervous]
  19. I give a talk at a writer’s conference about my “Big Thing” ideas. Someone comes up to me afterwards, a writer who is well known as a teacher of creative writing as well. I tell her the story I’ve been telling you, and she shakes her head knowingly. “No one wants to publish essays about teaching,” she says, “but everyone I know is absolutely desperate to read them.”
  20. Anis Shivani publishes a provocative article on the Huffington Post. Ibid.
  21. I finish a draft of “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from ‘Story’ to ‘Book'” just in time for a reading at the University of Illinois. Perhaps the audience came expecting fiction or maybe some memoir. Instead, I give them Pedagogy Disguised as Humorous but Completely Serious Essay. Despite this, people seem to like what I am talking about. [feel jazzed]
  22. Slate publishes an excerpt of Chad Harbach’s n+1 essay, “MFA vs. NYC.” Harbach says, “The MFA system also nudges the writer toward the writing of short stories; of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form.” [dialogue ensues]
  23. What do teachers of creative writing have to say with regard to these matters? Not a lot. Probably because we are absolutely up to our eyeballs with work to do. Classes to teach. Manuscripts to review. Manuscripts to write. When we have a free second, we chatter on Facebook about it or in the comment threads on blogs. We make xtranormal videos. We vent. We feel self-righteous. How dare anyone impugn our discipline!
  24. Why don’t we take the time to write something long and well-considered? Why don’t we write about our teaching? What do we call a piece that’s about teaching, about the classroom, but isn’t pedagogy and isn’t a how-to craft essay? Will it count for tenure and promotion? And who will publish it? Who will read it, for godssakes?
  25. I think about all this for a long, long time. And then I send the essay to The Millions. And a few days later, they say yes.

I hope you like it and will share it with others. [dialogue ensues]


CW Programs


    • Cathy Day says:

      The Spanish Hotdog is a hotdog with sloppy-joe-like meat sauce on it. Meat-sauce on meat product. Next time you disc golf in Peru, you need to go to Mr. Weenie and try one.

  1. Amy says:

    Dialogue starts now. What you have to say about the Big Thing is so important, and I hope that it gets all the attention it needs to make something *happen.*

  2. Justin says:

    Over New Year’s break I decided to start writing, for once, every single day. I was inspired, really, by the Paris Review interview with Hemingway, in which he talks about writers being wells, and that if you take too much water out, the well runs dry and you’ve got to wait awhile before you can get more water. Is that even how wells work? Doesn’t matter. I decided to do it every day, write until I feel satisfied with what I have and excited about what’s to come, and then stop. I’m averaging out exactly how Moseley said I would. Hour a day, 1000-2000 words.

    About the only thing I’m worried about is revision. I’m scared of spending all this time and jeez really not working out my revision muscles at all. And what’s going to happen 3-12 months from now when I’ve got my first draft but haven’t revised in forever? That’s about the only real concern I have right now, is how does “revision” work? Does it work in a similar way that the actual writing of fiction works? Do we have to revise every single day, too, if we expect to improve?

    Anyway, thanks for writing the essay. It made me feel good, and put into words a lot of the issues I’ve faced in the past 9 months after graduating college and no longer having the undergraduate workshop to keep me writing/revising/worrying about my story being workshopped/seeking outside approval, help, and encouragement rather than developing a personal understanding and appreciation for my work.

  3. Cathy Day says:

    Thanks Justin. You know, for many years, I wrote in such a way that I wrote, revised, and tweaked every sentence, then the next. One “perfect” sentence after another. I really didn’t know there was another way, and for this and other reasons, my first book took 12 years to finish. For my second book, I wrote quickly without thinking about revising, and once I had a draft, I started editing. I felt good sitting down each day with some kind of draft in front of me–even though it was sloppy–and I revised and tweaked quickly. Separating “drafting” from “revising” is something I’ve been working on. You know what’s helped? I sent the “drafted” pages to my kindle and read them there rather than on my computer, where I am tempted to fiddle and fuss and torment myself. 🙂

  4. Geeta says:

    I’m so glad this has finally made it to a public forum. Writers who teach are starving for this kind of conversation–so much more interesting to me, btw, than the tiresome and tiring conversations about the value of an MFA. Well done, Cathy. And thanks for sharing.

  5. Cathy, I thought the essay was excellent–I’ve been recommending it to everyone. Reading this post, I’m glad it got to live, despite all the twists and turns. I wrote a reply to it over on my blog.



  6. Barbara Bell says:

    As a published novelist, what i like best about your analysis is the attention to the underlying energies and motives. I find that my difficulty with the systems that we humans create (in this case teaching, specifically creative writing) and then attempt to navigate, is that the system begins to take control of the agenda, rather than being informed by the underlying needs/energies of the individuals involved.

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve sent it around to some professor friends. They’ve enjoyed it also.


  7. Lowry Pei says:

    Thanks for writing this. It sets up a lot of resonances within yours truly, because a) I’ve written seven novels, and when I started I realized I had no idea how to, even though I had a Ph.D. because I’d been studying novels for years, and b) I’ve taught writing for more than thirty years. So I guess I am old school in that I’m not a product of the MFA system, nor am I part of it. (When I was department chair at Simmons College, where I’ve taught since 1985, the Dean was hoping we’d try to start an MFA program, but the more I thought about it, the less it sounded like a good idea.)

    I believe ideally, we need to think not only outside the apparently now-standard rituals of the workshop, but outside the semester. That period of time is awfully short in the context of learning to write, and it seems vanishingly short in the context of writing a novel. When I’ve worked with people on writing novels it has been one on one, and for two semesters, and it has really produced results, but academia is not exactly set up to make that likely to happen.

    I’m teaching a beginning fiction writing class right now, and predictably, I’m setting up the writing of a short story as the goal. But at the same time, I know a) some students won’t finish one (and that’s okay), and b) more important, it’s really a course intended to help them figure out that they have an imagination, and something about how to work with it. And if they never try to write a story again after it’s over, it will, I hope, make them better readers of fiction, who enjoy it even more than they do now. The short story is a form I can describe in a brief, understandable way (even though writing it is outlandishly hard), and you do need a definable something to work towards. BUT at the same time it’s obvious how different people gravitate toward very different sorts of writing. It’s good to have an idea of a form to start from, but that doesn’t tell you much of anything about where people are going to end up. Nor do I expect it to. My own evolution as a writer followed what I think of as the classic progression: I tried to write poetry and found out I couldn’t; then I tried to write short stories and that was too damn hard, so I wrote novels. And though I’ve managed to write some short stories that I think deserve the name, I’m definitely a novelist by temperament. I for some reason have this fundamental drive to make a book. Not just one contribution to a book, but A Book.

    I think one of the basic problems in academia is the tendency of fields to become professionalized by becoming more and more self-referential. Has anyone noticed the creeping proliferation of the word “studies,” tacked onto the end of what used to be perfectly legitimate pursuits? Example: some people apparently feel there should be a discipline of “creative writing studies.” What would it be about? Unless I have it wrong, it apparently would be about the study of the academic field called creative writing. This is like the mythical bird that flies in smaller and smaller circles until it flies up, you guessed it, and disappears. That way lies, well, irrelevance. Or becoming the butt of jokes.

    Snide remarks aside, I think a huge problem is that writing programs can create an artificial context for art writing. Each writing workshop, including mine, potentially creates a self-validating world-view which the student needs to break in order to stay alive as an artist. It’s not surprising that given the parameters of the academic calendar, the short story has become the dominant form of fiction to be taught. But teachers have to remember that we are not in the business of giving students an inner life. We are not in charge of the learning; they are. We cannot make anyone else’s writing happen. I don’t expect to change anyone’s style, because I know I can’t; all I can do is let them know how I react to it as a reader. The key to it all, the invisible and crucial action, is going on inside the student. If we remember that, then maybe we can remember that our adaptations to the structure of school are pragmatic and expedient but not gospel.

    • Cathy Day says:

      I’ve been been amazed by the number of responses to my essay, but yours in particular is humbling. Thank you.

      I remember about ten years ago, my then-department sent out a survey to alumni asking how well we had prepared them for their careers. One student who majored in Teaching wrote to say that at his first job, he was assigned to teach The Sun Also Rises, and he was upset that he hadn’t been assigned to read that particular book in any of our courses. I think someone wrote him back and said, “Did you read any Hemingway? Did you read any modern novels? Did we teach you how to read and think about novels generally?” I think you are saying something a bit like that, and I agree. But for my part, I’m not willing to give up on the idea of accommodating novel writing in an academic setting until I’ve given it the old college try. 🙂 It has been a great deal of fun to think through the problem and see what can be done.

  8. Lowry Pei says:

    I’ve subscribed to your blog and I look forward to reading your thoughts, not only on teaching novel-writing, but on pedagogy generally. I’ve found that teachers in general feel they don’t get enough time to talk about how teaching and learning works.
    And thank you for posting all the cool resources on your site. You’re making me think I should do something similar.

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