This is my claim: with the university exploiting adjunct faculty to teach basic composition classes, it is up to tenure-track and tenured faculty members to volunteer to teach these courses as part of their normal load and enhance in part those same skills in their creative writing workshops. With CW teachers boasting publications, no doubt they should want to use their talents to help with fundamental skills: creating a thesis, synthesizing evidence with analysis, etc. Any CW teacher who uses the excuse that they themselves never took enough a comp class and as a result don't know how to teach it is copping out on their moral responsibility.
In my department, I am appalled by even the Literature faculty wanting to shirk their composition duties because they're upper-level courses are so precious.
As most CW teachers assign students to write a short critique of their peers' work, they need to teach them how to go about doing that. Most CW teachers take that for granted, failing to teach close reading skills, etc--the very skills their students need to complete that task. Instead they do twee writing exercises like another dumb, twist on the "I remember..." writing exercise that students share without any critique. (Although I have used Joe Brainard's "I Remember" precisely for that purpose. Or find a litany poem, and have them emulate it only to xerox a few of them as examples. This makes an analysis of abstraction vs. concrete manageable and urgent since it is their own work.)
For me, whatever writing class you’re engaged in, even composition, you need to start with one basic skill: the use of idiosyncratic detail, stressing specificity over abstraction.
CW teachers can claim that there’s other ways to go about writing instruction.
But I think they're foolish.
Having taught at a number of different universities and community colleges, I can attest that students, no matter how intelligent, will always avoid, to some significant extent, offering unique details. If they can’t do this, they will not be able to do much in terms of their writing life in and outside of the classroom.
So: undergraduate creative writing teachers have an ethical responsibility to give their students skills that apply not just to various aesthetic poetics camps studied in class, but to supplement the failure of certain introductory composition classes.
Most undergraduate composition papers suffer from a lack of detail, vague claims as do a lot of their poems.
From reading various blogs and talking to CW teachers from other universities, I find that a good number of teachers often ignore a skill that they may feel is beneath them: abstract versus concrete details. These same irresponsible teachers pride themselves on such embarrassing rationales that they’re expanding their students' possibilities with form and content, and the connection between the two.
CW teachers often fail as a result of teaching out of their own aesthetic and cultural obsessions rather than appropriately diagnosing what our students need.
I taught at University of Utah, largely populated by LDS students, who are some of the most literate and cultured students I’ve ever had, largely as a result of their evangelical missions to other places in the nation and world. Even there, a majority of the students faltered in being able to identify an abstraction and an idiosyncratic detail. Obviously, there is a role for abstraction in poetry. However, with students being unable to comprehend a fairly simple narrative or lyric poem, nothing else can really be taught with any efficiency or effectiveness.
I was this baldfaced with my CW students this semester. I wrote three words all in caps on the blackboard: GENERAL, SPECIFIC, IDIOSYNCRATIC. They would have to choose an object and brainstorm a general description of an object, then a specific, and then an idiosyncratic one. For instance:
they would choose car as a general item,
a rusty Volvo with a bad paint job as specific,
and as idiosyncratic: an Oldsmobile with a bumper sticker that says "I AM THE PARENT OF AN HONORS STUDENT" torn off by what could have been the kid who just got a C for the first time.
This was very difficult for them. Idiosyncratic description usually involved puke, vomit, blood, etc. The only way they could expediently describe something was through the grotesque. They don't like to linger over their writing and provide something truly unique. This isn't in any way to blame my students. Cloudy, sentimental, vague writing permeates our culture; why should they write any different.
This abstract-versus-concrete skill obviously can be applied to composition. It's hard to move beyond a thesis that says "This ad is sexist" or "Society reveals there are similarities and differences..."
No doubt some CW teachers would liken my pedagogical philosophy to forcing students to write the five-paragraph essay in their composition classes. At Project Advance at Syracuse University, a gathering of high school and college teachers, I brought up on the panel that I wish the five paragraph essay was taught more often in the classroom. Much to my surprise, I caused an inadvertent controversy. My belief was so unfashionable. One teacher came up to me and said, “I wouldn’t expect a fellow homosexual to encourage such retrograde ideas. You’re supposed to be on the cutting edge.”
New poem in The Cortland Review
5 weeks ago