Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why All Creative Writing Instructors Need to Teach Intro to Composition

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.”


  1. I wish the concept of a paragraph was taught more often, let alone the five paragraph essay.

    What other skills do you think a 101 class should impart. Remember to be specific in your examples. :)

  2. I totally agree that all English faculty should share in the teaching of composition. I brought this up once to the composition coordinator at one of the institutions I was teaching at years ago, before I realized one should never speak such things aloud, and he said "Frankly, the other faculty just aren't very good at it." That's like saying men just aren't good at changing diapers or washing dishes, an excuse to get out of a difficult but necessary work, work that is seen as requiring less skill or brain power.

    But sigh. I'm not hopeful the exploitation will end.

    Did we know each other at the U? I know your name, but can't remember if we've met before. Your blog is great!

    lara (candland)

  3. Steve, I find myself agreeing with you on all counts. As someone who teaches Comp 1, Comp 2, and a mixed-genre Creative Writing course, I am constantly blending comp/rhet theory with creative writing pedagogy in all my classes. In fact, I tend to teach the same skills and strategies but vary the delivery to fit the content. I do a lot of close reading and explications in all writing classes.

    That said, I am not a fan of the five paragraph theme. Writing five-paragraph themes in college is like continuing to ride a bike with training wheels when you are in your thirties. Sure, it might look hip and retro, but the rest of us think you are an idiot.

    I tell my students that the 5P does have its place, and that place is timed writing assignments. In fact, most of my students can churn out 5Psin their sleep, thanks to excellent surrounding school districts which stress writing skills.

    Student's main problems with writing, though, are exactly what you pinpoint: it is hard to get them to move beyond the specific to the idiosyncratic. The abstract-to-concrete movement is just as difficult for them as moving from the personal narrative to the abstract academic argument. I chalk this up to not being comfortable with actually thinking about stuff in a non-ego centered way. Students want to play it safe because safe is so much easier. The problem is that playing it safe brought As in high school, while in college it brings Cs and Ds.

    As I tell my students, "if you can't provoke a physical reaction in the reader beyond disgust at the poor quality of your writing, you aren't really writing--you're just killing trees."

  4. Great post -- as someone who was part of the adjunct army, and someone who now has tenure at a little community college in Western New York, I couldn't agree more with your thoughts. I teach both comp and creative writing and find that yes, indeed, the courses overlap.

  5. I heart teaching comp. Sometimes more than creative writing.

    My only argument here is that there are *so* many ways to teach general/specific/idiosyncratic detail.

    And as for the "twee writing exercises" (what's twee?), I find them inherently useful in doing just that.

    Example: teaching a comparison-contrast paper in Comp class, I brought in two different but similar green purses of mine. We spent nearly 60 minutes going over and over the details, the differences, the nuances of look, use, purpose, etc.

    Then, we wrote.

    I felt that accomplished more than any amount of close reading could do. And it was more fun.


  6. When I was teaching composition as an adjunct, I used my writing experience and MFA training to teach the kids to write better. I believe they improved. So did they. My efforts were along the lines of what you suggest: timeless writing skills. Few regular faculty taught these many sections—as many as 100 a quarter—just graduate students and adjuncts.

    I enjoyed the work so I didn't mind the lack of recognition, but I began to feel that the composition experts in charge of the program were suspicious of me and hostile toward my approach. For one thing, I wasn't steeped in their pedagogy, and their desire seemed to be to focus the kids on thesis-driven academic writing. I had them research a major paper and write in MLA style, but otherwise emphasized personal narrative, believing that increasing the students' confidence and pleasure and execution made them all-around better writers. We did short five-paragraph-type essays as well, but the kids were bored with such approaches because they'd been writing them through high school.

    While the undergraduates had a four-year college "career" ahead of them, few were going to become academics but all were going to have to write for the rest of their lives. The English department apparently felt it was responsible for preparing students for professors in other disciplines. That may be valid, but it was my impression that professors outside English had abdicated their own responsibilities for requiring thoughtful writing and stylistic compliance. Just as it would be wrong for English instructors to assume they are training English majors, I thought they were mistaken to assume they were preparing students for graduate work in other disciplines.

  7. At some universities, Like mine--UAB, all full-time faculty (even full professors) must teach at least one composition class per year. I agree that one informs the other well.

  8. What a terrific post. One thing I have hated about the last few years? decades? is the increasing separation between the teaching of composition, creative writing, and literature. I want there to be more roads in between these things, as surely they can and could and should all inform one another. So I applaud your trenchant analysis.

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