Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Allowing the Student to Talk (and Talk and Talk Even More) When Their Story is Being Workshopped

A few years ago when I was teaching a graduate workshop, a student was disappointed with the way I ran the class--I like when students critique my pedagogy. I can get bored quite easily, and the sudden need to explain myself provides me with a jolt of energy. It often inspires the better conversations. In my poetry workshops, I don't have each student turn in a poem a week--something that I always hated a student. How many poets write a good poem a week? Or for that matter, even a semester? I arrange their workshop time as I do a non-/fiction workshop: in place of a story, they have to turn in a group of 4-6 poems. They go up twice a semester.

With a group of poems, you can always find something intriguing. With a single poem, it might produce no discussion. Or if you do talk about it, you feel like you're humoring the writer, and no matter how intelligent you may be to disguise your motivations, everyone can see right through you.

My advanced level/graduate students are workshopped twice in a semester. When I first began teaching, I led the discussion twice--the student couldn't talk until we as a class were through.

I did what I always do, and I confess to my students my approach on the first day--at the start, I'll ask them to tell me what intrigued them. To simply describe what they see. Then we'll open it up until I want to take over and interrogate specific aspects/excerpts of their work. (I think workshops where the workshops runs itself, where its "democratic" is never particularly useful--why be disingenuous? the students want your opinion, no? what creative writing teacher who was once an MFA student can deny that. To not say at some point whether you like it or dislike it is mean--a lot of self-dubbed intellectual teachers like to think they transcend those gut reactions, but I often find the most useful starting points for discussion comes from comments like "It's boring" Or "It's stupid." Or "I don't get it." Isn't that how we all react to words? Why deny our students those feelings?

But now I don't. That graduate student who was unhappy said that when I led the workshop, I focused on things that didn't matter to him. I felt like a crappy teacher.

And worse: he had a good point. At a certain level, students have a right to get the knowledge they want about their work. If you're teaching in an undergraduate program that has more than an introductory creative writing class, you have to acknowledge that these classes are training them to see themselves as artists and their "material" as the stuff of art. Also: how many tricks can any creative writing teacher employ to help their students better themselves?

We spend an hour on each student's writing. The first time I do lead the discussion. They are not allowed to talk. The second time they lead the workshop. They can talk as much as they want. For the second time they turn their writing in, they are told that they can use that time in whatever they see fit. They can talk about their writing. They can ditch talking about their own writing, and talk about something simply related to the genre the class is supposed to focus on. They can lead writing exercises, show a movie, lecture non-stop, orally interpret a section from a published book--whatever they want.

When I told a colleague about my strategy, they dismissed it. Understandably. I expected to regret it as well. But it turned out, for the most part, to be one of the best things I've ever done in the classroom. Once a student brought in a piece of religious literature--full of platitudes. She said, "This is what I thought was good writing. Now I'm not sure. I'm confused after we talked about my piece last time."

For me, student confusion is a good thing. And for a student to rethink what they once valued is even better. Because I am aggressive, sometimes to the class' detriment, I try not to say (or even imply) that a "transformation in thought occurred"--it might not have. They may be onto something about themselves, and to push it leads them to a conclusion the might not have made. To supply it for them causes them to affirm you and not the path you're trying to send them on.

Here's another example: In a non-fiction class, I was raising the problematic nature of a redemptive moment in a narrative--the epiphany, what limitations that may cause. A student brought in his new story and the last one that was workshopped. He decided to bring in his last an most recent story. He underlined the exact paragraph where the "change" occurred. Now he asked the class: "To be more successful should I put the epiphany sooner or later?" And then he added: "Or should I be more vague with the actual words." He obviously hadn't understood what I said (or maybe I didn't communicate it at all successful, a definite possibility), but his active questioning allowed me the opportunity to reexplain myself.


  1. I like where your going with this. I feel often like I would like to ask questions about my stories in workshop. When I have to wait for the end of the workshop I often feel too "chased inside myself" to be able to ask the questions I want to ask. Although I appreciate people's gut reactions to a reading, there are often specific ways I have challenged myself and I would have liked to know if what I tried was successful even if the story failed in other ways.

  2. Liz Lerman Dance Exchange has a method that may be useful in comparison. They call it Critical Response Process. The dancer begins by briefly stating what they were attempting to do with the piece. Were they taking a new risk? Working out technical problems? This is no time to go on and on. The purpose is to make sure that others are clear about the intention.

    The critiques tend to be more directed as a result, though anyone is free to go beyond that frame in order to share what they think. When I've adapted this approach, I hold my comments to the end in order to respond to the work directly and anything that came up in discussion. Then the student/dancer briefly responds at the end.

    I am upfront about the expectation of brevity. If I'm in the formal role, then I take it as my responsibility to manage the playing field, including how much oxygen is left in the room.

    Thanks for the interesting topic!

  3. Thanks for the discussion. I spend a lot of time in my workshops talking about outside readings, having students do exercises (in and out of class). I always allow students to talk about their own poems, especially to answer questions posed by me or one of their colleagues. But I hadn't thought to have them present the work themselves. I'm going to have my grad students talk this over today; maybe it will lead us somewhere.