Saturday, March 13, 2010

On the Necessity of Grading Creative Writing

When I was an undergraduate, I was one of those creative writing students who would complain if they got a B +. It would piss me off. I would immediately run to the teacher, and demand that I know what criterion was being used. I remember one creative writing teacher said, "Why are you asking me about a B+. You're creating art. You shouldn't be concerned about grades."

I slumped away, convinced I wasn't an artist. A real artist would either have a.) not asked about the grade or b.) would have gotten an A.

Grades did matter to me. And they should. You are paying for that letter on that transcript. You are not paying for a good teacher. Or a bad teacher. Those sort of guarantees can not be offered. But the letter--that letter--is something that can be guaranteed (At least this is the attitude many students have).

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On the undergraduate level, there is one skill that needs to be taught above all others --the need for specific, idiosyncratic observation. I've taught every single sort of class at SUNY Brockport--poetry, fiction, non-fiction, literature, composition--and that ability is by far the most undeniable necessity. And the hardest one for students to master. Wherever I have taught--Alabama, Upstate New York, and Utah (where students are often the most literate and genuinely respectful of teachers, something their admirably evangelic upbringing has instilled)--this is the first and most important thing I teach.

My course is usually organized in the following way: the first third of the course is small readings and short exercises based on those readings. Then we workshop the first of two short stories which comprises the bulk of their grade (the first one essentially a mid-term; the second, a final). And then from my evaluation of their writing, I organize whatever readings and exercises would best help the majority of the class for the rest of the in-class time for the semester. Last, for their final they turn in the second of the two short stories. (I don't believe in rewrites for a number of reasons.)

Teachers who immediately begin workshopping in an introductory or intermediate creative writing course risks doing their students a disservice. Any time a student feels there is the opportunity to get by through offering abstractions, vague language, and platitudes they will take advantage of it. If you immediately jump into workshopping, you can spend half of the semester saying the same thing to every student's piece: "Show. Don't tell." And if you do choose to workshop, you must put a letter grade on their stories/poems/essays, or else they will feel everything is OK, or OK enough, to continue doing what they've been doing, filling their pages with abstractions and cloudy language.

I don't put grades on any of the initial exercises completed during the first third of course. It's full credit or no credit--a good number of students will still get bad grades. While teaching them what I want them to first know, it's not fair to grade a student on what they don't--a mistake so many creative writing teachers make. Immediately grading with an "A," "B," etc. tends to further mystify creative writing, making it even more arguable that it should not be taught in the classroom-- implying you either have the talent or not.

But when they turn in the first of their short stories (usually around mid-term), I emphasize their most significant strength, and what I challenge them to work on in the future. Perhaps more importantly: I mark down their writing grade, a participation grade, and the grade I would offer them at that particular moment in time.

In an Intro to Creative Writing class, I make a list of some of the most important skills I'm looking for:

1.) ability to identify and name abstract versus specific versus idiosyncratic language
2.) ability to identify scene versus summary
3.) ability to create specific scenes with specific characters doing specific things at a particular moment in time
4.) ability to create "summary" that moves beyond platitudes and the obvious
5.) ability to create scenes with characters that incorporate intriguing settings and props for the character to inhabit and use
6.) ability to privilege character over sensationalistic plot
7.) ability to avoid the strictest chronological ordering, using effects like section breaks to demarcate time and scene in overall story

I tell them that if they don't master #1, I won't be able to help them with their story. If the majority of the class can't show me proof of that skill, I tell them, we won't be moving on. Literature teachers often fail in this way--they race through their texts without ever assessing their students' ability to comprehend what they read. You have to begin teaching literature as a New Critic in the classroom or else you'll be doomed in a charming but pointless attempt to fasten a theoretical apparatus to the readings.

New Critics understand that reading comprehension matters above all else. This isn't to say that history isn't of crucial importance, or that it doesn't intersect with close readings. But if your undergrad students can't make literal sense of the sentences and summarize what those sentences mean, you're doomed. Your students will rotely scribble down what they will see as mere amusing factoids and just regurgitate them on the exam.

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I call the grades that I put on their first of the two required stories "their receipt." They have written proof of where they stand in regard to the established criterion. I encourage them to come meet with me if they are unhappy with their grade--I'll further explain what needs to be done for their final short story. When they make an appointment, I tell them to bring in one or two pages of new writing (nothing from the midterm and nothing that will be able to be used for their final portfolio). We'll see how well they're engaging the particular skill with which they're struggling.

I believe that only through a grade will they be able to know how serious it is that they master certain basic skills. Each letter grade packs a certain amount of urgency, good or bad. Perhaps even more importantly, the teacher has an ethical obligation to demystify the grading of creative writing in the academic classroom. To a certain, definite degree, writing skills can be taught. Creative writing teachers need to disallow literature teachers from thinking they have a stronghold on a more specific, unarbitrary grading criterion.

8 comments:

  1. As someone who teaches creative writing, I find this post very insightful and interesting. There doesn't seem to be a lot out there about practical tips to teaching creative writing(outside of the workshop, which is something I don't do a lot of in my CW classes).

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  2. The writing workshop model taught in elementary and secondary schools usually provides younger students with specific rubrics for grading that could be scaled up for undergrads. I totally agree that writing skills can be taught, but I'm curious as to why you don't believe in rewrites.

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  3. YES. That's really all I have to say.

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  4. Thanks! I like this a lot. Specific, idiosyncratic writing.

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  5. An interesting and insightful essay.

    While I agree that writing skills can be taught, my experience is that that's ALL that can be taught. You can't teach people to have ideas, or inspirations, or creativity; you can help them hone their talent, and make the best of it. You can teach them the craft, the technical tools, that will support their vision, whatever that is.

    The flip side of this, though, is that far too many writers end up believing that craft alone is enough. And so we get lots of poets, for example, who have incredible craft and tools and writing abilities but truly have nothing to say. That's been my experience, too. Undergraduates, even many professors who teach creative writing, simply don't have enough life experience to have something to write about. And thus it turns into a cloistered art.

    So I appreciate the insight into how one might teach creative writing. I wonder if that's enough, though.

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  6. Steve, this is so great. I love EVERYTHING you say in this post. The checklist is especially helpful. Thank you.

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