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Horizontal divider Ayşe Papatya Bucak

The Originality Scale

posted: 10.14.14 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Last year I traumatized my MFA students by inventing this thing I called the Originality Scale.  At the bottom were stories we’d heard before told in familiar ways, and at the top—well, there was no top, because whatever would go at the top is so original we can’t even imagine it (yet).  The middle, however, was filled with variations—old stories told in a new way, new stories told in an old way, new forms, new technology, history told with a new perspective, etc.  For the rest of the semester, the students seemed troubled, taunted, tortured by where their writing would fit on the Originality Scale.  I became so alarmed that I presented to the class the notion that human beings need to learn the same things over and over again, and that is perhaps why the same stories work over and over again.  And could they please forget the Originality Scale.

Except I don’t really think they should forget the Originality Scale.  The problem was not the Scale, the problem was the fear and paralysis induced by the Scale.

I think what my graduate students were really afraid of was that I might be telling them they shouldn’t be writers; that they weren’t original enough.  But what I was really trying to say was they needed to work harder at it.  To be conscious of it.

Originality matters.

So how can we teach it?

For me, quite simply, originality often boils down to the sensation that I haven’t read a piece before—but I’ve read a lot, too much. Beginning writers often have no idea what is unoriginal because they have not read enough. They struggle to recognize clichés and often seek out writing that is comfortable and familiar.  And yet because they are often young, they are frequently early adopters of using new technology in writing.  Texting, Facebook, 3D-printing all turned up in my students’ work long before I ever saw them in published pieces, and this is one of the things my students are better about bringing to their work than I am my own.  And it is one way to encourage originality. Technology, after all, is the one thing that has changed writing time and time again.

Beginning writers can also be very brave about breaking the rules (they don’t know the rules!).  And so it can be important to not “correct” them and bully them into a standard Freytag’s pyramid formation, but rather to talk about a writer’s intentions versus a reader’s response, and what readers look for when they don’t get what they expect.  Surprising is not the same thing as original and neither is weird.  What is original must still make the reader feel or think or see.  But it doesn’t have to follow the exact format of inciting incident, obstacles, climax, resolution.

During workshops, students can be encouraged to choose more unusual or unexpected points of view, to set a story in a less predictable location, to embrace…drum roll, please…what they know (which in my (students’) experience has included the secret tunnels of Disneyland, roller derby, cattle ranching, and the behind-the-scenes life of pretty much any low-wage job you can imagine).

And, of course, they can be asked to read…to read and read and read until they know what is out there.

The final irony is the thing that makes a piece of writing original may not actually be the thing that makes it great, and yet if a piece doesn’t have some unexpected, previously unseen something, it probably won’t be great. Good maybe, but not great.  And sometimes students just need to know that.

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Categories: Ayse Papatya Bucak, Creative Writing, Plagiarism, Self-Assessment and Evaluation
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Performing as Professor

posted: 10.7.14 by Emily Isaacson

When I talk to my students about writing papers, I discuss the idea of audience — most often, we discuss how things are different when speaking to our friends at another college about our weekend and speaking to our parents about it. From there I have the students think about what they’d tell the Dean of Students. That’s the one that typically gets students thinking about what they’d leave out of a discussion, and the different tone that they’d likely use.

What we’re really talking about, ultimately, is the aspect of performance for our audience. And that performative aspect is something that I’ve been thinking about in terms of my presence in the classroom: I perform differently on Twitter than I do in person; I perform differently around my friends than I do in the classroom; in fact, I perform differently in front of my colleagues than I do in front of my students.

This is not to say that the shifts in my personality are huge — the same basic “me” is there — but rather that I’ve recently become very conscious of that performance aspect of my teaching. In the classroom, my goal is to be approachable, but authoritative. I want my classroom to be a fairly laid-back space, where students are comfortable grappling with the complexities of the texts in front of them. I also want them to have fun with the literature, and this is where I’m most conscious of the way that I become performative — and, in fact, have become so increasingly over my years of experience.

What I’ve noticed in teaching over the past several years is that I’ve become much more conscious of the space that I take up in the classroom — particularly the way that I take up that space.  I’ve always been one to pace across the front of the room, or even move into the rows of students.  While this has the potential drawback of being distracting for some students, I also think it’s important for keeping students engaged and showing that I’m paying attention to them.

But that’s not quite what I’m talking about either.

What I’m really talking about is becoming, in some ways, much bigger, more physically expressive than I normally am in day-to-day conversation.

Perhaps the easiest way for me to explain this is to talk about what happens when I teach “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Students — particularly Intro to Lit students — don’t always quite visualize how very terrifying it is when the narrator is creeping about the smooch above the mopboard in that final section. What’s particularly frightening in that scene is when she looks over her shoulder at John and he faints. It always strikes me as a little bit like some scenes from The Grudge (a movie I’ve only seen trailers for, by the way), but I think that even just suggesting that to the students doesn’t quite do it. So, I show them where the mopboard would be, then I lean over — almost getting down on the ground — and begin creeping, turning my head abruptly back in to explain how terrifying this might be.

It’s very physical, and it’s something that I find that I do more and more as I teach. The performance usually doesn’t wind up being quite this undignified (it is probably a sight when I’m wearing high heels and doing this), but as I continue to teach I’ve found much more hand waving, much more exaggerated movement on my part. It’s not really the sage on the stage — most of the courses I teach are almost entirely discussion-driven — but it is an acknowledgement that we’re onstage when we’re teaching, no matter what.

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Categories: Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Emily Isaacson, Teaching Advice
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Horizontal divider Heather Sellers

First Day – How to Establish a Meaningful Beginning

posted: 9.23.14 by Heather Sellers

Tomorrow is the first day of the new semester.

My syllabi are printed on bright shiny goldenrod paper. Stapled. Neatly stacked. Books are by the door, and my water bottle, glasses, glasses lanyard, and power bars are in my satchel.  My nerves are jangly, in a good way. I’ve got new periwinkle blue notebooks for my classes. I’ve examined the rosters, and am happy to see names that are familiar to me. Qaadir. Renee. Sarah D.

Faces pop up now in our online course management tool but their faces will never be familiar: I suffer from profound prosopagnosia or face blindness.  And I’ll open class with that news, asking my students to help me identify them each time we encounter each other.

The first time I did this in front of a class of puzzled undergraduates, years ago, I was shaking so hard, I wasn’t sure I’d make it through my spiel.  But I saw the looks on the students’ faces that day: awe, curiosity, kindness, compassion.  I was stunned.  They leaned in—literally. Before leaning in was a metaphor, they physically leaned in, and peppered me with questions for 45 minutes. It was one of the most moving, meaningful hours I spent in a classroom.

And I quickly learned how to boundary that conversation so the first hour wasn’t “Heather’s Medical Mystery Hour.”  But I start every single class with this request: will you help me? And they do. I allow ten minutes for questions (what do you see? can you recognize your own face? how will you know if someone slips in and takes our place?) (what you see, no, and I won’t.)  And then it’s their turn to tell me who they are.

I’ve found that this necessary but deeply personal intimate disclosure on my part engenders an authenticity in our introductory conversation.  I always hated those dry, canned “Tell us a little about yourself, where you are from, what you are majoring in” openers. I hated them because they’re all surface and no news, no depth. And, worse, students unconsciously match their answers to fit what’s come before. It’s an exercise in conformity, not creativity.  Since I’m teaching creative writing, and asking my students to learn how to go in deep to find valuable, complex, interesting stories to tell, I want to set up a first-day introductory activity that pre-figures the work we will do during the course of the semester.  I don’t want un-boundaried self-disclosure—“tell us something no one knows about you.” That may or may not be the best route to a good introduction or a good piece of writing.

Tomorrow I’m going to try a new prompt for the introductions.  Tell us your name, what you want to be called, and what you are fired up about.  I got the prompt from a friend’s luncheon this past summer; she got it from a life coach who runs “Women on Fire.” I will have them write down their response so they have a better shot at staying true to their own internal wisdom.

I will use the introduction process as a way to launch my first lecture: how to engage the reader.

I’ll let you know how it goes.  Meanwhile, I ‘d love to hear how you structure introductions—what works for you, what doesn’t, and why.

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Categories: Classroom Challenges and Solutions
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Horizontal divider Samuel Cohen

It Says Here

posted: 9.11.14 by Samuel Cohen

The world these days is full of competing stories. I can’t turn on my computer without being inundated by them (unless I don’t look at any social media, but then what’s a computer for? Writing?). Everything that is happening, it seems, is represented by not one but at least two differing narratives. The recent retraction of a hiring offer at a major Midwestern university over a controversial Twitter feed is either an affront to faculty governance and intellectual freedom or it is a reasonable decision based on the evidence. Relatedly, (since this is what the tweets were about), recent events in Gaza are reason to condemn the Israeli government for war crimes or are reason to support it in defending itself. Unrelatedly, publicly airing a video of a football player assaulting his then-girlfriend, now-wife, in an elevator was the right move as it led to his suspension from professional football or it was a violation of the couple’s privacy.

I bring these examples up not to talk about them in themselves but to make the point that the controversies over these events can be seen not as made up entirely of logical argument (or, for that matter, unreflecting passion), but as consisting largely of competing narratives. That is, the positions people hold on these things may come from aspects of their identities—national origin, gender, some kind of identification with a relevant group—but even if they do, they are informed and supported by a story. The stories may be about the past that led to the current state of affairs or about assumptions regarding human nature or the nature of the relationship between states and citizens or employers and employees.

I’m thinking today about the importance of stories to the way we see the world (not a new insight, I know) in part because the anniversary of 9/11 is two days from the moment I am writing this. In this morning’s online reading I saw an article about still-classified portions of documents pertaining to the events of that day, documents that might or might not change our understanding of what happened. One congressman is quoted as saying these pages “tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report.” The 9/11 Report is the official account of what happened, but it is one story among many, and it is a story informed by other stories about American history, global history, and the nature of armed conflict, just as competing accounts are informed by other, larger stories and smaller personal ones.

This got me thinking about other stories we tell ourselves about those events, stories that are as much about ourselves as anything else. A scheduled event on my campus, an email from my chancellor informs me, will celebrate “Patriot Day,” the term some are using for the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. There is a wealth of narrative behind that labeling choice.

I am also thinking about stories now because I am always thinking about stories. It is one of the chief job hazards of teaching and studying fiction. This job has taught me to see narrative everywhere. As Hayden White has argued even history, which at first glance seems about the facts of past events, is shaped by the same tropes and story-forms that shape novels.  It has taught me that the arguments we have about the world around us are at bottom just stories, and that, as Billy Bragg sings in “It Says Here,” “…there are two sides to every story.” Maybe most importantly, it has taught me that there actually more than two sides—that is, that we too often fall into the trap of thinking there are only two choices, two ways to understand a particular event or phenomenon, while the best fiction can show us that the options are never-ending.  It can do this, as Bakhtin argued in his reading of Dostoevsky when a writer embodies opposing viewpoints in different characters and doesn’t pick a winner. It can also do this when it shows how difficult it is to understand the world at all, when it presents characters or narrators with points of view that do not seem to be endorsed by the author but to which the author seems to oppose no “correct” view (which Lukacs claimed is the definition of the modern novel).

My ultimate point here could be seen as another answer to the question answered in a previous entry, “Why I Teach Literature.” Another reason I teach fiction is to offer my students the opportunity to see the competing narratives in the books I assign and in the world around them, to see how these stories are built on other stories, and to see how there are more than two sides to every story. There are ways to teach that encourage these lessons, which any teacher can easily enough apply in their classroom, methods that highlight the opposition, nuance, and ambiguity in fiction and in the stories we tell outside of the pages in books. Helping students to look at things in this way can, in a hoary old humanist formulation I still believe in, help them to better appreciate and understand not only literature but also life, which, to borrow an old concept, is stories all the way down.

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Categories: Cultural Mythologies, Samuel Cohen, Uncategorized
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Preparing the British Literature Survey: Or, There’s Never Enough Time

posted: 9.2.14 by Emily Isaacson

Recently, I got into a conversation on Twitter with a number of other early modernists about survey courses, a discussion that stemmed from another English professor’s frustration with her anthology’s options for The Faerie Queene. While we discussed different anthology choices that we make for our surveys, we ultimately wound up in conversation about what we include in our British Literature surveys, and what we’re forced to leave out. Some of it simply has to do with what our anthologies give us; some of it has to do with our philosophy towards the course; and a lot of it has to do with the other options our departments provide for our students.

 

My friend with the initial complaint admitted that she tends not to teach much Chaucer in the survey, because she’s at an institution with a great course on Chaucer — and as an early modernist rather than a medievalist, she feels she can’t do The Canterbury Tales the justice it deserves. Instead she teaches other Middle English texts like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and sometimes excerpts of Piers Plowman.  Other people in the conversation admitted to leaving out The Faerie Queene altogether, giving them more time to focus on 17th century works. And others admitted — like most of us — that one of the eras covered by our surveys always gets short shrift. For many of us, it winds up being late 18th century work.

 

What I found most interesting was the conversation about how people chose the texts that they did, with many opting for relatively thematic courses (focusing, for example, on gender or the construction of the English national identity or on a particular literary pattern). Others — myself included — tend towards a more traditional style of survey course, which means trying to teach students a sense of literary history through the survey.

 

I’m in an odd position in that I teach both parts of the British Literature survey.  While different schools divide the course differently, I’ve generally taught in places that use 1798 as the dividing line — so I run into the problem of trying to teach everything pre-1798 in 15 weeks, then everything post-1798 in the next 15.  Oddly (or not) it’s really difficult to pick literature for both of them. Because of my department’s size, I’m also the only person currently in the department to teach all of the British Literature courses (we simply run a course called “Studies in British Literature,” which I will develop each time to cover a different era or topic; I’m also making my “Studies in the Novel” course a British novels course). So basically: I’m responsible for making sure my students have some sense of British Literature from Old English up to contemporary works.

 

This feels like a lot of pressure some days and my instinct is to look at lesser known writers, to focus on interesting issues of labor and gender through the time periods. But I also feel a responsibility to introduce my students to the traditionally canonical authors. I’m grateful that most anthologies include a wide variety of materials to work with — and I particularly like anthologies that include sections giving context, whether it’s the context of poetic traditions in the 16th century or the context of the laboring classes in the 19th century. Still it’s a tough balancing act, particularly given the span of time and the number of authors I always feel like we ought to be covering.

 

For me, I think that it boils down to the idea that these are called “surveys” rather than “studies in.” The purpose behind this really is to give the overview of how the literary landscape is shaped.  And the choices that I make are certainly informed by that.

 

But those choices — and my choice to include a lot of cultural context as well as less canonical authors — is also related to this idea of surveying everything. Alexander Pope (who I teach, most certainly) may have had major influence over the formation of the canon, but I cannot teach him without acknowledging — and having my students read — Mary Wortley Montagu’s work as well. They’re both part of the same landscape.

 

As I prepared my list of readings for my post-1798 class for the fall, I was reminded of how much I rely on poetry to get me through these courses. We can read multiple authors on these occasions, if the goal is primarily one of exposure to the names and the major movements.  It does lead to some weird mash-up days (we’re reading Derek Wolcott and Seamus Heaney on the same day), but it also allows for students to get a sense of the entire field. For additional coverage, I have students give presentations on texts we’re not reading in class, but which are represented in the textbook — and the explicit goal there is simply to have the exposure to the names.

 

Perhaps, most importantly, my course outcomes — beyond the sort of standard language about exposure to major figures of major movements — focus on the idea of students being able to articulate the relationship between the author, the text, and the world. I especially want them to do this through working on close reading and analysis.  And perhaps that is why, when it comes down to the moment of guilt about not including this author or that text, I am able to assuage some of my concern.  The real goal, then, is to teach students about the way we can read the work. Once they’re capable of that, they can go out and explore beyond our courses on their own.

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Categories: Emily Isaacson, Organization, Uncategorized
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Stretching the Field of Knowledge

posted: 8.19.14 by Emily Isaacson

Throughout the last decade-plus of college teaching, I’ve been called upon to do a lot of teaching outside my immediate area of expertise. A great deal of this began when I working off the tenure track at Florida Atlantic University, where I began teaching a course called “Interpretation of Fiction.” This is a course that primarily covers short stories (though we also read a novel) – and the short story was the one form that I felt, as a student of early modern drama, that I was unqualified to teach. Of course I’d studied short stories in classes – I’ve got three English degrees, after all – but I still felt like I didn’t understand the form, or know the types of stories to bring to the classroom, given that this form simply isn’t something we think about much when we read Shakespeare or Spenser or Milton.

So it was a crash course in the short story, provided by Ann Charters’ The Story and its Writer. But because of that experience, I began reading much more world literature in earnest. I’d studied some Kafka as an undergrad; I’d read some Chekhov in my teen years, but never really thought much of it; and certainly I was aware of the weirdness of Borges’ works. But much of what I was doing in the first semester of teaching that course was learning alongside my students.

Because of that initial experience after graduate school, and because I’ve since worked exclusively at small liberal arts colleges with fewer than 1500 students (and with very small English departments), I’ve spent a lot of time teaching outside of my immediate specialties. And this will continue for the foreseeable future.

In my current position, I’m teaching the courses of a woman who taught at the school for more than 40 years (I am not replacing her. She is an institution unto herself, and I certainly am not trying to fill those shoes. I’ve got my own.). The courses I teach range from Shakespeare and the British Literature survey courses to the survey of modern world literature and the novels course. I’m also in the process of creating a 100-level course on literature about nature, because we’re an institution with a large number of environmental science majors – and this seems like a topic that will interest a large portion of our student population. On top of this, I’m already carving out a niche for directing honors projects that cover, in essence, nerd culture.

Some days, it’s overwhelming. And I miss the comfort of being able to speak extensively on a topic without a whole lot of preparation when students have particular questions. But at the same time, there’s something extraordinary to me about being, ultimately, a generalist. I’m pushed to learn more and more every time I teach, and I’m pushed to expand my own literary experiences.

And that probably explains why I don’t feel bad that my summer reading has been classical Japanese literature, and not the scholarly articles about non-Shakespearean dramatists that I know I should be reading instead. At the same time, I have these moments of guilt about relying primarily on my Twitter feed for news of what’s happening in my primary field (there are lots of great early modernists on Twitter, incidentally). I wonder if I’m doing this wrong.

But those moments are ultimately pretty fleeting, because I’m coming to accept that I can still do my research in the field, and then turn my attention to the Tale of Genji the rest of the time.

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Categories: Emily Isaacson, Literature, Organization, Professional Development, The Academic Scene, Uncategorized
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Gearing Up For Fall

posted: 8.12.14 by smooney

After a brief pause for the summer, LitBits is gearing up for the fall term with an invitation to all literature instructors.  If you want to share your thoughts about literature and the classroom, we would love to welcome you to our esteemed gathering of LitBits bloggers.  Please contact me at litbits@macmillan.com if you would like to become a contributor.

Next week, veteran blogger and literature maven Emily Isaacson will kick off the 2014-2015 school year with a post about teaching outside of your primary field.

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Teaching Active Listening with the Woodberry Poetry Room

posted: 4.23.14 by Joanne Diaz

When I was in my twenties, I worked as a freelance editor and adjunct instructor in the Boston area, piecing together paychecks from one job to the next. As any freelancer knows, there’s always a point in the late afternoon when you lose your steam and wonder what to do with yourself in the hours before everyone else gets home from their office jobs. [read more]

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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

The Value of Silence

posted: 4.16.14 by Emily Isaacson

Lately, I’ve noticed that my tolerance for wait time—those moments of silence during a classroom discussion– is getting bad.  Really bad.  And perhaps, more importantly, my conviction that class is going horribly if my students aren’t talking nonstop has gotten stronger.  I want my students to be talking, and I want them talking now. [read more]

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Horizontal divider Ayşe Papatya Bucak

When is a Mistake Truly a Mistake?

posted: 3.31.14 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Sometimes, as a creative writing professor you just want to put your foot down.  My colleague, Kate Schmitt, told one workshop if any of them used the word flow again, they’d have to go stand in the corner.  One of my beloved professors, Ron Carlson, told us we weren’t allowed to put clowns in our stories. [read more]

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