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Horizontal divider William Bradley

Reflections During Week 14

posted: 12.9.14 by William Bradley

With two weeks left in the semester, my students are busy revising creative nonfiction essays for inclusion in their final portfolios.  I admit, this is a very relaxing time for me.  While many of my colleagues are frantically grading papers and writing exams, I’m showing up to school to listen to students give presentations on their favorite authors and to answer questions during office hours.  I’m thinking about getting a hammock for the office, actually.

Of course, portfolios will come in and the days leading up to Christmas will be filled with frantic grading.  But I’m enjoying the peace right now, and am reflecting on all of the good work I have read from my students this semester.

Back in August, the students entered the classroom for the first time unsure of what to expect.  Everyone knows what fiction and poetry is, but the idea of a “creative nonfiction” workshop is foreign to most of them.  Some of these students are in my class because someone recommended me to them.  Others are majors who need the course in order to move on to more advanced classes.  Others just need to get an arts elective out of the way.  Most, though, aren’t taking the class because they already have a deep and abiding love for the essay or literary journalism.

I hope that, over the course of the year, they have grown to love these forms.  Not just because I love these forms myself, but because I have seen this group of students come together and understand each other better as a result of sharing their own personal narratives.  These 18 and 19 year olds began the semester a little nervous, sometimes reluctant to allow themselves to be too exposed in their writing.  But at this point, I think that we have all become friends—or, if not friends, then very supportive colleagues.  We have shared family secrets, discussed our private anxieties, and revealed truths that we usually keep hidden when we’re in the dorms, at the bar, or in a department meeting.  We’ve established a sense of trust with each other, even though—or, perhaps, because?—we didn’t know each other 14 weeks ago.

Some of these students will go on to study English and creative writing.  Some will go on to publish their work.  Most will not.  But I hope that these students will look back on the experience of taking this class fondly, and I hope they feel like they learned useful things during our time together.  Of course, if they find that they’re able to express themselves through writing more effectively, that’s great.  But more importantly, I hope that, through reading and writing creative nonfiction, they’ve come to understand that they’re not alone in the universe.  I hope they realize that their friends, their classmates, and even their professors struggle with private stresses and anxieties.  I hope they have learned that, sometimes, we all feel isolated, or freakish, or terrified.  And I hope that they’re able to take this knowledge with them after they leave my classroom, better equipped to try to understand someone else’s point-of-view.  This, I think, is the most important reason to study creative nonfiction.

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Categories: Collaboration, Creating Nonfiction, William Bradley
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Collaborative Documents and Student Centered Classrooms

posted: 12.2.14 by Emily Isaacson

I’ve been a slow adopter of using Google Drive, despite many years of having Google-supported email at the different universities where I’ve worked.

But in my late adoption of it, I’ve come to realize how useful it can be in the classroom, particularly when it comes to facilitating a lot of the work that I do to create a student-centered discussion.

I realized over the summer that I could use Google Drive for a couple of things. The first was to create journal templates for my students in my 100- and 200-level courses.  In those courses, my students keep daily reading journals — and by having students write in a journal that I can see, I can immediately tell who is doing the work. More importantly, I can draw ideas into the classroom that students write about in their journals. It took some work to set everything up (I created a template, then made copies for all of the students), but it’s been a useful way to keep an eye on what interests the students in what they read.

My other major use of Google Drive is to create what are essentially collaborative documents of discussion questions.  I did this initially because I’ve got an assignment that’s always been a bit clunky for me in terms of organization. In my 300- and 400-level courses, I’ve always taught students how to write open-ended discussion questions, and then I’ve had them submit questions daily (in lieu of a quiz).  We use those questions in class to guide our conversation.

Previously, I’ve tried having the students just hand the questions to me in class (which really made me work on the fly) or email me either the night before or the hour before class.  With the email, I wound up spend a lot of time collating the work, which also meant the potential for missing some of the questions in the overflowing email inbox.  As I was preparing for my courses over the summer, I remembered an admonition from my student teaching days — if you can let the students do the work for you, have them do the work for you.  Thus, for this, I’ve got the students in my upper division courses writing and collating their discussion questions in Google docs. Here, I simply created forms for each day of class — titled with the name of the text we’re reading and the assigned chapters of acts — and shared an entire folder with the class.  Students submit questions until 30 minutes before class — then I print the entire thing off and use it as we work through the literature. I’ve found that students’ questions are less repetitive when they see what’s been asked before — and I’m even noticing that students will sometimes reference other students’ questions in their own (in which case, I know we have to discuss a certain topic).

I went into the semester thinking that this would be all we use shared documents for.

Then I decided that the students in my novels course really needed to take a careful look at the chronology of events in Dracula.  I realized that this was not something we could really just do on the blackboard. We’ve been doing chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of plots at the beginning of class, but there are simply too many days and too many different narrators in Dracula for that to be effective.

So I created a shared document that simply lists all of the dates in Dracula when a character writes in a diary, sends a letter, or receives a message from a solicitor’s office. On the first day of class, I shared it with all of the students in the class, projected it from the overhead, and set students to the task of sorting things out.  Students worked in groups of two or three, huddled (admittedly) around their phones, laptops, tablets, and the classroom computer, adding to the chronology together.

Once we spend the first chunk of class doing that, we take a look at the story in order — and it’s really helped the students find the details of Dracula’s movements (“Oh, wait! That’s what the dog on the ship was!” “Oh, that’s why there was the detail about the escaped wolf!”).  I also color code the document, according to the different characters narrating (i.e. John Seward’s diary is in green, Mina Murray/Harker’s journal is in purple), which allows us to see how the narrative bounces from one character to another, and how the characters themselves have to piece information together over time.

In doing this we’ve been able to have an effective discussion of the structure of the novel, which has shown the students that they can, indeed, break down the narrative into its parts and look inside the inner workings of the novel.

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Categories: Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Collaboration, Emily Isaacson, In-Class Activity, Teaching with Technology
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Horizontal divider Heather Sellers

Grading Vows

posted: 11.25.14 by Heather Sellers

I have many writing students, and I assign each one of them writing—a lot of writing, both critical and creative pieces—for each class. So, I read a lot of student work.  And this time of the semester all my vows are tested. My vow to keep my daily writing practice going. My vow to sleep and eat well and exercise daily—that’s pretty much over now that it’s late November. My vow to be present for my students, to be a good colleague. My vow to live a life centered around kindness, awareness, and meaning.

I have three strategies—which may or may not work for you—to keep from feeling overly stressed about reading so much student work, especially towards the end of the term, when getting behind, getting off track with other projects and neglecting the fun and fulfilling parts of life is most likely.

Strategy 1

I read 1/3 of the papers that come in the day they come in.  I stay in my office after each class period and spend at least an hour reading for each class. I get home late, but I get home free. I don’t carry student work around with me. I feel like a pile of student writing, left untended, mushrooms into something larger. [Full disclosure: I am teaching creative writing. I feel very, very lucky to have the job I have. I get to choose the assignments, their length, and schedule the due dates. Most people aren’t in that position, so I want to be careful here.  However, I taught comp for many, many years and always I try to associate, deeply, reading student work with pleasurable things.] I read in my office, and I have made that space beautiful by making sure I always have in my space

  1. Fresh flowers
  2. A diffuser spewing lavender oil molecules into the air
  3. Soft light
  4. Soft music.
  5. Access to hot tea.

Strategy 2

I schedule, in my calendar, blocks of time for doing the rest of the reading and then I don’t talk about grading papers before, during, or after those scheduled blocks of time. Ever. Not one word. Not ever. I simply refuse to talk about this part of my life.  I talk about what my students are up to that’s surprising to me. I talk about what we are reading in class, and what I am learning as a writer from the readings, or from my students. If I talk about grading, I feel like I’m complaining and then I also feel like I am spending time in a negative place—like I’m stretching out the task to be a huge part of my life.  It’s time consuming, and important, but it’s not the center of my life. I like to hear other people’s creative strategies for improving teaching so I try to steer conversations about the tedious parts of teaching toward interesting elements, creative solutions, and, hopefully, humor.

Strategy 3

I made friends outside of academia and I hang out with them during my social time. People outside of academia have great strategies for managing workload, increasing efficiency, and approaching the parts of the job that are most challenging and I love to listen to how they talk about work. They are so not interested in my grading woes that, once again, I’m not spending my time in that slough.  I learned a different way of relating to work conversations by listening to those in other fields and it gave me a fresh perspective that I really needed.

At first, when I made my vow to not talk about grading papers, I felt a little weird and lonely. I worried my colleagues would think I was lazy or unfocused. When there’d be a gripe session in the halls  and I didn’t join in, at first I felt like I wasn’t really being part of the team.

It seems like it would be super annoying to enter the conversation, rubrics in hand, smiling, papers all graded and scores neatly entered in the gradebook.  So, I restrain myself.  But if you want to talk about teaching, and response strategies to creative writing, and what we’re learning from researchers about what happens in peer response groups, my door is open. Please come in. Even during this busy time of year, I’d love to talk!

My office is pretty. I did yoga this morning.  End of the semester, and hanging in!  Do come by.

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Categories: Avoiding Burnout, Classroom Challenges and Solutions
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Making Comics

posted: 11.11.14 by Emily Isaacson

I’m a big fan of multi-modal approaches to reading comprehension — I’ve written before about having students draw a poem, and I’ve adapted Barclay Barrios’s idea about IKEA directions for my freshman orientation group. Most recently, I borrowed an idea from my colleague — a Germanist who teaches a course on fairy tales — for my day on Charles Dickens in my survey course: create a comic highlighting the main points of the story.

On this particular day, my students read “The Story of Little Dombey” and “Sikes and Nancy,” which are Dickens’ own adaptations of his work for his public speaking tour — essentially, they are selections from two novels that he performed for his audience, giving only the central parts of these two particular episodes.

So, to prep my students, I showed them a few examples from Hark, a vagrant. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the artist takes literature and history as a subject matter for 6 or 9 paneled comics.  They’re funny, they’re spot on, and they can show students how it’s important — even in making jokes — that we have something to hang on to from the literature. (My favorite is “Dude Watching With the Brontes”.)  For me it established a tone for the class — we’re serious here in our study of literature, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This is supposed to be fun — but reflective of the text in front of us.

From here, I provided groups of three a sheet with six panels on it, and had students select one of the two stories. The directions from this point on were to pick the 6 most important moments, and illustrate them as best as they could. This work got students talking about the plots, and particularly identifying the plots that didn’t quite work out of the context of their respective novels. But they also talked a great deal about the central themes of the stories.

What the students came up with was amazing. In general, students approached the topic differently. We had lol-speak. We had serious attempts at illustrating the important moments. We had references to contemporary pop-culture — and one group even explained that the last moment of “Sikes and Nancy” would be saved for the post-credit sequence.

After students worked on their comics, I had the groups explain their choices, which allowed us to look at what they saw as not only central moments in the stories, but also the themes of the stories. What was remarkable about the effort was that students gravitated towards similar moments in the two stories. For example, the groups that chose “Little Dombey” all focused on the little boy’s complaint that money (his father’s highest concern) could not bring back his dead mother.

Student Cartoon Panel

In all, the students were able to sort out the plot, the characters, the themes without my intervention — and that goal is certainly a huge part of working on their ability to read literature.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Critical Thinking, Emily Isaacson, In-Class Activity, Popular Culture
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Horizontal divider David Eshelman

Audio Theatre: A New Writing Platform

posted: 11.4.14 by David Eshelman

It had long been my contention that playwriting is more practical than screenwriting because it leads more directly to a finished product.  In other words, whereas an ambitious playwright could organize his or her friends and stage a piece on a weekend, the screenwriter was dependent on the whims of Hollywood producers to obtain the resources to get their films made.  This assessment of practicality, though, seems to apply less and less to today’s world in which there are so many opportunities through the internet.  If a screenwriter uses the production and distribution means available through the web—for example, if a writer creates scripts for short Youtube films—then screenwriting can be every bit as practical as playwriting.

Besides screenwriting, the internet has enhanced the practicality of another field—radio drama.  The format, which dwindled in the U.S. with the rise of television, is now reemerging under the aegis of podcasting and audiobooks.  Teachers of dramatic writing are wise to embrace audio theatre for the following reasons:

  1. It stands to become more and more important in our Internet Age.
  2. It provides easy production opportunities for emerging writers—requiring no sets, costumes, or even line memorization, as required by film and the stage.
  3. Digital recordings, the product of audio theatre endeavors, are easy to disseminate to a wide audience.

My university, Arkansas Tech, has been leading the way in audio theatre ventures for seven years now.  Through an organization called the Arkansas Radio Theatre, we have created more than forty broadcasts which play on the local radio station, are made available to the visually impaired throughout the state, and are available on-line  (click Public, then Radio Theatre).  The Arkansas Radio Theatre is dedicated to new plays and adaptations of classic literature.  An audio theatre company like the Arkansas Radio Theatre is easy to establish because free recording software is easily available.  An interested instructor simply needs some microphones in order to record voices.  Apart from that, an audio theatre company simply requires a means for broadcast—or some server space, which is readily available at most universities.

However, just because a production opportunity exists, that does not mean that student writers are prepared to take advantage of it.  Because audio theatre is a unique form, writers must be trained with relevant coursework.  In order to build the Radio Theatre into the curricular structures of my university, I am teaching (in Fall 2014) an upper-division topics course focusing on Radio Theatre Writing.  Some of the assignments explore audio theatre as a genre:  for example, listening to broadcasts from the Golden Age of Radio and comparing them to the audio drama available today.  Students will eventually work toward hour-long original scripts.  Hopefully, the insights learned in teaching this class will help others who attempt to engage in audio theatre projects.  I will report on the progress of the course in later posts.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Teaching with Technology
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Horizontal divider Paul Menzer

Teaching Shakespeare’s Contemporaries

posted: 10.21.14 by Paul Menzer

Every other year I teach a course called “Shakespeare’s Contemporaries.” And therefore every other year I end up thinking that it’s the worst possible name for the course. For starters, when you consider that Great Britain boasted a population of 4,811,718 in 1600, the title alone would obligate me to entertain 4,811,717 thousand individuals, and though my strength is as the strength of ten, I am but one man. More seriously, if we were even to entertain only the dramatic entertainments of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, that still leaves an enormous number of plays.

Consider this: with enough time on his hands or money in her pocket, an industrious young man or woman of 21 in 1584 could have seen the premier of the plays of John Lyly, as well as plays by Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Robert Greene before she or he hit 30.  In the next decade, my imaginary – though aging – playgoer could see plays by all of the Thomases (Heywood, Dekker, Middleton), the Johns (Marston, Webster, Fletcher), Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, Cyril Tourneur before he or she had passed his or her 40th.  Won’t they be tired?  Oh yeah, by the way, they could have also seen all the plays of Shakespeare, and about 1200 more for which we have records in the period.

But we don’t have world or time enough – in fact we only have fifteen weeks.  So I end up selected about 25 plays and, by selecting, doom each play to the status of sample.  Each play must be a sample of something about all of the other plays in the period not written by William Shakespeare, and there’s a surprisingly large number of them. This in turn seems to doom the class to an exercise in which whoever wrote the play they’re reading, they’re always reading a play not-by-Shakespeare, whereas when they’re reading a play by Shakespeare, they’re never reading a play, for instance, not-by-Marston. A former student in the course put it crudely but effectively when she said, there’s Shakespeare and there’s early modern drama. She’s right.

I’m not really complaining, and I’m certainly not diagnosing. At this point I’m merely describing the case that is the case. After all, what else would we want to call the class?

  • Tudor, Jacobean, and Carolinian Drama
  • Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Century Plays in English
  • Plays in English: 1580-1642
  • Non-Shakespearean Early Modern Entertainments
  • Early English Drama
  • Medieval and Renaissance Drama

I could write several hundred words, at least, on the problems of each title, but I’ll spare you for now. Suffice to say that all these course names are variously misleading.  For now, at least, “Shakespeare’s Contemporaries” will serve. Not least because it seems, of all the titles auditioned here, to be the most provocatively bad.  “Shakespeare’s Contemporaries” is the worst possible name for the course, except for all the others.

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Categories: Cultural Mythologies, Genre, Literature
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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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