Between the lines: When culture, language and poetry meet in the classroom
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Books by Tom Hunley. She completed three poetry writing workshops at her undergraduate institution, where her work received great praise from two college instructors, and she placed three poems in a local literary journal. She enjoys reading Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and her two instructors, but beyond that she doesn't really 'get' most poetry.
Upon graduation from the MFA program, she plans to seek a job teaching creative writing. She looks at what her instructors do in class, and thinks that it would be fun and easy.
Teaching Poetry Writing
However, sometimes she doubts herself, as when she gets writer's block and can't seem to get unstuck or when she reads through poems in the local literary journal and can't make sense of them. She is also concerned because she vaguely knows of forms such as the villanelle and the ghazal, but she isn't confident about her ability to identify and define them, much less write them.
As an unconscious means of hiding these insecurities and protecting her status as class star, she finds herself using terms such as 'enjambment,' 'pentameter,' and 'metonymy' without quite knowing what they mean. While John Undergrad and Jane Graduate Student are composites of students I have observed, their fictionalized experiences typify the results of pedagogical methods used in contemporary college classrooms in the United States.
The pedagogical methodology most commonly used in American colleges functions more as a convenience for the instructors than as a vehicle for meeting the needs of students. The traditional workshop model of teaching undergraduate poetry writing has gone virtually unquestioned for the past seventy years and has been ratified by hundreds of universities, treated as the way to teach creative writing, despite a paucity of studies or empirical evidence or proof.
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Established in as a method for teaching elite graduate students, the traditional workshop model does not adequately address or even consider the needs of apprentice writers; it does not encourage instructors to take their jobs or their students seriously; it routinely puts students on the defensive and discourages them from taking necessary, productive risks in their writing; and it fosters unhealthy competition among students that hinders their growth as writers.
The typical creative writing teacher who simply has students read their drafts aloud and then leads full-class discussions about these student texts is like a physical education teacher who just rolls out a ball and tells the kids to play.
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The result is the same: undisciplined students without much technique or skill — and a lot of injuries! Dave Smith makes a good point when he asks in his book Local Assays: 'Doesn't it seem a bit unnatural to begin a workshop of college students by immediately throwing their poems into a public scrutiny and asking that public for a response?
go Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach, is a book for poetry writing instructors who wish to step outside of the box and consider a paradigm that is quite different from the traditional workshop approach. There is no sound theoretical basis for using the traditional workshop model at the undergraduate level, or in most of today's graduate workshops, for that matter.
The workshop model was not designed with undergraduates or the ruck of graduate students in mind. It was designed for gifted, elite writers who needed very little instruction, though they may have benefited from criticism on their manuscripts. Wallace Stegner offers a succinct history of the workshop model in his book On the Teaching of Creative Writing.
According to Stegner, methods used by Harvard professors Dean Le Baron Russell Briggs and Charles Townsend Copeland led directly to the establishment of the Breadloaf Writers' Conference, initially directed by publishing mogul John Farrar, who hired a faculty that included Robert Frost, Louis Untermeyer, and others who 'lectured, read manuscripts, conducted seminars and workshops, played a lot of tennis, drank too much.
Other writers' conferences modeled on Breadloaf soon sprang up. Then, with the establishment of the Writers' Workshop at the State University of Iowa under the direction of Paul Engle in , creative writing and the traditional workshop model entered the core curriculum at the graduate level. In what Donald Justice, the former head of Iowa's program, retrospectively refers to as 'a kind of pyramid scheme,' Iowa graduates founded scores of other programs, offering degrees in creative writing and using the traditional workshop model as the primary or only method of instruction.
In her essay 'Duck, Duck, Turkey: Using Encouragement to Structure Workshop Assignments,' Mary Swander succinctly points out the flaws in using the traditional workshop approach with beginning and intermediate writers:. Paul Engle developed the workshop as a place where young, polished writers could come for a year or two and have their work critiqued. Engle assumed his graduate students already knew how to write. What they needed, he reasoned in this post-WWII era, was a kind of boot camp where they would be toughened up to the brutality of the enemy: the attacking critics When creative writing became 'democratized,' classes in poetry, fiction, and playwriting were offered to students with little developed literary skill.
When a creative writing program is able to recruit students who are already polished writers, perhaps the best pedagogy is one in which the instructor facilitates opportunities for the students to learn from each other. The traditional workshop model seems ideally suited for such interaction.
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According to Stegner, writing with elite students like Engle's in mind: 'The best teaching that goes on in a college writing class is done by members of the class upon one another. The traditional workshop model provides established writers with a source of income that leaves them plenty of time for their own writing. However, a convenience for teachers certainly does not equal a beneficial experience for students.
Daniel Menaker states: 'There is general agreement among professional writers and editors that