Statement of Teaching Philosophy
In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster says, “History develops, Art stands still.” Presumably what he means is that history is progressive and contingent on time and place whereas art is enduring and universal. This is an ahistorical view of art, and I believe it is wrong (thought I admire Forster greatly). What I have learned as both a student and a teacher of creative writing is that most creative writing classes fail to historicize the art of writing. Therefore, creative writing classes should do more to put works of fiction, both published and unpublished, into a broader literary and historical context.
As David Lodge reminds us, no one has ever written a book without having read one—and more likely hundreds—of approximately the same kind. Therefore, my fiction writing classes are as much about reading as they are about writing. In addition to reading for craft, students should also consider fundamental questions about the nature of fiction itself, especially at advanced levels. For example, what is the relationship of fiction to modernity, to capitalism, to referentiality? Through such questions, students will come to a greater understanding of the social, economic, political, and philosophical forces that have shaped the making of fiction since Don Quixote and thereby come to a greater understanding of their own aesthetic choices. Art is never just a matter of personal expression; it is always also a response to art that has come before. Therefore, students should acquire as thoroughgoing a knowledge of literature as possible.
The need to historicize also applies to workshop. To my mind, workshop should always begin with a discussion of genre. What kind of story is this? Realism, magic realism, satire, metafiction, or otherwise? Without an awareness of genre, readers do not have a set of conventions with which to properly analyze a work of fiction. Identifying genre is also a way of helping students trace their own literary genealogy. For example, a teacher might say, “The naturalism of your story connects you to the social novels of Wolfe, Wright, Dickens, and Balzac.” Or “The psychological realism of your story is rooted in the works of James, Flaubert, and Austen.” More than just saying, “Your story reminds me of X, Y, and Z,” the teacher should help students understand the particular aesthetic tradition within which they are working. Not incidentally, identifying genre and tracing literary genealogy are both ways of helping students deepen their understanding of their own writing without moving immediately to evaluation.
In most workshops, students are only given one opportunity to present a story or poem, which tends to emphasize the “failure” or “success” of the piece. Jane Smiley has noted how this approach fosters perfectionism and competitiveness in students as they strive to win the approval of the teacher. To combat these tendencies, Smiley asks her (graduate) students to write four drafts of each story, an approach that I try to adopt in modified form, especially in advanced fiction writing. This approach serves to stress (1) the process of writing, (2) an analytical approach to craft, (3) the importance of revision, and (4) the persistence of the work of writing. Importantly, because teachers know they will see multiple versions of a story, they feel less inclined to pour all their thoughts onto a single draft. As a result, their comments can be less urgent and less prescriptive, and this allows teachers to guide students in their writing rather than merely serve as arbiters of success.
Smiley also believes that the first duty of someone who wishes to become a writer is “to become teachable, that is, to become receptive.” In other words, students must sustain a readiness to learn. However, if we want our students to be receptive in this way, we must be receptive ourselves. We must model receptivity in the classroom, especially in workshop. I believe, as Louise Glück does, that we should “fear whatever erodes the generosity on which exacting criticism depends.” We must remind ourselves that the purpose of criticism is not to judge or “fix” a piece of writing but to heighten a student’s receptivity to his or her own work.
The philosophy I have outlined also characterizes my approach to composition. I have an interest, as Wendy Bishop did, in blurring the distinctions between creative writing and composition. Therefore, my classes in academic writing also emphasize reading, revision, and receptivity through the careful analysis of literary models and a workshop-based approach to writing. What I want my students to understand primarily is that all good writing is situational. Therefore, practices such as identifying genre and the conventions of form—the differences, say, between a movie review for the student paper and a critical analysis of a film for a journal—are just as important in the composition classroom, for they help students acquire the sensitivity to respond to many different rhetorical situations, even as they focus on those strategies best suited to the academy.
It is also my conviction that distinctions should be blurred between teacher and student, for we are all engaged in fundamentally the same kind of work. I treat my students as a community of fellow writers and scholars and encourage them to think of themselves as such—that is, as people responsible for contributing new knowledge to the community. Once students conceive of their own writing, however germinal, as new knowledge, they begin to see themselves not as passive consumers of information but as active agents of cultural production. For the past fifteen years, the capstone exercise in my academic writing classes has been the academic conference. Modeled after professional conferences, the academic conference asks students to write a program description, to serve as chairpersons and moderators, to deliver a presentation on a panel, and to field questions from the audience. This helps students understand the work that their teachers do and how their own work is related. Moreover, it helps students understand that writing is never just an exercise for the teacher or the course but an act of civic responsibility and engagement, a critical entrée into the larger world of which they are a part.