On Teaching Writing

I am interested, as a reader, writer and teacher, in how the process and practice of narrative informs how we interact with the world. This narrative disposition, which I see as a growing impulse in our culture, often plays along the blurred lines between fact and fiction and between the lines of creative writing and composition. And, instead of erecting a fence between the two, I am interested in exploring and exploiting that gray in-between space.

As a creative writer, I bring to the classroom an understanding of how narrative works in the service of ideas. While students in a composition or literature classroom may not be interested in creating their own works of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, the techniques of storytelling and deliberate construction (word choice, structure, pacing, voice) certainly cross over, since all writing is, essentially, argumentative, about making meaning and narrative, about storytelling. I have found that the creative writing curriculum, centered on workshopping, finds an easy companion in the composition classroom. In the reverse, I find that the ideas of structure that are emphasized in the composition classroom must continue to find a place in the creative writing environment. The old adage is true: Deviation from rules has to come first from an understanding and acknowledgement of them in established works.

I practice a total immersion method of teaching creative writing. Since many students come into creative writing classrooms without a clear sense of the canon, or of the work being created in contemporary literature, we spend a bulk of the first part of the term reading within and discussing the work that has been produced and continues to be created within the field. Further, as with all of my classes, I require students to become a part of the local literary community by attending readings, hosting visiting writers, researching and submitting to literary journals, and performing readings themselves. I find that this develops a sense of community within the classroom, but which also extends into the literary culture at large.

In the field of nonfiction, I’m an equal-opportunity reader, and therefore an equal-opportunity teacher. I enjoy the experimentation of contemporary writers such as Ander Monson and Steven Church, while holding fast to my affinity for their predecessors. Experimentation with form and structure interests me as a way of reflecting our evolving understanding of textuality, of the relationship between the text and the format in which it appears; yet I believe that experimentation cannot be an end unto itself. It must always be in service to narrative. I give my students wide latitude with their own work, while drawing their attention, over and over, to the importance of keeping tight control over the tools of their craft. I often hear the voices of my own teachers coming out of my mouth: from Kristen Iversen, “Grammar really does matter,” to Richard Bausch, “Never use two words, when one will do.”

While I specialize in nonfiction, I stress to my students the necessity of reading broadly, across genre and time, to expose themselves to the benefits that poetry and fiction offer us. Since the primary objective of nonfiction is storytelling, studying fictional techniques and putting them to work in our own writing is fruitful. Alternately, writing and reading poetry teaches us about the structure and composition of the line, of the distillation of image and idea. Within the genre, I think it’s important to have a very good sense of context, which means that we explore reportage and literary journalism with the same respect as personal essay and memoir. I encourage students to be willing to step outside of their comfort zones, whether that is by employing the “I” or by turning their eyes outward.

Much of my teaching experience is in English Composition, Composition and Analysis, Science Writing, and Literary Heritage. One of the most rewarding and interesting opportunities I’ve had is working as the English faculty in a first-year learning community. Out of this experience, I’ve developed a keen interest in teaching across the curriculum. I find one of the most frequent questions students ask is, “What does this English course have to do with my studies in [theater, music, art, engineering, biology, mathematics].” Instead of supplying answers pertaining to the need to navigate the collegiate terrain, I point them to the growing frequency with which practitioners of those very disciplines employ acts of narration. These acts of narration are about creating connections, both broadly and singularly.

I believe that the teaching of writing and literature is about process, about understanding time-honored methods. I use a device that I call, “Ingredient, Process, Made Thing,” when teaching both writing and literature. I describe acts of writing and works of literature in terms of a recipe, where Ingredients includes things like word choice, diction, syntax; and Process (or recipe directions) includes structure, tone, pacing, form, etc. The combination of ingredients and process, then, is seen, finally, in terms of the Made Thing, much the way a loaf of bread is greater than the flour, yeast and water, and the kneading, proofing, and baking. Each part of the Made Thing is important, but only in subservience to the greater thing, the final text. Using this metaphor has allowed my students to not only understand how texts are constructed, but why it is important to understand the individual parts, that those parts have real jobs to do, that if you skip the yeast the bread is flat. At the end of each semester, I’ve had students tell me that this was the most enlightening thing they’d learned in my class. Simple, but potent.

In teaching composition and argumentative writing, I emphasize the relationships between what we do in the academic setting and how we interact with the world around us. I teach that we do not learn, nor do we produce scholarship, in a vacuum, that what we write and say is contextualized by, and has meaning and purpose within, an expansive landscape of ideas. In service to that concept, I have implemented curriculum innovations using student-generated blogs, through which the students learn how their ideas, arguments and inquiries are situated amongst those of other scholars, regular bloggers, and popular culture. Students have been responsive to this, as is evidenced in my teaching evaluations:

I never thought that I would enjoy writing a research paper. Though it was a lot of hard work, Wendy made this paper extremely rewarding to write by relating everything to real and local issues. The class wasn’t just writing about abstract topics that we’ll never encounter, but topics that are serious issues within our own city. This made the research feel like it actually mattered for something other than a grade. Wendy is the best teacher I’ve had on many counts, most importantly on relating to her students and allowing them to engage with the subject matter.

When a student willingly switches from a 9:40am class to an 8:00am class just to get a certain teacher, chances are that there is something special about that teacher.

I also enjoy demonstrating multiple iterations of a given idea or story. For instance, I have students read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” and then have them read the nonfiction essays and reportage, as well as read and listen to the Bob Dylan song, that inspired Oates to write the story. Finally, after discussing the relationships that they see between the “real world” of Charles Schmid and Alleen Rowe and the fictional world of Arnold Friend and Connie, I show them the movie Smooth Talk, where Treat Williams and Laura Dern inhabit the characters that are, by this point, fully realized in students’ imagination. Teaching one story this way opens up possibilities for the students to take the story further, develop ideas that spring from one or more of the texts, to see how they bring themselves to each encounter. Ultimately, it puts them in dialogue with the text.

Many students, I think, when doing research and analysis, try to look at big issues, in the "big world," and thus have a difficult time understanding how what they are studying relates to their lives and their own interests. In order to facilitate more productive and personal involvement with the arguments they generate, to give them a stake in their own work, I have required students to focus their research, analysis and arguments on issues close to home. Using the maxim, "Think Globally, Act Locally," I have encouraged students to engage with local issues - environmental, cultural, political - to extrapolate ideas and arguments that can be applied to broader contexts; and have required students to conduct research using primary resources including interviews and first-person observations in addition to the classic modes. I have also created a speaker series featuring community members working within a range of programs and institutions to expose students, faculty, and community to the relationships between global issues and their local correlatives.

For me, teaching is a creative act, a responsive act. I want always to be not just teaching my students but to be a learner with them. I write to find out what it is that I want to say. I teach my students to do the same.