Thursday, January 26, 2012


Some advice I offered to a friend who's teaching her first creative writing class:

The one thing I'd emphasize -- workshopping student work is an important part of the course. You're expected to do it, and the students sort of expect it. But once you give it to them, they don't know what to do. Because critiquing the work of others isn't something that comes naturally. It has to be learned, and it's not always easy to learn. So -- you'll find you own way to teach this, but it has to be taught.

One way is to offer discussion questions. I can't really do this -- it's not natural to me. But it's one way.

Another -- and this works better for me -- is to set up forums on Blackboard. Divide the class into smaller discussion groups -- say, for to six in each group. Everyone in the group is to post his or her assignment, and everyone is to critique the work of the other members of the group. Then you start a dialogue, critiquing their critiques, suggesting things they might have thought of, encouraging perceptive critiques. Most of the first ones will be awful. I loved this -- it reminded me of my own grandmother. This had a really good flow to it. That sort of thing. As I said, they won't know what to say -- they won't have any sort of critical vocabulary. You encourage them to do the same things you encourage them to do in writing about literature -- go to the text, focus on specifics. What more could the author do to make this the poem it wants to be?

Don't do in-class workshopping right away. Start giving them that vocabulary first, and the encouragement that it's all right to be critical, and how to constructively bring out the things that are good about the piece -- not all criticism has to be negative.

Do some workshopping in small groups, and some in the whole class. But this will be one of the most important skills you'll teach them all semester.

You MUST read the article I just read today in the New Yorker -- Groupthink, by Jonah Lehrer. It's absolutely fascinating about the ways people make progress in groups, and the ways that they don't.
And some more thoughts on Lehrer's article. He discusses the history of brainstorming. It was a technique invented and promoted by advertising genius Alex Osborn in the 1940s -- its most important tenet, encouraging a free flow of ideas by absolutely forbidding any negative feedback at all. Negative feedback discourages creativity by inhibiting the participants. In this stage, Osborn says, you're looking for quantity, not quality. "You're loosening up an unfettered imagination -- making your mind deliver." Lehrer gives a little more history -- the idea was an instant smash, and has been used by businesses and other organizations ever since, He also gives a history of research on the technique. Research emphatically shows that id doesn't work. Blind studies of one control group who brainstormed an idea, and another who split up so that each member worked on the problem individually, invariably showed the same results. You got more ideas, and more good ideas, from people working individually. And working in groups? It has value too, but much more value if people are allowed to criticize and argue. I have been in writers' groups, and I have friends who have been in other writers' groups -- the kind which are about sharing and mutual support, and don't allow any criticism. Well, any writers group is good for one thing -- it makes you write. If you meet a bunch of folks every week to talk about your writing, you're going to want to write something every week. But outside of the fact that it would drive me crazy, I never believed the sweetness and light approach would do anyone much good. Now I stand validated.

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