Friday, August 28, 2009

Available Surfaces V: Can Teaching be Written?

“I hear and sometimes share some fundamental objections. Creative-writing programs and workshops are a commodification of the art. They attempt to express or enact something that is finally and importantly solitary. They water down our sensibilities, as they corrupt the notion of individual style. You simply can’t teach vision, so you can’t teach creative writing.
Well, can you?
What happens in a creative writing classroom?”
 --David Baker,

I stand before a new class, Introduction to Poetry Writing. There are, believe it or not, 55 students present. Where I teach, the introductory courses are big, with breakout sections led by TAs. My responsibility is, theoretically, to orient and inform the students about matters of craft, and to begin to give them a road map to the wilderness that is the past and present—not to mention the future—of poetry. I also am responsible for supervising and mentoring the TAs, who, while still doing time in the salt mines of teaching composition, are about to take the wheel of their first writing workshop.

If the workshop model for teaching creative writing is often questioned and even reviled, what about this approach? I am lecturing about creative writing. What possible good can that do?

For years I resisted this kind of pedagogy, not only in the teaching of writing but also in literary studies. Small must be better, always, I thought. And I still think small group study is absolutely essential, in creative writing and elsewhere. But my recent experiences with large group study convinces me that there is a place in the curriculum for this approach as well. Call me old fashioned (all together now. . .), but the suspicion has grown increasingly strong in me that undergraduates suffer from a lack of broad survey literary courses: not that such courses must be taught as lecture courses, but they generally used to be taught that way, and their disappearance coincides with the decline in lecture-style teaching. Student knowledge has deepened in certain areas, but is spotty: they don’t have an aerial view, or a good topographical map of the territory. In creative writing as in other fields, such a vision can be indispensible.

Furthermore, teaching in this context has revealed to me a certain vocation: I enjoy working with these large groups partly because I have discovered that I can do it. I have certain valuable nuggets to impart to students that, it appears, can best be communicated in this kind of forum. I have uncovered a vein of something like eloquence that is rarely called forth in small group discussion but which is laid bare before the large group, a dimension of my own character that my students allow me to explore, and seem to enjoy observing from a relatively safe distance, also not permitted in the seminar room or workshop where everything is up close and personal all the time. Perspective is important; distance can be useful. Every artist knows this; teachers may know it too.


Any actor of broad experience will tell you that, from the point of view of craft, the big difference between working in theater and working in front of a camera is one of scale. Camera work is intimate; a whisper can resonate. On film, Brando mumbles, and his mumbling is devastating. On stage, you cannot mumble, even if your character is a mumbler; there you must project, even while projecting the illusion that you are mumbling, if that is what is called for. In the theater everything is writ large: voice and gesture, and ultimately character. On stage, you play a different game—not a better or a worse one, but one that has different parameters.

The craft of seminar teaching is more like working with a camera: everything is close; silences, whispers, mumbles are part of the game. One makes an observation or asks a question and waits, observing the lift of an eyebrow here, a shifted gaze there, a sigh, a sudden gleam in someone’s eyes. The moment can’t be pushed; however much you may, by constitution, like or dislike those dead spots in seminar discourse (the Pregnant Silence) when everyone is digesting something, when responses are taking form, you have to ride them, wait them out, step aside like a bullfighter executing a veronica (alas poor Veronica: how many times has she died for our sins?). In the big classroom, the dynamic is different, and so is the expectation. And yet the issue of relatedness is still the center: all of this is for the audience, not for you.

In either case, we teachers are there to present and to represent. In Heidegger-speak, we are there to bring something out of concealment into the realm of unconcealment and allow it to linger. We present the subject matter and it becomes present; we are its representative.

The “de-centered” pedagogy of the seminar or the small class, regardless of its strengths and weaknesses (which ought, it seems to me, to be debated in a more balanced way from time to time), has become the desired academic norm, and has even attained a certain aura of political correctness, as though any other way of teaching is inadequate, mechanical, or—worst of all—a theater for the parading of the ego. All these things may sometimes be true; I note in particular the rise of the PowerPoint lecture as particularly insidious: some professors used to let their decades-old notes lecture to their students; now those notes have been automated. But the fact that a method can be misused does not mean that it has to be.

It’s possible, in a small seminar setting, for the reticence of the instructor to be overdone as well. I have seen teachers, in the interest of “de-centering,” spend a whole term allowing students to go round and round in circles, unable to break the Möbius strip of their own limited knowledge. I have seen lazy teachers dump their workload onto the students, fading into the woodwork and doing essentially nothing, leaving the students responsible for finding their own way out of the wilderness. These abuses are at least as insidious as those that can insinuate their way into the lecture hall.

When, years ago at a writers conference, I saw a famous poet, having sat silent through ten minutes of students’ discussion of a student poem, suddenly arouse himself and intone “I believe this poem should be divided into two halves”—suddenly ripping the page in half—“and both halves should be deposited in the garbage," I knew I was in the presence of a bully. The oldest style of creative writing pedagogy, in fact, seems to have involved a good deal of this kind of behavior, and I am certain that it still happens. That kind of bullying, and ego mongering, is more possible and more dangerous in small classrooms than in large. One can place one’s ego on display in front of a large room full of people, but to actually use it as a weapon is arguably more difficult. “Conscience is a thousand witnesses,” says Hobbes, meaning something negative by his remark, but I take it as a positive: light dissolves the vampire.


What I have learned about large group teaching is that there one balances what one presents and what one represents on a different scale than in the small class. One’s role at the seminar table is to be one more guest at the feast, yes, but in a properly hostly way, which means a balancing of courtesy with leadership. In the large class, it’s more a matter of dealing with baskets of loaves and fishes; the multitude is hungry for sustenance, table manners be damned. Miracles of multiplication are called for, and in that equation there is no room for ego: the one who holds the basket represents a higher power.

This is not Alcoholics Anonymous, friends: nothing mystical is involved. The “higher power” is simply the subject that the group has convened around. In the small group, one tends at best to present and then get out of the way; in the large group, one must present and then immediately represent. By which I mean simply this: if I am talking about poetry in the theater of the large classroom I must become poetry. When I speak to my students about a poem, I must speak to them as the poem would speak if it could hold forth not about its content but about its Being. I must allow the poem to be written, quite completely, in and on me: I become the medium of the poem’s presence. The poem walks into the room and delivers itself to students as it would if it were capable of getting up off the page, embodying itself in three dimensions (or four or five) and revealing itself in that incarnation. For the poem this is not difficult, since poems live and move and have their being in receptive readers everywhere; for the teacher, though, it is rather a challenge. There is not room in me for both my ego and the poem. If my ego pushes the poem out, then the moment fails, just as if an actor insists on playing himself and not the character, the play fails.

Admittedly, there is a certain amount of smoke and mirrors in this contract. There is also an illusory dimension to small seminar teaching—to pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous. There is always a role to play, a costume to wear, a dialect to assume. That’s not a bad thing; it’s part of the territory. And territory is really the issue: one presents a map, so to say, to a country of which the student knows little; the student is preparing for an expedition, and there is much he or she needs to know in advance. The teacher presents the map, and then acts as a representative of the territory: having been there, the teacher knows the way in, the way around, and the way out again. But if this transaction becomes at any point territorial—if I am determined to defend my little hunk of knowledge, my seminar table or my lectern, from the student rather than make it available to the student, then I commit malpractice.

Teaching small groups is a joy and a privilege; so is teaching large groups. A few decades of practice in the small class setting has taught me an enormous amount about human and textual dynamics on a small scale, and I would not exchange that knowledge for anything; I still happily teach seminars and small workshops and am rewarded by doing so.

But walking out into the large theater has been a revealing and liberating experience for me these past few years—as if one had spent decades in small, though lovely, rooms and suddenly found a doorway that led out into an enormous panorama, a sublime landscape, its map already written in my mind and on my body, and that somehow, miraculously, speaks when I speak.

1 comment:

  1. What can a graded, expensive class do that free a association of writers at different stages can't? ... sharing work, challenging, networking.

    Credentialism feeds the system, a way to keep writers and poets under the thumb of authority.