Prior to gaining tenure my literature course and central curriculum offerings were wide-ranging and spanned from a creative writing and English-oriented perspectives course to an honors Thought course and included Living Writers, where students read books by visiting authors, as well as poetry-oriented 200-level courses. Since gaining tenure I teach an occasional variable course, but my offerings have been focused on two courses: Aesthetics and Interpretation (ENGL 290), which is the literary theory course required of creative writing, publishing and editing, English, and English-Secondary education students as well as Forms of Writing: Poetry (ENGL 265). Students majoring in creative writing, publishing and editing, English, and English-Secondary education are required to take “Forms” courses, although they may choose from a list of topics and do not all take the poetry version. Along with fulfilling requirements for my department’s majors, the courses fill several central curriculum requirements and are taken by non-majors.
I teach a section of Aesthetics and Forms every year. Drawing between twenty and thirty students and focusing on reading and understanding published writing, these courses are necessarily different in structure than the creative writing workshop model. That being said, my conviction in the efficacy of consistent practice, creative critique, and larger context has led me to innovate with these courses, bringing creative pedagogy to bear on scholarly subject matter. Below I will describe teaching innovations I have brought to Aesthetics and Interpretation to serve as an example of the way I apply consistent practice, creative critique, and larger context to the literature classroom. (For those interested in my Forms of Writing: Poetry course, you can find a syllabus here. The course surveys various forms of poetry—from iambic pentameter and sonnets to rap and performance poetry—and seeks to engage students in a variety of poetic traditions.) The final type of course I will briefly discuss on this page is a hybrid writing-literature course, exemplified by “Experimental Writing” WRIT 240, a course that I designed from the ground up, and which conveys my appetite for continuing innovation.
Aesthetics and Interpretation:
Aesthetics and Interpretation is our department’s “theory” course and introduces students to an intensive and advanced study of aesthetic and interpretive theory. It is known by our students to be a very challenging course. Taken at the sophomore level, students read essays by such thinkers as Plato, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Donna Haraway, as you can see from the course syllabus, which you will find here. The course was developed by the English faculty of our department, and much of what you see in the syllabus is due to the innovative and creative course design of Laurence Roth, Randy Robertson, and Betsy Verhoeven, who also regularly teach the course. While we each modify the syllabus, we try to keep the course consistent across sections.
I am the first creative writer in our department to have taught the course, and my first experience teaching it was exceptional because I was able to team-teach the course with Betsy Verhoeven during spring of 2014. This not only allowed me to learn new things about pedagogy in general, but it also allowed me to understand, first-hand, what my colleagues in literary studies had in mind for the course. “Theory” is traditionally housed on the literary studies—as opposed to the creative writing—“side” of departments, and I was eager to carry on the literary studies rigor of the course. I was also excited to learn from the way the course connects critical theory not only to interpretation, but also to the more practical part of literary production: publishing and editing. Recognizing that roughly three-quarters of the students in the class identify as creative writing majors (with an increasing number of these students doubling in publishing and editing), when Betsy and I began preparing the course in fall of 2013 we discussed ways we might effectively bring a “creative writing” perspective into the course. How might we encourage students to bridge what might seem to be quite abstract concepts with their lives as creative writers along with their future selves, who might be teachers, editors, and publishers? Furthermore, I have known published creative writers to claim that “reading theory” can “ruin” a writer. Clearly I have not found this to be so in my own path of writing, and I was eager to show our student writers, critics, publishers, editors, teachers, and the few brave non-majors who take the class as a central curriculum requirement that thinking rigorously and creatively about language, literature, and culture strengthens—rather than damages—both critical and creative capacity.
Planning the course with Betsy I found that she already had instilled in the course a sense of “consistent practice,” via a Blackboard assignment, to be completed before each class session. This assignment, which you will find described in full under the heading “Critical Connection” on my most recent version of the course syllabus, requires students to isolate passages from the reading, come to an understanding of that passage, and connect it to something they had experienced in their writing, reading, or “other” life beyond the theory classroom. This consistent practice of writing and thinking helps students understand complex writing and make connections with the world outside of the classroom. In subsequent versions of the course I innovated with this assignment by having students bring in hard copies of their responses to share with the class. My class often used a workshop-style approach to these copies, allowing us to critique and discuss ideas, refining students’ sense of the theoretical passage while bringing into discussion connections between theory and other forms of reading and writing.
Along with giving students both a creative writing and analytical perspective during class discussion, team-teaching also inspired innovation with formal writing assignments. I proposed a midterm assignment that would give all students the option of working with theoretical texts as creative writers. Betsy, Laurence, and I collaborated on crafting the assignment and ended up with something that gives students the option of analyzing one of their own creative works through a particular theoretical concept and then writing a new creative work that kept this concept in mind. The last turn of the assignment asked students to reflect on this process of strategically constructing a creative work around a theoretical concept. You can find a recent version of the assignment here. Among the goals of this assignment was giving the students distance from default composition processes and to provide them with the opportunity to work intimately with a theoretical concept. I am always interested to find that both creative writing majors and non-majors most often elect to do this creative version of the assignment and are energized by exploring theory and literature from both creative and analytical points of view. In the current version of the course the application aspect of this assignment is mirrored by a final assignment designed by Laurence where students act as editors to create an anthology of their most significant Blackboard analyses.
In my most recent version of Aesthetics and Interpretation I further innovated with Betsy’s Blackboard assignment and with the foundations of the midterm assignment by asking students to perform a “Creative Connection” response instead of a “Critical Connection” response for reading assignments that focus on literary texts rather than theoretical texts. “Creative Connections” ask students not only to connect the literary text with a theorist we have studied, but also to design a creative or critical writing exercise based on this connection. The prompt also asks the student to say what they think a writer, reader, teacher, publisher, or editor can learn from thinking along creative lines and performing such a creative assignment. Students shared these responses in class, occasionally performing the creative exercise and discussing the process. In this assignment, as well as with more formal assignments, both creative writing and non-creative writing majors seemed to enjoy the space and freedom to try ideas out in both creative and critical writing. A full description of the assignment can be found on the syllabus under “Creative Connection.”
The most successful version of “Creative Connection” came with students’ responses to Shara McCallum’s book of poetry, Madwoman, a book that uses poetry to address issues of race, privilege, and intersectionality. We read Madwoman while at the same time reading theoretical texts by W.E.B Dubois, Edward Said, and Paula Gunn Allen, which address many of the same issues. In addition, I arranged for McCallum to give a poetry reading for the students and she also conducted a lively Q and A after the reading. The combination of theoretical texts, McCallum’s visit, and the students’ eagerness to talk about race, privilege, and representation created a living model of the way in which theory can help us think through difficult questions of art and life.
While my write-ups in this portfolio show that my approach to the writing workshop and to Aesthetics and Interpretation continues to innovate within the course structures and curricular needs firmly established at Susquehanna, I have also created three entirely new, innovative classes for our students and have worked to pass them through the curriculum committee for course and central curriculum status. Given the constraints of our curriculum and student numbers only one of these courses, Experimental Writing (WRIT 240) has moved from idea to actuality, but I would like to describe this course to you as a way of illustrating my passion for innovative course design and my appetite for continuing to challenge myself as a teacher. You can find the syllabus here. I think of these courses as "hybrid" courses that explore the question of what creative writing practices can bring to the study and practice of different disciplines: visual art, environmental studies, philosophy, as well as other fields. Experimental Writing focused on the connection between literature and visual art.
Experimental Writing was passed through the curriculum committee as a course and as an "Artistic Expression" course in spring of 2014 and I have offered it once, in fall of 2014. The student make-up of the course was among my most diverse: creative writing majors, literature majors, and non-majors seeking Artistic Expression credits enrolled. Instead of meeting in a literature or writing classroom we met in the art studio, using the space to both gather in the traditional discussion group format typical of humanities courses and as space for the students to create their own image-text hybrids. I structured the course into five units, each exploring a particular form, or type of image-text relationship (writing with images/illustration; collage; treated text; script/typography; and the artist’s book). For each topic we set out to accomplish five tasks: 1)to view and discuss historical excerpts asking: what do these excerpts have in common in terms of the relation of image to text? how do they differ? what can an audience get from such a text? 2) to read theoretical/artistic statements about the form (type) asking: what do theorists/artists/writers say about the relationship of image and text in this form? 3) to articulate the fundamental conventions of the form (type): given these examples and statements, what is the essential relationships of the form? (Example: the text narrates what happens in the image; the text is itself an image; the text throws the image into questions; the text reinvents the image). 4) to plan and produce our own versions of the form asking: how can incorporate what I have learned about this form into my own creative process? And 5) to present these works in progress for workshop-style critique.
To create consistent practice I used a blackboard assignment similar in style to Betsy's Aesthetics response module. I used the creative writing workshop model for presentations of works in progress. I used an art studio model for maker-days. I used an analytical model for assignment write-ups. Many of the projects created for the course were stunning: one student made a three-dimensional paper wedding dress from a romance novel; another student made a series of paper dolls to tell the story of cultural appropriation. Some of the projects were low on skill, but very high on vision and innovation. The thing that impressed me most about the class, however, was the way in which it deeply engaged students of diverse backgrounds, interest, and levels of preparedness.
To some extent all my courses are "hybrid." My creative writing workshops always require a heavy dose of reading published authors and responding both creatively and analytically. Literature courses always give students the space to creatively try the techniques and forms that build the literature they are reading. What I think of as the “hybrid” course takes this one level deeper by not just responding creatively to the world (of text, of art, of science, of history) but by studying hybridity’s power to open new perspectives on the world: to revalue and reconstitute identity—of self, of art, of world.
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