On Teaching Literature

As I've mentioned before, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs has revised its Recommendations on the Teaching of Creative Writing to Undergraduates in an effort "to clarify the goals, methods, and curriculum of teaching creative writing to undergraduates."

As I said in my previous post on the subject, most of these recommendations are really good, acknowledging that "An expert writer must first become an expert reader" and that "The graduate model of workshops that center mainly on analysis of student work is not effective for undergraduates." For most of us who have been teaching for a few years, these are self-evident truths, but the AWP makes it clear that these guidelines are being offered up for all writers and instructors, so presumably this information will be useful for some of its members. But even more useful, I think, is this suggestion:

The reading lists for undergraduate courses should be diverse on every possible axis—gender, class, ethnicity, culture, style, sensibility—in order to reflect the diverse experiences of students and to broaden their individual perspectives. Reading lists should also incorporate a range of both contemporary and classic readings so that students gain familiarity with literary tradition and understand how it influences contemporary practice.

Absolutely. This can't be stated loudly enough-- particularly in creative nonfiction, where it seems that so many anthologies pretty much present the same voices over and over again. Diversity, in my experience, hasn't always been a high priority in terms of creative writing instruction; it's good to see our professional organization taking such a stand.

So what about the other recommendations? Well, I have some ambivalent feelings. They're good suggestions, to be sure, but take a look at this list of goals:

An Overview of Literature. Creative writing classes and workshops introduce students to a wide range of literature, spanning at least three centuries, three continents, and a variety of cultural viewpoints. This overview, for majors and minors, is complemented by traditional courses in English literature, comparative literature, and other disciplines.

Expertise in Critical Analysis. Like any undergraduate instruction, creative writing classes teach students how to think critically; the classes give students practice in making sound interpretive arguments based on the evidence of a text and in solving analytical problems.

Understanding of the Elements of a Writer’s Craft. Creative writing instruction gives students an understanding of the components of a writer’s craft: prosody, narrative strategies, forms, genres, and aesthetics. Students learn to write well in many forms.

Intellectual Discipline. The engagement with creative writing and criticism provides students with experience in narrowing one’s focus and energies to produce the most effective work while they meet deadlines and manage their time efficiently.
Understanding of Diverse Cultural Values. Ultimately the study of literature is the study of humanity. In creative writing classes students study points of view other than their own. This makes them more effective not only as writers but as collaborators, coworkers, managers, and citizens in an increasingly diverse nation.

Creativity. By requiring students to work in various literary forms and genres, creative writing classes require creative problem-solving, experimentation, and inventiveness.

A Strong Command of Grammar. Creative writing classes require that students broaden and deepen skills they may have first developed in their classes of composition, grammar, and rhetoric.

Persuasive Communication Skills. Because literature is not mere exposition, creative writing students learn rhetorical tactics for making both emotional and rational appeals through language.

An Understanding of New Media Technology. Instruction in new technology is critically important for writers who would participate in the full spectrum of the writing world; this includes an understanding of writing on the web, website construction, integration of other media with writing, and desktop publishing.

Does it seem odd to anyone else that "Understanding of the Elements of a Writer's Craft" is listed as the third goal for creative writing instruction? Doesn't it seem like learning how to write should be priority number one? Yes, getting a strong background in literature and honing critical thinking skills are important, but aren't they important in a creative writing class because they help facilitate the goal of students learning how to write?

Now, to be fair, at no point does the AWP say "these are our goals, listed in order of importance." But it seems counter-intuitive to not put "learning the elements" at the very top of the list-- particularly since these first two goals are also goals in our students' literature classes; the thing that sets a creative writing class apart from a literature class is that the creative writing class is, traditionally, focused on craft.

This probably wouldn't have jumped out at me had it not been for the ugly comments AWP Executive Director David W. Fenza made in an interview discussing the revised guidelines. "Many teachers of literature feel that the study of literature has to be saved from the cultural critics and the literary theorists," he said. "I think it is safe to say that some classrooms are devoted to the systematic humiliation of literature, and that, of course, is very offensive to writers." Most of you have probably already read my response to this claim-- not to put too fine a point on it, but I think it's dismissive and insulting (for more details, you can click on the link to my previous post above).

Obviously, it's important that creative writing students read a lot-- that's why creative writing majors tend to require a lot of literature classes, and why creative writing classes also tend to have pretty extensive reading lists. Nevertheless, though, I think it's important that those of us who teach creative writing classes remember that teaching our students the elements of craft comes first in those classes. And we'd also do well to remember that the English Department is large enough for both Hemingway and Derrida.

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