Thursday, April 18, 2019

Towards a Better Nonfiction Workshop

Of late I find myself struck by a number of on-going discussions involving the much lauded & much dreaded mechanism which serves as the linchpin of American writing programs: the workshop. Specifically, I want to draw the attention of our readers to Beth Nguyen’s recent article over at LitHub and to a supportive Twitter thread in response by Garth Greenwell. What I found particularly arresting—alarming, terrifying, infuriating—about this discussion was Greenwell’s confirmation that both an absence of pedagogical training for creative writing instructors and a professional disregard for K-12 teaching experience are common at the university level. The thought that high school teaching experience, i.e., teaching work more challenging and lower paying than that typically done by a tenure-track CW professor, would be seen as disqualifying briefly threw my mind into an apoplectic frenzy, and when I first started drafting this post I thought it would be a massive, brutal, excoriating, Juvenalian entry in our curmudgeonly Malcontent series, one which would tear down the workshop model and its attendant notions of institutional prestige (that draft included multiple denunciations of indifferent professors as traitors to art; lengthy compilations of workshop failures brought about by incompetence, malfeasance, and malice; an extended catalog of the countless intellectual & moral failures of David Foster Wallace; several uses of the phrase “faux New Critical detritus”; and an overlong conceit which re-imagined the aesthetic arbitrariness of workshop feedback as a sashimi conveyor belt in which some items are secretly made of feces).

But as I think more and more about the workshop (and the professors who teach it), I have realized that many people, including (perhaps especially including) the tenure-track professors expected to make use of it, don’t actually care that much for the workshop to begin with. Given this, I think it may be a better use of my time & space here to identify some specific problems which tend to emerge from the workshop, mention some possible solutions (some of them gleaned from my experience teaching high school students), and open up a call for thoughts and commentary on improving the workshop.

For this discussion, I’ll be assuming a relatively “traditional” workshop model, i.e., one in which students read a piece, write letters in response to it, and then offer a mixture of prescriptive and descriptive feedback in a loose, supposedly free-flowing seminar-style group discussion.

I absolutely do not mean to suggest that all of my proposals below are excellent, 100%-effective solutions for the major problems with the workshop. Rather, I hope that they may serve as a starting point or inspiration for discussions on things we can do to improve the workshop. I welcome feedback, suggestions, responses etc.

So then, on to the problems:

The Workshop is Not Culturally Responsive (to put it very, very mildly)

See Beth Nguyen’s above-linked article for examples of this. Or just talk to students of color, queer students, working-class students, or students of many other marginalized groups about their workshop experiences—examples of this are rife. I can recall one particular workshop, relatively early in my grad school experience, where discussion over a particularly gay essay of mine devolved into a fruitless and unhelpful debate about whether or not the piece’s somewhat, shall we say, direct references to relations between men might “alienate possible straight allies”. The essay was some overwrought fragmented faux-lyric thing which framed gay subversions of the arrow-pierced religious iconography of St. Sebastian & 19th Century notions of sexual inversion as metaphors for the contemporary psychological experience of the closet—which is to say, the essay was deeply unconcerned with anything even approaching the phrase “straight allies”.

Was spending a third to a half of that workshop discussing the possible alienation of “straight allies” remotely helpful? No. Did losing that much discussion time to the “straight allies” problem prevent me from getting other, potentially more helpful feedback? Probably. But the traditional workshop mode—group discussion and a silent author does not have a particularly good mechanism for reframing or re-guiding these types of discussions.

Possible solutions: as Nguyen’s essay mentions—un-silence the writer! This can take many forms, but even a modification as simple as allowing a writer to intervene and say “got your feedback, thanks, can we move on to a new topic” will go far to prevent fruitless or unhelpful discussion.

Additionally, workshop instructors should consider the possibility of explicitly re-directing discussion when they feel conversation may be drifting into an unhelpful, harmful, or offensive direction. Anybody who has done work with younger students (or anybody who has done any form of serious conflict resolution at all) knows that early intervention & re-direction, rather than being an impediment to honest discussion, often prevents serious toxicity from developing.

Also: require students to at least attempt a Google search on terms or phrases from other cultures, languages, religions, etc they may find unfamiliar BEFORE they bring it up in workshop discussion. Sort of silly that instructors may need to make this mandatory, but here we are.

The Workshop Offers Few Avenues for Direct Modelling

A good deal of human learning—especially learning occurring in formal settings like classrooms—is contingent upon modelling, i.e., upon an instructor or mentor figure showing students what an outcome should look like and then helping them break down and work through the steps to achieve it. This usually takes an instructional structure similar to I Do (i.e., the instructor directly models the skill); We Do (the instructor helps students walk through the process); You Do (students are given the chance to try the process on their own). If I Do; We Do; You Do sounds pedestrian, silly, childish, or beneath you, reader, think back to the last time you cooked a recipe you were unfamiliar with—you probably watched an instructional video or read an article on a cooking blog (I Do) and then prepared the recipe according to step by step instructions the first time (We Do) before modifying it according to your own preferences a second time (You Do). The process is commonplace and natural to people learning all manners of skills at all levels.

The traditional workshop, however, is absolutely terrible at offering opportunities for this sort of modelling. One of the primary goals of workshop is for writers to learn how to interpret and critique the work of others. But—unless the professor takes time to build their own apparatus for developing these skills into the course—the workshop offers little to no chance for students to actively improve these skills under guided instruction. Instead of assuming students already know how to write effective workshop letters and have effective workshop discussions, or instead of just hitting the ground running and assuming students will figure out their own workshop “style”, instructors may want to consider explicitly laying out some guidelines and suggestions for workshop letters and discussions and then (most importantly!) providing feedback on workshop letters throughout the course.

This need not be negative/punitive in focus—many students do have legitimately different styles when it comes to workshop feedback. Taking a little time every week or two to present to the class examples of different interpretive moves (ideally helpful, successful ones) students have made in discussion or in workshop letters will allow the class to see a variety of different models in action—much more helpful than just “figuring it out” on their own.

I have sometimes heard that students should already know how to do all this by the time they get to grad school, but this relies on assuming that every student has a thorough grounding in creative writing practice & pedagogy from their undergraduate years. This is, to put it politely, a very false assumption.

The Workshop Should Not Be a Summative Assessment

Although students should be expected to bring work with some degree of polish in to a workshop, a major problem with the workshop model is that it can reward “safe” or overtly “finished” work (if you turn in something which doesn’t take any huge risks or have any huge issues you can be sure people are much less likely to gossip about your work at the program’s happy hour watering hole). The social stakes of workshop often make it seem like what is, in teacher lingo, called a summative assessment—an ultimate, final test of your ability to produce work according to a certain benchmark (in this case, the benchmark being “does this workshop group think this is worthy of publication?”).

But this is a terrible way for workshop to function! It unnecessarily stresses the writer, creates potential tensions which can lead to bad vibes across the whole program (or school, or community, or etc), encourages unhelpful workshop gamesmanship and one-upping, discourages writers from trying new tactics in their writing, and ultimately fails to meet the writer and their work where they are at.

There are number of ways instructors can ameliorate this, but I believe that thinking of workshop as a formative assessment—something low stakes, designed to provide developmental feedback rather than an evaluation of whether a piece is “working or not”—is a good starting point. Encourage your students to focus on purely descriptive feedback—what was their experience of the text, rather than how this text should be changed. Or you may directly inquire with the author at the start of the workshop what type of feedback (structural? Line by line? Research related? In light of XYZ?) they would find most helpful and guide discussion along those lines.

The Workshop Format Makes Poor Use of Time and Breeds Inattention

Put simply: it is very hard for anybody to pay attention to anything for 3 hours, no matter how much we might like to pretend otherwise. Students are likely to lose focus during workshop discussion, especially if 1 or 2 loud voices are dominating the conversation. Additionally, when a piece comes in workshop may unduly influence the type of feedback it receives—people are often just getting warmed up during the first 30 minutes, and often bored & ready to go get a drink during the last 30 minutes.

Instructors may consider using some of this opening and closing time—when students are least focused—on a generative exercise or discussion topic not directly tied to a workshop piece. And instructors may want to seek out ways to divide the workshopping of a single essay into smaller component units. Changing gears/modes regularly allows for easy refocusing and makes it easier for students to avoid drifting off during workshop. A simple, easy to implement version might look something like this: instructor poses a relevant, individualized, descriptive question about the piece up for workshop (1 minute); students break into pairs or small groups to discuss this question (3-5 minutes); instructor solicits responses to this question & summarizes on whiteboard (3-5 minutes); instructor uses this content to segue to whatever mode of workshop the course uses (30+ minutes); writer asks any clarifying or additional questions they may have (5 minutes); students conclude by filling out index cards summarizing any new observations they have had about the piece (or by mentioning their favorite quotes from the piece, or re-iterating what they found most interesting—there are all kinds of closing activities you can use here) & presenting these to the writer (3 minutes).

This is, of course, not the only way to go about implementing something like this—it is just one suggestion to show how breaking the discussion up can make better use of time, provide a bigger variety of feedback, and minimize the natural human tendency to inattention.

The Workshop Can Be Uniquely Ill-Suited to CNF & Essay Students

CNF is a ludicrously over-broad genre term—it includes everything from the works of Anne Carson (the poets are probably screeching right now, but as they call anything pretty-sounding “a poem” so too have I come to call anything smart “an essay”) to longform gonzo journalism to science writing to etc etc etc. This means that a CNF workshop is likely to have a huge variety of backgrounds, styles, interests, etc present in it. The workshops I attended might feature me, a gayboy who writes about 16th Century demonology & Catholic art history & obscure JPRGs, responding to essays about saguaro cacti. Or a former border patrol agent responding to an essay about a cryogenic lab. We were often a vibrant, pleasingly chaotic mix. But without focus and structure the free-flowing group discussion model of workshop could easily turn into 20+ minutes of “I needed a little more context on subject ABC, which is unfamiliar to me”—helpful feedback, surely, but also something that could be an email, or an index card, or a post-it note instead of taking up class time. I don’t think the traditional model does an excellent job of leveraging the energy and force offered by the varied backgrounds and interests of CNF writers, although I will admit I don’t have a very clear set of ideas for improvement here.

A Brief Call: On Improving the Nonfiction Workshop

I would like to dedicate some space and time this summer (ideally in the month of June) to encouraging conversations on how the nonfiction workshop functions and how it can be improved. Are you interested in contributing an Essay Daily-style piece on how the nonfiction workshop might be made better? Drop us a line (managing editor Will’s email is in the column on the right). We’re open to creative reflections on the relevant pedagogy, plug-and-play strategies teachers can utilize in their classrooms, weird & hybrid (always one of our preferred modes) commentaries on the workshop, concrete suggestions for ways to vary and enrich workshop, etc. That being said, we prefer things which exist in the creative-critical liminal space to purely academic articles on pedagogy. Those formal articles are undoubtedly excellent, but likely better addressed to our scholarly friends over at Assay.

If you have some thoughts and feelings about the workshop but don’t feel up to writing a whole piece, drop me an email anyways—I’m happy to compile brief thoughts and notes from our contributors in a summary-style digest as well.

Thanks for your time and interest, and be in touch by June 1st if you can.


Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

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