The Iowa model has seen plenty of spirited critique over the years. In her essay, “Unsilencing the Workshop,” Beth Nguyen advocates for altering the existing model so that the student whose work is being workshopped (the “workshoppee”) may engage in the conversation with their fellow workshoppers rather than sitting in forced silence. More broadly, writers like Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ocean Vuong have both observed that the workshop’s power dynamics are inherently biased toward white, male, heteronormative, and western voices, as students are more likely to experience dismissive pushback when they submit work that does not pander to these perspectives. Still others—including, recently, Sonya Huber—argue that traditional workshop feedback, such as “show, don’t tell” is harmful to students writing about trauma or from marginalized subject-positions.
Regardless of the critique, all of these writers seem to agree that the traditional Iowa workshop model does not teach students to give culturally sensitive or informed feedback. At its worst, the exclusionary nature of this model can discourage promising writers from pursuing their craft, and cause them to stop writing all together, as described in Junot Díaz’s essay “MFA vs. POC.” Many writers have established that the Iowa model is, at very least, inadequate for the contemporary creative writing classroom in myriad ways. Since the problem has been identified, however, the big question has become how one should address these issues in pedagogical practice. That is, how do we, as teachers, facilitate a creative writing workshop that will work for all of our students?
As a teacher myself, I’ve been thinking about the issues surrounding the Iowa workshop model a lot lately, especially as they concern underrepresented voices in the writing world. I want my students to feel comfortable bringing their work to class, and to feel confident that their peers and I will read the work in good faith and provide them with helpful feedback for revision. Further, I want students to feel their perspectives are heard, respected, and valued in the workshop space. With these hopes in mind, I began to think about what a model that privileges all students might look like. This was challenging work. Every model I came up with or read about seemed to fall short of the universal approach I was looking for. Rather than reevaluating the workshop with fresh pedagogical eyes, many suggestions I read seemed to put a different spin on the same old model—making accommodations for individual student-writers rather than a ground-up reimagining of the workshop process that addresses the power dynamics between student and teacher, majority and minority perspective, traditional and contemporary ideas about what “good writing” looks like, and more, all inherent to the Iowa model.
I had a lot of my own ideas about what works and what doesn’t work in a workshop, which were primarily based on my own experiences as a creative writing student—what I admired about my professors’ workshops or what I wished they had done differently. I felt sure my students also had their own ideas, and I wanted to hear them. So I started doing something a little radical: I asked my students for their opinions about the workshop.
Applying a student-centered approach to a creative writing workshop means building a workshop model with ideas from the actual students who will be working within it. As Beth Nguyen points out in her essay, most students don’t realize there are alternatives to the Iowa model—their workshop experiences are limited to the methods their creative writing teachers practice. The benefits of student-centered model, then, are numerous. Not only can such a process work to serve students’ specific needs as learners, but it can also give students practice advocating for their own needs in the workshop setting. This, in turn, can help teachers better understand the needs and expectations of their students, unique to the specific makeup and positionalities of the writers in the classroom. As an added bonus, students also tend to be more invested in systems they help to influence or create.
The first time I attempted a student-centered workshop model was in an introduction to creative nonfiction class at Ohio University. I walked into the classroom on the first day of the semester, and that more than a third of my students were writers of color. I learned more than half the class identified as women, and several students identified as queer. I had been interested in exploring workshop alternatives, but had neglected to consider, until that moment, the parity of perspectives on my reading list. My syllabus incorporated some of these voices, but relied on a dated anthology of primarily white and cis-male essayistic perspectives. I realized immediately that I was unprepared to teach this group of students. Something had to change. I thought about the books and essays I was most drawn to, who wrote them, and why. I thought about my own workshop experiences, good and bad, and considered how those same situations might have felt for students who do not share my subject-position as a white, cisgender woman. It was an uncomfortable but necessary reckoning, and one I hoped I could use to ultimately benefit my teaching.
One source of inspiration for me then was Peter Elbow’s seminal text, Writing Without Teachers. In it, Elbow writes extensively about power and methods of achieving a more equitable writing workshop—namely, by removing the “teacher” figure all together. Contrary to common beliefs about the goals of workshop, Elbow asserts that “[t]o improve your writing you don’t need advice about what changes to make; you don’t need theories of what is good and bad writing.” Instead, he says, students need to understand how readers perceive their writing in order to make informed choices in revision. While I wasn’t sure all of Elbow’s ideas would be workable in practice—in most classroom settings, a teacher is necessary to grade assignments, direct the conversation in class, and hold students accountable to one another—I wondered whether it would be possible to get students invested in a workshop-building process akin to Elbow’s teacherless writing classroom. I was determined to give it a try.
To prepare for our first discussion about the workshop model, I asked students to read the New York Times article “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” as well as Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay “On Pandering” from Tin House. (I would have liked to include Beth Nguyen’s essay on unsilencing the workshop, but it had not yet been published.) Because around half of my students had never taken a creative writing workshop before, it was essential for them to read these ideas and to consider similarities to past peer-review experiences. For those students who did have prior workshop experience, the readings introduced them to workshop power dynamics they may not have been aware of before, enabling them name their past experiences. Students responded to the texts both through their own writing and an in-class discussion. On this day almost everyone in class had something to contribute, and several students (particularly those of color) spoke up more than once about painful workshop experiences they’d endured in the past and their hopes for our workshop in the future. The students engaged in this discussion for so long we ran out of time; their eagerness to share made it clear that no one had asked them for their opinions about the workshop before.
At the conclusion of our discussion that day, I asked the class to write one question, one concern, and one suggestion for our workshop model on post-it notes and collected them. For the sake of transparency, I typed up these anonymous student responses into a single document and shared it with the class. Then, from these responses, I created a draft outlining a potential workshop model based both on students’ ideas as well as a few additional implementations specific to the genre we were working in. The latter included a stipulation of mine that students not refer to the writer on the page by name, instead using “the speaker” or “the narrator” in order to create distance between the writer sitting in the room and their version of themselves on the page. The draft was distributed to the class and we spent part of a period discussing further ideas for improvement. At the conclusion of that discussion, students were asked to write another round of anonymous questions, suggestions, and concerns; I made revisions to the draft accordingly. After this final step, we were ready to put our model into practice. Below are the parameters for our agreed-upon workshop model:
1. The writer will have an opportunity at the beginning of their workshop to speak for up to five minutes about the literary tradition they are writing from, the intended audience, and anything else the writer would like readers to understand about their essay before discussion begins. The writer should take notes and practice active listening during their workshop, but also feel free to speak up at any point if they feel it is necessary to do so.
2. During our discussion, readers will have opportunities to speak to what the essay is about, what is working well, and what aspects they have questions about. Readers should direct comments to the writer and to each other rather than to the teacher. The teacher will act as workshop facilitator, posing questions and offering occasional comments in order to shape and give direction to the discussion. The workshop facilitator will also act as timekeeper.
3. Though nonfiction writing can be highly personal, the person the writer has crafted on the page is a persona—one version of the true self. Please do not refer to the writer by name during their workshop. Instead, use language such as “the speaker” or “the narrator.”
4. Please use positive language when discussing aspects of the writer’s essay you had questions about or did not understand. Couch observations and suggestions in questions (“I was curious about the section where…” or “I wonder how the essay would read if…”). Speak about the essay and the writer with respect. Finally, please be mindful of tone when providing feedback, avoiding statements that begin with “I wanted…” or “I didn’t like…”
5. Readers may choose to speak, or raise their hand to join the conversation—whichever method feels more natural. Those who did not have many opportunities to discuss the essay during the workshop may be invited by the workshop facilitator to pose a question to or share an observation with the group to ensure they are not left out of the conversation.
6. After the workshop discussion, the writer will again be invited to speak and pose a final question to the group. The group will clap in recognition of the writer’s work before readers pass their letters and the essay back to the writer.Using this new model as a guide, the workshops themselves were a highly successful exercise. Even my initially skeptical students reported mostly positive experiences with both building the model and putting it into practice. Most unexpectedly, however, the process of creating the model fostered a close-knit writing classroom community where students felt comfortable bringing all manner of essay into class. Many students reported that the feedback they received from the workshop discussion was helpful in revising their work, and almost all communicated—either verbally in class or through their exit survey—that the way they conceptualized the goals for a creative writing workshop had changed. Rather than ideas about what “good writing” should look like and worrying about whether their essays made the cut, students were more focused on what they wanted their writing to achieve, and what audiences they wanted to reach.
Though it requires a bit more in-class work to facilitate than the traditional workshop, a student-centered workshop building process is a valuable alternative to the Iowa model. First, it gives students the tools to think critically about the biases inherent in the creative writing workshop. Such a model offers also students the opportunity to become members of a writing community and a chance to advocate for their own workshop needs as well as to speak up for those with less privilege than themselves. Though I recognize the workshop building process may be challenging in some contexts—especially if students disagree with one another—this method allows for a greater flexibility than a traditional model. For instance, I could envision an even more radical individualistic student-directed approach to the workshop in which each student constructs, with guidance from the teacher, a model unique to their own needs.
The student-centered model is one actionable way to break the generational cycle of the Iowa workshop model, allowing teachers an opportunity to think critically about their pedagogy—how they teach creative writing, and why. With so many writers and educators speaking out against the creative writing workshop model as a harmful means of perpetuating discrimination, creative writing teachers must take it upon themselves to model new ways for students to critique one another’s work if we truly want the writing world to change for the better.
*Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and the co-editor of its forthcoming anthology, entitled The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). She is also a podcast host for the New Books Network's Literature channel. Find her online at zoebossiere.com or on Twitter @zoebossiere.