Can writing be taught?

Summer nears its end, at least for academics. It’s been a busy time for me, which has kept me from writing here as much as I want. Fortunately, some of those events provide for plenty of topics to write about in the weeks to come.

In the late spring, I had the opportunity to kibitz at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s 75th Anniversary Reunion. I have a piece coming out on that sometime later this year to which I’ll link once it’s posted. One of the threads that I pulled on while writing the draft but ended up not including focused on one of the questions that kept popping up in the research on workshops: can writing be taught?

That seems like a good topic to start the year off.

Louis Menand does a good job of phrasing the question and marking out the sides of the debate in his New Yorker review of Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era. For Menand, the question seems to arise from the peculiarity of the process. “The workshop,” he writes, “is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart.” The role of the instructor in this process, Menand claims, is to shepherd the discussion, an expert role one presumably earns the right to perform by going through the process him/herself or by being “a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught.”

Both Menand and a piece on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop done for PBS earlier this year refer to skepticism in the Workshop’s own party line on the debate. Despite being the first degree-granting creative writing program in the country and developing a model that’s been copied and installed in MFA programs everywhere, Iowa is  almost apologetic in describing what they do on their own website:

Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light.

With the force of such a debate, one wonders how creative writing programs exist in a world where it seems that trustees, especially at state universities, seem more and more persnickety about idiosyncratic programs. (Of course, budget-wise, one stops wondering when one hears about the popularity of such programs, which are certainly among the more cost efficient programs and which provide universities with inexpensive instructors for rhetoric and general education literature courses. The application fees alone from the thousand plus applications that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop receives could pay the salary of two admissions officers.)

If there is a huge debate about whether writing can be taught, what is it exactly that all of these writers-in-training want? Menand’s argument that it’s an expert to come in and shepherd them through discussions with other novices is encouraging. At the same time, that follows a ready made admission about what a workshop isn’t: “a workshop is not a course in the normal sense—a scene of instruction in which some body of knowledge is transmitted by means of a curricular script.” Iowa claims they exist because “[i]f one can “learn” to play the violin or to paint, one can “learn” to write” before adding the caveat that “no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.”

I think the only way to really answer to these questions is to reconsider the definition of teaching that we’re looking at. Menand’s idea that a workshop is not a course in “the normal sense” because it does not transmit a body of knowledge through a particular script tells us more about what we consider a course in the normal sense. But there’s a good reason to question why that should be the normal sense.

Yes, many courses, especially the lecture courses at large universities, promise to teach you the corpus of knowledge on a subject. And, yes, they order courses sequentially and craft all sorts of prerequesitional hurdles to ensure that students go through things in that order because one needs the knowledge from one to understand the other. But those procedures show more about the content of the course than they do the teaching. Any instructor who is worth his or her salt won’t tell a Chemistry II student who has forgotten how to titrate that s/he needs to go back to Chemistry I and redo the whole thing. Good instructors constantly need to adjust their instruction to meet students where they are in their own process of becoming an expert in the field. And while there are many instructors who profess by reading off of PowerPoint slides like an automaton, we wouldn’t necessarily call those good teachers even if they convey the entirety of the subject’s knowledge through all their slides.

The success and proliferation of writing workshops across the country and the quality of writers that they have produced should at least get us started thinking about answering this question of whether writing can be taught by thinking about what workshops do right. Workshops are small. They provide a chance to get to know experts in the field. They host lots of readings where students can hear those experts come in and talk about their own work. In other words, workshops have recreated stolen a page from apprenticeships. They’ve found ways to provide a space for writers-to-be to practice their craft.

I don’t imagine too many writing instructors are going to be keen on having their jobs described in these terms. In an educational environment where tenure decisions are driven by assessment and publications, swapping the  role of professing knowledge to the next generation for the role of a shepherd who oversees the practice of students seems to surrender a great amount of prestige. However, student-centered education looks a lot more like an apprenticeship than it does a college lecture class, and there’s a lot of reasons why it might be better.

Of course, I have my own bias.I work out of a writing center, don’t plan and teach any of my own courses, and am a non-tenured staff member rather than a faculty member on the tenure track. My official job title calls me a writing consultant rather than an instructor. I wasn’t privy to the organizational planning for naming my title that, but I’m guessing that it is that way because someone didn’t want to say what I do is the same as what a professor does.

I understand why they might have changed the name. In my mind, “I teach writing.” If I’m asked by someone who does not teach, “what do you do?” I answer, “I teach writing.” However, when I’m asked by someone who is in academia to clarify what a writing consultant does, I’m not willing to lay down any gauntlets. The strategy that I use most often is use to say that I’m a writing coach and not a traditional teacher.

While I’ll not going to say whether I do a good job or not, I’d at least like to think that some of students have learned to become better writers from the work they have done with me. And I like to think that the reasons they have improved is due to the type of instruction they receive. When I sit down with a student to go over their writing, I never have an agenda for what they need to learn next. What we discuss is sometimes focused on what their effort in preparing a draft or sketch/outline has put forth. Some of the most productive discussions go far afield from the current assignment and focus on strategies that they are using to attempt to improve their own writing. I take this approach because my focus is on helping the student improve as a writer and not on getting them to a point where they can recite back to me facts about writing or even to a point where their paper is better. Both of those last two things can and should happen along the way, but they’re not the end goal.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that being seen as a consultant instead of a teacher does bother me, and I have experienced times where other people don’t consider me in their same league prestige-wise. At the same time, I understand it’s not a personal judgment, but instead a factor of the educational system we currently have in place and that can’t be changed.

It might help change things for the better if writing workshops stopped being so quirky and modest when they’re asked the question, “Can writing be taught?” I recognize that Iowa is trying credit their students’ efforts when they say on their website that “the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us” but doesn’t that hold true for all types of education? Isn’t the credit for all types of teaching not burdened by the need to have students with an aptitude and drive to succeed? Don’t all teachers simply shape and direct what the student brings?

What is lost in this debate is how hard it is to shape and direct students in productive ways. It’s a lot harder than reading a collection of per point slides aloud, and it’s a lot harder to differentiate your effort from the students and to demonstrate you’ve had an impact.

Iowa seems to has had plenty of success shaping the talents of their students if awards, 17 Pulitzers plus a number of Poet Laureates and National Book Award winners, are to be believed. Their model has been copied and reproduced across the country and the world, and it depends largely on creating a space for young artists to practice. Art, or any type of creation for that matter, has always demanded such a space. Learning to write is a stressful process that gets more stressful as the writer becomes a better critic and understands what it takes to write well. Iowa’s student-centered approach from the workshop seems to work well to mitigate that stress (or at least to encourage writers to redirect it into productive activity.)

Yet, we still say this is not “teaching writing.”

Can writing be taught? Absolutely, but only after you put aside misconceptions about what teaching is.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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