teaching philosophy

Teaching, writing, and service to the community are, in my mind, a part of the same practice. This belief comes out of two experiences: attending a Quaker high school and teaching with the New England Literature Program, an undergraduate live-learn semester. In my high school experience, cooking dinner and moving irrigation lines was a part of the curriculum, and a person couldn’t graduate without also completing weekly chores. Students were encouraged to have a say in administrative policies and to think deeply about what justice meant in our small community and the larger world. In the New England Literature Program, I was teaching Emily Dickinson’s poems in one hour and how to clean a toilet or peel ginger for a fifty-person meal in the next. Both of these experiences inform my belief that learning, and our learning communities, extend beyond the classroom and beyond the page. I believe creative writing is a vehicle for world-building and for honing the skills of creative problem-solving.

Because for writers at any stage there’s often a gap between what we imagined before the words hit the page and what we end up writing, the assignments and discussions in my classroom emphasize radical revision. I believe life itself is a rough draft; each sunrise gives us the chance to revise how we think, act, and react. Similarly, I encourage the students to think of their writing and our collective work as a work-in-progress.

During an interlocking set of assignments, spanning several weeks, I ask undergraduate students to revise a single poem according to each week’s craft focus. The students convert the poem to iambic feet, then vary the line lengths, then change the form to a sonnet, then imitate sprung rhythm. The outcome is that students begin to see revision as a multi-stage process and they see experimentation as an essential element in composition. My hope is that, because the students retain each earlier version of the poem, the pressure is off. Instead, drafting and revising become an exploration—a challenge to see the poem, the self, and the world from a new point of view.

My workshops emphasize experimentation and play in order to instill the value of revision. But this is not the only reason. I think of creative writing as a component of critical thinking. The revision constraints I assign to undergraduates are meant to be obstacles. The challenge, then, is to write one’s way out of a conceptual corner.

The classroom is like a writing laboratory. The subject of study is the self. This is why, almost from the beginning of my teaching career, I’ve played with different approaches to the traditional workshop method. The author is not silent in my workshops. While I understand the impetus to simulate an audience’s response without the author there, I think this simulation is often too big a burden for the class to carry, particularly when the workshop is reviewing an early draft rather than a finished piece. This silence can also be harmful if the author’s ideal audience is not in the room. The ways I’ve sidestepped the silent author in workshop has changed over time and adjusts depending on the level of the class. I’ve used a dear reader letter, short author presentations and a follow-up Q&A, a menu that allows the student to choose different methods for audience engagement, and Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. My approaches are informed by a belief that the purpose of the writing classroom is to help writers crystallize and articulate their own beliefs, passions, and challenges through discussion of craft and creative choices.

We carry this same approach into our discussions of the readings. I do not use reading discussions as a way to push my own values—except as a way to underline the necessity of inclusiveness and openness in my classroom. For example, after reading Zadie Smith’s “The Girl with Bangs,” the class will usually come slow to the discovery that the narrator, who relates the experience of falling in love with a woman, is a woman. Once the whole class sees Smith’s slight of hand, we talk about how the author constructed this ambiguity and I ask them if or how the story changes when they re-think the narrator’s gender. In this way, the text functions for all the students: those who identify with the narrator feel seen. Those students who do not identify directly with the narrator’s subject position practice the critical thinking skills of trying on different points of view and examining how their assumptions inform their reading of the world. In whatever subject I am teaching—creative writing, literature, or composition—the crux of the class rests on students trying to see the world in some way they have never seen it before.

My dedication to students is a dedication to humanistic principles. Re-vision, self-reflection, and creative problem-solving help build the foundation civic responsibility. Learning creates both a freedom and a responsibility. My classes are designed to celebrate the freedom one feels when discovering a new way of seeing and to share the responsibility for actively finding those moments. In my classes students learn how to play with poetic craft and investigate puzzles, and through articulating their choices and the rationale behind them, and through a diversity of perspectives in the readings and in the room, they come a degree closer to the capaciousness of intellectual inquiry and its power to liberate minds and bodies.