Discussing writing and werewolves at Ivy Tech

My good friend and talented writer, Sam Snoek-Brown came to visit my classes yesterday and later gave a reading from his debut novel, Hagridden. Thanks, Sam!

Samuel Snoek-Brown

Today I had the great privilege to visit not one but two creative writing classes taught by my grad school friend, the wonderful poet Brianna Pike. I’ve always loved Bri’s approach to teaching writing as much as I love her poetry (and folks, she’s a hell of a poet!), so I knew I was in for a good time. But what neither of us realized — because Bri had set her syllabus up several weeks ago, and long before we’d finalized my visit — was how easily I slotted into her lessons today.

The classes were addressing setting. Hagridden is heavily dependent on setting, and setting is a subject I’ve written on before. Bri also mentioned the importance of research, including interviews with locals and actual boots-on-the-ground field research, to get a setting right. And, of course, I’ve done all that too. But then it gets weird: the story…

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Trigger Warnings in the Creative Writing Classroom

This past week several articles have circulated the internet regarding “trigger warnings.” The most prevalent is Jennifer Medina’s piece, Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm, which appeared in the New York Times. Not soon after that article ran, a response came in David L. Ulin’s post A Warning about Trigger Warning, which appeared on the LA Times website.

This issue interests me because I am an educator but also because I have a lot of students who have suffered a variety of traumatic incidents and they often write about those incidents in my class. When we begin to delve into the genre of creative nonfiction, typically the floodgates open and I receive essays and memoirs that concern but are not limited to sexual abuse, domestic violence, post traumatic stress syndrome, drug abuse and homelessness. More often than not, my class is the first time they have disclosed any of these traumas in any kind of detail, and while it usually appears first in the written word, it will usually become (if the student chooses to) more of a public event when the piece of writing moves into the workshop space.

The reason I find this to be an interesting piece of the argument is that most of the blog posts and articles that I’ve read have put trigger warnings in the context of literature texts that would appear on a syllabus. The most common examples I’ve seen are The Great Gatsby (issues of violence; alcoholism; misogyny) and The Merchant of Venice (anti-semitism). However, no one is talking about this issue as it pertains to writing courses (or at least I have yet to see anyone talk about it) and I think it brings up some interesting questions.

For example, should my veteran student from Afghanistan be asked to put a trigger warning on his personal essay about sniper shooting? Should my female student be asked to include a warning at the beginning of a poem she wrote about a sexual assault? Should my other student be asked to include a warning at the beginning of a short story that graphically details a character struggling with addiction? Also, should I ask these students to put trigger warnings on their work so I will be prepared to read this material?

It is true that my syllabus for my creative writing courses contains some reading that could be “triggers.” The first story that pops to mind is Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace, but there are others. I don’t put warnings on my syllabus. I never have. I don’t ask students to put warnings on their work. I always begin the semester by emphasizing to students that there will be work that they will read that they will not like (for whatever reason) but a just because they have a negative response to it, doesn’t mean that they can’t learn or take something valuable away from that piece of writing.

I would also say that if a student is brave enough to share a deeply traumatizing event with a class through a piece of writing, they should be encouraged and applauded for their courage. At the same time, we as members of the classroom community, have the duty to read and respond thoughtfully about the work they have put out into the public space.

I agree with Meredith Raimondo, associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Oberlin College, who was quoted in Medina’s article as saying ““I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up,’ ”  This is insensitive and more to the point, it doesn’t solve the problem. There are students entering our educational institutions that have experienced extreme trauma, and we have to figure out how to best serve them in the classroom. However, I wonder if placing warning labels over literature and possibly other student writing is giving them enough intellectual credit.

My students are often troubled by Wallace’s portrayal of the family in Incarnations of Burned Children, but while they acknowledge that the story is disturbing, they also understand why it is important not only because of its content but also because of its structure and style. They also begin to learn that being disturbed and uncomfortable can lead to greater learning and avoiding these pieces of writing because they have been “warned” may do more harm than good. I would even go further to say that many times when a student finds a piece of work that breaks into their own personal trauma, they often find an ally. Not an obstacle. They find a poem or an essay or a short story that speaks to their struggle, and in that way they begin to find their own voice and in that voice, sometimes they begin to heal. 

 

So What Do You Do?

Last week I came across this article: Dispelling the Myth: Why All Writers Should Defend Their Craft by Lisa Marie Basile who is the founding editor of Luna Luna Magazine. You will notice, if you clicked around on my blog, that I have a link to Luna Luna under writing blogs I follow, so I was interested the article right away.

Ms. Basile wrote a eloquent, intelligent article about why writers should embrace and celebrate their craft and work. Why they should not feel ashamed or guilty about being a “writer.” Why they should talk about their writing with other people who are not writers. Why they should hold their heads up high and talk with confidence about why they do what they do and how they do it.

My response to her declarations? Yes! Absolutely. Right on!

And then I found myself remembering all the times I had stood in mixed company at a dinner party or luncheon or volunteer meeting and when the inevitable question arose “so what do you do?” my answer would simply be “I teach creative writing at a community college.” The fact that I actively write poetry. That I’ve recently had poems picked up for publication. That I’m putting together a chapbook. That I received an MFA in poetry (for god sake). None of these things tumble out after the simple response of “I teach.”

Why?

I think some of it is what Ms. Basile addresses in her article. I know the stereotypes all to well. I teach an intro level creative writing course. I know what my students think of poetry and the people who write it. I spend most of my time trying to take those neat little stereotypes and tear them apart, but I’m still vulnerable to them.

I think the other issue for me is perhaps a more specific one, but I often find myself defending the profession of teaching and more specifically of teaching at a community college. This is a whole other post in itself, but when I find myself in these conversations, I often think to myself “well, if these people don’t think teaching is valuable occupation, wait till they hear I’m a poet.” In other words, there is only so much punishment I can bear in one conversation. It’s exhausting.

This idea is best illustrated by a conversation I had with my husband’s current boss when I first met him about a year ago. He’s a lovely man and a fellow lover of poetry, so his response was especially disheartening/irritating. After making small talk for a few minutes, he says to me “RJ tells me you teach at (insert my community college). What’s your specific area of focus?” When I responded with creative writing with a concentration in poetry, he replied “So when are you going to law school?”

Are you kidding me?

Now, the point of this post is not to throw a pity party for myself or to get other people to throw it for me, but these were thoughts that coursed through my head while reading Ms. Basile’s article. But after all those thoughts shuffled out of my brain, I thought to myself, you know what? This is BS.

So from now on, when people ask me what I do? I’m a poet and and teach creative writing.

Boom

 

 

 

 

Teaching Lessons: Teaching World Lit to Fourteen Faces

This semester I am teaching a world literature class for our brand new honors program. I’ve taught the course face to face twice but this semester brings a new format to the table. The company that my community college is currently contracted with uses the concept of a flipped classroom where most of the work done online and supplemental instruction is done in once or twice a week synchronous sessions in Adobe Connect. I spent the last semester developing the course with a course designer which involved taking my course content and translating it into this new format.

This is brand new venture for me and I’ll be posting more about it as the course progresses. There are some positives and negatives about this new format but right now I’m just trying to take in the new experience and see what I can learn from it. I’m not convinced that this new format is the “wave of the future in education” but I think there are some valuable things that can be learned from using the technology for both students and professors, but I’ll be writing about those thoughts at a later date.
For now I’m still digesting meeting with students once a week in a session that essentially entails me talking to a screen of fourteen faces. Think the Brady Bunch screen and you begin to get the idea. This screen shot demonstrates what I see:

Every Wednesday afternoon I sit in my dining room and talk about world literature with my class of fourteen for about an hour and twenty minutes. It is a somewhat odd experience to be sitting in your house teaching a course, but so far I’ve enjoyed the experience. Granted, I’ve only met with my students for two sessions, but they seem comfortable with the technology and today’s discussion about Gilgamesh went much like discussions I’ve had in my traditional face to face classes. I am also lucky in the respect that many of these students took classes in this format last semester, so the technology is familiar to them at this point. 
What I like the most about this format and online education in general is that I have students who are taking this class in Fort Wayne, Muncie & Lafayette in addition to Indianapolis. They may not have access to the course otherwise, especially if it were in a face to face format because their campus may not have offered it or their schedules may not have permitted it even if it was offered. 
I still prefer teaching a face to face class, but I’m always open to trying something new and I think that this experience will ultimately be valuable. 

Teaching Lessons: Compromise

There are times in teaching where it is important to hold a hard line. When you are enrolled in one my courses you are learning about fiction and poetry and nonfiction. You are also learning about grammar and sentence structure and style. In addition to all the academic material, you are also learning organization, responsibility and accountability. You will come to class prepared. You will participate. You will complete the in-class and out of class assignments. You chose to be here, so it is up to you to make it work. I will do everything in my power to help you succeed, but at the end of the day, you have to do the work. And it is hard work.

That being said, sometimes compromise is necessary. This morning I opened my email to find a message from a student who has not attended class since October 1st. Before October 1st, her attendance had also not been the best. When she was in class, she participated and completed her work, but upon reviewing my attendance records I found that out of the 17 class sessions we’ve had so far, she’s attended 8. In her email she provided an in depth explanation of her absences, but assured me that she would not allow these setbacks to keep her from achieving what she set out to do. 
Well, here’s the bad news, that’s already happened. 
I am sympathetic to all of her problems (too numerous and personal to detail in this post), but at the end of the day it is your responsibility to do the work and you’re not doing it. That being said, I’m constantly looking for ways to work around a students issues. If there is a way to make it work for them, I’d much rather at least try to solve the problem. In response to this student, I shared her situation with my chair and asked for her advice. We both agreed that she had missed far too much work to pass the class she was currently enrolled in, but we decided she could enroll (late) in the 8 week section of creative writing that I just started teaching (this week) online. I emailed the student and explained the situation to her, so we’ll see what she decides to do.
I feel good about this plan because it provides the student with another option that will hopefully allow her the end result that she wants. It also allows the student to make a choice that is right for her, so the responsibility is still in her hands. I’ll admit that sometimes I am forced to make decisions for my students when they are unable or unwilling to do it, but I’d rather they make the choices themselves because that’s how the real world works. 
I am hopeful that no matter what this student decides in respect to my course, that she is successful in her future endeavors and that she is able to overcome the obstacles that currently plague her. 

Teaching Lessons: Always Be Willing to Try Something New

When I got my first job as an adjunct at the community college where I am now full time faculty member, I was not at all prepared. I learned to be flexible and “roll with it” fairly quickly, but the learning curve was steep to say the least. One important lesson I learned very early on was not to be afraid of new ideas, technology, or formats when it came to teaching. In the year and half I spent as an adjunct (2007/2008) these are some of the “new things” I tried:

  • Blackboard
  • 8 week courses
  • 12 week courses
  • Guest speakers
  • Student Presentations
  • Group Presentations
  • Computer Labs
  • Power Point Presentations
  • Using media in class (video & audio)
  • Using supplemental material outside of the required textbook
  • Using film
  • Becoming a faculty advisor for a student creative writing group
  • Subbing for other English courses/instructors 
  • Incorporating creative writing techniques into my comp courses
  • Copy editing the student lit mag, New Voices 
  • Mentoring new adjuncts 
During this time I was strictly teaching English Composition courses, so in terms of course content I also tried some of the following ideas:
  • Using short stories for the in class essay assignment. Among my favorites were The Lottery, The Yellow Wallpaper and A Good Man is Hard to Find
  • Using Annie Dillard’s opening paragraph from A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to introduce the narrative essay assignment.
  • Using movie/music reviews from The New Yorker to introduce the evaluation essay assignment.
  • Requiring students to pick a local non profit as the subject for their evaluation essay.
  • Requiring students to interview a faculty member to practice interview skills for evaluation essay. 
  • Requiring students to prepare a 5 minute informative presentation over their research paper topic. This included a brief power point presentation, so they could learn what and what not to do. 
  • Using current periodicals such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Nature, The Christian Science Monitor, etc to find topics for their research paper. 
  • Creating an evaluation guide for online sources (still fairly new territory at the time)
  • Creating APA Guides and worksheets
  • Developing an annotated bibliography assignment
    A Good Man is Hard to Find by Giselle Potter 
Once I was hired on full time, my course load began to look less like a composition hell and more like that of a normal instructor. In other words, I eventually got to diversify a bit in to creative writing courses (my true love), research writing courses and lit classes. In addition to trying new things related directly to teaching, I also go to dabble in the following:
  • Committee work
  • Online classes
  • Academic panels and/or presentations 
  • Participating in some professional development activities (cooking class & faculty book club)
  • Advising for Phi Theta Kappa
  • Working with the Honors College
  • Re-writing English 111 (comp)
  • Attending conferences 
  • Organizing events for National Poetry Month
  • Co-advising for our student lit mag, New Voices 
  • Continuing to advise for our creative writing group, The Blank Page 
Admittedly, I have enjoyed some these new things more than others. For example, I love working with my colleagues on academic projects like the panel I put together for Black History Month or the work I do with New Voices. On the other hand, I’m not as keen on committee work or re-writing course curriculum.

This entire post is sparked by yet another new endeavor I am embarking on this spring. I will be teaching a section of Honors World Lit I on a new platform. This new project is allowing me to design a course using brand new technology, which means I have to learn said technology. Today, I had a meeting with course designer who is my partner in crime on this project, and I left the meeting feeling a tad overwhelmed but mostly I felt excited to start something new.

The face of education is constantly changing, and as a result, the role of the professor in the classroom is also changing. However, I would argue that instead of becoming less important, as some people seem to fear is the case, I think we are becoming more important. That being said, we need to be willing to stretch and learn along with our students. 

Teaching Challenges at a Community College: Student Time Management

I have written before about the contrast between the student I was during my undergraduate career at Allegheny College and the students I teach at my community college. In some ways, our experiences are similar but mostly, they are vastly different. When I was an undergraduate, I worried about my coursework, my roommate, my sorority, my extracurricular activities and what party I was going to on Friday night. This is not to say that I didn’t deal with heavier issues, but my one and only job when I was in college was to be a student. That was it. My students are not just students; they are parents and employees. Their jobs are many and their responsibilities are great. Their situation is no better or worse than mine was but it is different.

These differences are often the topic of conversation in the office between colleagues and most of the time these conversations wind up falling onto the subject of time management. Faculty, advisors, administrators and staff spend a lot of time thinking about how to help our students in this area, but it is a never ending battle. It is particularly difficult because of the unique nature of the problems our students incur. There is never a simple solution and just when you think you’ve solved one issue for one student, another one rears its head. 
The issue of time management is complex for our students. I find that part of this problem stems from the fact that my students are not quite sure how to be students. They don’t know what it means to come to class, engage in the class, take what they’ve learned from class, go home and apply that classroom knowledge to homework and then come back to class and discuss those assignments. They don’t know how to do this because they lack skills in active listening, reading comprehension, note taking, class discussion, collaborative work, etc. This is not to say they are not smart or willing or enthusiastic. They are all of these things, but they don’t have the basic skill set and that can prove to be quite an obstacle to overcome. Why don’t they have these skills? Some of it is a question of their previous educational experience. If they are coming from high school programs that were overcrowded or underfunded or understaffed (most likely all three) they may have slipped through the cracks. Another common case is that this student is a returning adult and the last time they were in the classroom was thirty years ago. Needless to say, the classroom as changed a lot in thirty years. In addition to the skills above, these returning students also struggle with the technology. They have to do assignments online, type papers on word processing software, and interact with platforms like Blackboard. It’s a lot to take in. 
The other issue with these skills is while they contribute to the overall problem of time management, they also exacerbate the problem. It’s a vicious cycle. For example, if a student has a problem with note taking, they can hire a tutor, or go to a student success workshop, or seek help from a peer or their professor. However, in the time that it takes for them to realize they need help with note taking and then in the time that it takes for them to put the necessary steps in place to fix that problem, they’ve already fallen behind. This is also assuming that the problem in question is easily fixed. However, it may take students several weeks or even an entire semester to get the hang of note taking. In the meantime, what does their performance in your class look like? 
This lack of basic student skill is definitely a problem, but in my opinion it is not the difficult part of the problem to solve. Why? Well, because we as members of an educational institution have resources at our disposal to help with these types of issues. While our resources are often stretched and far from perfect, they are present and available. I can send my students to the writing center, I can arrange that they get a note taker, I can set up study groups with their peers, etc. In my mind, the tricky part of this time management problem is that piece that I have no control over: their personal lives. 
It is easy to dismiss a student’s personal life as “not your problem” or “not my job” and move on from there. After all, what can you do if this students car breaks down? If they are evicted? Kicked out of their house? If their child, mother or grandfather is hospitalized? If they are hospitalized, arrested, deported or otherwise incapacitated? If they lose their jobs? If they are going through a divorce or battling a terminal illness? 
It is true that I am not a medical professional. I am not a psychologist and I know I am not equipped to deal with half the issues that my students deal with on a regular basis. I am painfully aware of the fact that some of my students deal with more in a single week than I probably dealt with my entire four years in college. How does this relate to time management? Well, as we were discussing in my office the other day, it is difficult to focus on a history test or a set of math problems when you’re not sure how you’re going to pay rent next month. When you are staring down the prospect of living in your car (and this did happen to a student of mine), dangling modifiers seem slightly less important. It would be one thing if this one or two students or even five over the course of the term, but it’s not. The problem is that our students are (sometimes to their detriment) determined to succeed. They do not believe in “stepping back” or “re-evaluating” or “coming back when things are better.” They want to push through. They want to prevail. Succeed at all costs. 
The position of professor becomes especially tenuous when you have students who do prevail, because then how do you handle the rest? Several years ago I had a student who suffered from Lupus. She was in constant discomfort and she struggled to attend class regularly. However, she was bright and determined and despite her constant pain and exhaustion, she came to class prepared, participated in outside study sessions, worked with her peers and ended up with an A in the course. I was constantly concerned about her physical well-being but she proved that she could manage her time and her illness, and who was I to say otherwise? However, not all students are that student and sometimes you have to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you can realistically handle. What I find difficult is being the one to facilitate that conversation. And as some of my colleagues have wisely acknowledged, “sometimes a student has to learn the hard way.” 
So what do I do to “help” this problem? I pay attention and try to remain pro-active. If a student begins to slip, even a little bit I try to nip it in the bud right from the start. Admittedly this approach yields mixed results. At the end of the day, a student has to be willing to take the help they are being offered. Sometimes this takes more than one pass at an an assignment or even an entire course, but if they figure out that “weakness” is really just learning, they leave me with something valuable: growth. 

Teaching Character: Positive & Negative Change

For several semesters, I have had the great fortune of teaching an introductory level creative writing course at my community college. The popularity of the course has increased by leaps and bounds since I began as an adjunct here in the fall of 2006. As a full time faculty member, I am privileged to teach two or three sections of the course a semester and it is by far my favorite course.

The class consists of covering all the basics of creative writing: imagery, voice, character, setting & story. Once the students feel like they have grasp of the fundamentals we move onto the four genres: poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction & drama. The textbook we use for the course, Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway, is always a hit with students and is one of the few textbooks that they don’t gripe about buying. It is a challenging course to teach, especially for this poet who is seriously challenged in writing prose, but I love learning from students and discovering something new each time class time rolls around. 
Recently, we have begun to delve into the realm of character. As I often do when we reach this topic, I ask my class to provide me some examples of what they would consider “round characters.” Prior to this brainstorming session, we discuss what makes a round character. Typically, this discussion results in students deciding that “round” or “developed” characters incur significant change throughout the course of a story or television show or movie, and that is what makes them interesting and complex. Then we get to the brainstorming of examples. Here is a sample of what my students called out last class:
  • Harry Potter
  • Darth Vader
  • Charlie (Perks of Being a Wallflower)
  • Christian Grey (50 Shades of Grey)
  • Walter White (Breaking Bad)
  • Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
Clearly, this is a diverse grouping of characters and what struck me the most was 1). the pervasiveness of popular culture 2) how many of these characters embody “negative” change as opposed to positive change. 
The second observation was particularly interesting to me, so I asked my students about it: “Does all change have to be positive?” And of course, they said no and then went on to explain to me that the complexity of these negative changes are what make these particular characters memorable. There was the predictable groaning and eye rolling at the mention of both Harry Potter and Christian Grey, which made me wince a bit on Harry’s behalf. There was also a rather tense but thoughtful discussion about whether or not Darth Vader really underwent much change on his journey through the universe. Finally, it probably worth noting that Katniss Everdeen is the only woman appearing in this particular sample, but I can assure you that once some of these men came into the conversation, their female counterparts were not too far behind (Hermione Granger, Princess Leah, Skylar White* and Anastasia Steele).
As the conversation came to an end, one of my students made the observation that negative change in character development is more realistic because “that’s how real life is.” Basically, and I’m paraphrasing her comment, she said it isn’t necessarily realistic that a real life person will win the lottery or buy a new BMW or fly off to Fiji to get married. However, it is realistic that someone could lose their house or get in a car accident or deal with the death of a loved one. The idea of realism is interesting given this list of characters because many of them are operating in highly fantastical world (space, a school for wizards and a post apocalyptic America) 
While on its face these observations may seem rather obvious, I think that these comments also tells me something important about who my students are, where they come from and they type of world they are living in. Most importantly though, I think it gives me some insight into what kind of writers they will be. 
*Click on the link above to read Anna Gunn’s piece about fan reactions to her character on Breaking Bad

Odds and Ends

Fall is here at that means that it’s time to send my poems out into the literary universe once again. I’ve blogged about this process before but to sum it up, I compare it to my experiences riding horses growing up: it was fun, sometimes rewarding and often painful. However, I loved riding and I love writing, so I press on. 
A bit of good news on the submission front is that I’ve had my poem, “Wigs,” picked up for publication by Hamilton Stone Review. The poem will appear in their October 2013 issue online. I’ll post a link when it becomes available, but until then take some time and read through their previous issues. There are some wonderful poems including work by my friend, poet Larry O’Dean.
Otherwise, the fall is slowly making it’s way into Indiana. This morning is overcast and the temperature has finally begun to come down from the 90’s to the 60’s. This weekend we went to the orchard and yesterday afternoon, I dumped my impatiens,well past wilted, and replaced them with spicy scented mums. I’m pleased to report that I’ve been writing frequently and I’m happy with how some of the drafts are starting to shape up. 
I’ve thought about putting myself on a bit of “schedule” to blog, as part of my absence as of late has been because I am easily distracted and sometimes I just can’t think of much to write about, so I’ve devised a “plan” to hopefully keep me posting more:
Monday– posts should be poetry related
Wednesday– posts should be teaching/job related
Friday– posts should be photography related
These are all topics I write about anyway, but I want to get back to making time to take pictures during the week and to reflect on my teaching. It’s good for me, so I should do it more. I’ll try it out for a week or two and see how it goes.

Why Creative Writing Students Are Cool: A List

1. One of my online creative writing students informed the class that she had visited a shaman at the end of the last term and that he had advised her to write more for her spiritual health.

2. At the end of my Tuesday morning class, a young man came up to my desk, shook my hand, and told me he was looking forward to the class.

3. When asked about favorite writers, one student replied, “I like Bukowski because he was a drunk and never edited his poems.”

4. My students use words like “macabre” and “plethora” and they use them correctly!

5. When taking attendance, one of my students informed me she wanted to be called “twin” because she has an identical twin sister.

6. Only in a creative writing class will you get questions about sex, drugs, cussing and mental illness when it comes to content. Only in creative writing will I say, “Go for it.”

Some of my creative writing students at the IMA’s 100 Acre Park.

7. Not one of my creative writing students has asked me “do I need the book?” (see previous post)

8. I have several students who admitted that they “liked to write poetry” the first day. Hallelujah!

9. Several of my students claimed that they were enrolled in creative writing because “they were good at it.” Whether this is true or not, isn’t particularly relevant. What is relevant is that they are coming to the class with a type of confidence that you don’t find in intro level classes.

10. Some of them were smiling before class began and they were still smiling after class was over.