January 5th, 2011 / 7:08 pm
Craft Notes & Random


This semester I teach a service learning creative writing class. I am excited and anxious (first time I’ve taught the class). “Service learning” palms a galaxy of definitions. Here is mine, as I’ve been thunking on it:

1.      You must have a focus. I do. Empathy at its core, and I might write more expansively here later about this complex idea (and the word empathy itself), but my concept includes a literature list, books, excerpt readings, the power of writing, to show, to act as an actual social tool. Like a hammer. Seriously: Like a hammer.

2.      You must engage with the community. Feet on ground, ass in seat. We will. The students will meet a minimum of 7 times—in one semester–with their community partners. We will create a print anthology and give a public reading, in a space OFF university grounds.

3.      You must reflect. Why even do this? It’s not enough to say, “it’s a good thing”, “giving back” “whatever cliché.” Blar. I think the class, for the students, is pretty meaningless without serious reflection on the process, or why community work is even important, or why we might want to even talk/walk with someone not ourselves. So what? Always a great question. I want the students to answer me when I kindly and firmly ask, “So what?”

Anyone taken one of these classes? Taught one? Any advice? I’m not jesting—I haven’t done this. Any exhortation, forewarning, steer, 2.4 cents worth? What is service learning to you? Our model is, as writers with CW writerly skills (many prerequisites to take this class), to “tell” the stories of marginalized populations. The writers and partners meet to tell the community partner’s story (one or many), in a poem, story, or essay. Is that the best way? What do you think?

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  1. Ashley Ford

      I’ve been volunteering in my college community for the past six years in various capacities for different organizations. The most basic advice I would have for a class like this is to is always be respectful of the people you’re serving and their situations. Because you are volunteering for an organization that assists them in some way, you’re in a position to be highly judgmental. They know that. Never give them any reason to think you look down on, or pity them. Condescension is the last thing they need.

      Also, you’re going to develop relationships with these people as you tell their stories. When the stories are done, give them some closure. They will have trusted you with their time and consideration. Don’t leave with their stories without giving them the opportunity to say farewells or final thoughts.

      I could say more, but I’m scared of sounding preachy.

  2. Rachel Y.

      I took a class at Prescott College when I was a student there called Writers in the Community where I co-taught a writing workshop at a drug and alcohol rehab facility. Other students were at the VA Hospital, juvenile hall, elementary schools, etc. At the end we had a big community reading which was an amazing success. (Also made an anthology.) Being a student in the class defined what I would do with my life: write, teach, try to reach beyond the bounds of academia. Awesome that you’re teaching this class. Lots of logistical coordination for you but totally worth it. (I can put you in touch with the creator/teacher of this course if you want. She structured it really well. Once a week class meetings, once a week teach-outs in the community. Lots of reflection.)

  3. Jennifer Roeper

      I took a class at the University of Wisconsin called Theatre for Social and Cultural Awareness. We talked as creative writing and performance art as a means to bridge differences, give a voice to the oppressed, speak beyond social boundaries, empathize, etc. We read plays and theatre theory that sought to accomplish these aims, then wrote our own short productions based on personal experience that we performed for the community. (My first theatre class, incredibly frightening but entirely rewarding experience).

      Anyway, I guess that there were two concepts that were really important for me in fully engaging with the subject:
      1. “Agency” (what is is, what it means to have or not have it, why it’s distributed unequally, who has it and why)
      2. “Guilt” (when you start talking about social change and oppressed populations, this seems to be an innate initial response. why do we experience it? is it constructive? how does it influence our actions? i found that people did really like to talk about guilt, but our discussions were a little shallow before the topic was broached)

      And, for what it’s worth, theatre and playwriting was a really conducive medium for broaching these sometimes difficult subjects. At the least, readings and games seemed like a really helpful way to open up, trust each other (another very import part of the process, obviously), get the juices flowing.

      I know my experience isn’t the exact same as the class you’re teaching, but that’s what I took from it. Hope to get some updates on your semester!

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  6. Anonymous

      What a cool class. I wish I could take it. At one time I worked as a lawyer, which required me to tell other people’s stories constantly. I was always struck by how grateful my clients were when I listened to them and then put the facts of their lives into writing. They were very moved, sometimes even in awe that their lives could be presented as narratives (albeit legal ones), and asked if they could keep what I had written as if it were a precious treasure. I’ll never forget how grateful they were. A photographer friend of mine traveled in Africa and the photos he gave to people who had never seen photos of themselves before had a similar effect. The writing and the photos seemed to make them realize: “Hey, this is me. I matter.” Good luck with this course.

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  8. Tracey

      I love what you’re talking about, though, I admit I’m mixed on the approach. I always a bit leery when people speak of giving voice or telling stories of the oppressed. It doesn’t negate the power dynamic nor the privilege involved in either. Gayatri Spivak may be a good resource when looking into this. I feel like the question is more how do we provide those with less privilege the tools and means to speak for themselves. How do we create spaces where they’re telling of the stories is just as valuable (if not more so) than the tale outsiders tell of them?

  9. Anonymous

      Tracey, I agree with what you’ve written. I think it is essential that all people be given the opportunity to tell their own stories, in their own way. But I don’t think it’s either/or here. I don’t think having someone else attempt to communicate your story is always an act of superiority, though it certainly could be, and the strong risk of this requires vigilance and awareness. I think having other people articulate your story in their way, and having it resonate with you as true, satisfies a different emotional dynamic that complements the telling of your own story.

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  12. Kathleen

      Sean, where’d you get this pic? I’m pretty sure that’s Sinichi Iova-Koga, an SF-based butoh theatre artist and a fantastic teacher. You can find out more about his work and company, Inkboat, here:

  13. Anonymous