October 4th, 2011 / 8:07 am

I know some here don’t like to talk about teaching CW topics so I thought I would talk about teaching CW topics.

1. Last night visiting writer/professor said he doesn’t believe in grades. He assumes the writers in the class are writers and want to write—that’s what writers do, write. Isn’t a grade a carrot to make a writer write? That’s counterproductive. That causes non-writing. Also: Quit judging writing. Don’t make your class about judging writing. Make your class about writing, the act itself. He said, “I tell my students: You all have an A. If you show up, you have an A.” He said, “Sometimes I grab students who aren’t even in my class, you know students just walking around campus, and I tell them, ‘Join my class and you’ll get an A.’”

11. No cellphones active in class is a default. Why? What if you had a day where students wrote on their cellphones? What if you had the students text their work to a friend for a critique and you had them read what the friend said to the class? And so on. What if you built cellphone days into your pedagogy?

9. A student said to me yesterday, “I didn’t know professors could have long hair.” I said, “They can. If you do something well, people won’t bother you. That’s true in all professions. If you are the one guy who can fix the computers, you can keep a boa constrictor in your office. No one will say a thing.” His eyes flashed. Possibly he “went over to the dark side” (My term for when students switch majors to CW), or something. I felt happy for 11 seconds.

3. People still ask, “But does publishing online mean the same as publishing in print?” People still ask that. I mean like people deciding Promotion and Tenure. I mean Salary people. It makes my head do crinkly things. Do you still hear people asking that question, in academia? How does that question make you feel?

4. What do you think about messy offices? What do you think about messy offices and artists? How does it impact the perspective of students? I like to say, “Creative people makes piles of things.” I’m not sure if I am accurate. Is an office a reflection of…Is an office an important space at a university or just an office? I’m thinking out loud here, a phrase that makes little sense.

5. He said, “If you hear the word rigor, they start talking about rigor, hold onto your wallets.”



  1. Dinty W Moore

      MM, surely.

  2. Leapsloth14

      Ha, ha. You’re a smart man.

  3. lily hoang

      i like this, sean.

  4. Jaye Viner

      Are those women learning how to write about guns or load them?

  5. Ryan Sanford Smith

      Much like all other professions, if you write a post on CW on HTMLgiant and do it well, people won’t bother you. At least this post is interesting.  <3

      I do think it's interesting to talk more about how that concept and the interactions with the 'Salary People' work against each other; that is to say, the first point is absolutely true (and as a guy who fixes computers, the boa metaphor is only barely hyperbole), but how does a CW teacher prove they are 'good' at their job? 

      I'm going to be honest and unpopular (go me) once again this subject: I think many, many, many CW teachers who otherwise have unshakable convictions about the nature and process of art get real defensive and philosophical about how CW can indeed be taught ostensibly because it gives a semblance of groundwork to work from when it comes time to do this exact kind of proving. They get seduced into objectivity in this way because they need it, whether they really believe it or not (I don't think most believe it, but like most people who cross the line into needing to actually pay the bills, they've sold out a conviction or two and in order to live with themselves as artists they get really fired up on their blogs or others' blogs convincing each other (and themselves) that they haven't and they're actually quite brilliant to have kowtowed to this belief. Not that it makes them bad teachers or writers or people, it just makes them human. Obvious to note there's a difference between 'writing' and 'creative writing', but I'm hoping that's a given at this point. You can drill mediocre composition into anyone the same way you can drill algebra into anyone–well, congratulations.

  6. Dawn.

      I love the professor in 1. Totally agree with him re: grades. A handful of American colleges/universities agree with him too–they use narrative evaluations instead of grades. Far better system IMO.

      Re: #3, print vs. digital is still a concern outside of academia too. There are several contests/grants that only accept submissions from writers who have had a certain number of print publications. I can think of two major ones off the top of my head right now (major meaning they give large cash prizes on top of a standard publishing contract). The general reading public (including academia, editors, other writers, and people who just enjoy reading) seem to take writers much more seriously if they’re in print.

  7. Roxane

      My second undergrad institution used narrative grading. It was pretty awesome. 

  8. Adam D Jameson

      I’m all for getting rid of grades, period.

      I’ve been thinking about incorporating cell phones into lessons. Have the students write stories and poems with Twitter, that’s an obvious one. Have them write while texting one another words that they have to work into their assignments, etc. It could be a lot of fun.

      I’ve already had students who’ve brought readings to class on their iPhones, and who have started brainstorming etc. in their phone’s notepads. They say they feel more comfortable working that way; I think that’s fine. If the devices can help them write better, I’m all for it.

      Indeed, I’ve been thinking as of late that the younger folks I meet (teens, young 20-somethings) often have a strong inherent understanding of writing’s artificiality, as well as its rhetorical functions, possible due to their having spent so much time around things like cell phones, email, Facebook. The last thing they think writing is for is producing mimetic realism.

  9. drew kalbach

      they seem to be nonchalantly loading them

      they’re really big guns too

      i’m jealous

  10. Leapsloth14

      1. Loading a gun inside your house with a group around? Never a great idea.
      2. Two of them appear to have lost a basic idea of gun safety: WATCH YOUR MUZZLE. One woman has the gun pointed at her own hand and knees. The other is pointing a gun she is actively loading at another woman.
      3. They appear to be a .357 magnum, two .38 Specials, possibly a 9mm and maybe a .25?

  11. John Minichillo

      Great post.

      Absolutely on grades. I don’t exactly advertise it to the department but I tell the students the exact same thing. You have to be there every class. You have to do all the work and get it in on time. These things are imperitave for the workshop to work. And then you have to create your own works of fiction, which ain’t easy. Who am I to grade your creativity? You should also be allowed to take chances and fail. You should also feel OK about having us read your first story. The peer pressure of the workshop is far more effective at making the writers want to impress vs. any grades.

      Print vs. online. In academia they care a lot. We know better. It’s more important to have readers than credits. The thing is they are looking for different kinds of stories. If you write a longer narrative-based story then send it to print journals. The shorter wilder stuff goes out on the web. So do both but you can hold your breath a long time waiting on those print journals to get back to you. They are often nearly disfunctional.

      Something else about academia… In CW the only thing that should matter is the work, the publications. But you work in an English department. They have PhDs, they go to conferences. They understand these things and while the PhD or the conferences shouldn’t matter all that much, they sometimes do.

      My office always feels like borrowed space. My time there is only temporary. I tread lightly, I leave a small footprint. I keep all kinds of crap I don’t need and then one day I throw it all away.

      Some words to bundle with ‘rigor’: pedagogy, grade norming, rubric, gravitas, and any thinker as an adjective (Hegelian, Aristotelian, Foucauldian…didn’t Foucault specifically point out the flaws of this?). Oh yeah, and EXPERIMENTAL.

  12. Nathan Huffstutter

      I don’t know if you’ve been following Laura van den Berg’s interview series on the Ploughshares Blog, it’s pretty eff-ing outstanding and there’s a new post with Martin Riker from Dalkey where he talks about how their press takes “the long view of literature.” More or less not getting too caught up in the specific concerns of a fleeting present.

      At the high school level, where part of a teacher’s job is to inspire interest in learning by any means necessary, I can see using Twitter or social media tools to get creativity rolling. At the university level, though, CW students are self-selecting and should already be motivated. Why teach using Twitter or text-messaging, when if pattern holds, these modes aren’t any more likely to endure than MySpace or Nokia two-ways? When I was in school, the classes I thought were the coolest (easy-fun-obvious), have in retrospect turned out to be among the most forgettable.

  13. Leapsloth14

      I don’t feel the Internet and phone communication are going away, or are fads, but let’s put to that the side. Why not take the opposite approach, another form of long view–integrate all “modes” while they are happening. If one mode goes away, integrate whatever else pops up. Texting and the internet and social media is mostly WORDS. As a CW prof, I actually want to see all these devices as structural possibilities, as ways of writing, as methods of creating art.

  14. Madison Langston

      I have witnessed Martone do this ‘join my class’ thing. And I really wish more professors allowed/forced students to write in class. 

      I want desperately to believe 9. I mean I really hope this is true. 

      The online publishing question makes my brain shutter. I think the people who ask this question are the same people that think the internet is something you ‘do’ when you’re bored. 

  15. Nathan Huffstutter

      I agree, internet and phone communication aren’t fads – but 140 characters is not haiku magic, it’ll be replaced by a different number. And text-abbreviations aren’t a function of prevailing speech patterns, they’re a function of the fact that it’s a pain in the ass to type with two thumbs, and sooner or later someone will develop a way of messaging that is less of a thumby pain-in-the-ass, so a lot of current abbreviations and shorthand may fall away. I guess my point was that certain of the moment technologies limit the use of words in an arbitrary way; obviously, there are poetic forms with strict limitations and there is a great value to learning to work within those structures, but I don’t see writing as something you learn to do on a notepad vs an Olivetti vs a Selectric vs a Macbook vs an iPhone – it’s not really the idiosyncrasies of the device that are meant to last.

  16. deadgod

      There’s a rigorous amount of rigor in this critique.

  17. deadgod

      I think they’re learning how close to the tv to sit during football.

      –that, or it’s a sometimes-a-banana-is-just-a-gun confab.

  18. deadgod

      –is that Liz Cheney’s parlor?

  19. c2k

      They need smaller guns or a bigger table.

  20. Tim Horvath

      Aren’t all these forms ephemeral, though, not platonic? Things tend to not follow efficiency or ergonomic logic. 140 because of the damned opposable thumbs, sure, but I’d juxtapose this with the example of the width of Roman roads impacting the space shuttle’s dimensions. Since I’m not sure if that’s apocryphal–I heard it in a graduation speech–take the closer-to-home QWERTYUIOP keyboard, by no means something that should have staying power, physiologically speaking, but it has. So 140, I think, could go either way. You could argue that Ozymandias gets the last text in the end, anyway–again, it’s all ephemeral.

      So I say find a way to embrace what is engaging about the cell phone. The way it forces a material engagement with the word, the way you can be inside a word. Or make some T9 poetry. Or have everyone send someone else an unusual text which has to appear as a text in a scene and make sense somehow.

  21. Nathan Huffstutter

      You and Adam and Sean are all on the front lines in the classroom, so I’ll concede you three have a much fuller sense of how a lively session on texting and tweeting may explode more lightbulbs than Bueller-Buellering away on some drier discipline.

      I think the reason I originally responded to Adam, though, is that texting and tweeting are me-centered forms of communication. No one enjoys talking into a voice-mail and waiting for someone to return your e-mails sucks, so here’s texting, an insistent way of controlling your message and saying “respond to me right fucking now!” And while there’s certainly a harnessable, aphoristic quality to Twitter, the back and forth flurry of @ you and @ you and @ you is basically a way for individuals to drum up public conversations where they happen to be the subject du jour.  

      Me-centered writing is a pretty common early step, the first boy who broke my heart, my first rail of blow, my first pet that died, whatever, and we may disagree over whether the goal of writing is pure personal expression; or to capture the attention of a designated peer group; or, perhaps, to apply and appeal to some greater whole. It’s hard for me to imagine students using text-messages or Twitter to get too far beyond that already instinctive, already insular me-me-me, but, again, that may not even be the goal in the first place.

  22. lily hoang

      Speaking of which, part of my discussion with my MFA class tomorrow will be the creation of a blog for HTML. What kinds of questions would you like addressed? What interests you all most? Thanks.

  23. c2k

      Have them write using pencil and paper. It’ll blow their minds.

  24. Bowerbird #24: Constant Velocity Invisible Control « avian architext

      […] social hierarchy, and comprised specific, unmistakable markers of caste, occupation, and position. Creative people make piles of things. The fabled “winter blues” are more due to fewer positive feelings than more negative ones. […]

  25. Anonymous

      “I’m all for getting rid of grades, period”

      Can you elaborate? I believe grades are useful in some disciplines. I teach American Indian Studies at a large university. I teach small discussion-based literature courses and large lecture-based ones. I don’t know how we’d evaluate students if not for grades, especially in the big courses. In the small courses, most of my students genuinely care, but in the courses that students are taking for general education credits, they really don’t care. Maybe some would say that this means we should get rid of general ed, but I just graded (for credit only) a stack of 150 responses to the question we asked on the first day, “What are ten things you know about American Indians?” and–Wow. I’m really excited about how far these students are going to come over the course of the quarter, and I’m glad that I get a chance to educate them.

      But my education is in creative writing. I have a BA and an MFA. Yeah, I got all A’s in my CW classes. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the system, the way I see it. I see that CW class grades skew high. Grades in my big lectures skew high. Grades in my summer classes skew high. Students approach some classes thinking they’ll be easy, and maybe, in a way, they are, but they’ll get way more out of them if they approach them differently.

  26. Tim Horvath

      I suppose the question is, though, what does a grade suggest about that gulf many of them will cross over the course of the semester? How will you weigh the progress of the person who knows five things at first over the one who knows none, or the person who knows many superficial things versus the person who knows a couple of profound, underlying things? What does a letter-grade accomplish that a narrative doesn’t accomplish better–“You started with these misconceptions and these fragmented bits of knowledge and you wound up understanding these interconnected forces of causality and realizing how much you didn’t know, and I see you laying the groundwork for future learning.” I think that the “far [distance] these students are going to come” is too tricky, too vexingly complicated to be reduced to a letter, one of the same five letters that they’ll get in any course, that they’ve gotten all their lives. That said, I will grade my own students at the end of the semester. But the narrative feedback that I give them all along and at the end (and yes, I’m fortunate to have small classes that make this possible and generally motivated students) is what I hope and think will stay with them.

  27. Anonymous

      Oh–I don’t think the grades in this class will have anything to do with the size of that gulf. I can’t reasonably measure it for each student in a large class. I think the grades have more to do with comprehension of material, pain and simple. It’s an introductory class. I think the grades exist to get the students to do their job. I find that so many students are just not serious about putting in effort. They’re okay with learning, just not with doing anything about it. (See, I don’t really think this is true for CW classes necessarily–I’m in a non-credit writing class at a nonprofit center for writers this fall–we don’t need grades to motivate us.)

  28. Adam D Jameson

      I didn’t know about that interview series; thanks, I’ll check it out.

      I used to work for Dalkey. With Marty. Though he was in the now-non-existent Chicago office at the time…

      As for whether things like Twitter and texting endure, surely they won’t, not in the long term, but I don’t think that’s really the point; the point is to use the tools that people have now to play around with the language. I’d be trying to ease them into larger topics about constraints, language, forms, what-have-you. God knows the last thing the world (already) needs is another Twitter book (unless it’s an excellent Twitter book)…

  29. Adam D Jameson

      I do this. I actually mostly write my fiction and poetry by hand. I even write blog posts by hand, sometimes.

      I was a zinester long before I was a blogger. I’ll always be one.

  30. Adam D Jameson

      In my case, my writing was never all that me-centric, and as I’ve matured as a writer (?), I’ve actually tried to become more me-centric… I’m actually trying to write a memoir right now well, a pseudo-memoir).

      I dunno. There’s a lot of great me-centric writing out there. Violette Leduc? Kathy Acker? They come to mind immediately. Sylvia Plath? OK, now I’ll try to think of a me-centric guy. … Philip K. Dick? His later stuff?

      But I see your point, certainly. I agree with your point, in some ways. But I also think texting and Twitter can be a lot of fun. I love texting in particular, and like to view it as a creative challenge—an opportunity to perform. And I’m all for anything that encourages creativity…

  31. Adam D Jameson

      Yeah, what Tim said. I meant mainly for CW classes, though I’d entertain getting rid of all grades in English classes, Or even all grades in the world! I’ll never have the responsibility or authority to do that, though, so it doesn’t really matter what I think.

      I’d much rather write personal narratives. And require the students to submit work to journals. And do a reading. Those are trials enough, I think, and more helpful in the long run.

      The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I’ve taught, is pass/fail.

  32. Adam D Jameson

      Hey, Lily,

      I think running a blog with students is a great idea. In the future, I’m going to try this, so I’ll be eager to hear how your project goes. My thinking is, the students will do better work, or at least be motivated to do better work (or at least take assignments more seriously) if they know they’re going to be “published” somewhere, where others can see them. Or something like that. They’ll also be working to create something. and comment in front of others, which may make them more conscious about the assignments.

      Or maybe it would be a huge disaster?


  33. Anonymous

      I’m all for no grades in MFA programs for sure. I think big universities like mine are just too based in this system of grades, general ed requirements etc to take away that carrot. I’ve never learned or taught anywhere else, which is actually weird for me to realize! So I don’t know any other way for it to work.

      Personal narratives and conversations are great. I use those, too.

      Oh, one thing to add, I was thinking when I wrote the original comment that taking away grading from one part of the university could maybe affect qualities of the other departments….but I don’t know.

  34. Tim Horvath


      I’d say that the problem with grades is that they become a distraction from the real learning, whatever that is. It’s parallel, somewhat, with some stuff I read by Daniel Pink about what motivates people, and how money can actually lead to diminished outcomes when it comes, especially, to creative, non-algorithmic tasks. I think the same tends to be true of grades. They got nothing on intrinsic motivation and the heavyweight champion of motivators, peer pressure.

  35. Nathan Huffstutter

      My earliest writing, I tried to get as far outside myself and my immediate concerns as possible. Mostly I ended up ripping off scenes from Miller’s Crossing and Reservoir Dogs. Brutal. 

      Yeah, it’s cool to reach a point where your own life experiences and perspective are a tool you can use to create the kind of work you feel you and only you can put on the page. All sorts of different ways to muck your way to that point – I certainly can’t recommend my detour through Mr. Blonde cliches. Early twenties, learning by failure, is it better to fall on your face aiming beyond your grasp or to settle within your own personal narrows? Getting out of your comfort zone is a good challenge – of course, everyone in a classroom has a different comfort zone, so, Jeez…

      Perhaps (at least) two definitions of me-centric: the author who’s his own main character (Exley, Genet) and the author who’s doing their thing without conceding an inch to the reader (Acker with her Persian poetry, Henry Miller with his cock). Yes, certainly a great tradition of me-centric writing – if you can make people who don’t underline in books feel like highlighting your sentences, you can write any me-mi-mimi you please.

      “Pseudo-memoir?” Like, one of the lying ones? If you write the totally true story about your experiences as a teenage drug mule in South Central L.A., put me down on the pre-order list.

  36. lily hoang

      Yeah, I’ve run blogs with students before, but I’m thinking of this as a one-time peek into the MFA classroom, or, my MFA classroom at least. Also, this isn’t a workshop. It’s a Form & Technique class, which is pretty cool. 

      Anything you do turns out stellar. I doubt you’ve encountered disasters in the classroom, charmer that you are. xo

      PS: see you awp, right?

  37. Adam D Jameson

      Aw, you flatter me. Often I’m the disaster in the classroom. But that’s why I give them Baudelaire’s “Be Drunk” the first day of class!

      AWP, yes!

  38. Adam D Jameson

      You have to remember, too, that I’m OK with student writing being bad.

      I like your two definitions! And my pseudo-memoir now includes a detour through L.A. …

  39. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Procrastination Station #95

      […] he “went over to the dark side”… or something. I felt happy for 11 seconds.” Sean Lovelace voices some random thoughts about teaching creative […]