The Workshop and Measurability
I want to start from the premise that a student can learn innumerable things from taking a creative writing course. Accepting this premise seems to me the only way to get anything done when we talk about pedagogy—otherwise we aren’t discussing pedagogy, but philosophy. I’m most interested in how we can decide what’s teachable out of the huge amount of learning material available in creative writing, and how we can hold ourselves accountable for having taught it afterward.
Taking the most common structure of the creative writing course as a guide, it seems that most teachers have decided on a few central skills that are “worth learning” about creative writing: reading, discussion of reading, writing, and discussion of writing. And the learning we intend our students to get out of practicing these skills is as clear-cut as in the study of any academic field: Reading is important for gaining information and expanding awareness about the field. Discussing reading is important for coming to a more critical and independent understanding of the field. Writing is important for communicating with others in the field. Discussing writing is important for learning to analyze and evaluate writing, with the goal of communicating more effectively in the field. There are of course many other potential purposes for teaching these things, and it’s hard to argue against the learning value of any of them—but I would argue that as teachers, we need to be much more attentive to these purposes, and much more vigilant about providing the rationales that tie them to the study of creative writing as a whole. There’s no inherent rationale, for instance, that reading has to be a part of learning writing—not until you decide what happens during reading that enhances the skill of writing, and how you can structure a class to provide the practice in and measure the acquisition of that skill.
The difference between the learning that comes with reading and writing in any academic course and that which comes with creative writing, though, is that creative writing emphasizes a much different kind of performance. I don’t think any kind of presentation or project in a regular class—short of, perhaps, a thesis or a professional demonstration—correlates with the process of “turning in” for workshop or critique, where you not only write a thing, but offer it to a group of people as a thing constructed, a composed object, with some degree of import and intent. It seems to me that the teachable part of workshop is the part where we task students with delivering a crafted product that they’ll put their name to and give up to others as a reflection of the work they would like to do.
The question is how we as teachers can make this learning demonstrable. Workshop is, in my experience, presented as a very direct process, in which your privately produced work is submitted for the consideration of an audience, who, in this case, get to talk back to you and tell you what they want and don’t want and can’t understand so you can begin to internalize it. I think I was supposed to learn from workshops how an audience makes sense and meaning out of a story, as well as how to recognize my writing strengths and weaknesses. I definitely thought about these things after and during workshops. Instructors regularly made efforts to lend me their insights about these things. And over time, I learned important things about being a better communicator, collaborator, and editor from workshop that, eventually, made me a better writer.
But actually developing these skills requires more than direct instruction. It requires personal practice. You can’t learn how to write vicariously. The learning I got from workshop came afterward, when I had to make decisions about how to incorporate the feedback. This is a private process—untestable by teachers. Teachers have no access to or influence over what happens for students during this process. We can assign written reflections or revisions, but we can’t very reliably test the outcome from these assignments, can’t very consistently evaluate the quality of the decisions that were made. And I’d argue that this diminishes the wealth of learning available in our field.
Those of us lucky enough to teach are given the charge not to create creative writers—how would we measure that—but to create classes where students learn what is teachable in our field. I am all for making better writers—as well as better talkers, better listeners, better thinkers, better people. These are good and valuable outcomes. But they are not measurable, and neither is one’s progress toward writerhood. Workshop, as a cornerstone of the creative writing curriculum, needs to be a practice space for what we believe is valuable to learn about our discipline, and not an arena for proving one’s maturity, seriousness, or suitability for a writing career. And that means teachers, and through them, students, will have to be more rigorous, more invested, and more accountable for their performance.
The most rigorous and invested display of learning I ever saw as a teacher happened when I asked intermediate creative writing students to create cover letters and rubrics identifying the categories by which they would evaluate their writing in the future. They were responsible for authoring criteria that could be reliably measured and applied across the wide scope of their writing. They were able to create dozens of honest, measurable outcomes for themselves. How to set outcomes and decide when you’ve met them is one of those seemingly abstract skills that creative writing cultivates over time. But it’s also a skill that’s possible to teach. Much of what the workshop is designed to develop in writers can more reliably and methodically be taught, tested, and exercised. We just have to be willing to author the criteria.
Tracy Rae Bowling is co-editor of Uncanny Valley and has served as an editor for Puerto del Sol and Noemi Press. Her work has been published at PANK, Storyglossia, and Bluestem. She lives in Iowa City.