My Favorite Essay To Teach

I’m in this teaching mindset today for a couple of reasons. Most of all, I’m in the midst of finally being in one place long enough (with internet) to get into the nitty gritty of Assay’s submissions and watching the inaugural issue start to take shape. It’s also the 4th of July, and I’m all by myself in my parents’ empty house, with no plans to do anything 4th of July related (does mowing their lawn count?) and I’m still recovering from whatever bug I picked up last weekend on our trip to visit family in California, so my will to do much more than read and watch Netflix is pretty low.

irish creative writingBut yesterday, our illustrious Advisory Editor Jim Rogers, who edits the Irish scholarly journal New Hibernia Review, asked me to review this book, Imagination in the Classroom: Teaching and Learning Creative Writing in Ireland, edited by Anne Fogarty, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, and Eibhear Walshe and I’m way too excited about it. As my other hat is Irish, it’s been a particular soapbox that the academic organizations I belong to don’t do much with creative writing or pedagogy. Naturally, there are exceptions here and there, but it’s not part of their larger work. So, I have been very interested in the intersection of creative writing and Ireland (as well as Irish nonfiction, as creative writing) for a long time–so I’m thrilled to see this book. I hope it lives up to my excitement over it.

But movement has been happening in this sector, with novelist Joseph O’Connor being named the first Frank McCourt Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick.

Renowned, award-winning author Joseph O’Connor has been announced as the inaugural Frank McCourt Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. Professor O’Connor will officially join the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences this Summer and will teach students of the new UL Masters in Creative Writing programme set to commence in September 2014. He will also present a number of public literary events in the Limerick area.

This is pretty awesome. In her introduction to Imagination in the Classroom (which is only as far as I’ve gotten, since I got the book yesterday), Eilis Ni Dhuibhne writes that “Ireland has only recently adopted Creative Writing as an academic discipline, in most instances somewhat tentatively, as a Masters programme rather than a core undergraduate subject” (10) and she alludes to Gerald Dawe’s article that begins the collection as one that details the history of creative writing in academia, but here’s the relevant point:

Teachers of creative writing, in Ireland as elsewhere, are writers themselves–just as teachers of most subjects in the university are scholars and researchers themselves, rather than people merely with pedagogical training.  But while lecturers in subjects such as English or History, for example, learn to teach on the job, they have the advantage of having studied their subjects in the university… While training for teaching in the academy is not mandatory, and, in Ireland, is often acquired voluntarily, models of university teaching are plentiful. This is not usually the case as far as the present generation of teachers of creative writing is concerned, simply because it is the first generation (16).

As Ni Dhuibhne continues, the question is really not “can creative writing be taught?” but “how can it be taught?” and even more specifically, “How do you teaching creative writing?” (emphasis original). But my question is even slightly different: “How do you teach creative writing? And how can we learn from each other?” Most of us, especially creative writers, aren’t trained as teachers–we’ve learned our pedagogy in the classroom, watching our mentors in the classroom. What are the bits of wisdom, the pieces of theory we’ve borrowed from other disciplines, the lesson plans that work like a charm every time we pull them out? I’ve spent a lot of time in rhetoric in the last couple of years, both in my PhD and in my own classrooms, and how do I teach a nonfiction text differently in a freshman composition classroom than I do in a creative writing context?

Additionally, Paula Krebs posted “Phd’s, Adjuncts, and the Teacher-Training Conundrum” for Vitae this week and I’ve been mulling the ideas of teacher training for PhD students as well.

We all got together in May to talk about a couple of key questions: How do we set up a system that lets us link the three sectors (along with some liberal-arts colleges that expressed interest) to give doctoral candidates more training about teaching at other kinds of institutions? And how can we teaching-intensive schools cultivate helpful relationships with research universities?

The conversation about teaching and training, though, as she admits, is perhaps not the conversation to be having:

In preparing Ph.D.’s to work at teaching-intensive schools, we are asking placement officers to acknowledge that we can’t—and shouldn’t—assume that our Ph.D. students will get the jobs that departments have been training them for decades. Step One may be to prepare Ph.D.’s for the majority of the tenure-track jobs that there are out there: at the universities and colleges that teach the majority of our students. Step Two might be to prepare them for non-teaching jobs, both alt-ac jobs in the academy and the jobs outside higher ed that benefit from advanced academic training.

What’s interesting about this for those interested in nonfiction studies is that nonfiction naturally moves between creative writing and composition and rhetoric, especially as those who find themselves in adjunct positions will be teaching composition. We find courses on the essay as often taught by rhetoric faculty as by creative writing faculty. My question–in the case of Assay–is how do you do what you do?

For most of us, the 4th of July marks the emotional midpoint of the summer, whether or not that’s the actual midpoint, and we start to point our eyes towards the fall semester. When I get back up to Fargo next week, that’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll bet you’ll be doing similar things in the next couple of weeks.

Does anybody remember the AWP panel from 2005 or 2006 on “You Gotta Teach This Essay!” and the blog that Dinty Moore set up afterwards to collect even more essays that we as teachers felt strongly about?  The blog itself is long gone, lost to the years of cyberspace, but it’s the goal of the PEDAGOGY section of Assay to provide a space for those conversations to be resurrected.  If you have a book or an essay or a short-short that is a cornerstone of your teaching, we encourage you to check out the PEDAGOGY guidelines and submit it.  The submission can be short or long, a riff or more theoretical, it can be an annotated lesson plan, or something completely unique of your choosing. We’re here to facilitate the conversation.

How do you teach nonfiction? What’s on your essential You Gotta Teach This Essay! list?


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