Report from CCCC 2015, Tampa Florida: “Creative Writing in America: Considering the Past, Imagining the Future”

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 9.58.44 AMEditor’s Note: We’re in the midst of reports on AWP panels, but we wanted to make sure that this presentation from the recent CCCC conference wasn’t lost: it’s an incredibly important part of the conversation.

This Saturday morning panel, chaired by Rebecca Manery (University of Michigan), began with a nod to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of respondent Joseph Moxley’s (University of South Florida) foundational collection Creative Writing in America: Theory and Pedagogy. While Anne Ruggles Gere and Stephanie Vanderslice were not able to be present, Patrick Bizzaro (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) opened the panel with an excerpt from his essay in progress, “Poetry, Post-expressivism, and the Evolution of Writing in the University.” Positing that there still is a lack of agreement on the definition and function of creative writing in the university, Bizzaro argues that composition studies has appropriated creative writing, and thus excludes creative writing from participating in the ongoing writing activities taking place across the disciplines. However, many writers continue to publish rhetorical-poetic texts that reveal how creative writing might be used as a tool for intellectual engagement. Bizzaro calls this “quantum rhetoric,” a post-expressivist rhetoric that offers diverse disciplines a way of naming and understanding new phenomena. The skills taught in creative writing classes are unique; their application to disciplines outside of English studies (such as the STEM disciplines) has great potential that is only just beginning to emerge. Thus, this quantum rhetoric contributes to the evolution of writing in the university. In this way, Bizzaro urges a far more expansive definition of creative writing, and a far deeper look into exactly how the elements of poetic discourse can be used by students and scholars to think and learn.

Continuing the panel was Dianne Donnelly (University of South Florida), whose topic—affirming creative writing as a knowledge-based discipline capable of producing assessable outcomes—connected in unique ways to the argument introduced by Bizzaro. Donnelly notes that creative writing reflects constructivist theories of composition and tacit knowledge, although procedural and practical knowledge in creative writing is more elusive as the process may produce new results each time. Knowledge in creative writing, Donnelly argues, lies in discovery and in the questions that arise through the writing process. Research is a key part of creative writing, and, uniquely, research involves not just gathering information but in “gathering texture” or the means of creating poetic effects. Explicit knowledge in creative writing “positions, frames, reflects, communicates, and justifies” its research methods, and flows recursively from individual to discipline to community and back. Still, widespread acceptance of creative writing’s potential for knowledge production is relatively new. Donnelly argues that assessment is essential to this acceptance. Despite creative writers’ suspicion of traditional assessment practices, we can build more meaningful assessments by valuing and critically considering the knowledge that the discipline of creative writing can produce. Donnelly names several familiar sites where this can happen—assignments, projects, portfolios—and urges instructors to engage in “curriculum mapping” where student learning outcomes are directly connected to course content. Less tangible outcomes such as originality and imagination are more difficult to measure on a rubric. Donnelly refers to past and current scholarship on this, concluding that embracing knowledge as a measurable product of creative writing challenges not only our students but our universities, our discipline, and other disciplines as well.

Rebecca Manery’s talk focused on creative writing pedagogy, noting that a robust and continuously self-reflexive body of knowledge on teaching creative writing remains urgently needed, even many years after the publication of Moxley’s book and after the passing of Wendy Bishop, whose scholarship championed this need. The creative writing pedagogy seminar, however, remains a rare course offering in graduate programs, prompting Manery to question if this kind of seminar is still the best site for nurturing pedagogical and theoretical progress. Manery’s ongoing research uses phenomenography to investigate teachers’ perceptions and understandings of their work. She introduces a variation on the concept of pedagogic identity, which she defines as “teachers’ beliefs and understandings of creative writing pedagogy, including their conceptions of themselves and others as creative writing and creative writing pedagogy teachers.” Manery’s initial findings turned up five distinct pedagogic identities: the expert practitioner, the facilitator, the change agent, the co-constructor of knowledge, and the vocational coach. Manery asserts that, especially in creative writing, what teachers envision and believe about their teaching because it shapes a multitude of important variables, from curriculum to accepting students to hiring professors. This is not to say that perennial assumptions about teaching creative writing don’t persist, but Manery sees hope in the growing interest in establishing a creative writing studies journal, conference, and professional organization.

Graeme Harper (Oakland University) began by discussing how important it is, in life and in academia, to question the directions in which things are moving. Harper points out that Moxley’s Creative Writing in America was published some twenty-two years after the founding of the Associated Writing Programs (AWP), and yet it was the first book of its kind to engage in the kind of critical questioning that is necessary to prepare creative writing students to successfully teach, write, and think. Harper argues that, even now, AWP’s mission—to support writers in pursuit of “literary achievement”—offers very little in terms of a concrete route for reaching that destination. While exclusively using linear, quantitative methods to study creative writing might be inappropriate, ignoring those methods altogether is just as foolish. The information age and access to digital technologies have offered the possibility to truly build what Moxley called for in 1989. We’ve entered “The Age of Creative Writing,” Harper argues, “in which the synaptic points of contact, the stimuli for creativity, the critical apparatus, the experiential background, and the individualism of creative writers” can become the true definition of learning to write creatively. The shift Moxley spoke of is entirely possible now; we need to undertake it.

Joe Moxley (University of South Florida) himself was the panel’s respondent. Reflecting on Creative Writing in America, Moxley recalled that his department chair at the time told him the book would not count for tenure. The current movement toward compartmentalization in writing studies is limiting, but because creative writing has experienced this compartmentalization for far longer, it becomes difficult to see why nothing has changed. While noting with sadness the loss of scholars who could talk across disciplines (such as Wendy Bishop and Donald Murray), Moxley expressed excitement in the current momentum toward a journal, conference, and organization devoted to creative writing studies. Perhaps, Moxley hoped, creative writing in America could finally see a paradigm shift.

 

 Julie Platt is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Center for Writing and Communication at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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