Towards Transdisciplinary Social Justice: Normalizing Creative Writing Scholarship in the Classroom (Part 2 of 4)–Micah McCrary

[Editor’s Note: “Normalizing Creative Writing Scholarship in the Classroom” is a four-installment Assay project by Micah McCrary, who researches inclusive creative writing pedagogies in U.S. colleges & universities. Click here for Part 1.]


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It has become important to note that teacher-practitioners worldwide (myself included) are attempting to create space for inclusivity research in creative writing specifically through creative writing studies (CWS) as a discipline. This serves as a kind of testament to those who believe that this research needs to be done, as well as to those who take the research seriously. But it also makes room for those who allow work as creative writing researchers an opportunity to voice concerns through writing and publishing about their teaching experiences with students from varied backgrounds.1 So what happens, I wonder, when these teacher-practitioners infuse creative writing (CW) scholarship with their classrooms? What might result from using it as a means toward an agenda of inclusivity?

The Journal of Creative Writing Studies (JCWS), for instance, calls for a special section in its journal, with Tonya Hegamin introducing the section through “Diversity and Inclusion: A Manifesto and Interview” (Issue 1.1), which acts as a kind of justification for the section by making room for articles and essays especially pertinent to issues of inclusivity, adjacent to the other articles published in JCWS. Hegamin mentions, for instance, that the journal’s section focuses on widening the conversation around inclusivity in CW “to a multiplicity of voices not only for the marginalized choir, but for anyone who teaches or participates in Creative Writing Studies and recognizes the inevitable sea change” (Hegamin 1). This “sea change” seemingly points not only toward making greater room for a “marginalized choir” but also for the progressive interests of those working in creative writing studies. That is, those at JCWS seem to recognize the significance not just of issues of marginalization but also how those issues might be allayed through a greater willingness to engage with research and scholarship.

Such a special section aims to exemplify how this may transfer to CW classrooms and programs, however if CWS scholarship can move toward awareness—in particular focused on inclusivity—it creates a potential to discuss in CW classrooms the aspects of writing not just pertaining to content (for example) in workshopped pieces but also those issues of “language,” “craft,” or “cultural authenticity,” all of which could become entwined through transcultural curricular initiatives.

This requires a broader conversation than just the “Diversity & Inclusion” section of JCWS, however, so that teacher-practitioners may figure out how more prevalent CWS scholarship (whether on the part of faculty or on the part of students) might facilitate the presence of more ubiquitous conversations like those in JCWS. This would perhaps not look like “special sections” in every CWS journal around but could still expand the breadth of how issues of inclusion are discussed through CW’s academic endeavors.

Thinking Transculturally
I deliberately include resources from journals such as JCWS, TEXT, Assay, New Writing, and The Essay Review in my classroom not just to enjoy the inclusion of CWS scholarship in those classrooms, but because the breadth of the writing subjects in these journals displays an availability of varied & unexpected discourses that provide reading and writing opportunities stretching beyond craft or genre, and into transcultural study that might enhance both. Bringing into my classroom readings like Emma Howes’s and Christian Smith’s “‘You Have to Listen Very Hard’: Contemplative Reading, Lectio Divina, and Social Justice in the Classroom,” for example, or Bernice M. Olivas’s “Politics of Identity in the Writing Classroom” (both from Assay) have helped frame conversations with students about what’s occurring pedagogically, showing an insistence that we think transculturally in classrooms about how to pay greater attention to authors from outside our normal purview/routine reading by way of the course’s design.

I establish from the onset that there’ll be a sharp focus not just on global readings in nonfiction, but also that we’ll practice discussing such readings so that students don’t reach midsemester and be suddenly taken aback by a text that features a way of life they aren’t prepared to talk about, or a perspective they’re unsure about how to engage with outside of disagreement. It feels helpful to frame future discussions about cultures, languages, and identities with scholarship so that students not only have expectations set out in front of them, but they can also refer back to this scholarship when finally reaching a point where the class discusses the racism/sexism/homophobia, etc. that appears in an author’s (or, even, a student author’s) writing, in ways that (ideally) help prepare us to cross such a bridge.

An article like Howes’s & Smith’s helps to show how two instructors work through/attempt to enact an antiracist pedagogy in their nonfiction classroom, particularly through reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. In laying out how Howes & Smith coach their students to engage in techniques like Richard E. Miller’s “slow reading” and Krista Radcliffe’s “rhetorical listening,” students become able to see how the texts they interact with should not be so easily dismissed—that is, they don’t merely brush off the claims certain authors make, eliminating reactions like “that happened 30 years ago, and we’ve made a lot of progress since then.”

As Howes & Smith note, this isn’t just a matter of enacting certain antiracist curricula but also a matter of re-tooling readings. They’ve discovered a transparent exigence in their classroom for such readings, writing that

[t]he need to rethink not only our curriculum, but our pedagogical approach to race and social justice more broadly, was incredibly clear. In order to move towards an anti-racist classroom space, we not only had to strive to broaden the voices and perspectives available to our students, but to consider ways to move students through the experiences these voices represented. We remained committed to the use of non-fiction texts as the basis for these goals, but had to more deeply consider the pathways we encouraged our students to explore. (Howes & Smith 3)

They were also able to work with students on ways in which transdisciplinary action could help more effectively shine a light onto the realizations they hoped their students would have while engaging texts like Baldwin’s and Coates’s. In doing so they emphasize that these moves are borrowed from other areas of English studies and not just CW, noting that

[w]hile the difficulties of teaching critical and thoughtful engagement in writing classes are central for anyone teaching the subject and addressed throughout the history of composition scholarship, the ethical dimensions are heightened when working with nonfiction texts that address matters of race and justice. This is perhaps even more urgent as recent political and cultural events have proven that we are in a social landscape that demands a clearer understanding of the ways in which we—as a classroom, as a nation, as a world—are unified. (5)

This helps to create an exigency more specific to 21st-century concerns, aligning students with conversations taking place in and outside of the classroom concurrently. Asking students to focus on a particular “social landscape” as this one helps to cohere their reading and writing ambitions, as well as help their abilities as attentive authors to develop.

Providing graduate student instructors (GSIs) in CW an essay like “You Have to Listen Very Hard” could help them not just develop ideas about how to engage in instructional practices like “slow reading,” but also get them to consider how their own students might react to racially-focused texts in their classrooms. And this is not just helpful for GSIs, either; it also helps undergraduate CW students who might find themselves reacting to racially-centered texts the way Howes’s & Smith’s students did. It benefits them to encounter texts that may shine a kind of mirror onto their own responsivity, and the affirmation that they themselves are not unique in their reactions to certain texts helps to reestablish for students that certain issues (in this case, racial privilege) can be affectively difficult, while encouraging students to expand their reading interests so that they can not only become better informed, but also become better thinkers about their methods of responding to certain texts.

Teaching Against Fear
For an author like Bernice M. Olivas (“Politics of Identity in the Writing Classroom”), bridging identity studies (what she terms, through citing compositionist Adam Banks, to be a “shared creation story between ‘gender and women studies, indigenous studies, Latina, Latino studies, Asian, Asian American studies, and Africana studies’” (Banks, qtd. in Olivas 2) into her own writing classroom environments along with composition studies may help teacher-practitioners lead students toward what, for some, may be seen by some as a lofty goal: Alleviating fear. In the vein of Mary Rose O’Reilley who, in The Peaceable Classroom (1993), asks the question, “[i]s it possible to teach English so that people stop hating each other?” Olivas also asks, “Is it possible to teach writing so that people stop fearing each other?” (Olivas 3). For Olivas, delving into identity studies is possibly a way to do so in CW. A particularly helpful clarification here is Olivas’s “extended course description” for her class, Politics of Identity in the Essay Tradition, in which students in the course

will explore the essay as a rhetorical tool for social justice. This class is for advanced undergraduate writers and ethnic studies students who wish to study and practice the essay form as a means to speak back to the social conditions that affect peoples of marginalized identity. This class focuses on the complex border-spaces between privilege and marginalization in order to claim space for a more just and sustainable future. This class will use a process of inquiry to better understand the relationship between the essay and exigency.

Much has been written, studied, and debated about the “essay.” Both creative nonfiction writers and academic scholars alike claim the form. At the same time, because [it] is so versatile, the essay is often taken up [by] writers who defy categorization. Many of these writers are also members of marginalized identities. Their writing focuses on their relationship to the mainstream community, institutions, and governing bodies. They use their lived experience of racism, sexism, gender bigotry, and ableism to push back against the power dynamics that create the conditions in which social bias thrives. These dynamics are often the sources of exigency—the drive and force behind the writing. These essayists inquire, define, contest, and disrupt the world we live in. From this perspective, the essay acts a tool of resistance to the status quo. (6)

Olivas’s description provides a way to deliberately use the essay as a creative writing subgenre to enact an inclusivity initiative, by focusing on authors’ “lived experience of racism, sexism, gender bigotry, and ableism” (etc.) as an engine of “resistance to the status quo,” in addition to being a method of showing students how inequalities manifest in the lives of the authors they read in class.

Beyond description, Olivas focuses on students in her classroom primarily learning two things: (1) “How to read from a place of believing rather than a place of criticism in order to better empathize with voices that may challenge our worldviews” and (2), a writing process

that inquires into our relationships with ourselves and with others who are not like us and the power that helps define those roles. We will write about our relationship to our communities, institutions, and governing bodies. We attempt to locate exigency in our own relationships to power, our communities, our institutions, and our governing bodies. (8)

This connects to a kind of transdisciplinary action—though Olivas doesn’t say so explicitly, her first goal seems to rely a bit on compositionist Peter Elbow’s “believing game,” which aims to encourage readers to give texts the benefit of the doubt rather than merely dive into criticism. To avoid, in essence, covering only what’s “wrong” with an author’s worldview/vantage point, and instead attempt sincerely to develop positions of understanding. Olivas uses this “believing” approach to help students “understand what it means to begin by believing the writer—even when it’s hard” (18) and, citing Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” “even when ‘racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves’” (DiAngelo 54, qtd. in Olivas 18).

One way Olivas executes these aims in her course is by shifting authority through asking students to lead discussions, which she notes “allows for the opportunity to create new knowledge—things come up in discussion that I can’t always anticipate or know” (10). Olivas also uses inquiry over analysis here as a mode of learning in the class, noting that since “human identity is so complex and varied, inquiring into contextualized identity offers nearly limitless points of entry into writing practices that encourage writers to think about larger social issues” (12).

Finally, Olivas addresses the problematized position of academized creative writing, a space in which student authors don’t typically

talk about gender, race, or class issues in a writing workshop, unless a writer writes about them from the perspective of the marginalized—and when that happens it’s terribly common for the writer to be forced to prove the authenticity of the character. “Why does race matter in this story?” is a common enough question. The reason that question emerges is because in the absence of a marginalized body we can pretend that the space is free of issues of marginalization. (14)

A particular benefit of trying to enact a pedagogy like this one through a course like Politics of Identity in the Essay Tradition is that there’s already so much writing about identity in the essay itself. It’s a form that easily lends itself to personalized reflection, and this can therefore get students to consider identities, processes, and textual creation simultaneously, which I imagine to be a particularly helpful iteration for students of an introductory course in literary nonfiction. Or, possibly, even as a WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) course in which students in CW and those from other majors alike can all receive “writing intensive” credit from such a course since it involves rhetorical practices as its basis, but also engages in “close reading” practices in addition to cultural study.

Praxis
One way I’ve thought in my own courses about how to encourage and even require this sort of transcultural attention/research requirement for my student authors is by offering projects that encourage them to combine research and scholarship, experience and reading. In terms of this first project option, however—which is likely a literary essay with a researched focus for the benefit of movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, or another outwardly-focused subject—I’ve noticed that the majority of my students will stick with what they’re most comfortable with, likely options involving border patrol or an environmental disaster. Or, perhaps even language/dialect, because these options allow for students to attempt to establish a degree of objectivity in their researched writing rather than, for example, having to seat themselves within “sticky” sociopolitical movements. I think this is a way students have attempted to “play it safe”; but even for the student authors who do so, they find themselves being asked to create a perspective they didn’t have before by combining their writing with a subject/focus that must be investigated. The fact that investigation is a required component of the project makes it so that they can’t rely only on their frame of reference, which also provides them a way to engage in attentive practices while creating a literary text.

A second option involves literary translation, providing students a sense of translation and nonfiction’s intersection through essayistic commentary on the translation itself. This is done (at least for students) through some preliminary study in postcolonial translation, wherein student authors must consider ways that “consciously ethical” (as some students have termed it) translation can be enacted. Through this, they think about ways their translation choices run the risk of acting colonially (through acts of erasure, for example), and it feels detrimental to a successful translation project to engage in transcultural scholarship in order to do so.

I share with students the fact that I have published translations of Rainer Maria Rilke, and that my Rilke translations, although requiring some historical and biographical study, give me a bit of an easy job in (A) choosing to translate from a romance language and (B) in choosing to translate an author whose privileges aren’t as complicated as an author who’d written in Haitian Creole, Brazilian Portuguese, or Guatemalan Spanish, for example. Those scenarios would require more of an in-depth effort on my part than choosing to translate the work of someone who never had to make his language choices political.

Translation is one way that I’ve attempted in my CW classroom to get students to move toward not just having faith in another author (perhaps a way of applying the “believing game” to literary translation) but also reach beyond their own lives, a way of allowing transcultural knowledge creation to take place in the CW classroom. On one hand it’s a way for students to bridge gaps between cultures, but on the other it allows them to bridge gaps in their own knowledge by assuring that they work as far away as possible from only “writing what they know.”

Work in literary translation also allows for what becomes enacted as “border pedagogy” in classrooms like Trisha Brady’s, who “focuses on the need for valuing linguistic diversity at institutions of American higher education” (Brady 1). In “Negotiating Linguistic Borderlands, Valuing Linguistic Diversity, and Incorporating Border Pedagogy in a College Composition Classroom,” Brady enacts Henry Giroux’s notion of a “border pedagogy,” to value “the perspectives of students along with the knowledge they already possess by acknowledging the fact that students traverse and negotiate geographic, cultural, and linguistic borders in their everyday lives while allowing them to draw on those experiences” (7). As literary translators, students become encouraged to realize a border pedagogy that fosters the “knowledge they already possess” while mediating “linguistic borders in their everyday lives,” whether fluent in their source languages or not. And finally, as with the exercises used in Brady’s classroom, translation “reveals that monolingual education policies deprive students of diverse linguistic resources that border pedagogy encourages them to celebrate and access” (15), opening their eyes to the possibilities in knowledge creation through the lens of language.

Something to consider, then, may be in how teacher-practitioners can possibly take this even further, to create more curricula like Howes’s & Smith’s, Olivas’s, or Brady’s, which not only work cross-curricularly for students in and outside of CW, but also work for students specifically within CW who are accustomed to workshop environments where identity studies are rarely addressed (if at all). I’d like to consider ways to not just devise syllabi addressing issues of identity, but also encourage projects and assignments asking student authors to learn and remain critical throughout the process of creation.

Note

  1. These teacher-practitioners have produced texts including, but of course not limited to, What Our Speech Disrupts: Feminism and Creative Writing Studies (Katharine Haake, 2000); Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (Anis Shivani, 2011); The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (Eds. Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, Max King Cap, 2015); and How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Writing Discourse (Ed. Sherry Quan Lee, 2017).

Works Cited

Brady, Trisha. “Negotiating Linguistic Borderlands, Valuing Linguistic Diversity, and Incorporating Border Pedagogy in a College Composition Classroom.” Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 2019, pp. 1-19.

Hegamin, Tonya C. “Diversity and Inclusion: A Manifesto and Interview.” Journal of Creative Writing Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2016, article 3.

Howes, Emma, and Christian Smith. “‘You Have to Listen Very Hard’: Contemplative Reading, Lectio Divina, and Social Justice in the Classroom.” Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1-14.

Olivas, Bernice M. “Politics of Identity in the Writing Classroom.” Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-29.


Micah McCrary is the author of Island in the City (University of Nebraska, September 2018). His work also appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Midwestern Gothic, Identity Theory, and Third Coast, among other publications. He is an assistant editor at Hotel Amerika, a contributing editor at Assay, and a founding co-editor of con•text.

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