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Prompt/Write/Read = Lazy Teaching
Published 1 year ago
I'm usually a fairly diplomatic person. I make a conscious effort to not offend when putting something into print, and I do my best to take a 'just because something is different, it's not wrong' attitude when writing a blog. But today, I'm throwing caution to the wind by running the risk of offending.
Some creative writing teaching methods are lazy.
That's right I said it. Lazy.
I was having coffee with a friend who confided in me that he, at one point, wanted to be a writer, but after taking a creative writing class he felt disappointed and lost his confidence. I asked him how the course was taught, and I expected a response along the lines of 'It was a negative group, that didn't workshop in a positive manner' or even 'It just wasn’t my thing'.
Yet, this was not my friend's response. Instead he said, 'The class was just boring. The teacher showed us a picture. We spent five minutes writing about that picture. Then we went around the room reading what we wrote, with the instructor giving fairly basic comments such as "don't use adverbs" and "show don't tell"; then we started the whole process over again. We looked at two pictures, and by the end of the class I was itching to leave. I went to the second class (of a five week course) and it was the same thing. I asked about plot and character development, but I was told that I had to focus on the basics first. Then if I could master that, I could move on to developing something fuller. I never went back to the class, and when I tried to write on my own at home, I just felt deflated. I felt that if I couldn't even write a basic scene inspired by a picture of a woolly hat, how was I going to write a novel?'*
My dearest mate was the victim of lazy teaching.
I've been witness to these classes myself. While there is a time and a place for flash writing** (when you're given a topic and expected to produce in a short period of time), basing an entire curriculum around that method is problematic for several reasons.
1. The student never has a chance to go back over his/her work: Granted, they can edit, expand and rewrite at home, but often the reason the person is taking a class is to get guidance on these very things. If a class is nothing but flash writing, then the student will walk away with several small scenes that are unlikely to be finished or connected. Personally, I prefer to teach (or even be in a class) that works towards a goal.
2. Reading very fresh work out loud can be counter productive: For the new student, the pressure of knowing that they have to share their work can be daunting and often cause them to be less free with their writing. This is not to say that reading work out loud does not have its place. It is an extremely helpful tool in the rewrite and editing stage. Also, when a writer reaches a point in which they start presenting their work in public (open mic nights, festivals, etc), then reading in front of a creative writing group is immensely helpful. But for the new writer, the better way for students to share work in a class is to give the student the option to read, but emphasise the discussion aspect. I prefer to say to a student, 'Tell me what you wrote about and why'. This facilitates a much stronger discussion than simply making them read their piece out loud. Which brings me to the next point...
3. No one listens when others are reading their work: It's tough enough to listen to a seasoned author read. One of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, has the most monotone voice on the planet, and listening to her read is a feat of concentration for me. So, you can imagine what it's like to go around a room listening to unprepared students read something they scribbled on a page five minutes before. These students often have no training in public speaking, and often don’t even like what they’re reading. (After all, they were writing through forced inspiration.) It is torture for me the instructor, and it's torture for the other students. In fact, I have a strong feeling that the other students aren't listening; instead they're thinking about the passage they have to read.
4. Because no one is listening to the student read, the comments will be less constructive: This is often why teachers who use this method give banal critiques – 'show don't tell', 'no adjectives', 'paint a picture'. The reason they give these comments is because they weren't really listening to the story. Whereas, 'what did you write and why?' will facilitate discussion, which may encourage the student to read what they wrote. And, because the piece has already been discussed, the other students will listen and respond with useful criticism.
5. Ask each student to read their work takes up too much time: This method is simply a way for the teacher to fill class time. Let's say you have a two-hour class with ten people in the class.
Now, let's look at the timing:
5 minutes: Introduction/settle in
5 minutes: Pass around the inspiring picture (or less if they students are given a phrase)
5 minutes: Writing time
42 minutes: Total reading time (The average speed someone reads text out loud is 160 words per minute, but nervous readers are quicker at about 200 words per minute. So we can assume an average speaking time of 175 words per minute. In five minutes of writing by hand, someone is likely to produce between 500 and 1000 words, which can average about 750 words. Therefore, each person is likely to take just over 4 minutes to read.)
30 minutes: Total response time (Because no one was listening anyway, there won’t be much to say as a response. But, there is downtime between each reader, the teacher’s response, and the next reader. So an average of 3 minutes per person for a response and is believable.)
87 minutes: Subtotal
Plus we'll need to factor in a break, which should be included at 15 minutes. This brings us to 102 minutes, with only 17 minutes leeway in a 120 minute class.
In this scenario, was the teacher really necessary?
Personally, I find this method boring, unimaginative and a bit lazy. However, here is where I will attempt to return to the 'just because it's different, it's not wrong' stance that I usually take in my blog posts.
Some teachers do listen intently when the student is reading and give insightful comments. This in turn encourages the other students to respond and a discussion will ensue. A very tuned-in instructor will engage the student no matter the teaching methodology. In fact, if a teacher is good, the style in which they run the course is immaterial. I am not dismissing this technique all together; I am dismissing it as the only way to teach.
Then again, no creative writing instructor should be teaching in only one manner. An equally boring class would be one in which a person lectured for two hours, or if the course only had discussion and no writing element. Or a class in which only writing games were used would get old quite quickly. A good teacher (of any subject) uses variety as a teaching aid.
I also should address the fact that some students prefer a continuous flash writing methodology: it's familiar, they don't have to interact with one another, and some prefer to use the flash writing method because they can show-off their own writing skills during the reading portion. But letting students get too much in to a comfort zone is not useful.
But let us return to my mate. I encouraged him to take another course, and I recommended a couple of courses in his area. And if you've found yourself bored by your writing course, know that it's okay to not like the methodology of your instructor. And it is okay to find another one that inspires you. Or start a writing group yourself. I must admit, in the last thirteen years of teaching creative writing, I've had a few complaints about the way I teach. Some people simply don't like the fact that my lessons can be a little unstructured. This doesn't hurt my feelings, because different people respond to different methods.
The one thing to remember is, if your teacher isn’t putting in the effort then why should you? Find a group/class that you respond to, and your writing will flourish. I promise.
*Of course, I've paraphrased this response, it's not like I had a dictaphone hidden in my handbag. In fact, it wasn't really a response, but a long conversation he and I had, so I've just edited it down to the basics of what he stated.
** Flash writing can be a great way to get through writer's block, and is a good warm-up technique. Flash writing is also a good way to get the students writing on a specific subject, or after a discussion. Additionally, flash writing is immensely helpful for those writing outside of a writing group. If you need a bit of inspiration, using a writing prompt is a wonderful way to get started.
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