If we taught students what they expected to learn…

So I’ve been spending some time lately trying to write up the findings of my study on creative writing pedagogy. In making a case for why it’s important for creative writing students to learn about creative research, I started talking a lot about the mismatch between students expectations about what they will learn as part of a creative writing program and what the actual learning goals of creative writing programs are, at least at the undergraduate level. Evidence suggests that students come to these programs expecting to learn how to hone their talents and identities as writers. But according to the AWP’s guidelines, what these programs are actually meant to teach is critical reading. Basically, an undergraduate creative writing major is learning to “read like a writer” in order to better appreciate literature “from the inside.”

As a former creative writing student, when I first read this, it felt like a bit of a bait and switch to me. Like, what do you mean all that learning I did was about becoming a better reader instead of a better writer? What do you mean the AWP considers it basically a waste of time to teach undergraduates about actual writing because, statistically speaking, so few of them possess the talent or persistence necessary to actually become professional writers? I want my money back!

Okay, not really. I can see where building a foundation of literary knowledge on the way to becoming a writer is pedagogically valuable (though, as many scholars in this field acknowledge, problematic when considering how historically the work of white, male writers is more likely to be treated as the default for greatness while the writing of women and people of color has always been treated as “other”). But I still feel a bit misled. Even in a workshop setting, it seems that helping the person whose work is being critiqued become a better writer is incidental compared to the opportunity to teach the students who are doing the critiquing to become better readers.

So, feeling pretty righteous, I started to make this argument in my paper. Creative writing students expect to learn about the creative process. Creative writing programs should teach the creative process. Creative research is part of the creative process, so creative writing programs should teach creative research. Great!

Except I started wondering if that’s really fair. Never mind the audacity of an outsider like me telling creative writing programs what they should be doing just because I’m a former student with mixed feelings about my past experience. That goes without saying. The real problem is in figuring out whether and how much student expectations matter when it comes to the pedagogy underlying their academic programs.

Some of this goes back to decades-old debates about whether college should be about “vocational training.” Increasingly, students seem to want and expect that college will prepare them for working life. But professors are generally resistant to having their academic programs be treated as “merely” job training. Meanwhile, administrators who value student/alumni/customer satisfaction but also prestige and money are torn.

In the realm of creative writing pedagogy, teaching students the “how-to” of writing is basically viewed as vocational training. Not what academics are supposed to be about. Not if you want your program to be respected.

So obviously there’s a larger issue at stake here. Generally speaking, there’s always going to be a mismatch between students’ expectations and academic program goals as long as students want vocational training and academic programs insist on being about something else.

Some part of me thinks this is a bit unfair to students. I really hate it when administrators try to run universities like businesses but it does stand to reason that students (and their families…and the government) are paying a lot of money to come to our schools so their expectations should matter, at least to some extent.

But I guess the question is: how much? As a student, I wanted to learn about the creative process. I wanted to learn to be a fiction writer. I would have wanted that even if someone had told me that no matter what I learned, I would never have a career as a fiction writer. Or even publish a work of fiction.

But also: as a student, I didn’t know shit about pedagogy. There’s a reason that students don’t design academic programs: they lack both the subject and teaching expertise to know what they actually need to learn.

As an information literacy instructor, I would be horrified if students had the power to tell me what to teach them. Horrified. I mean, obviously I want them to feel like my instruction is valuable and I have no problem tailoring that instruction to students’ expressed needs where possible. But if what I taught was controlled by students, I would be stuck teaching nothing but citation day in and day out. Because students don’t realize that, in the long run, citation doesn’t matter; it’s the underlying concept of ethical use that matters.

So what I teach as an information literacy instructor is a combination of skills and concepts that students need to become effective users and creators of information in various contexts throughout their lives. What they probably want to learn is how to become better at research so they can get an A on their paper this semester.

Shudder.

I still feel a bit burned that what I learned as a creative writing student was secretly just another form of literary study. But taken from this perspective, I can see how student expectations maybe shouldn’t dictate what these programs teach. Or at least that those expectations should only be one piece of a much larger puzzle.

I do still think there’s an argument to be made for including more instruction on the creative process in creative writing pedagogy. A stated goal of creative writing at the graduate level, according to the AWP, is to help students learn the skills they need to produce publishable works. Arguably, a publishable writer is one who knows when and how (and whether) to use research as part of their work. Learning the basics of creative research at the undergraduate level helps prepare students to make decisions like these once they become more advanced. At the very least, undergraduate creative writing students should be learning that research is, in fact, part of the creative process for many writers.

So obviously this is an argument I’m going to need to spend some time finessing. In the meantime, I’m just really glad that my teaching does not have to be based solely on student expectations.

One thought on “If we taught students what they expected to learn…

  1. It’s a shame they don’t teach students in primary and secondary school to read and write properly. When I took creative writing in college we read some, but spent most of our studies on writing stories and poems, and then analyzing each other’s work. Reading and writing are two sides to the same coin. I think the real reason people don’t know how to read and write these days is that they only read assigned materials and the most complicated thing they write is an email. Your post made me think, so good work.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s