When I give students a research project, the first thing I ask them to do is propose a set of three topics. For my freshman seminar students, the three topics should be related to a question they still have about college life. For my information literacy students, the focus is on their role as information creators. The reason I ask for three is partly to increase the chances that one of their ideas will be researchable. The second is to try to force some creativity. Coming up with one idea might be easy. Coming up with three? That takes a little more thinking.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work. About 80-90% of the topics students propose are standard academic research topics, ones that they probably think will get them a good grade rather than things they are actually interested in pursuing. Not exactly on the level of topics that get banned because professors are tired of reading about them, but in that same vein.
A course instructor I once worked with had the same issue. She wanted her students to write about topics that interested them or that were fun for them. I tried to model this in the session I taught for her students by using an example research topic related to Doctor Who. But most of them were writing about things like the legalization of marijuana, video game violence, and whether college athletes should get paid. In other words, the kind of essay topics that typically show up on state tests.
Now, it could be that the students had some genuine interest in these topics but it was also obvious that these topics were not fun for them. This despite the fact that their professor and I both encouraged them to pick fun ideas.
You may not be aware of this, but every year the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee puts out two lists of Selected Resources, one focused on teaching methods and instructional design and the other focused on assessment. These lists feature articles and other materials that have been published the previous year that are worthy of note. It’s a resource that doesn’t get as much use or attention as it should, so I’ve decided to assign myself the homework of making my way through each item on last year’s lists and write about it here.
Disclosure: I am currently a member of the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee, which selects and evaluates materials for the Selected Resources lists. I played a role in the selection process and reviewed several of the items that ended up on the final list for the current year as part of that process.
What seems obvious from these readings is that the creative writing workshop is the most common model for teaching creative writing even though there seem to be a lot of questions about how useful it is.
One of the best fictional illustrations I’ve ever seen of the creative writing workshop experience was in a brief scene at the beginning of the movie Wonder Boys (based on the book by Michael Chabon) where the students in the class tear apart Tobey Maguire’s work while he sits there, silenced by the gag rule and either stone-faced or zoned out. Then another student, seeing the way he’s being attacked, chimes in with more positive/constructive feedback to save him. The students in the class hate their classmate’s work largely because they don’t understand it and the writer in question is unable to explain his thinking to them, even if he wanted to (though in this case, it seems unlikely he’d want to, given the nature of the character).
You could argue about whether this is a realistic representation of the workshop environment, but it certainly captures what it feels like to be in that environment, at least based on my memories of my own undergraduate workshop days, particularly a comment element called the “gag rule.”
I’ve mentioned before that one of the cool things about the study of research is that it’s already out there, in so many forms and in so many fields (not just library and information science!), even if that’s not what the researchers doing this work would necessarily call it. I saw a lot of examples of this at the ACRL 2019 Conference and I wanted to spend some time here taking a closer look at a few of them.
I hope the researchers whose work I plan to talk about for this series don’t mind that I’ll be applying the “study of research” label to what they do, but in each case I’ll try to make it clear why I’m doing that.
Early on in the information literacy course I teach each semester, I introduce students to a couple of common myths about research, things students commonly believe because of their experience with academic research. This includes things like “research is about finding the right answer” and “citation sucks” (which I tell them isn’t really a myth because, well, citation does suck).
Now that I’m spending some time thinking about the role of research in creative writing, I’m finding that there’s a whole other set of myths/beliefs that keep cropping up, ones that I hadn’t thought about or that don’t apply to the type of research I usually teach.
Back to Creative Writing School by Bridget Whelan reminds me a little bit of a book I used to own (and might still have, buried somewhere in my childhood closet in my parents’ house) called Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg. Room to Write is a book of writing exercises that was given to me as a gift when I was a teenager. At one point, I was determined to complete every exercise in the book.
It turns out I am terrible at writing exercises. Despite that, I still bought another book a few years ago called 642 Things to Write About. It is currently collecting dust on a shelf in my office. I think I did three of the exercises. Same with Start Where You Are.
So you might think that my past record with writing exercises might color my thoughts on Back to Creative Writing School. I thought it might, too, but luckily my purpose in reading it wasn’t to complete any of the exercises. It was to learn whether the author might have anything to say about the role of research in the writing process.