Bridging the Gap: How to Teach Creative Writing Across the Generational Divide
by Aaron Hamburger
couple of years ago, I taught my first college-level writing workshop.
Like many writers hired to teach these kinds of classes, I had little
formal training in educational theory or methods of teaching creative
writing. Mostly I went by my own experience of what had worked best for
me as a student: a few general guidelines and then plenty of room to be
creative within that basic framework.
On the first day, I handed out a syllabus outlining the class requirements and reviewed it with the students in a firm but respectful tone. The course I’d been hired to teach, an introduction to creative writing, mandated that students create work in three genres: poetry, drama, and fiction. The students were also expected to meet with me individually during office hours three times during the semester, as well as write a brief literary essay, which I assigned as a free-form response to any book of their choice. I ended the first class by explaining to my students that they didn’t need to address me as “Professor,” which felt arch and overly formal. Instead, I asked them to refer to me by my first name.
There. I’d set the rules of the game. Now all I had to do was sit back and wait for them to play.
Right from the start, I encountered a host of unexpected misunderstandings. The first question I got was, “But how long should my poems be?” This question was repeated throughout the semester when we turned to the genres of drama and fiction, and I never found a satisfactory answer. How long should any poem, play, or story be? I responded with a quip I’d once heard an English teacher of mine use to answer a similar question. “Don’t worry about word count. Just make it long enough to cover the subject matter and short enough to keep it interesting.” Judging from the confused looks on their faces, I could tell it wasn’t a popular answer.
Another question was, “How do I write a poem?” I summoned my best Socrates-Confucius smile and replied, “That’s what every artist has to learn for him or herself by trying to write one. Sit down, think of the poems you’ve read, and try to come up with one yourself. Be creative. Don’t worry about rules. Just let yourself go.” In response, my students glared as if they wanted to string me up from the nearest lamppost.
When the students began turning in their work, I thought about how to respond to it critically. Again, I went back to my own experience and remembered that what I’d appreciated most as a writer was specific suggestions for further revision. With that in mind, I returned each student’s piece with a one-page, single-spaced letter divided into two sections. The first, titled “What Works,” was followed by a list of at least three bullet points detailing successful choices they’d made. The second, “Where To Go Next,” was followed by a much longer list of specific suggestions of issues for them to consider in their revisions, ranging from the micro-level of word choice to the macro-level of plot, character, and theme.
Meanwhile, in office hours, I sat for weeks in a state of boredom, without a single student visit. Toward the middle of the term, I e-mailed the class and reminded them of the three-office-visits rule. Shortly thereafter, a slow trickle of confused students began appearing. They’d sit across from me looking embarrassed, not sure what we were supposed to be talking about. Though I tried to steer the topic of conversation toward the students’ progress in the class, somehow our talks would almost always veer toward one of two subjects: “What grade do you think I’ll get?” and “Do you like me, do you really like me?” (Eventually I learned that, for students, these were two forms of the same question.)
One student came every week with revisions of his poems and asked, “Are they good now? Would you like them better if I rewrote them this way?” Another young woman would flop down across from me and ask if I thought she should be a writer even though she really wasn’t the creative one in her family, her sister was, though her mother was creative too, but her father didn’t approve of writing as a career…. My least favorite moments were when they’d look at me with their shy smiles and say, “I know I shouldn’t be asking this, but I was just wondering, do you think I could get an A?”
A big locus of worry was the literary essay. When I’d told the students they could pick any book they wanted to read, I’d meant the assignment as a gift, a chance to curl up with a book of their choice for homework. But my students couldn’t decide which book they were supposed to choose or how they were supposed to respond to it. Were they supposed to like the book? Could they really say anything they wanted to about it? And, of course, how long was their response supposed to be?
As we reached the end of the semester, I received a flurry of e-mails asking basic questions that students could have found the answers to on their own from the syllabus, my group e-mails to the class, or by doing a little digging at the library. How many visits to office hours were they supposed to make? Did I remember how many visits they’d made so far? How long did their short stories have to be? What was a sonnet? What was the difference between a metaphor and a simile?
Confused by my “just call me by my first name” policy, the students addressed their e-mails to “Mr. Hamburger,” “Professor Aaron,” or often to no one at all.
When the class was over, my student evaluations were quite positive, and I felt pretty good about the way things had gone until I posted the grades. Immediately, I received the inevitable, “Can you explain why you gave me a B+?” e-mail complaint, as well as several nasty anonymous posts on a student Web site for rating professors. I was called arrogant, pompous. I was accused of not caring about the students. I was vilified for not making myself available for meeting with students during office hours. My greatest sin, however, was the way in which I’d responded to their work. I thought I’d been doing the students a favor by being specific and thorough, but several students said they felt crushed by the extensive criticism. “He’ll ruin your writing forever,” wrote one student. “You’ll never be able to get his voice out of your head questioning everything you do. You’ll never want to write again.”
How had this happened to me? I’d come to class with the best of intentions, hoping to provoke and inspire, to give students basic guidelines while allowing them the freedom to invent. Instead I’d ended up dickering with students over page lengths and grades and deadlines at best, and alienating them at worst.
As I described my experiences to my partner, who was then finishing his master’s degree in higher education, he nodded in recognition and said, “Welcome to the Millennial Generation.”
The Millennial Generation (also known as Generation Y or the Echo Boomers) is how sociologists have dubbed the generation born around the year 1980 and afterward who’ve come of age in the era of the Internet, grade inflation, and competitions in which every child gets a gold medal simply for showing up. According to various contributors to the higher education report Serving the Millennial Generation: New Directions for Student Services (2004), edited by Michael D. Coomes and Robert DeBard, Millennials have been nurtured by anxious, overachieving parents who schedule their children’s every waking hour with play dates, activities, sports, lessons, and other social obligations. Any time not spent doing homework or in the company of others gets filled with surfing the Web, instant messaging friends, or flipping between hundreds of channels on satellite TV. The ironic chorus of my generation’s anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana—“Here we are now, entertain us!”—isn’t ironic to Millennials at all. These kids have been entertained and looked after by others all their lives.
In school, overburdened teachers with swelling class sizes don’t have time to give thoughtful, comprehensive evaluations of individually written work. Instead, they increasingly rely on multiple-choice tests with Scantron sheets that have definitive right and wrong answers. Instead of writing essays, Millennial students complete group projects, often multi-media presentations that play to their strengths: their familiarity with technology. When they’re not working with their peers, Millennials work with their anxious, grade-obsessed parents, who e-mail teachers for guidance about completing the assignment, and then e-mail teachers again once the assignment has been graded to demand why the work (which was largely directed if not completed by the parent) didn’t receive an A. That sense of A-entitlement has increased in direct proportion to the ever more astronomical cost of higher education in the United States. Several of my university colleagues have reported receiving irate phone calls from parents to the tune of, “I’m not spending thirty-thousand bucks a year just so my kid can get a measly B+!”
No generalization about any social group is without its exceptions. And yet, after speaking with colleagues at various universities, reading articles in educational journals, and teaching several more classes myself, I’ve become convinced that the way Millennials have been raised presents a number of unique benefits and challenges for the educational community, particularly those working in the humanities. (I’m not alone in this opinion, judging from the increasing number of articles, books, and university conferences about the challenges of communicating with Millennials.)
On the plus side, Millennials are good at following rules. They’re respectful, serious, and often hardworking; they like order and authority and they aim to please. They’re also very good at working as a team, as I discovered during my first workshop, when the class seemed to run itself.
But here comes the tough part. Because they’ve been taught that putting in their best effort is the same as achieving the best result, Millennials can have trouble taking criticism, even once they’re out of school. In her article on Millennials entering the workforce, “Scenes from the Culture Clash,” which was published in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company, reporter Danielle Sacks writes about a young law associate who broke down crying because he was told that the structure of a memo he’d written was “a little too loose.” Parents of Millennials have gone from hectoring teachers and professors for As to calling bosses and complaining that their children received a poor review at work. One distraught mother described in the article called her son’s Human Resources department seventeen times in one day because her son didn’t get a promotion and scheduled a meeting with his boss to demand that he reconsider the decision.
According to Serving the Millennial Generation, Millennials also tend to be conservative and risk-averse in comparison with their cynical, color-outside-the-lines predecessors from Generation X. They don’t enjoy self-directed creative work that requires them to analyze or devise new solutions to unresolved problems. Rather, they’d prefer to find out how to arrive at the “right” answer that someone else has already discovered. (I had one student demand that I bring in one good poem and one bad poem, and then explain the rules as to why one was good and the other bad so that he could follow those rules and not make mistakes. The class nodded in approval at the suggestion.) The worst thing you can tell a Millennial is, “Be creative, figure it out yourself.”
how do you teach a generation that’s resistant to critical feedback and
fundamentally suspicious of self-directed creative activity to write
poetry and fiction?
Certainly it doesn’t seem desirable to turn the practice of teaching creative writing into a fill-in-the-blank activity, or to ask students to write a short story as a group project, have them convert it into a PowerPoint presentation, and then give them all As for their effort. However, there’s no point in sticking to a Socratic model of education, in which the professor gives the assignment and expects the students to scramble for ways to complete it. These students simply don’t have the tools to understand such directions. We might as well ask them to build a spaceship with a hammer and nails and a few sheets of steel.
As creative writing teachers, we have to be creative ourselves in coming up with ways to reach out to the Millennial Generation. We need to develop methods that guide students step-by-step into being autonomous, self-directed artists instead of assuming that students are able do this themselves the minute they walk into our classrooms. That doesn’t mean we have to dumb down our material. I still believe in the value of having students figure out things on their own, and I refuse to assign page lengths for stories or bring in models of “good” poems for students to ape. Instead, I want to create a structure to teach students how and where they can solve questions independently as long as they’re willing to put in some effort.
Recently I redesigned my course in an attempt to bridge the generational gap between me and my Millennial students. My guiding principles have been to set specific rather than open-ended goals, and to provide advice without giving away answers.
I began by revamping the required visits to office hours. In hindsight, I saw that telling the students to meet me three times during the semester was too open-ended an invitation. Now I’ve set up a schedule of specific times to meet at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester for what I’ve dubbed an “Entrance Interview,” a “Midterm Conference,” and an “Exit Interview.” The purpose of naming each meeting is to focus each visit on a specific goal so that students come prepared for a serious discussion rather than a free-for-all therapy session. The Entrance Interview gives me a chance to reinforce the requirements of the syllabus one-on-one, because students with short attention spans don’t always focus on what’s being said to the class as a whole. This meeting also gives me an idea of each student’s individual needs. For the Midterm Conference, I ask students to bring me two evaluations: one of the class and the other of their own performance. This way, I can get a sense of how they see their own effort and correct any misperceptions, inflated or deflated, of how they’re doing. In turn, students have a chance to give me feedback so they can tell me what’s working for them and what’s not. Finally, during the Exit Interview, I can lay out exactly how final grades are determined and what students can do to get closer to the grade they want. Of course in a graded creative writing class, not every student is capable of getting an A; some students are simply more natural writers than others. But if students have been prepared for the grade they’ll probably get all semester long via our one-on-one conferences (in addition to class responses to their work and my evaluations), the shock of a B+, or even, heaven forbid, a B, may be lessened.
For the literary essay assignment, I’ve dispensed with freedom of choice, which not only proved overwhelming, but also resulted in several students writing about books they’d already read for other classes. Instead, I’ve created a list of recently published books for students to choose from. And rather than ask for a free-form response, I’m requiring students to write a short book review. I’m also having them sign a dummy contract modeled after the ones I receive when I write book reviews so they can see how the process of evaluation works in the real world (and so they can have their beloved word count). I do not hand out copies of one model book review for them to emulate, but I will recommend a list of magazines with book reviews for them to consult if they want to do a little digging.
I’m still not sure there’s a way to tell people how to write a poem, play, or short story, but I can help them get started. Instead of leaving the students to fight the blank page on their own, I’m leading several exercises during the first few class sessions to get students used to the process of generating material to use in their creative work. One such exercise is to hand out first sentences of famous literary works on little strips of paper, and then ask the students to continue the story, poem, or play from that first line. Another exercise that’s worked well is to divide the students in pairs and ask them to tell each other the best piece of gossip they’ve heard, decide which is the juicier bit of gossip and why, and then report it to the class in the most tantalizing way possible. I’ve also had students go to grocery stores and write down lists of all the food various customers bought and then have the class guess what each customer’s life was like based on his or her purchases. Finally, a great way to get students to examine their own lives for fodder for creative work is to have them complete a self-help questionnaire. (There’s a useful one in chapter 3 of Carol Lloyd’s Creating a Life Worth Living [HarperPerennial, 1997], a self-help guide for artists).
Once students have raw material to draw from, I give them a set of redactions from introductions to anthologies of drama, poetry, and fiction, which I’m calling “The Cheater’s Guide to Creative Writing.” These cheater’s guides lay out the basic rules of the genre and definitions of terms like metaphor that students may or may not remember from their high school English courses. The “Cheater’s Guide” also includes lists of recommended works in each genre that the students can hunt down on their own if they’re seeking out models.
In my written critiques of student work, I choose a few major points for commentary rather than every detail I notice. And instead of dividing my comments under the loose categories of what works and what doesn’t, I’m subdividing them into categories like “characterization,” “plot,” and “word choice,” so that students have targeted directives to focus on when they revise. After the first round of workshopping, I’ll also consult with students during our office-hour sessions to see if they want to be critiqued in a different way, with more or less detail, or from a different angle. I will also try to prepare students for the inevitable heartbreak of hearing that their work isn’t perfect by conducting a brief discussion of how to handle criticism (I’ve always found fried chicken and several pounds of chocolate helpful) as well as how to decide when to follow someone else’s advice and when to stick to your own ideas.
Despite these changes, there are a few areas where I won’t compromise; I go by my first name and not “Professor.” Also, I have to bear in mind that even the most enlightened teachers with the snazziest, most up-to-date methods still have problem students who sit at the back of the classroom with a snarl and indulge in vengeful fantasies after receiving their B+ at term’s end. But the point of education isn’t to turn students into a cheering gallery for their teachers. It’s to transmit knowledge, and hopefully a bit of inspiration. As I try to meet my students halfway, I may not turn out to be everyone’s favorite teacher in the short term, but I may manage to teach them a lesson or two worth remembering in the years to come.
Aaron Hamburger was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy in Rome for his short story collection, The View From Stalin’s Head, published by Random House in March 2004. His novel, Faith For Beginners (Random House, 2005), was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and has just come out in paperback. Currently he teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York City. His Web site is www.aaronhamburger.com.