By David Starkey
For five years in the early 2000s, I taught a course on creative writing pedagogy for Antioch-Los Angeles’s MFA program. Other than during our ten-day residency, I only met with my students online. And I’ve taught hybrid composition classes at Santa Barbara City College for more than ten years. We meet once a week in class, and the rest of our time together is online.
However, neither of those modes of instruction really prepared me to teach a four-genre introductory creative writing course completely online. As I write this blogpost, the final week of our fifteen-week semester is just two days off, and I have a few takeaways to share.
The Bodiless Classroom
Every teacher who moves from a face-to-face (f2f) classroom to one held entirely online must experience a similar feeling of dislocation. Where is everybody? When I meet with students for eighty minutes twice a week in the classroom, I know exactly what they’re doing—who’s on his phone, who’s staring out the window, who’s paying attention.
In contrast, in an online class I can’t see students’ physical cues, so it’s extremely difficult to know if the guy who’s always challenging me is doing so with a friendly grin, or a scowl. More worrying, how can I tell who’s severely underconfident, and who’s simply seeking a little extra praise? I’ve found it’s much easier to suss out my student’s emotions when I’m looking them in the face.
Indeed, not being able to “picture” my students has been a problem for me. Sure, most of them have posted something where they’re supposed to upload a profile photo, but if it’s not a picture of their dog, it’s a carefully posed or doctored photo that I wouldn’t want to rely on as a witness in court. When several students showed up at an on-campus extra-credit reading I hosted this semester, I felt extraordinarily grateful to meet them in person. It was like greeting characters from a book who had suddenly stepped into real life.
For the student’s part, the disembodied class seems to make it easier to declare who they “really” are. At least I assume it’s easier to announce a startling difference about yourself when you’re typing on a message board rather than announcing it to a roomful of gaping strangers.
And in a course where almost all communication takes place in writing, good writers—as opposed to loud classroom discussion participants—make an especially good showing. One of the best writers in my class this semester is a high school senior. Another is the mother of two teenaged sons. In the f2f class, their age difference would immediately place them into two separate camps: the bright 17-year-old about to go off to college, and the brilliant, if sometimes beleaguered, returning student. Granted, those markers are still there in their writing, but in the virtual classroom they meet as virtual equals.
The Personal Classroom
Another boon of the online creative writing class is that it allows students to ask questions they would probably not ask in front of their classmates, and might not pose even during my office hours.
At the end of each weekly journal entry, I require students to ask me one or two questions about the reading or writing assignment—or anything else that’s going on in class that week. While I normally do this at least once or twice a semester in a f2f class, the questions tend to be general, and my responses are entirely off the cuff. By contrast, online questions are usually more thoughtful, which necessitates a more thoughtful response on my part. Both the students and I can say what’s really on our minds.
Other than grading the creative work itself, responding to journal questions is the most time-consuming part of teaching my class, but it’s also the one I most look forward to each week. Many of the questions seem to come out of left-field, but I find that after almost thirty years of teaching creative writing, I’m rarely without an answer that doesn’t feel like it would be of some use to the questioner—and I’m often pleasantly surprised by what I actually know.
“I Like How You Said…”: Class Discussion
When I taught at Antioch-LA, it was possible to hold synchronous written chats with my handful of graduate students. Today, apps like join.me and RingCentral make video conferencing far easier than it once was.
However, I was cautioned by online instructors in other disciplines at my college that synchronous video conferencing would prove an impossible challenge, and now that I know the work habits of my students fairly well, I believe that caution was worthwhile. I’m sure there is some work-around that would enable two dozen people with incredibly different realities and schedules to join periodically in a real-time discussion, but it’s beyond my capabilities at the moment.
As a result, my class is entirely asynchronous. The closest thing we have to the back and forth of a classroom conversation is our weekly discussion forum. On balance, I think it works pretty well. Probably because they know I’m grading them, students’ written comments on their classmates’ work has been much more detailed and thoughtful than it would have been if they were speaking in class. And, of course, the students whose work is under discussion can return to those comments again and again, rather than having to rely on the vagaries of memory.
Envisioning the Arc
While many instructors do just fine winging it from class to class, I don’t feel as though I’m in control of my course until I can picture its entire arc: from the first day to the final exam. Structuring a creative writing class—even one that I’ve taught f2f scores of times—was a daunting task. Fortunately, it wasn’t as intimidating as it might have been. A former Antioch graduate student who uses my textbook, Four Genres: Creative Writing in Brief, got in touch to say that she had written her entire course around the latest edition, and she was willing to share her material with me.
Absent that template, I’m sure I would have floundered for a while. For new instructors who don’t receive such an unlikely lucky break, I would recommend establishing certain assignments that repeat across genres—for me, that’s been discussion forums, journal entries, and reading quizzes—and ensuring that the deadlines are the same every week. Absent the need to be in class at a certain time on certain days, students benefit from deadlines that bring some order from one Sunday to the next.
I haven’t made much use of video instruction, in part because it felt awkward to talk to my computer without seeing the response of an audience. More to the point, when I want to convey detailed information to my class, it’s much, much faster for me to write it out and post it as an announcement.
Online Challenges in an Online Course
While my former student’s curriculum design was outstanding, she had not included playwriting in her curriculum, which is normally my students’ favorite part of the class. This change to the course structure required entirely reimagining the final month of the semester, and I can’t say that portion of the course hasn’t been without some hitches.
For the playwriting module, I asked students to post both a copy of their script and a video of a “staged reading” of their play. I imagined students would be able to do some basic blocking, as they do in my class, while reading from their scripts, and I assumed they’d be able to find someone willing to walk around with a phone, videotaping them. Finding a videographer, however, turned out to be a challenge for many students (who knew cell phone camera people were so hard to come by?). Moreover, Canvas isn’t ideal for uploading longer videos, so students have turned to YouTube, which has its own uploading quirks. In short, workshopping plays online turned out to be considerably more complicated than I’d anticipated.
Granted, it’s still nice to be able to see the slow spots in a play, and for students to feel what it’s like to read a script to an audience (mediated though that audience might be). However, the videos of student plays also made clear how much is lost when a play isn’t performed live. A funny line is never rewarded with a laugh from the audience, and student playwrights don’t have to endure the silence and shuffling of feet during a long, dull passage in their script—an experience that nearly always results in a rewrite.
So: there have been technical challenges, especially in this section of my online course. That’s not surprising, perhaps, but these are issues I wouldn’t have faced if students were standing in front of the classroom reading from paper scripts.
While online instructors don’t have to “gear up” for standing in front of a class full of students, and we don’t have to be in a certain physical space at a certain time each week, it turns out that online teachers are available in a virtual space all the time. Day and night, weekdays and weekends—class is always in session.
“Would You Do It Again?”
Actually, I am teaching an online creative writing class next semester—although I’ll only be covering poetry, which I imagine will be somewhat easier, based on my skill set and the sort of interactions I now know are likely to take place in the class.
Overall, though, I guess it feels too early to tell whether or not I’m a convert to online creative writing instruction. This semester’s class hasn’t been quite as much work as I’d been led to believe by some instructors, and it has resulted in some student-teacher interactions that have been novel, beneficial to my students, and renewing to me. That said, I miss being with “real” people in the physical world. Would I do it again? Talk to me at the end of next semester.