Nurturing Future Danticats, Nabokovs, and Vuongs: Engaging Multilingual & ESL College Students in Creative Writing
By Lane Igoudin
Bilingual, multilingual, and ESL students, a sizable segment of college populations, are traditionally underrepresented in writing courses. How do we help them develop their voices? How can we tailor writing pedagogies to their needs?
Who Are These Students?
Bilingual and multilingual speakers of English constitute a large segment, and often are a majority on community college campuses these days. Traditionally, colleges offered concurrent curricular tracks leading to Freshman Composition (transfer-level English course), which serves as a benchmark for community college graduation and university transfer, as well as a pre-requisite for most literature and writing courses.
Despite different paths to language proficiency, in linguistic terms, second language acquisition, at the advanced stage and in formal learning settings, in many aspects, merges with first language acquisition (Igoudin 2017). Reasons for such convergence include:
- Advanced SL learners are bilingual, sharing, at the very least, beginning and intermediate grammar and a wide range of vocabulary – shared lexicogrammar.
- Native English population in community colleges is largely bilingual too.
- The line between these two populations is blurred, leading to, for example, the Generation 1.5 phenomenon.
One other unfortunate commonality among these multilingual students is their assumed lack of ability – perceived both internally and externally – to express themselves creatively in English, leading to their underrepresentation in creating writing courses and activities.
Their English language proficiency appears to be an obstacle, but is it really?
Historically, multilingual writers flourished in English: from Chinua Achebe, Joseph Conrad, Kahlil Gibran, Vladimir Nabokov, or William Saroyan of the past to Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Masha Gessen, Reyna Grande, or Ocean Vuong of today.
What can be done to engage this new generation of multilingual speakers in English writing?
The AWP 2020 Panel Sponsored by AWP Two-Year College Creative Writing Caucus
At the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs held in San Antonio in March 2020, four writing instructors – Marlys Cervantes (Cowley College), Sharon Coleman (Berkeley City College), Lane Igoudin (Los Angeles City College), and Carla Sameth (CSU Los Angeles and Southern New Hampshire University) – gathered as a panel to offer a range of successful strategies to destigmatize these writers’ voices and foster their participation in creative writing.
Some of the questions discussed during the panel were:
- What are specific challenges multilingual students face in creative writing?
- What practices can be used to help them overcome such challenges and engage in writing activities?
- How do these students perceive writing in English vs. how do the others perceive their writing?
- What does it mean to have a multilingual voice?
- What is the place of these students’ voices in today’s sociopolitical environment?
Three examples of student writing were read out loud – and short stories by a Korean and a Ukrainian student as well as a poem by a Moroccan student.
Summary of engagement strategies
See below a selection of strategies presented during the panel, which relate to writing pedagogy, course content, activities, tasks, and resources.
- At the beginning of the course, poll your students on the number of languages they speak (“Who here speaks 2 languages? 3? 4? 5?”). Recognizing you are among students of similar multilingual backgrounds helps reduce nervousness.
- Bring down the students’ affective filter by hedging the tone of the professor’s critique.
- Use books by well-known multilingual writers, for example, those listed above. They could serve as role models for student writers.
- Model multilingual writing examples (e.g., Junot Diaz, Leo Tolstoy). In other words, introduce them to the notion that writing does not have to be monolingual to be effective.
- Distinguish between grammatically unacceptable syntactic and lexical errors, and the grammatically acceptable stylistic discrepancies, which may enhance and colorize student’s multilingual voices.
- Grade a semester-long portfolio, or a chapbook of writing completed during the course.
- Encourage memoiristic, personal experience-based writing, at least, as a starter.
- Be careful not to push for the recounting of traumatic events, for example, war experiences, but accept them compassionately if they come up in student writing.
- Move beyond the traditional poem / short story / essay genres. Experiment with genres. A sample assignment: write your last 10 years in 3 emails.
- Form translation groups: ask students to bring poems in their own language and ask to gloss it first word-for-word, and then together work out a more literary translation.
- Organize bilingual readings of the same poems.
- When writing new material, encourage writing directly in English, rather than drafting first in another language, and then translating the draft into English.
- Reach out to heritage language courses (e.g., Spanish for Spanish Speakers).
- For 23 years, Los Angeles City College has held successful Annual Writing Contest for both English and ESL students, judging each population in separate categories, yet presenting awards for all writers at the same award ceremony, and publishing all winning entries in the college’s annual literary magazine.
- East Los Angeles College offers an elective course in publishing for ESL students. The final product is Hybrid Culture, a 15-20 page online magazine written and designed by these students under their professor’s supervision.
- A good resource: Asymptote, a Taiwan-based online literary magazine dedicated to translations of world literature to English and other languages. The magazine also includes blogs, reviews, and interviews.
Lane Igoudin, MA, PhD, created and moderated this panel. He is Associate Professor of English/ESL at Los Angeles City College, where he teaches writing, reading, and linguistics, and a recent Andrew W. Mellon Fellow with the Humanities Division of UCLA. Lane is a non-fiction writer His memoir Born in the Shadow of the Court is under contract with the University of Wisconsin Press. Contact: email@example.com
Marlys Cervantes serves as Department Chair of Humanities & Communication and director of the Creative Writing Program at Cowley College in Arkansas City, Kansas. She teaches literature and writing courses, as well as serving as co-director of the Multi-Cultural Scholars Program. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sharon Coleman teaches creative writing at Berkeley City College. She directs the journal, Milvia Street. She’s a contributing editor at Poetry Flash, a member of the Northern California Book Reviewers, and a curator the reading series Lyrics & Dirges. She was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. Contact: email@example.com.
Carla Rachel Sameth, MFA, teaches creative writing at the Los Angeles Writing Project at CSU Los Angeles and at Southern New Hampshire University, and served as a PEN in the Community Teaching Artist Resident. Carla’s work has been published in several anthologies, including an essay listed as a notable in Best American Essays 2019. Carla’s memoir, One Day on the Gold Line, was published in 2019 by Black Rose.
The Teeter -Totter Tilt of Ideals and Reality. Cautionary tales from the Search Committee.
By B.V. Marshall
“Can you do something for me?”
The new dean was asking for a favor. A few weeks before at an English Department meeting, she announced that our department had been approved to hire four new tenure – track professors. They were long overdue and badly needed because of retirements (and deaths.) In the discussion, a colleague suggested restricting one of the positions specifically for a person of color. My friend was tired and phrased the idea rather clumsily. Immediately another colleague, who had a reputation for intentionally stirring up trouble piped up, reminding us that it was illegal to reserve a position specifically for a person of color. Then he made an off-color remark. The remark stopped the meeting cold, a moment that lasted an eternity. Then I spoke up and mentioned something about advertising in professional journals such as Black Scholar that cater to specific demographics. The moment thawed, and the meeting was back on track.
Now I was in the dean’s office and the favor the dean was asking me was to serve on the committee to hire the four new professors in the English Department. “Whoopee,” I thought to myself, “Another long committee to drain my time.” The dean appreciated how I stepped into that awkward silence at the department meeting. She thought I would an asset to the search committee. I wish I could say that I agreed for purely altruistic reasons of being in the position to help along other people of color and other members of the LGBT community. But as someone who has served on numerous committees over decades, the prospect of serving on another was not exactly enticing. The time commitment was daunting. (It’s interesting that these words, committee commitment and committed (as in an asylum all have the same root.) Still, I said yes.
Gentle reader, I will not bore you with the precious details of all our meetings as there are other minutiae of existence that you will probably find more tempting. Our procedure was straightforward. After reviewing all the collected resumes (over 200) we were to select about 20 for preliminary phone interviews. From the 20 we were to select about 10 for in person (or electronically facilitated) interviews which include a teaching demonstration. From there, we were to recommend our four top candidates, who would be formally approved by the dean, the vice president of the school, the president and board of the Trustees.
This was the balancing act. How do we look for ways of diversifying our department without being exclusive or discriminatory against white heterosexual men? Utmost, of course, were the qualifications: graduate degree, teaching experience at the college level, experience with a diverse student population, and references. Despite the intention of being welcoming to and expressly looking for persons of color and /or members of the LGBT community, the reality did not play well with our intentions. In the early Spring semester, colleges will begin the process of hiring. These anecdotes may be amusing or annoying. Or, they just might be another collection of cautionary tales.
One candidate looked quite promising on paper. In fact, she was a little intimidating. She was someone with a few degrees including a doctorate from an Ivy league school and was an adjunct professor at the same institution, which is within a 25-mile radius of our campus. (I am being purposefully coy.) Her CV listed more publications and conference presentations than almost all of us
put together, and her letter of intent indicated that she was up on some of the most relevant readings. Again, our hopes were high. The telephone conference call was set up. The candidate was on the line, and after our greetings and introductions, she asked with all the aplomb of a vaudeville blonde, “Now which school are you? We told her the name. She asked: “Now where was that again?”
She did not go on the list to be advanced to the next round.
Our geographic location did not deter another candidate. Of Latin heritage, she lived a little more than 40 miles away. Her phone interview was superb, and she was scheduled for the next round where she would be interviewed in person and give a teaching demonstration. (I remarked that if I were job searching now, I probably would never get a job just because of all that is required.) During her interview, we found out that the previous day, after work, she drove the distance to our campus to confirm the route according to the GPS. She also wanted to see our campus. She impressed us with her teaching demonstration and with her ability to learn the names of everyone on the committee. She knew the current teaching trends and was familiar with the prevailing theories of composition. She received one of the highest scores and her name was added with great enthusiasm to the list of contenders to be recommended for hiring.
Our school’s bureaucratic process is slow. Very slow. By the time the powers that be contacted her for the final interview with the Dean and Vice president, our star had secured herself a position elsewhere. One that was closer to her home. To make matters worse, instead of allowing us to put forth another candidate, one of the four open positions was then taken away from our department. In the end we would hire only three new professors.
A third notable applicant spoke with an English accent, though not the posh, upper class pronunciation that characters on PBS TV series speak. Hers was a pronounced English, working class accent, perhaps a Liverpool tongue with more discernable consonants. The committee spoke to her via Skype. We speculated how this woman of apparent African- Anglo heritage wound up in Texas but we were too professional to ask on technical devices. We would wait until she would make it to the personal interview. She was determined to drive from Texas to New Jersey for the in – person interview. This seemed like a woman who would make the final cut. She had the qualifications. She had great student evaluations. She hinted a little at the difficult of being a woman of color in a Texas educational institution. This piqued my interest, and that of my committee members. I understood how difficult it was to be the lone person of color in an otherwise unfriendly department. She seemed to be the golden child. The one candidate who not only weathered bad enough experience but seemed to rise above it with good cheer. We were excited to recommend her to go to the next round of interviews.
The applicant’s references responded. Her glowing references apparently were manufactured. As were her positive student evaluations. Her students constantly complained of confusing instructions of erratic temper and instruction methods. Most perplexing and disappointing was learning that she was not actually British. She was an American who had adopted the English accent a few years earlier, much to the confusion of her colleagues. Nobody understood why she thought she had to speak with a British accent in order to teach in Texas. But apparently, she did. The misrepresentation killed the deal.
There is one more example of heartbreaking candidates. A young, African – American woman. She had her master’s degree. She had only a few years as an adjunct. This was the first big break, a chance at a tenure track position at a community college with a solid reputation. She arrived for the in-
person interview about one hour early. We had to keep her waiting as other members of the committee were still in class. Lengthy waiting times can have some detrimental effects. When I applied for this position, many moons ago, I was kept waiting four hours. The interviewers saw my patience as an asset. As I was as calm as calm could be. The young woman outwardly seemed calm. We did not notice the stress it seemed to have on her. When our committee was assembled, we began the interview after she had been sitting in the corridor for more than an hour. She started with her practice lesson and it did not end well. She fumbled with the laptop and the power point did not line up clearly. She started well enough but stumbled with a word or two and then she stumbled with just about every sentence. She had not eye contact. Some things she said as if by rote When we had the chance to ask questions. She seemed disengaged as if she had already given up. At one point, tears welled up. Some of us were moved by the tears. Others were more jaundiced. If she can’t handle an interview, what she is going to do during midterms. She gave up on herself about halfway through and the rest of the interview was a difficult time to sit through.
At the end of the process, even with the attention and the effort to find persons of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and to increase the presence of women and open the department to fresh ideas, we hired three terrific people who happen to be white men. One is straight, one proudly gay, and one I’m not sure about and I’m just too shy to ask. One of the three new hires had been an adjunct for us for a few years, and recently he stepped in as acting associate chair. One taught at a university nearby and one relocated his family from the west.
What should we take away from this experience? No matter how one tries, one can’t avoid committee work in a two-year college? No. Even with the intention of trying to diversify, time and circumstance can work against you. The Best Laid Plans? Or, is it that with the job market the way it is, and with the competition so strong, that people will often go to extreme measures to get the desirable job? However, the irrational, illogical, overly emotional responses, the phony accents, the lack of knowledge of the school you’re applying to and where it’s located, the lack of emotional control are just ways to sabotage one’s prospects.
Also, just because the focus of this writing were four women applicants, no one should assume that all the male candidates were total gems. There were total misfires with that gender as well. They just weren’t as notable to write about.
Craft Talk: Quincy Troupe’s Rhythm
Richard Jeffrey Newman
I’ve been reading The Architecture of Language, by Quincy Troupe, and I have been fascinated by how rhythm and syntax interact in the way he builds his lines. Structurally, the poems remind me of nothing so much as jazz improvisation, and I have thought often while reading this book of something Hayden Carruth wrote in an essay from 1981 called “Notes on Meter,” which you can find in Selected Essays & Reviews:
I always revert to Pound, and to his early suggestion that poets ‘compose in the sequence of the musical phrase.’ How simple. How brilliant. Which perhaps explains why no one has successfully elaborated it, as far as I know. It’s a pity because it means that Pound’s statement (more exactly his restatement of ancient principle) has turned into a catch-phrase—people speak it and repeat it without bothering to ask what it means. To most it conveys merely a license to compose any way they want—feelingly, liltingly, that’s the commonest meaning. But Pound was a fair musician…he knew what he was talking about when he spoke of the ‘sequence of the musical phrase.’ A measure in music, a bar, is a fixed quantity. If the time signature is 4/4, you have four beats to the measure…But within the fixed measure you may have any melodic or phrasal combination you wish, any distribution of accents, any number and variety of notes; you my emphasize the beat or you may syncopate it; you may play around; you may even substitute rests…Hence there is no question of tying the beat to an inflexible pattern of accentual or phrasal units, such as an endless succession of eighth notes.
This is a theme that Carruth returns to again and again in his writing on poetic form, the idea that for a poem to succeed as a poem, as a work of art, it needs to have been built around some identifiable sense of measure, some regular pattern—of beats, syllables, sounds, it doesn’t matter as long it’s something against which the poet can play with the phrasing of her or his language to create not just a formal interaction of some sort between sound and meaning, but also the play of pure sound that is where so much of the sensual pleasure of poetry lies. To see what I can learn about how Troupe creates this pleasure for me—and his poems do that; I often find myself reading them aloud—I have opened up The Architecture of Language at random to “A Convention of Little Dogs.” Here are the first six lines:
in manhattan’s central park, on a cold bright day
in november, a convention of little dogs swirl,
dart around sparse grass in clearing, pick their way
through tangled heaps of fallen bone-branches
felled by fierce onslaughts of howling alaskan winds
that sliced through clothing like razors the night before
First, let’s look at the syntactic structure of these lines, which make up a single, compound-complex sentence:
- Line 1 is made up of two prepositional phrases, situating the reader in place and time
- Line 2 begins with a third prepositional phrase, further specifying the time in which the poems occurs, and ends with the subject and first verb of the sentence
- Line 3 contains a second verb phrase in its entirely, ands with the beginning of the third verb phrase, which takes up the next three lines and completes the sentence
- Lines 4-6 are constructed such that they each one modifies the last word in the previous line: through in line 4 modifies way at the end of line 3; felled in line 5 modifies branches at the end of line 4; that in line 6 introduces a relative clause that modifies winds at the end of line 5
Fundamentally what this very deliberately crafted sentence does is set the scene for the exploration that follows of the politics and power struggles at work within the convention of little dogs (who of course stand in for the “convention of little humans” that occupies the world), but what I’m really interested in here is how Troupe gets these lines to hang together rhythmically, so that they become more than a prose sentence chopped up into six more or less self-contained syntactic units. As I read them, the lines would scan as I indicate below. I have put the stressed syllables in bold face, and I have put in italics those syllables that might or might not be read as stressed:
in manhattan’s central park, on a cold bright day
in november, a convention of little dogs swirl,
dart around sparse grass in a clearing, pick their way
through tangled heaps of fallen bone-branches
felled by fierce onslaughts of howling alaskan winds
that sliced through clothing like razors the night before
I’m not claiming that my scansion is somehow authoritative and that there are no other possibilities. I can, for example, imagine someone stressing the in at the beginning of line 1 and not stressing the their in “pick their way” at the end of line 3; but what I have shown above illustrates what I hear when I read the lines. The first thing I notice is that the number of stresses per line fall into a regular pattern: 667667. I don’t know if that pattern holds over the course of the entire poem, but I’d be willing to bet that a more in-depth analysis would reveal that it sets the metrical framework around which every other line is built.
A closer examination of the six lines I’ve quoted reveals a rhythmic patterning that I think illustrates quite nicely what it means to “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase.” First some description:
- At the end of line three, a cold bright day, one unstressed syllable followed by three stressed syllables—or, to be technical about it, an iamb followed by a spondee, or, to get even more technical (at least according to Wikipedia) a “first epitrite.”
- This pattern is then picked up in the last three syllables of line 2 plus the first syllable of line three: …tle dogs swirl/dart. (This is a good example of what I think composing in “the sequence of the musical phrase” means. If you imagine the end of the line is the end of the measure, then this rhythmic phrase actually occupies two different measures.)
- You find the same pattern again in line six, that sliced through cloth.
- In lines 3-6 you find a related pattern, unstressed-stressed-stressed-unstressed (an iamb followed by a trochee, also known as an antispast), at a different point in the line each time—which also speaks to the question of phrasing. I have italicized the unstressed syllables in the pattern:
dart around sparse grass in clearing, pick their way
through tangled heaps of fallen bone-branch_es_
felled by fierce on_slaughts_ of howling alaskan winds
that sliced through clothing like raz_ors_ the night before
This is what the rhythmic patterning of the entire six lines looks like in the abstract, using dashes for unstressed and slashes for stressed syllables. I’ve left the punctuation marks in, and I’ve marked the two patterns in different colors.
These aren’t the only patterns that one can find in these lines, of course, but they do seem to me the dominant ones, and I do not think you can explain their occurrence as mere accident. At the same, however, I do not think that Quincy Troupe said to himself as he was writing, “Aha! That’s a really nice place to put an antispast, and I think that’s the metrical foot I am going to use to create rhythmic interest in this part of my poem.” Rather, I think it is that Troupe worked long and hard to train his ear and his body to feel such things “naturally,” the way a pianist will practice scales over and over and over and over again until doing them feels almost as natural as breathing. I won’t presume to imagine the precise form Troupe’s training took, but I’d wager it involved at some point listening very carefully to how jazz musicians—and perhaps drummers specifically—build their solos.
I don’t really have much more to say about this right now. To go more deeply into a prosodic analysis of the poem would take time I don’t have, as would trying to say anything substantive about the interaction between form and meaning in _The Architecture of Language_—an essay which deserves to be written. For now, I am glad to have sat for these 1500 words or so at the feet of someone from whose craft I feel like I have something to learn.
Author’s Note: This is part of an occasional “Craft Talk” series I’ve been writing on my blog. If you’d like to read more, go to http://www.richardjnewman.com.
The Stories that Bring Us Together
by Minerva Laveaga Luna
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” –Joan Didion
Storytelling is a fundamental part of life. Stories we heard as children, in school or at home, shape us. The threads that connect us to particular things and to people are built based on narratives we know about those things or people. With time, repeated information turns into truths.
With narratives planting roots for values and opinions, it is inevitable to wonder how the lack of representation of diverse voices has influenced incomplete or incorrect notions of minorities. What truths have escaped mainstream knowledge because there aren’t enough people telling that story for it to become true?
After the events of August 3rd in El Paso, Texas, where I teach English at El Paso Community College (EPCC), we have started a semester where students sometimes expect us to tell them the story of what happened. They don’t want to hear the events—we all felt them as ripples of an earthquake—, but “what happened? How can someone who is not from here and doesn’t even know us, come to hate an entire community so much?”
Ten years ago, in 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, warned us of “The Danger of a Single Story” in her famous TED talk. She reminded us of the importance of what the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe calls “a balance of stories.” A balance we still don’t have.
At EPCC I am part of a program that over the years has gone through various reconstructions and names, now called Pasos. One element that has been constant and that is at the core of Pasos’ values is the importance of teaching culturally-relevant literature. Pasos faculty are committed to teaching literature from many parts of the world and from a variety of cultures, including literature from and about our border region. When we share literature from diverse communities with students, we allow them to develop a sincere connection with literature in general. Being on the border between México and The United States, our students often see their lives represented in Chicanx and Latin American literature. This connection is the beginning of their relationship with literature, the bridge that can lead them to reading about other cultures and learning about others. For ultimately, it is in the understanding of others where we find the core knowledge of humanity. It is only when we recognize similarities and differences in the narratives of others when true dialogue and “a balance of stories” is possible.
Most of the students taking my composition and literary analysis classes are not English majors, and oftentimes, they don’t have an interest in creative writing. Unlike a graduate program or even a creative writing class, most of my students will not submit their work to be considered for publication at a journal or literary magazine. However, the reading and telling of stories has a transformative effect in our classrooms. After reading literature that represents them, students become more invested in being part of the narrative through their own writing. In turn, the stories written and shared in class become essential in other students’ education and understanding of the world.
I use simple prompts and ask students to write “I am” poems, where they have to complete the verse “I am . . .” with words that represent their favorite foods, places they left or love, family names, books they’ve read, and music they like. I ask them to write about moments that changed their life, and about sounds from their childhood. We also listen to podcasts with cultural content. In response to the prompts and podcast discussions, students write about cities or countries their parents left when they were babies, places they can no longer remember or never knew. They write about how difficult it is to be thought unintelligent because they speak with an accent. They write about not speaking Spanish and having people assume they should because of the way they look. Some write about the hours they spend at the international bridge to make it to class. They also write jokes and share family food recipes. Their stories show them falling in and out of love with people, traditions, and places.
In the anthology The Displaced, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma writes about the importance of telling stories to challenge “flattened news versions of ourselves [refugees/immigrants]”. I like to imagine what would happen if there was more writing and telling of stories that challenge flattened versions of people. Would some of those of stories have reached that man who came to break the lives of people who were just trying to live another Saturday? Maybe, or maybe he would not have cared, but as we try to pick up our pieces, stories are bringing us together.
We are far from a balance of stories, but the more students read or hear stories in class about people like them and about people completely different from them, the more likely a version of reality with ridges, with a complex topography, and rich variations in its shades and shapes, will be possible.
Minerva Laveaga Luna is an Associate English Professor at El Paso Community College. She is a Mexican writer and editor. Her narrative essays have been anthologized in the U.S. and Argentina. Her short stories are published in journals in the U.S. and México.
Introduce Your Students to NewPages.com
As you head back to the classroom this fall, take NewPages.com (http://www.newpages.com) with you! NewPages is a free and open web resource for readers and writers.
Your students will find curated lists of publications, both literary journals and alternative publications (current issues, political), small press and university book publishers, creative writing programs, conferences, workshops, fellowships, literary festivals, retreats – all things writerly.
Nowadays, many publications provide some online content to supplement their print publications or are available completely online. In the push for OERs, you can find literally hundreds of free, open access publications in our guides. Students can read whole journals or books, or individual works.
These publications listed with NewPages are carefully vetted. Our criteria include the general quality of past issues (if new, we hold off listing until we see a first issue), editors’ expertise and backgrounds, editorial process, submission guidelines, and a clear statement of copyright up front that reverts ownership back to writers. These criteria helped build our reputation: Good reading starts here.
These standards are also essential for student writers. As they research places to publish, they can be assured that if something is listed on our site, we have carefully considered how they treat writers.
The same is true for our classifieds, which include up-to-date calls for submissions and legitimate contests. Again here, we assess the resource before placing an ad for them. Writers should research sources to make sure they are comfortable submitting their work as a good match, but we have done some of the background check in advance.
Students looking to practice review writing skills are welcome to send us reviews of contemporary, small press books, literary magazines, and even single works – one poem or one story. Our reviews are short – ideally around 100 words, not more than 300. It’s a great way for students to practice concise, concrete, original writing. (And while you’re at it – how about if YOU send us a review or two? Writing teachers must practice the craft as well and contribute to the community!)
As they research their next step in education, students can find the most complete, up-to-date guide of undergraduate and graduate programs in the U.S. and Canada as well as some international programs on NewPages. Nothing is more challenging than trying to locate program information on higher ed websites, so our links take students directly to the creative writing program sites for every college and university.
These are just a few benefits for students using NewPages.com. If you have some other ideas or assignments that you use, please share those with the group! I love hearing about how teachers use NewPages with their students, and we are always open to your suggestions for improving our website.
Denise Hill is a Professor of English at Delta College in Michigan and Editor of NewPages.com.
The Third Element: Spicing Up Student Fiction
One of the questions I get asked by my students, probably more than any others, is how I come up with ideas for stories. I’m a writer of the wacky and weird, and so, as I tell them, I’m willing to give just about any premise I can come up with a shot.
“But how,” they wonder, “do you come up with them in the first place?”
Good question, pretend-student.
When I was in graduate school, I was fortunate to briefly meet the writer John McNally, who was interviewing for the writer-in-residence position at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, where I was on the cusp of graduating with my PhD. During his writing talk, he mentioned some advice he’d been given by a mentor (whose name I can no longer remember). It had to do with what this nameless mentor called “the third element.”
In fiction, we often concern ourselves with two things: character and plot. Or, who is doing what. This is really what a story needs as its foundation, of course. But sometimes those two elements can feel flat—surely, you’ve written a draft that just doesn’t feel energized. Something is missing, even if you can’t pinpoint what.
This is where the idea of a “third element” comes in, where you, as the writer, inject some extra something into your story. That something could be just about anything—it becomes your task to figure out how it makes some impact in your story. I’ve tried this advice several times, and it has almost universally worked. If a draft feels drab, I try to come up with some extra thing I can put into the story.
So what does this have to do with my ideas and my students?
Well, in class, here’s what I like to do to help my students thinking about this. First, I have a few stories that I think engage “extra” elements really well: in particular, I like to give them “Stab” by Chris Adrian and “Nirvana” by Adam Johnson. After we read and discuss the disparate elements in those stories (if you give them a read, you’ll know exactly what I mean), I hand out three strips of paper to each student in the class, and tell them to anonymously write one thing on each piece of paper—anything at all except for emotion words. The things can be simple and real (“chair,” “apple,” “dog”), or strange and detailed (“Barbie dolls take over Mars,” “a dinosaur tap dances in Las Vegas”). Then I collect them all, shuffle them up, and deal three to each student.
The task is to take the three disparate elements and shape them together in the same story. This isn’t quite the same as what John McNally suggests, but it achieves a few things: it gives students the pieces to create a story and come up with an idea, and it gets them thinking outside their normal zones. It also forces them to really flex their creative muscles by bringing together things they otherwise normally wouldn’t.
After they go home and give it a try, we talk about how they may need to remove one of the elements if it’s too bizarre for the story they’ve written—but even if they do that, they’ve usually found themselves with a pretty compelling premise that they otherwise often never would have thought up.
Write Something Other Than Assignment Sheets
Stephanie M. Lindberg
At the beginning of 2019, I reflected how once again, I had failed to finish either of my two book projects, I had failed to finish NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) again (though two of my friends completed), and failed to keep a writing schedule (even though I know I need deadlines on a calendar to be successful). While 2018, like 2017 and 2016 before it, felt like a failure in my writing life, in my professional teaching life, I knew I had accomplished a lot.
In the past few years, my three part-time teaching positions have turned into one full-time position with a second position one day a week. I recently received a promotion, which involves a lot more supervision of adjunct instructors in my non-college-credit track. I love my jobs and the students I teach. I throw a lot of myself into my jobs and work hard to improve my teaching. When people ask me what I write, I jokingly, but accurately, reply that I write a lot of assignment sheets and lesson plans. I work a lot of extra hours with no overtime, like most teachers do. I want to have lessons that are active and engaging for all my students as they learn to improve their communication and critical thinking skills. I take a lot of pride in my students’ development, so the effort is worth it, and I’m fulfilled by this professional life.
While part of me is very fulfilled by my everyday work, the other part misses the joy of wrestling words on to a page to create a new essay, poem, or story. Two years after I earned my MFA, I still kept a consistent writing schedule. But now eight years after graduation, my own creative writing has fallen off. Growing hours at my day job leave me exhausted by the time I get home. But I’m tired of not writing, too.
I’ve read many advice columns about how to write: get up early and write as soon as you wake, write on the bus or train, set aside ten minutes here and there, write during your lunch break, just find a way to write. I’ve tried these things, too. But really what I need are deadlines. As a former college journalist, I was very good at sticking to deadlines. This carried me in my MFA program too: If I have a date on the calendar, I can figure out where I can add in writing time. So I set a goal to send out at least thirty submissions and writing at least 20,000 words in something by the end of 2019. I actually typed into my calendar on Google “Write Something Other Than Assignment Sheets” at the end of each month as a reminder.
Like many New Year’s resolutions, I haven’t been fully on track. I could make excuses, but instead, I’m going to focus on the fact that I still have a few months to complete my goals. In my job, I like to focus on positive growth mindsets, and if I’m telling my students to use this growth mindset, I figure I need to do the same. So the positives: I have sent out eight submissions since April. I’ve written about 2,000 words combined between about five different projects. I joined the writers’ group at the college where I teach. Next month, I have to submit something to the group for workshop. It’s my first writing deadline in years!
I think many of us get lost in our work and neglect our own writing. Some of you are much better at dedicating time to your crafts, and some of you may have left your creative work behind a while ago. I hope, though, that in the next year, you’ll pick up your pen/pencil and notebook or open up a new document on your computer and get back to writing something other than assignment sheets. I look forward to reading your words!
By Maria Brandt
Maybe eight years ago, the Dean of Liberal Arts at Monroe Community College handed me a printout describing the creative writing program at another New York state community college and asked me why we didn’t have a similar program. That started a cascade of activity, beginning with exhaustive research into all creative writing offerings in all community colleges across New York State and culminating in the launch of a healthy, sustainable program at MCC. Along the way, I accidentally stumbled on an unusually helpful document called “AWP Two-Year College Program Hallmarks,” and this is how I discovered our Caucus.
Impressed by the document’s comprehensiveness and integrity—as well as its use-value at every stage of my own program’s development—I decided to attend my first Caucus meeting in Boston. A little shy and a lot overwhelmed, I hid in the back of the conference room and listened to this group of feisty strangers advocate fiercely for their students, their courses, their programs, their writing, the position of community colleges within AWP, the work we all do in the classroom, and the work we all do in the world. Several times during the meeting, one of the leaders called for volunteers for this or that and I wanted to raise my hand—infected by the energy in the room—but instead found myself slinking into my chair, knowing I had found my people but not yet ready, for whatever reason, to say any of this out loud.
Now, years later, I find myself standing (metaphorically) on that chair, ready to serve a one-year term as Caucus President, and wanting more than anything to continue to build a community for all of our people, a place that can nurture all of us as teachers, as writers, as administrators, as advocates for our students and our craft, and as diverse individuals bound together by our belief in the power of imaginative literature and our commitment to the larger mission of the two-year college. With this in mind, I hereby call out to all of you the twin pillars of my specific and lofty goals for this year’s Two-Year-College Creative-Writing Caucus.
We all know that the students we serve at the two-year college are impossible to categorize. Whether we’re talking about educational background, racial identity, income level, gender identity, life experience, physical ability, ethnic identity, language, age, or any other grouping, our students are multi-faceted, intersectional human beings, and the more we can open ourselves, our courses, and our programs to this reality, the more deeply and justly we all will grow as artists and as human beings.
- First, I encourage each of us to become more conscious of our own implicit biases, as much as possible, and to encourage broader consciousness-raising in our individual places of work. This is a necessary step towards fostering justice and equity for ourselves, our colleagues, and our students. A starting point might be Project Implicit, a series of self-tests intended to raise consciousness by helping participants understand the extent of our own assumptions, which we must attempt if we are to begin breaking unjust cycles. Here’s the website: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.
- I also encourage each of us to choose the texts we teach in our classrooms more intentionally. As we know, artistic representation is one of the most powerful tools we have to cultivate empathy across our citizenship. If the majority of our texts represent only part of our population, we are missing an opportunity to understand ourselves and each other, and to help our students understand themselves and each other too. We need to break open our reading lists with new voices, and this needs to happen intentionally. A group of theatre artists has come together to pledge their entire 2020-2021 theatre seasons towards this intentional break. They’re calling their efforts “The Jubilee” to underscore the joy such efforts already are bringing them and their audiences. What if we all launched some version of a Jubilee on our individual campuses? Here’s the website: https://jointhejubilee.org/about/.
- Similarly, I encourage us all to consider ways we can infuse our pedagogies, our program structures, our visiting writer series, and our hiring practices with more intentional diversity. Again, we will not become a more equitable society by accident. This will take a conscious space-making for voices and practices that have been historically marginalized.
- Finally, I encourage us all to consider ways we can foster diversity within our Caucus. I’ll be circulating a potential Diversity Statement soon, and I’d love to receive feedback from every one of you. I’d love for every one of you to cultivate interest in the Caucus at your institutions, to join our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/21511530957/), to offer your individual insights at every turn, and absolutely to consider joining our leadership. We need multiple voices from multiple positions, and we especially need these voices in positions of power.
In addition to fostering diversity, I am invested in building our community. Indeed, the two are entwined intimately and are the backbone of any pedagogical, program-level, professional, artistic, and/or personal growth this Caucus can provide.
- First and foremost, please be an active member of our community! Please join our Facebook page, read our posts, respond when you feel the urge. Please read our e-mails and respond when called to respond. Please visit our webpage (https://twoyearcollegecaucus.wordpress.com/) and offer feedback. Please at least consider contacting Joe Baumann (firstname.lastname@example.org) to write a blogpost. These all are ways you can be an active participant even if you’re unable to attend AWP. The work we do extends into every month of the year. Your participation helps all of us do this work better.
- If you are able to attend AWP, please spend time with us! Please attend our annual Caucus meeting and participate. Please volunteer to serve at our Caucus table for one hour, get to know the other Caucus members who stop by the table, and use our table as a place for promoting your own work. Please attend our annual Caucus dinner so we can break bread together, one of the most direct ways we can nurture the many bonds we already share. Please attend or even participate in our annual Caucus reading so we can celebrate each other’s work and let loose a little together. These points of contact are invaluable professionally and personally and have the potential to catalyze program-level breakthroughs, professional-development opportunities, and lifelong multi-dimensional relationships.
- Finally, and again, please consider serving in a leadership role. Right now, we’re looking for a Caucus Liaison to Open: Journal of Arts and Letters (http://ojalart.com/). Contact me directly at email@example.com if you would like more information. We’ll also be looking for a new Executive Committee in March. Each of these positions has clear and manageable responsibilities, and are flexible given their occupants’ circumstances and leanings. We are all healthier when there are more of us, and when we all are heard and valued.
I know I’m asking a whole group of strangers to stand up and be heard when I just admitted that I slunk into the chair at my first Caucus meeting. It’s okay to slink into your chair, always. Please know that. But, when and if you ever feel ready to help us be better, please also know that we are here and waiting for you.