Can It Really Be Taught? Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy

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Can It Really Be Taught? Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, edited by Kelly Hitter and Stephanie Vanderslice. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2007. 136 pp.

In Can It Really Be Taught: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice collect an important series of essays and dialogues that address challenges faced by creative writing professors who seek effective teaching methodology. The book's subtitle refers to the editors' hope to debunk dangerous assumptions held by many professors of literary studies, rhetoric and composition, and even creative writing itself, which collectively establish a lore that writers are born, not taught, and thus an exploration of effective practices will benefit only a few, at best. In the book's opening essay, "Figuring the Future: Lore and/in Creative Writing," Tim Mayers explains that the discipline of rhetoric and composition, often considered one of two camps within the English department, roots itself in a tradition of collegial discussion about pedagogy; and literary studies, the other camp, has widened its scope to emphasize effective teaching as well. But a disturbingly pervasive lore among English departments dismisses creative writers as charismatic stars hired more for their power to attract students than for their concern about good teaching. Among other pleas, Mayers asks members of English departments to strive for less fragmented versions of English studies (11), and the essays and conversations that accompany "Figuring the Future" support Mayers's cause both in content and style.

The essays delight with narratives spun by their authors, creative writers grappling with the implications of pedagogy for their work. For example, in 'Against Reading," Katharine Haake cites Patrick Bizzaro's concern that MFA classrooms can produce a "workshop-writing phenomenon [that] no doubt works vertically, where sameness is passed from teacher to student who, in turn, becomes a teacher who passes certain literary biases to yet another generation of students" (21). As Haake argues for a liberation from the literary canon in the creative writing classroom, she infuses her comments with poignant anecdotes about her own discoveries as a graduate student and later, after graduation, engaging in "totally random reading practice" (19), taking up whatever interesting books she discovered at the library. These experiences often had more profound effects on her development as a writer than did the anthologies she would later select for her own teaching purposes. In a powerful extended metaphor, Haake ends her essay by recounting a walk along a beach during an artist's retreat when a pleasing sentence came to her. Finding herself alone and without a pen, she was forced to accept that this particular sentence, and the story that would develop around it, would arrive through some other manner than the scribbled phrases she was accustomed to collecting. And her argument, that creative writing teachers must seek new ways of inspiring their students to read broadly, sparkles with the details of Haake's own personal experience.

In "Charming Tyrants and Faceless Facilitators: The Lore of Teaching Identities in Creative Writing," Mary Ann Cain rivets her readers with an essay that is part memoir and part academic discussion, a mingling which reminds us that effective teaching is rooted in personal discovery about why people love writing, and what draws them to their mentors. We find ourselves caught up in this narrator's quest to work as a student under the tutelage of her east-coast idol, Famous Author, and genuinely concerned when her journey to this end conflicts literally (in terms of class schedule) and philosophically with her developing passion for Composition Theory. Late in the essay, Cain wins our sympathy while confessing that as a new professor, she failed to excite her students. This masterful section reminds us that good storytelling is rhetorically powerful. …