I appreciated the array of formal and informal assignments that Bean introduced in these two chapters. The notion that slight variations can produce dramatically different end products is something I’ve felt keenly as a first-time instructor. If anything, I’ve learned to err on the side of specificity – the more concrete, the better. Each week, my students write peer reviews of each other’s fiction workshop submissions. I laid out guidelines in my syllabus in broad strokes, encouraging constructive criticism and demanding textual evidence to support their claims. While typical for a workshop format, I realize now that this sort of assignment lacks the “guiding constraints” that Bean outlines in chapter 5. The work I’ve evaluated in this first month has ranged from concise and reasonable to utterly obtuse and objectionable.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of workshopping in general, I can only set forth so many stipulations for the peer reviews. A few formal assignments will bolster the course and allow me to corral them a bit better (not to sound overly authoritarian). I’ve already seen this in the focused exercises I asked the students to work on – freewriting based on specific prompts relating to character or creative germination. I hope a more “academic” (re: not creative) assignment will further solidify their grasp on the rather amorphous concepts we’ve been batting around. There’s a performative element to this reinforcing kind of work: writing it makes it real.
Exploratory writing seems to be a halfway point between the formal assignment and the unrestricted workshop response. The dialectical notebook, in particular, seems like a good way to spur conversation in small groups. I’m also glad that Bean considers the amount of instructor time required to evaluate such writing. Even without grades, merely keeping track of these assignments is no small feat in itself!
The levels of response to high/low stakes work, as outlined by Elbow, elicited the strongest reaction from me. I understand the necessity for a continuum, but I wonder if the “supportive response” with no criticism can be effective at all. I guess I wouldn’t think that any rational response, even if it is a critique, could cause “harm” to a student, but maybe I haven’t been teaching long enough. The workshop responses I’ve been writing for the students’ stories probably operate at the highest stakes of critical feedback. But here’s my dilemma: am I just killing myself unnecessarily each week since I’m not assigning a letter grade to these work-in-progress submissions? How do I adapt this continuum of grading for a creative writing course?
At this point, I’m starting to feel like I need to raise the stakes for my students. Even if Elbow points out that we should “honor nonverbal knowing,” I’ve been thinking about the importance of verbal articulation. Elbow says that people form judgments of character based on speech. How do we encourage and incorporate the ability to talk about our work in the classroom without alienating students who may be naturally reticent? In addition, he thinks that students “take almost anything we write as criticism.” Has this been true in your experience?