what is the self-affirming pedagogy? ah, the parrot just ate my control key

from Kasey's blog, a quote thru from J Corey's

From Reginald Shepherd's latest post:

We live in a culture which robs people of social, political, and economic agency, making them feel as if their experience counts for nothing, while simultaneously insisting that everyone's every passing notion and experience is of supreme importance because it happened to them. These two aspects are concomitant with one another, the second offering an imaginary (that is, an ideological) compensation for the first.

This is an astute analysis of the impoverishing ethos of empty "self-affirmation" that too often characterizes the teaching of creative writing as a cultural industry. Reginald's comments throughout the post resonate with much of my own experience, in particular his observation that one of the major pedagogical hurdles for any teacher of poetry is the popular belief "that poetry is too subjective to judge, because it's all opinion and personal preference."

"vagueness is not a style."
I would maintain that this is not enough on its own to lift the pedagogical scene out of the "self-affirmation" level. It may serve to generate an impressive bank of professional "output" that students can use to establish and enhance their artisanal status, just as painting and music students can be taught certain techniques that mark them as "accomplished." This also--or most importantly--provides a way for the program to advertise its success: it has produced subjects who function as living testimonials of its efficacy in instilling recognizable, marketable aesthetic skills. A context for institutional competitiveness is manufactured thereby. The only difference between this and the carefree "express yourself" model of less competitive pedagogical situations is that the self being affirmed extends beyond the individual and into the corporate body of the institution. The program, institution, industry, all affirm themselves along with the student--whose affirmation remains largely at the level of imaginary compensation, except for those fortunate few who are actually able to ride that affirmation all the way to a paying career (and who then, likely as not, perpetuate the whole predatory pedagogical system via their own students).

only the lowest level of students, generally the students who come to creative writing -- especially the bizrre intro to creative writing course most often taught as a survey of writing in a number of different genres (of which teaching
"fiction" or narrative free verse of the sort which is a short short broken into lines is generally the easiest since most students have read or can be easily encouraged to read fiction, and if they are reading even merely for pleasure, can at least be encouraged into writing a fairly decent autobiographical scene or two) -- are entering for an "easy grade" and come to class with the "you can't judge what I write" attitude -- this tends to quickly get purged out of visual art since one can easily separate design / structure from drawing, form from color, etc.

perhaps the problem is more clearly that there is currently a perception that there are more sucky "educated" poets out there perpetuating their bad art than sucky painters? we call know there are more sucky guitar players out there -- and decent guitar players the vagaries of the marketplace didn't accomodate, but they are mostly not educated -- so perhaps the more reasonable cognate would be "jazz musicians" or "composers" than "guitar players"

as reginld sheperd (sp?) responds

Due to the heavily policed institutional borders between creative writing and criticism or literature, the interrelationship of the two is often obscured. Creative writers, seeing themselves as the keepers of the sacred flame of literature, engage in frequent polemics against the invariably destructive encroachments of theory on creativity, while theorists largely ignore or at best disdain the unselfconscious effusions of authors who refuse to accept the news of their death. This state of affairs has always troubled me, for I have never felt the chasm between my writing and my critical intellect (or that between my emotions and my thoughts on which it is based) that so many seem not only to take for granted but determined to enforce on others.

and I would like to add here that there are two situations that exacerbate this division -- the location of creative writing -- esp. the MFA -- within English departments, rather than art departments (similarly, the separation of playwriting from other writing into theatre departments, not writing departments, the separation from critical nonfiction like reviewing from the new "creative nonfiction" most perpetuated by poets seeking to write something prosy for tenure -- AND the division, perpetuated by mostly slam poets outside, but difficultly, also inside, acadamy as the division between page and stage (see also separation of performance from both art and writing into theatre)

he goes on to blog

In creative writing courses and programs, student writing is too often expected to emerge from the vacuum of inspiration. The intention of the writer is conflated with the intention of the poem, because no other context is provided or produced for the work: thus the role of the creative writing teacher is simply to facilitate the student in finding and perhaps refining his or her own voice. This voice, like the self it stands in and expresses, is assumed to be pre-existent, needing at most to be shaped and developed. (This is a recent and socially constructed notion of selfhood and subjectivity....) ...I have heard creative writing instructors say that they specifically exclude outside reading from their classes in order to focus on student work, as if that work came forth with no connection to anything else that had ever been written. ... The unacknowledged assumptions underpinning both student reading and student writing (the reification of taste, the valorization of sincerity, the enshrinement of self-expression) ...

also, again with the beginning student:

Students come to creative writing courses with three major impediments to learning the art and craft of writing.

1) they tend to assume that because they speak English and are at least officially literate (though some lack basic mechanical writing skills), that they know how to write in the sense of writing poems.


the professor has not only read Paradise Lost or King Lear, but that she or he knows more about these texts than they do, though they often question the point of such knowledge. But students tend to enter creative writing classes unconvinced that there’s a subject to be taught at all

2) students find it very hard to separate themselves, their thoughts and feelings, or at best the subject of the poem, from the poem on the page, whether it’s a poem they have written or a poem someone else has.


they like a poem because they like or identify with its subject matter,... The poem is purely a vessel or vehicle of subject matter; students take criticism of their writing as criticism of themselves

3) students are very resistant to reading. They want to write poems without having read poems ... “Why are you making us read all this stuff and stifling our creativity?” ... creative writing students tend to dislike reading not only out of laziness or self-involvement, but out of a sense that it is actively antithetical to their own “creative process.”

I would rephrase this as "students think they already know how to write and how to read; they like to write but not to read. what they write is often from what they hear, not what they read.


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