Saturday 11 February 2012

All about workshop rules

I’m now just about to begin the third teaching week in Semester 2, having recently returned from sabbatical. Week 2 has been all about applying the workshop rules negotiated with each group individually in the first week of the semester.  
Three very similar patterns emerged. In undergraduate classes, except Final Portfolio, our third year class, students just bring work on the day. In Final Portfolio and our Masters classes they email work to each other and to their tutors in advance. So:
·         Students bring work on the day and work in groups with their peers, with the tutor pulling together towards the end of the session what is good practice and what are common faults
·         Students bring work on the day and we share it as a whole group.
·         Students email each other and their tutors their work and we share as a whole group
Generally speaking, each undergrad paper receives five to ten minutes of our attention with Masters students receiving twenty minutes.  
Some other important rules apply to all or some of the groups:
·         The comments are always about the work, never about the person.
·         Students should refrain from defending their work if possible.
·         Students can choose not to share but should bear in mind that this deprives themselves and their classmates of a valuable opportunity.
·         We should not merely “like” or dislike”: we should avoid those words if we can and if we absolutely must use them, we should say why.   
We are forced these days to have bigger classes and so we can no longer enjoy the luxury we used to have looking at just three pieces of work in a session and that meaning that every student could present their work every other week. We now have to do things differently.  
Most teachers of creative writing in higher education are now having to alter their practice. The traditional workshop anyway was in need of some overhauling. In the past there has sometimes been an emphasis on what is wrong with a piece and reluctance to identify what an individual writer is doing well. Often there has been some concern that a text needs to be literary rather than popular, though I’m not convinced |I can properly distinguish between those two concepts and I suspect that some people who think they can actually can’t. A problem now is that students often fail to realise that they can learn as much if not more from looking at other people’s work than from having the attention on their own. A few years of critiquing has made me realise that I can often see in others’ work good points and weaknesses that I cannot identify on my own.  Having seen these qualities in others’ work and I can look back at my own and identify more easily that which I had not noticed before.
There have been some frustrations in this second week:
·         Students have not brought work
·         Too many have not wanted to share
·         Students have emailed work and then not turned up in class.
This has been particularly frustrating when I have painstakingly tried to represent in writing the rules I believe we agreed and given the option that they could correct me if I was wrong. Silence, mainly. Yet one is left feeling that there is some dissatisfaction  - why else would they have not followed their own rules?
And yet. We follow the rules anyway. We plough into the texts that we do have the way we said we would. And suddenly we notice a lot that is right, some things that could be done better and a heap of material that we “like” and can justify liking. Hope and optimism grow.
Of course it can be subjective. One in the group may love, and can justify doing so, something that another hates. But if three or more people are saying the same thing, they may have a point. We all make our helpful suggestions, but really we’ve only had a little time to think about it compared with how long the text’s writer has lived with those words and ideas. Authors are after all authors and have the authority to make decisions. They go back to their garret, their writing shed or their kitchen table, consider the advice given and come to their own conclusions.
And possibly those of us who have not had our words scrutinized this week have learnt a good deal that we can apply to our own texts.                          

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