Teaching Creative Nonfiction:
Influences, Pedagogy, and Attitudes of Teachers of Adults
Dr. Judith Cohen
Dr. Michael Heyman
Dr. Annie Pluto
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
May 19, 2012
Little participant-based research has been done in the field of creative nonfiction pedagogy for adults. “Teaching Creative Nonfiction” addresses this lack of scholarship by starting to paint the landscape of the influences, pedagogy and attitudes of instructors of adults in undergraduate, graduate and community-based classes. This study used thirteen written interviews, three verbal interviews and subsequent documents provided by interviewees to gain insight into how creative nonfiction instructors approach curriculum and classroom planning, the influences upon their pedagogy and their attitudes towards writing and teaching. The major findings include: the strong influence of mentors and heuristic learning upon instructor’s pedagogy; the alignment of instructor’s own experiences as a student and their attitudes and approaches as an instructor; that teachers of undergraduates adapt their pedagogy to their younger “emerging adult” populations; the alignment of the pedagogical approach of “the workshop method” and the learning needs of traditional adult students. Further this study identifies what participants’ think makes the teaching and identity of creative nonfiction unique, but even more so reflects what is common to teaching writing to adults across creative genres. These findings have implications regarding the education and preparation of creative nonfiction instructors. Much can be learned from adult learning theorists, such as Stephen Brookfield and his work in dialogic learning, Malcolm Knowles Theory of Andragogy, Daniel Levinson’s Stage Theory and Jack Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory, to inform further research in creative nonfiction pedagogy and support instructors through communities of practice.
For the gracious volunteering of their time, efforts and expertise, I thank my committee: Dr. Judith Cohen, Dr. Michael Heyman and Dr. Annie Pluto as well as the participants of this study. I would also like to thank the Lesley Adult Learning 2009 cohort for their feedback, support and drive, which, despite our distance, was a continual reminder that I was not alone. I would also like to thank my parents, who instilled in me the love of reading, writing and learning at a young age. Without their support I would not be where I am today. And lastly, my husband deserves much gratitude. His belief in me kept me smiling even on the longest days.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: Introduction………………………………………………………………page 5
CHAPTER 2: Review of the Literature………………………………………………………………page 14
CHAPTER 3: Methodology & Participants……………………………………………………….. page 37
CHAPTER 4: Results…………………………………………………………………..page 51
CHAPTER 5: Analysis…..……………………………………………………………..page 98
CHAPTER 6: Recommendations & Conclusions……………………………………………….page 146
APPENDIX A: Recruitment Email…..……………………………………………….page 156
APPENDIX B: Consent Form…………………………………………………………………………page 157
APPENDIX C: Written Interview…..…………………………………………………page 159
APPENDIX D: Excerpts From Participant Interviews…..……………………………page 162
APPENDIX E: Selected Sample Syllabi and Classroom Planning Documents………page 200
Chapter 1: Introduction
The Nature of the Question
How do writers teach creative nonfiction writing? I came upon this question organically, as it was one I asked myself not long after I earned my Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction and began to teach writing in undergraduate and community environments as an adjunct or part-time instructor. I found myself grasping for ideas on how to approach a fifteen-week writing course, and was thankful that I had sought out an unpaid Teacher’s Assistant opportunity during my master’s program. In the first course that I taught, I relied heavily upon the instructional model that my supervising teacher presented which was informed by her own doctoral work in literacy, my own experience as a creative writing student and begged, borrowed and stole ideas as to how to fill in the blanks. Some of my former classmates were also teaching writing for the first time with similar or less preparation than myself – although I did not think to reach out to them to give or receive support.
The more I taught both composition and creative writing courses, the more comfortable I felt in the classroom – and the more tools I developed to effectively teach my class. I had numerous “aha!” moments along the way, sometimes when speaking to a teacher with educational theory experience, other times reading about pedagogical approaches online or in books. Each of these moments occurred when I found a connection between an activity or approach that seemed to work in my classroom experience that connected with the theory that I was slowly, haphazardly, teaching myself. These connections were often developed between instinct, trial and error, or dumb luck, and some aspect of education or composition theory (the closest I could find to the discipline of creative writing studies) or an essay about the experience of another creative writing teacher. Each time I wondered why I did not know this sooner, why no one ever talked about creative nonfiction pedagogy. Upon further research, I found a handful of scholars (Bishop, 1994; Ritter & Vanderslice, 2007) who were calling for more research into this field; however they are among only a small number of creative writing craft scholars who are starting to look critically at how creative writing is being taught in the college classroom – and few of these contributions speak specifically to the genre of creative nonfiction. This desire to connect the dots between what teachers are doing in the creative nonfiction classroom and why, is what spurred me to enter my current Adult Learning and Development doctoral program.
Thus, my bias is that I was once in the shoes of many of the creative nonfiction instructors whom I interviewed. I had my own ideas of what I might find in my research: that teachers teach the way they have been taught; that teachers use informal collaboration with other instructors in their planning and approach to instruction; that there is little educational theory or classroom management taught as part of many participant’s degrees. However, as I learned through my pilot study and through my doctoral program in general, I was also open to new ideas and by no means limited myself to substantiating my own experience. I was, in fact, seeking information specifically to substantiate or refute my assumptions, in addition to opening my eyes to new ideas.
What drives me in this research is a quest to represent the experience of a diverse group of creative nonfiction instructors in a unique participant-based study. My goal is to present a broad view of these pedagogical approaches, analyze their influences and thus begin to help further define the state of creative nonfiction pedagogical theory and best practices in the field in order to better inform research.
Putting Creative Nonfiction Pedagogy Into Context
While the term “pedagogy” was unclear to many who arrive at teaching creative writing through their expertise as a writer, for others, including some college-level teachers and those with advanced degrees in Composition or Education theory, it is the definition of creative nonfiction that seemed unclear. To determine an answer at which to start this study, let’s turn to creative writers in the genre. Two key publications that focus upon creative nonfiction are Best American Essays edited in 2008 by Robert Atwan and Adam Gopnik and The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 3 (2009) edited by Lee Gutkind. The former series has long helped define the essay as an art form and the forward and introduction by both Atwan and Gopnik respectively helped to further illustrate that the essay represents creative nonfiction in similar ways that the short story represents fiction. Atwan reinforces essays connection to magazines, also emphasizing that creative nonfiction is very often associated with the “now” – as in what is often published reflects something about the world at its present state. Gopnik breaks down the types of essays in a way that I believe encompasses nearly all forms of short creative nonfiction. He also gives his own definition – that it “splices argument and anecdote, thoughts and feelings, ideas and emotions” (p. xv). Gutkind offers another perspective of creative nonfiction when he states that its “roots are in journalism” but that it “also allows writers to become intimately involved in their stories” (p. x). The works selected for this collection were also an illustrative definition in themselves of what creative nonfiction is being defined as and reflect the changing political landscape at the time (Gutkind, 2009). Zinsser (2001) who has written some of the seminal works on creative nonfiction craft also acknowledges the ways that the genre changes and adapts with technology and culture; however, he asserts that ultimately “good writing rests on craft and always will” (p. xii). Zinsser lumps in email and alludes to internet publications like blogging as forms of creative nonfiction, which does more to define what the genre is not: fiction. Douglas Hesse (2009) further hones the description of creative nonfiction as “an umbrella term for a host of loosely related genres” including “memoir,” “essays,” and “literary journalism” (p. 18 – 19), while Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (2001) also help to explain these vague definitions in their introduction to the anthology Writing Creative Nonfiction. They state:
The genre has become a fertile meeting ground for writers of all kinds, from investigative reporters to literary short story writers and lyric poets. Somehow all their diverse interests converge in a genre that seems expansive enough to connect the self to the larger world of experience, shaping its form to tell the truth of a particular moment. (p. 1)
The editors go on to assert that creative nonfiction prose is also “literary” (their italics) and is “infused with the stylistic devices, tropes and rhetorical flourishes of the best fiction and the most lyrical of narrative poetry” while retaining “a fidelity to accuracy, to truthfulness” (p. 1). Like the continually amorphous definitions of “poetry” or “fiction” which authors often work to subvert and re-imagine, one can try to define a genre and then find as many examples that refute that definition. However, in each there is the use of specific stylistic devices and an essence without which it cannot be defined thusly. In creative nonfiction that essence is fact and/or truthfulness. Thus, this research is open to a broad understanding of the potential definitions of creative nonfiction, with the caveat that the subject matter must be based upon fact or “truth” – or what the author believes to be true.
Nancy Kuhl (2005) helps to further define the creative impulse within the definition of this genre by differentiating between “public” and “private” writing. Private writing, she explains, is “primarily a means of self-expression” with “solace and self-discovery” as its ultimate goal (p. 3 – 4). Conversely, public writing is the realm of creative nonfiction, as its authors concerned with “craft” or “creative discipline” (p. 3). Kuhl explains that “public writing can begin where private writing leaves off” but it is the element of creative craft that must be employed for that writing to participate as “literary writing” (p. 5). Martin (1986) distinguishes creative nonfiction constructed for public consumption as describing “the personal significance of past experiences from the perspective of the present” (p. 75). Thus, for the purposes of this study, participants were chosen for their engagement in and the teaching of “public,” literary writing that engages creativity through the use of craft. Further interpretations of the definition of this genre will be explored in the data and results chapters.
However, as found during the pilot study and when soliciting participants, most creative nonfiction instructors did not struggle with the definition of creative nonfiction as a genre of writing. Rather it was the term “pedagogy” that they struggled with. Even one my most influential instructors from my Master’s degree program claimed, after I asked if she would be willing to participate in my research, to not understand what I meant by the term. I tried to find the words to explain and settled upon “how you approach the planning and teaching of your courses.” None questioned the word “approach.” Like a mountain to be climbed, the instructors simply walked up to the challenge, chose a route and began. They all seemed to know how to take that first step, even if the path itself had been rocky.
But, like a treacherous mountain climb, there are as many ways up the rock face as there are hikers. Some stick one foot onto the closest boulder and don’t bother looking for an already worn path. Others look to the internet for direction (googling, in this metaphor, “how to climb a mountain”), or ask fellow hikers for advice, whether they have climbed this particular mountain or not. Still others have formal education on mountaineering and have come equipped with a map, a backpack of tools and resources for certain obstacles – as it is hard to be prepared for everything. One might say that those with the more fully packed knapsack are the most prepared, and will be the best mountaineers of the bunch. But what if that knapsack was packed for snowy weather, and the conditions they encountered were different?
Through my research I have found that many teachers of creative nonfiction have started their climb of their first creative nonfiction class with a relatively light knapsack – or perhaps none at all. Many followed in another’s footsteps, finding their tools along the way. Once they reached the first peak they had a few more tools and a better lay of the land, but on the other side there was another mountain to climb, this one perhaps less steep, but with a few more boulders in its path. By and large, the most influential element upon teaching has been time – learning by doing – which is, in fact, similar to many lines of work. But the fact remains that there has been precious little research done on how instructors of creative nonfiction approach teaching, what influenced their pedagogy, and what would have better prepared them for this challenge.
There is an ongoing debate about the place of creative nonfiction on college campuses. In the oft-cited text on creative writing theory Colors of a Different Horse (Bishop & Ostrom, 1994) the authors explain that the “retreat from – or at least resistance to – theory may spring in part from teachers seeing themselves as writers first and teachers second: distant second…” (p. xii). This does help to explain the dearth of research on creative writing pedagogy, in part because, these authors go on to assert, that “also, perhaps as much as anyone in the academy, teachers of creative writing are likely to rely on validation through performance” (p. xiii). Thus little research has been done in this field because, in part, creative writers prefer to work on writing in their discipline, which is reinforced by their institutions in that their evaluation is based more upon their creative publications rather than their scholarly contributions. In part because of the divide between research-based and creative publications, creative writing is often a “marginalized discipline” within English (Ritter & Vanderslice, 2007, p. xii). At the moment, there are a few vocal scholars who are arguing that many within creative writing are often “self-marginalizing” relating to “the absence of teacher training and pedagogical reform in the face of the lore that perpetuates the traditions and customs of the field” (p. xiii). In other words, the vast majority of creative writing instructors who were not hired based upon the brightness of their literary star or widely-known publications, have long been marginalized and now buy into their status as second-class citizens because they do not have the scholarly basis to build pedagogy.
I believe that once we can start to understand the influences and practices of creative writing instructors – and specifically instructors within each of the established literary genres – a pedagogy based upon research can begin to emerge. Because there is not yet a compendium of practices, we cannot yet determine which are most effective. And, in response to the challenge of finding the right language to describe pedagogy to creative writers, this research can help to create a common vocabulary and a larger space at the table of academic disciplines.
One might ask why this is important. After all, the number of institutions granting creative writing degrees is on the rise and has grown almost ten-fold since 1970 (Quarracino, 2005, para. 1). All of those instructors must be doing something right, right? However, this surge of creative writing programs, and the accompanying increase in creative writing doctoral programs in particular (from 5 in 1975 to 42 in 2005) demands a more thorough look at creative pedagogy within the literary genres (para. 2). Further, despite this increase in graduate programs – there were over 300 advanced degree-conferring programs in Creative Writing in 2005 – there are still relatively few tenure-track positions for creative writing instructors; only 111 were posted on the job list of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), the most influential academic organization in the field of creative writing (para. 1). This is, as Bishop and Ostrom (1994), Ritter & Vanderslice (2007), Mayers (2005, 2009) and others assert, partly a result of a slow-to-change university system that prizes academic (read: research-based) scholarship above creative endeavors when determining full-time and tenure-track positions (para. 6). By acknowledging that creative writing, and more specifically the genres within creative writing, are separate academic disciplines in need of a defined pedagogy and accompanying body of research, it would follow that more tenure-track positions would be available to scholars of creative writing studies and would further support the call for creative writing to be a stand-alone discipline.
Thus, the goal with this research is to begin to illustrate the breadth of experience and practice of creative nonfiction instructors who are teaching adults in a variety of environments. I will show influences on their pedagogies and begin to map out common experiences, approaches and vocabularies – as well as highlight what might be learned from the outliers. By creating a map of creative nonfiction instructors’ experiences and approaches, I hope to start up the path of the mountain that is a defined genre-specific pedagogy, while providing guidance for those intrepid travelers who might come behind.
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