Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Student Choice, Day 1

So I wrote at the beginning of the semester about how I think the main thing students ought to be doing in an intro CW class is reading. Not reading "the right stuff," not reading even so much with the goal of figuring out how to write (I see that as a more long-term concern than intro should necessarily worry about) but reading as a way of beginning to discover what's out there, how many ways a young writer can begin to engage the world of writing. I want them to find what they love and worry about what that means later; I want them to discover themselves as readers in order to help them begin to discover and articulate themselves as writers.

It seemed that if this was my guiding philosophy for the course I would have to give them time to read what they wanted to read. It was hard to do -- there were a lot of stories and poems and plays and so on I wanted them to read and I was loathe to give up the control of the class time, budding little authoritarian that I am -- but I felt I had to. So, this week and next week students are choosing the readings. Five Tuesday and five Thursday (yes, it's too many, but they each get about 15 minutes, which is nearly enough) are selecting poems and stories from the extensive collection of online journals I've linked in the class Blackboard page. (I also invited them to find other venues, but no one has been that adventurous yet.) They're supposed to read long and hard enough to choose something they love. Then they talk in front of the class about what they liked about the piece they chose, and take questions and comments from students and myself.

I was nervous about this the way I'm always nervous when classes depend heavily on student participation, but they did a good job and I'm happy with the results. I thought I'd share the pieces they chose and what the class had to say about them:

Maya Jewell Zeller -- Three Poems -- PANK Magazine

This student emphasized the formal simplicity of the first poem ("Before the River Freezes") and the pleasures it brought him through its tone and imagery. He liked especially the concreteness of the lines, the way that each image seemed to add up without explaining itself excessively. He enjoyed the speaker's relationship to nature, especially the use of personification in "Hot Streak, Mid-May."

I asked him about how he related it to his own poetry which tends to be very formally energetic, maximalist, noisy; he said that he admired minimalism because it was something he couldn't do, and also because he was always trying to bring that into his own poetry. We talked about the way maximalism and minimalism get their energy from each other; the tension of minimalism implicit in maximalism and maximalism implicit in minimalism. The way you have to mind one as you write the other.

Michael Czyzniejewski -- "The Divorcee Entertains" -- Storyglossia

This student fought her embarrassment at the occasionally risque subject matter (the penis fountain, the sex, the masturbation, etc.) to express enthusiasm for the way the story works both as a series of highly specific, concrete vignettes and as one narrative unified by a sort of central mystery. Of course what no student wants to admit is that they chose a story in part because of the embarrassing stuff, but obviously that's a really important element in how this story works.

The student noted also several ways in which it seemed closely observed and reminded her of personal experiences.

Mel Bosworth -- "I Lost" -- Dark Sky Magazine

This student emphasized the tone and style of language: the way that the sentence structures and descriptions are "childish" and yet also "sophisticated." The lovely feeling of the run-on sentences. The mixture of concrete detail/image and abstract statement/reflection. The way that the story proceeds by hybrid logics of scene and thought and feeling. They especially liked the ending, the bits about the way your body opens during dreams, and these lines: "I was with other people and we were drinking a lot which meant maybe we were trying to die, too. But I don’t think Burt was trying to die that night. I don’t think everyone who drinks is trying to die but sometimes they are."

On a technical level the importance of building a breathless, run-on-happy style like this from discrete, manageable syntactical units.

Molly Gaudry -- "Portrait of a Modern Family" -- Dark Sky Magazine

This student seemed to regard reading as a form of torture and Ms. Gaudry's particular logic of sentence and paragraph as one potential solution. She emphasized the balancing of mundane and weird details, and, implicitly, the defamiliarizing power of that strategy. We talked about the strange, addictive tone of the language and its syntax, which seems both cold/distant (in terms of word choice and its very regular, regulated structure) and weirdly hot (the way we feel compelled to read it quickly, without breathing, by the rhythm; the intensity of the gaze). The idea of the dead girl as a macguffin was raised by one of the students. I liked that.

Stephen Kempster Whelpdale Thomas -- "Buds" -- The Incongruous Quarterly

This student loved the language, the characters, the comedy, the unfamiliar way of rendering a familiar experience. Her favorite character was Mohammed. She liked the way the language -- both in its txt-i-ness and in its choices of rhythm and structure -- removed sentimentality from a potentially very sentimental narrative. I identified this as an example of the classic "new guy comes to town" story as filtered through very different language and style.

Please feel free to share your thougths on these stories, the exercise or etc. in the comments.


  1. Email me your mailing address and I'll send you a copy of my book for that student. Potentially more torture, but perhaps not. Include her name and I'll sign it for her.


    Thanks for the extra exposure and your work in the classroom!

  2. awesome awesome awesome. great exercise, mike, and ditto molly on the thanks. awesome awesome awesome.