Friday, February 4, 2011

Goodbye, AWP Pedagogy Forum

Mike tells me, and I kind of can't believe this isn't all over the Internet, that the moderator at his session this morning announced the official end of the AWP pedagogy forums. Seems like the official line on this is a little underdeveloped right now: they're saying it'll allow them to focus on more pedagogy-related panels. Which seems impossible, as the pedagogy forums currently subsist on volunteers (the moderators may get paid a little something--I can't imagine it's much) and take place in all of two hours and four rooms--so it's difficult to see how they'd be freeing up either money or conference time to dedicate to other forms of pedagogy discussion. It's difficult to imagine much of a motive, period, unless they just feel like the pedagogy forum is too insular, or lacks mass appeal, and that they could lure more registrations by having big names come to talk about pedagogy. Your guess is as good as mine, and I hope you'll share it, as I'm expecting either a brief statement on the website with no further explanation or no statement at all--just word of mouth.

Again, knowing so little about AWP's motives and plans for pedagogy makes it hard to say too much at this point, or to get up in arms and super-righteous about it. Pedagogy is good for AWP, though, I'll say that much--while they're always clearly trying to market the conference to writers outside the university, there's no denying that writers who also teach or who someday desire to teach or who are currently being taught are the main AWP attendees. And the pedagogy forum has given those who can't sell a panel on the strength of their name or affiliation a place to pitch new ideas--ideas that, from my reading and mingling at last year's pedagogy forum, are starting to take discussion about creative writing pedagogy in a new direction, focusing on concepts, philosophies, and methods of teaching rather than strictly on assignments and activities. 

This is what creative writing as an academic discipline needs. The more we rely on established teachers, many of whom, by the time they earn their reputation, are leaving their teaching days behind and moving on to jobs as directors of departments, only teaching classes here and there, or only teaching at retreats and camps--or retiring from teaching altogether--the less we're really talking about the current needs and climates of the creative writing classroom. I think it's plain that the creative writing classroom is a different place now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Students are often savvier in certain ways, having read the usual literature earlier and earlier, or having had full-period creative writing classes as early as middle school. They are also more diverse, both in where they come from and in what they write--to make room for different forms, genres, and creative aspirations in the writing classroom is hardly avoidable, and I am amazed when teachers treat these differences as invisible. Sure, to teach "Show not tell" and realistic, vivid description theoretically works for any person's story. But eventually you've got to deal with the fact, and plan your class around the fact, that the people in your creative writing classroom are there for different reasons, with different expectations, and often, with very different needs. "Show not tell" is going to be utterly elementary for some, where some may actually need to be taught how to tell, how to narrate logically and authoritatively, before they can learn to show. We need new teachers--the people teaching the Intro to Creative Writing courses--and attentive and changeable teachers--the people taking notes and paying attention to whether their methods are having positive effects--to help boost and maintain our discipline.     

Check out more fun Nin Andrews AWP drawings.

That's not to say old pedagogy isn't good pedagogy. Good exercises are good exercises, and good teaching skills die hard. Charles Baxter's advice wears well, and when I had the pleasure of having him sit in on one of my fiction workshops at Butler, his advice was outstanding, thoroughly and broadly applicable, and his teaching manner was that of somebody still very much "in" the classroom--he was paying attention to our classroom, not just using a packaged lecture or handing out a time-worn diagram of the model short story. (Have seen one of these used in a mock workshop by a job applicant. Was mortified.) There are plenty of renowned creative writing teachers who deserve every ounce of their reputation. But taking away the opportunity for fledging teachers, aspiring teachers, to help define our pedagogy takes away our ability as a group of educators to respond in relevant ways to the problems that confront us. More and more, just like every other non-professional program on the college campus, we are going to be asked to define and defend our value, and we do that by defining and defending our pedagogy. If we can't clearly and convincingly articulate what it is we aim to do, and more importantly, how we aim to do it, then campuses will increasingly find reason to cut us out.

Though if we can't do that--if we can't do more than point to a tired handbook of tried-and-true methods as evidence of our teaching efficacy--we probably don't deserve to call what we do a "discipline" in the first place. This is the question I think writers in the academy, and AWP as an entity, has to answer. If writing is a discipline, it must allow ample time and space for serious discussion of practices and methods. If it's not a discipline, then it may be it's only a hobby. And if its only a hobby, there's no real reason for a conference--AWP would be a retreat, a camp, an elaborate yearly meeting of a massive writer's help group.

Interested to see if we'll hear more on this after the conference is over.


  1. Brilliantly said!!! I'm waiting to hear more as well.

  2. Reading this and looking toward pedagogy and AWP pedagogy related presentations in Chicago 2012.