On Academic “Rigor” and Creative Writing

So, here’s my problem: I’m working on a syllabus for my upcoming introduction to creative writing course and I’m trying to respond to comments made in my recent pre-tenure review about academic rigor.  I’m apparently not seen as “tough” enough.  Now, I have nothing against academic rigor. My problem, though, is that I’m convinced that this term has started to become synonymous with learning, and that seems dangerous to me.  Rigor is perhaps one way to achieve a learning environment, but I’m in no way ready to concede that it’s the only one.  I’m plenty tough in many courses (in fact, I’m ashamed to admit the times I believe I’ve made students cry due to workload), but creative writing doesn’t work that way.  I ask students to put themselves in a vulnerable position as writers, to open doors that are not easy to open and can be quite scary once they’re open.  Fact is, if they’re worried about the grade they’ll get for that process, then the doors never even open.  Academic rigor in this context is counter to the experience I want them to have, the process I want them to learn.  Besides, can’t some incredibly important learning actually happen in the midst of putzing around?   If we replace learning with rigor, we cut ourselves off from important pedagogical experiences.  So, I guess what I’m supposed to do now is add extra reading to the syllabus–just because.  Or, maybe, god forbid, more quizzes or exams to make sure they’re learning–but what, I ask, am I attempting to evaluate if the testing process actually runs counter to what I want them to learn?  I think that to read and write well actually demands that we read less.  If the student is motivated to do what I ask of them, it’s actually an incredibly challenging course; if the student isn’t motivated, it’s true they could probably slide by.  But do I add to the workload to make sure the less motivated student works hard enough or do I make the environment productive for the student who is actually going to really work through the reading and questions and writing that I pose to him or her?  I will always vote for the latter.  More reading or more writing does not make better reading or writing, does it? The debate reminds me of the silly “Gordon Rule” in Florida, by which writing was evaluated on a word count, 6,000 a semester to be exact–you know, as long as they write enough words they’ll learn to write.  Hmmm, garbage in, garbage out.   In any course, the question should always be how much does a student learn, not necessarily how hard does the student work.

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5 Responses to “On Academic “Rigor” and Creative Writing”

  1. Michelle Wardlow Says:

    I don’t know who you are, but I agree withyou a hundred percent. I do not care for my literatur classes right now, because the whole point of being a literatureperson is the love of reading. What ruins it fora lot of poeple is the fact that you can’t just enjoy the book, but you must analize it. Just because you tease out hidden meanings that you think might be represented, doesnt mean that’swhat the author had in mind when writing whatever piece you read.
    I guess I’;m in my second-to-last-semester-of-school funk. I’m so ready to get this mess over with, so I can go back to enjoying great literature!

  2. GJF Says:

    Sorry to hear you’re in that nearing-the-end-of-school funk. I understand the feeling. On the other hand, I’m not sure I necessarily said (or meant) what you think. Reading less to me actually means reading more carefully. It’s true that analyzing does not mean that we necessarily uncover what the author had in mind, but I don’t believe that all meanings in a text have to come from the author’s conscious mind. As a writer, I’m often wonderfully surprised at readings that other people give me about my work–and I learn to appreciate and understand my own work in a new way. And quite often I come to agree with these readings–people often seem to have a better grasp of my work than I do myself. How much I’d miss then if I simply said, “That’s not what I meant.” Writing is alive in the reader’s mind, and the reader should take an active part in making that meaning. When I say we should read less, I mean that we should read less so that we can take an even greater part in that process.

  3. Michelle Wardlow Says:

    Sometimes I feel that the argument to read closely isn’t entirely what the author had in mind though…I don’t want someone necessarily to scrutinize my poetry that way, but rather to see the image I try to present, or the idea. I do agree on a lesser volume of reading, so that we can really get into some thing though. I guess I’m contradicting myself, because when I first came back to college, I was in a brit lit course and we were discussing Beowulf. I was remarkable impressed on how much the story reminded me of The Bible, and would love to have had the time to seek this out further, but we didn’t have enough time to do so. I’d still like to do this. The samewith Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. There were some remarkable things this man had to say and did so quite nicely in the context of a children’s story.

  4. GJF Says:

    I understand what you’re saying, but I really don’t know why our study should be tied to what the writer meant or wants. The writing is now a community object, something that can be used in many ways; meaning is something that the reader must participate in, not something that the author can commandeer. Besides, how would we ever even know what the writer wants or intends? It assumes that the writer could tell us (and we can ascertain that the writer is truthful or not) and it also assumes the writer is in full possession of the meaning (rather than allowing for subconscious drives that also affect the meaning of a work). I think you’re right that you tend to contradict yourself when you go on to make comparisons between Beowulf and the Bible–that’s strictly your reading, not what any author intends for us to discover. In other words, you’re making meaning, just as I’m suggesting you should be doing.

  5. Michelle Wardlow Says:

    I do see your point about the role of the subconscious mind in the writing process. I was sort of shocked when I had a meeting with my creative writing professor and she could tell things abot how I was raised based on my writing. It was like going tosee a fortune teller. Very strange, in a very cool way though.

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