Monday, November 17, 2014

Finally seeing what we're up to

In historical fiction workshop class a couple weeks ago, one of my grad students expressed a lovely thought on his response paper to a novel we were reading (The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan).  Noting that in one chapter the protagonist of the novel was living through the same year of the 20th century as the protagonst of his own novella, the student had a flash of recognition in which he saw all the different characters of the different stories his classmates were working on as inhabiting different eras of the same world.  He said he couldn't wait to begin reading his classmates' stories to see which eras and which characters we'd all brought to life.  Too see what different kinds of people might have been co-existing, if oceans part, in our class's fictional universe.  (On the left, a hundred different fictional characters.)

It was a beautiful sentiment, and I was thrilled to read it, but for me, the teacher, it pointed to one (I think necessary) drawback in how I've formed the course this semester.  Heading into November, the students remained unaware of what each other was doing, except for the one or two other students in their peer groups.  Well, to be more exact, there is one person in class we knows what everyone is working on: me.  And that's only because I decided not to place myself in a peer group, as I often do for my Novel Writing Workshop class.  (Although I am working on my own historical piece too, currently up to 82 pages.)

Relying on peer groups rather than full-class workshops always feels to me like a tenuous arrangement.  After all, who's to say that the two or three other students in your group are ultimately the best readers, or even decent readers, of your work?  And what if one or more in your group simply decides to bail?  What if there is open acrimony in a group?  Full-class workshops provide students the richer response sample they need to ensure that at least a few readers get their story and can provide constructive and insightful feedback.  And any acrimony can be more easily navigated.  But since I was asking, as I usually do for a 4000 or higher level class, for three stories from each student, and there are fifteen students in the class, peer groups were the only way to ensure the students received feedback on each piece.  (Unless I wanted to do nothing but workshop all semester.) And they have; and it hasn't been the worst possible solution.  But as our legislated round of full-class workshops were set to begin, I recognized how late in the semester it was to for them to finally start reading each other's work.  The good news about all this, however, is that students who have taken the option of making their three pieces all part of the same same longer story are sharing the full story with the class.  They will be workshopped on their full story.  (Note: The writing workshop pictured above contains eight students and a teacher, close to a perfect arrangement.)

Fitting in sufficient amount of peer feedback has been only one of the pressing challenges I've encountered this semester.  Most challenging of all has been finding that golden balance between wrting, reading, and commenting on peer work: all crucial components of a rounded writing class experience.  Most historical fictions come in novel, rather than short story, form, so I've devoted a bit more time than usual (and maybe more than finally was practical) to pacing the class through two longish novels as well as two batches of stories.  But with historical fiction there is an addtional joker in the room: the need for a writer to conduct research. (When you carry out the research and how much are open questions, answered differently by different writers, but that you must do so is never really debated.)  I knew going in that my students would have to carry out research for the historical stories they committed themselves to.  And I built in a loose research component; i.e., everytime they turned in a story, they would also have to turn in a two page statement about the research they conducted for that story.   This, I figured, was better than no research requirement--and a few of my students have carried out quite original and quite extensive and very useful research--but one of the takeaways from the course has been the need, if I ever teach it again, to build in more "downtime" for student research.

Time.  Time.  Time.  Isn't that always the way, though, with any course?  How do we best utilize the limited number of sessions the semester provides us?  Thing is, though, there never is or can be a perfect system, a perfect solution.  Because the needs of every student are different.  So you set it up the best you can and let it go.  At least now we're getting to the semester's truly fun part.  

Just in time.


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