Last week, I went to CCCC: The College Composition and Communication Conference. I just stopped in for one day, a Thursday, taking BART from the East Bay to the Powell Street exit in SF … where I emerged with a swallow that darted past me … to see a guitar-man strumming on the corner, the cable cars heading off, and a girl in silver-studded black leather posing in front of the entrance to FOREVER 21. I walked to the Hilton to attend three sessions, which were each informative in their own way.
I caught Jason Helms’ presentation at the end of this session. Fascinating! His dissertation project combines his own artwork, colored digitally, with smart dialogic comics … which cite Bakhtin, among other theorists. This “multimodal” approach to rhetorical creation and analysis was inspiring, and I hope to launch a poetry project on the Helms model in the near future.
Check out Jason’s website, “Helmstreet“!
This session examined how to respond when students write about traumatic topics in their composition classroom assignments. I valued this session, since part of my work and ministry is to sexual assault survivors (see sanctuarypoet.net – jsassn). The presenters drew my attention the need for “protocol” and training for writing tutors in college writing centers.
One key question that those reading a piece of traumatic writing can ask is simple: “Is this the first time you have written about this?” Whether it is the first time or the tenth, the teacher or tutor can listen empathetically, establish rapport, ask clarifying questions, and offer resources to the student, such as a counseling referral.
Of course, the student should also receive the help he or she is asking for with the writing itself.
Reinventing the Creative Writing Workshop
This session contrasted in interesting ways with the previous session because of the arguments made by one presenter about the great freedom writers in workshop should have. He made the case that when he chose to write about a pedophile in a short story, the instructor of his workshop should have allowed him to workshop it in class but wrongly censored him instead. This made me think.
Personally, I hate censorship. I experienced terrible censorship as a young person when a youth pastor burned the notebooks of poetry I had written and the fantasy novels I had checked out from the library. It took me years to recover from that experience.
But as an overcomer of sexual assault, who now teaches knowing that 1 of every 3 women and 1 of every 6 boys is sexually abused before age 18, I am sensitive to the fact that a story about a pedophile might trigger traumatic memories in some of my students.
So, how do I handle the fact that I might have a student dealing with her experience of rape and another student exploring the influence of Nabokov’s Lolita on his conception of the short story? Or a devout Catholic writing about how a priest assaulted him as a child and a lesbian writing a love poem in the tradition of Sappho? Obviously these students do not necessarily have the same experiences or world-views.
The presenters in the session argued that we should address all these matters as matters of craft: who is the intended audience? is the character developed well? are the sexual elements of the plot effectively (rather than gratuitously) woven into the story? I think these are good questions to ask.
I think it would also be helpful to establish, at the beginning of the workshop, an ethical understanding that these issues might come up. Workshops participants need to understand that a variety of types of writing will be offered up for consideration. “Author notes” could make clear, before students read pieces, what the basic content and author questions for feedback are. Students can be encouraged to be aware of where their stories are coming from within themselves and, when those stories go out into the world, how they might affect different kinds of audiences. Such awareness is not simply a matter of craft, but a matter of ethics.
I can imagine rape survivors writing a story not from the perspective of the victim, but from the perspective of the perpetrator, in order to process certain elements their experience. Should this be allowed? I think so. But I can imagine another student, influenced by the sexual violence in the multimedia of our culture but who has not personally experienced it, writing as if endorsing such violence. Should this be censored? Not necessarily. But the teacher does have the responsibility to use the “pedagogy of empathy” to educate that student, along with all the other students, about the real trauma such sexual violence causes to other people’s souls.
So, there was a book fair, and I picked up a couple of useful books:
The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry
Written by an Englishman, this book emphasizes the importance of learning to compose metrically and formally correct poetry. Very useful for teaching poetic metre and genre!
The Power of Personal Storytelling by Jack Maguire
This would be a great textbook for teaching a course on memoir. Chapters on “getting story ideas” by creating lifelines and storylines, being a roving reporter for family news, and getting the picture all present great classroom activities.
250 Poems (Bedford/St Martin’s Press)
This little anthology works well for introducing students in a poetry workshop to poetry in the English tradition from the Middle Ages to modern American movements. The balance between old and new is good.
I particularly enjoyed seeing Robert Pinsky’s “The Shirt” included in it!
“Using Digital Media to Interpret Poetry: Spiderman Meets Walt Whitman”by McVee, Bailey, and Shanahan in RTE (Research in the Teaching of English)
I also picked up the latest copy of Research in the Teaching of English and read an essay on using digital medial to interpret poetry. Very interesting!
I might try the three suggested assignments in the essay, and ask my students to 1) make a PowerPoint interpreting a poem, 2) create a WebQuest using Dream Weaver, and 3) tell a story using iMovie.
To check out one of the authors’ student projects, see: multimodalpoetry.org
From The Power of Personal Storytelling: “to be a person is to have a story to tell … Within each of us there is a tribe with a complete cycle of legends and dances and songs to be sung!” Sam Keen
And speaking of stories, I can’t help but remember St. Francis of Assisi, since I was San Francisco, California, which is named in honor of him. Here is his most famous poem:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.