Teaching Brevity: Whetting the Appetite

September 25, 2017 § 7 Comments


DSC_1174-2By Frances Backhouse

Recently, while flipping through an Italian cookbook, it occurred to me that I’ve organized my third-year creative nonfiction workshop like an Italian meal. At twelve to thirteen weeks, with one three-hour class a week, it lasts longer than even the most leisurely Italian repast, but the structure is similar. During the first few classes, I serve up an array of bite-sized activities and assignments – the antipasto course, which both whets the students’ appetites and take the edge off their hunger while they’re busy writing first drafts of the pieces they’ll submit for workshopping. Once those drafts come to the table, we move onto the primo and secondo courses and spend the bulk of the term thoughtfully chewing our way through two essays per student. The last class is the dolce – a sweet, celebratory finale in which the students read excerpts from works they’ve written and polished over the term.

The part of this culinary metaphor that I want to expand on here is the antipasto course, specifically the ingredients provided by Brevity for the first assignment of the term. (But I’ll cease talking about food, so you don’t get hungry and wander off to the kitchen.) For this assignment, worth 10 percent of the course grade, each student chooses one essay from the collection of craft essays on the Brevity website and explores it through a short class presentation, plus a written reflection, due a few weeks after their presentation. Although both parts are mandatory, I grade only the written submission. I tell the students to think of the presentation as a preliminary articulation of their thoughts, with the class discussion offering ideas for refining them. My other instructions for the assignment are as follows:

The presentation should be about 15 minutes long: in the first 5 minutes you’ll tell us why you picked that essay and highlight what you consider to be the most interesting and important points; then you’ll lead us through a 10-minute discussion of the essay. Everyone is expected to read all of the essays in advance.

The written part of the assignment is a 750- to 900-word reflection. Begin with a brief overview or summary of your chosen essay (no more than one or two paragraphs). Then move on to a discussion of what you took away from reading this essay. For example: What questions did it answer for you? What questions did it raise? How did it inspire you? How did it challenge you? If you find the essay doesn’t offer you enough substance to feed 750 to 900 words of reflection, you may follow links in the essay or do your own research to expand on ideas raised by the essay. (If you go beyond the text of the original essay, include end-notes citing your additional sources.)

Typically, there are fifteen students in the course. I introduce the assignment during the first class and schedule five presentations for each of the next three classes.

The presentation sign-up is done online via CourseSpaces, my university’s learning management system. I give the students a couple of days to browse the Brevity website and then I open up a forum where they claim their preferred craft essay. Some of them leap in the moment the forum opens to ensure they get the piece they want, while others dither or procrastinate and finally settle on something just before the deadline. Banter often accompanies the choosing. “Damn you, Ellen! That was my first choice too,” one student wrote last year when someone else beat her to the essay “Go Ahead: Write About Your Parents, Again” (a perennial favorite). “Sniffed this one out,” wrote another as she announced her choice: “The Nose Knows: How Smells Can Connect Us to the Past and Lead Us to the Page.”

The beauty of allowing the students to choose their essays is that it let’s them take ownership of the learning process and pursue the topics that are of most interest to them. In past years, those whose first literary love is poetry have picked “What Can Sonnets Teach Us About Essays” and “Line Breaks: They’re Not Just For Poets Anymore.” A student mourning the loss of her grandmother opted for “Writing the Sharp Edges of Grief.” Another, who knew that revision was his weak point, challenged himself by choosing “Becoming Your Own Best Critic.” And the beguilingly titled “And There’s Your Mother Calling Out to You: In Pursuit of Memory” always gets snapped up quickly.

The students generally deliver insightful presentations and turn in intelligent written reflections. The quality of both writing and analysis varies, of course, but there’s enough evidence of engagement overall that I can easily count the assignment as a pedagogical success. However, the greatest merit may be in the discussions that follow the formal presentations. These free-flowing, student-initiated conversations often exceed the prescribed ten minutes and take us in unexpected but worthwhile directions, such as the lively debate about muses that followed a presentation on the essay “My Muse – He’s Just Not That Into Me.”

The value of these conversations is (at least) twofold: they get students thinking about craft in new ways; and they start building the bonds that are critical to effective workshopping. One particularly powerful case was a series of overlapping discussions about stereotyping, stigma and gender politics within the literary world that was prompted by three self-identified queer students’ presentations on “Writing Trans Characters,” “Mapping Identity: Borich’s Body Geographic” and “The Craft of Writing Queer.” But all of the discussions help lay the foundation for the sensitive work of peer-critiquing because they get the students talking about creative nonfiction in universal terms before they zero in on each other’s personal offerings.

If you’re teaching CNF, you’re welcome to add this assignment to your teaching menu. I’m sure you’ll find that Brevity’s pantry of craft essays holds plenty of delicious fare.

Buon appetito!

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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6.
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Frances Backhouse teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is the author of six nonfiction books, including Women of the Klondike and Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver. Her short-form CNF has appeared most recently in the Bellingham Review and The New Territory.

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