Quarter After Eight is an annual literary journal devoted to the exploration of experimental writing in all its permutations. We celebrate work that directly challenges the conventions of language, style, voice, or idea in literary form. This blog is a place to engage in conversations about the work we publish, as well as the work that inspires us.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Teaching Experimentally

Many of those who write also teach and many of those who teach follow a familiar workshop methodology. In his essay “Writers of Experiment,” which appeared in the volume 17 feature on the future of experimental writing, Richard Sonnenmoser wonders why there are so few experiments in the pedagogy of creative writing and shares his own experience trying to break away from the workshop model:

“Once, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I co-taught an experimental writing course, Lex Ed: The Art of Dictionarymaking. My co-teacher, compositionist Sarah Stanley, and I wanted to teach a class where students would write original, novel definitions. We wanted to teach experimentally, too, so our only pedagogical plan was for everyone to write and share; we’d all offer critique. Eventually we’d publish the definitions. Two weeks into the term, we created our syllabus.

We decided as a class on February 13, 2007 that we will be collaborating to produce a textual dictionary whose project will be to define many of the “weeds” of the English language. The Weeds Dictionary (working title) was born during our discussion of Jill Lepore’s The New Yorker article on lexicographer Noah Webster, “Noah’s Mark.” More specifically, our idea sprang from Lepore’s citation of Joseph Dennie, editor of the Gazette of the United States, a vocal critic of Webster’s project. “If, as Mr. Webster asserts,” Dennie editorializes, “it is true that many new words have already crept into the language of theUnited States, he would be much better employed in rooting out those anxious weeds, than in mingling them with the flowers.”

In producing Rooted: An Alternative Dictionary we wanted to take Dennie’s metaphor—some words are weeds, others are flowers—and to twist it and play with it until we’d created a dictionary of (and for?) the weeds. Colleagues would sometimes ask what our students were writing. After a while I found a facile answer: prose poems. By definition, we were doing experimental writing. Yet during class meetings we used a workshop model popular in the U.S. since the 1940s. We had a syllabus with an attendance policy. We met in a classroom on campus. Without much resistance, without really discussing it, we’d fallen into prose poetry; we were making art objects with the English language. So what exactly was the experiment?”

Have you ever been in or taught a creative writing class that successfully employed methods other than workshop? What are the best and worst experiences you’ve had in traditional workshops?

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