Thursday, September 24, 2015

Creativity in the Comp Class (or Focusing on What Writers/Creators Do)

The Passion of Creation by Leonid Pasternak 
This morning I read Patrick Sullivan's "The UnEssay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom" which was published this month in College Composition and Communication.
The piece discusses the heart of creativity in the writing classroom as centered on the following qualities/ practices: "curiosity," "openness," "engagement," "creativity," "persistence," "responsibility," "flexibility," and "metacognition" (16).
Sullivan argues how writing creatively has been long distanced from FYC courses: "Most of our discussions of creativity and creative writing, however, have focused not on theorizing creativity as one part of a student’s cognitive, rhetorical, and literacy repertoire, but as a separate and often privileged place within the academy where art is produced" (17). The idea is simple: creative writing (even fiction literature) and the discussion of the writer's choices in said writing has a place in the service courses we teach. Sullivan's conviction "for treating creativity as a serious academic subject" led him to even create an entire unit on creativity in his FYC course (22). In this unit, his students are assigned to write poems and short stories, followed by a creative project of their choice (photography, sculpture, song, to name a few) (24). The culmination is the "UNessay" project, where students are encouraged to write about creativity, and the questions he poses for his students demonstrate his effort for students to embrace the value of human creation and the humanities in general (26). The couple of student samples he provides are quite inspiring.

Sullivan, in a effort to promote creativity in FYC courses and broaden the "kinds" of writing students produce, proposes "... to desegregate creative writing in our curriculum and to actively expand our definition of academic writing" (21).

And here I felt guilty wanting to add a few fiction pieces to my Comp I reading list!

Upon first reading, I quickly thought about the dichotomy of student reaction to any creative element in a writing classroom; either the student feels excitement and freedom about their ability to choose how or what they write or (or and then followed by) the student is incredibly frustrated with the ability to choose, often because they have never chosen to write anything for pleasure, been criticized when they exhibited creativity or never been given a creative writing opportunity.

I like how this piece always took the humanity of the student into consideration. As humans, our students must learn to tap into the creative thinking they are very well capable of, even if they are fearful at first. Sullivan agrees with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (9) about how humans, by nature, are creative creatures.

What a concept often forgotten in most FYC classrooms!

Writing, any writing, is a creative process, and while there is a distinction between "creative writing" courses and FYC courses, I think that students in either course need to use language in creative ways.

I saw this first hand this week (if only on a small scale). My students read three essays, all creatively written, all focused on literacy: Sherman Alexie's "Superman and Me," Anne Lamott's "Shitty First Drafts" and Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue". While I read to them, we discussed the author's style, audience, purpose, sentence structure, use of repetition, vivid examples... you get the point. They wrote blog posts about the essays. As I sat with them in class, they brought up points from the essays by themselves (without my prodding), and finally, they began implementing techniques they had seen in the essays in their own writing. My students have even discovered the importance of creative writing in their lives; because of the "Literacy Narrative" assignment they are working on, many of them are realizing how not reading fiction has resulted in their own uninspired writing.

Reading Sullivan's thoughts also made me consider the many reflective writing assignments throughout my students' essay process; these reflections require students to put their most recent writing choices through a sieve of mindful thinking in order to apply more effective and creative strategies.

Still, I want to expose my students to more creative writing, and this is the goal I am working on at the moment. I am on the hunt for fiction (short stories, poems) about writing and the writer. Perhaps I can expand my sights to paintings, photography, sculpture. I see my students beginning to identify themselves as writers, and creative portrayals of various writing experiences and identities would allow them to understand their own writing journeys better. In fact, as I write this, I just remembered how this week a student e-mailed me  this clip because it described how she felt when she writes.

Sullivan concludes his work by reminding instructors of powerful questions recently posed by Kirstine Johnson: who should writers become and why should they become that way? (29) This is actually something I've been chewing on, and I'm beginning to identify a specific journey I would like my writing students to take throughout the semester, resulting in a creative identity where they realize they are able to produce possibilities and platforms through language. I'm drafting out this journey and the various identities/roles the students take on throughout the process, but I'm excited about the ideas that Sullivan writes about, and I'm definitely ordering his book, A New Writing Classroom: Listening, Motivation and Habits of the Mind.

He doesn't apologize for the creativity in his class, and he doesn't dismiss the creative element by arguing: "but they are not English majors!"

No, dammit. They are human.

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