Thursday, February 09, 2012

English 394: The Switchover

Monday marked a major milestone in my academic calendar: it was the final meeting of the first half of English 394: Theory and Practice of Fiction, the semester-long, initial portion of the full-year sequence that all undergraduate creative writing majors and (non-cross-genre) minors must take. As I've noted in previous years, this course breaks the college's quarter system, running past one into the second, at which point the professors change, and the second half of the course runs until the academic year's end, in mid-June.  In the first half the students work in shorter forms (short stories for the fiction track; weekly poems for the poetry track; and assorted forms of the creative nonfiction track), but in the second half they complete a long-form project (a novella for the fiction track; a 125-line long poem for the poetry track; and a long personal or research essay or lyric prose text for the creative nonfiction track).

With the handoff, my teaching load drops to 2 courses (the intro fiction and LGBTQ literature classes) this quarter from 3 (only the creative writing faculty have this load), and my volume of reading and emending student prose will also fall, though only after they hand in their final revisions next week.  It's hard to express how intense, how rigorous, and how energizing the sequence class has been.  I was again able to guide and watch 15 smart and enthusiastic young writers harness their talents and develop their skills as they wrote three short stories and subsequently revised two of them (though some will eventually rework all three), using as their guides the established writers we read and discussed in depth, and several works exploring theories and technical fundamentals of fiction writing. This year I chose stories by Anton Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, Jhumpa Lahiri, ZZ Packer, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders, and the students drew from all of them to varying degrees, creating narratives that often were unlike anything any of these writers might attempt but also unlike anything they, the student writers, have ever undertaken before.  Their stories ranged from very autobiographical realist narratives to highly speculative, dystopian fantasies. Our discussions and the essays each of the students wrote analyzing the assigned stories by each of these writers did allow for deep investigation into the technical means and thematic aspects of each established author.

Working closely with students for six months means that I have gotten to know not only their work but them as people, their personalities, their senses of humor, their voices, on and off the page, and so the switchover on Monday was not easy. As much work as the class required of me (15 students x 3 stories (at between 8-20 pages) x 2 versions of 2 of the stories, + 15 4-page essays, alongside other classes' work), I deeply enjoyed it, and I can say I already miss heading down the stairs of University Hall every Monday and Wednesday at midday and launching into our discussions. (I feel this way about all my classes, but the length and high-level intensity of the sequence always makes it distinct from all my other classes, and I can say that at no other institution have I ever taught a class quite like either its first or second halves.)

Below is the cake we savored as we concluded our final discussion, on the novella in general and on theirs, still in the prospective state, specifically. Congratulations to them, and as I told them, I am wishing them the best and cannot wait to read what they produce in the novella half of the course!

Let me also thank Ish Harris-Wolff, a SFF writer and MFA graduate student who under the auspices of the university's MA/MFA program, served in the experimental capacity of Teaching Assistant--she was and is the first, I believe, to do so!--and who also read the stories and provided the students with valuable advice and guidance. I think of her as my co-pilot for the journey! Thanks so much, Ish!

Cake to celebrate the end of the first half of English 394

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