Teaching Writing to Writers:
When I taught in the MFA Creative Writing program at Goddard College, one of my specialties was to give the Critical Writing workshops that students would attend to learn how to write their long critical thesis (at least 20 pp) and the weekly annotations on all the books they read throughout the semester (about 30 books). Ah, those days were invigorating for the intellect! It was gratifying to have people in my classes who were enthusiastic about digging deep into the literature to come up with original insights of their own, and then produce brilliant critical articles for publication. But, even if not a single word were published, the process of breaking through the blocks that everyone had about critical writing and then to see the gems that emerged, was exhilarating-- and this is not an exaggeration. This process was essential, and somehow a bit magical, because it led directly to revelations the student writers would have about their own work and they lost no time in applying them.
Teaching Literature to Non Writers: At the CUNY/JSM Institute for Labor Studies, however, I teach literature-- comparative literature of the Americas, sometimes of Spain in the glorious siglo de oro (don't you love Edith Grossman's translation of El Quijote? It's exquisite--), and every other semester or so, I teach the required course that is fondly known as "Great Books," because it's about the great books of antiquity and the way they have influenced us through the ages.
My approach is to teach people to read critically even if they never plan to jot a word in their lives because I know that this intellectual process I demand of them in the middle of all their courses about Labor, NYC Government, Policy, Social Service Agencies, Statistics, etc, in the Urban Studies program, will become in a small way a key to understanding ourselves in society.
But, how to teach this to New Yorkers with full lives and full schedules, families and children, in a way that will be relevant and enjoyable? At Goddard, the great advantage is that we are teaching writers, people who take a break from their lives for two years to devote themselves entirely to the study of the craft (;)). Here in the City, my students are exhausted by 8pm, and if I don't stay on my toes they'll be asleep before the end of class. What I've done is to streamline my method of teaching to its bare and brilliant essentials-- I used to title my critical writing workshops "Undressing Your Thought"-- well, now I have undressed my pedagogy.
The last few writers we've studied this semester have been José Donoso, Blanca Varela, Nélida Piñón, Julio Cortázar, Octavio Paz, and Nicanor Parra (except we had no time for his "Poems and Anti-Poems" last week). You can see what a rich pool of talent there is to explore. We are now right in mid-Twentieth Century, the literary period I adore after the global lit explosion of the 1930s. As we discuss in class what they've read the week before, we structure the discussion to organize comments into three categories-- themes, literary devices, and opinions. Of these three, opinions seems the least consequential category, and the list that fills up faster but, actually, it is from here that we eventually generate what professors everywhere simply go ga-ga over: a clear, concise, thesis statement.
In fact, most people begin with an opinion about a book-- they loved or hated it; they thought the protagonist was wrong or unethical; the mother in the story was a terrible parent; the rich guy was a sexist, racist pig. Fair enough. Next, we talk about what took place in the story, what the poem was about, and finally, whether the author succeeded or failed to achieve what we think he or she was trying to do. Once we get these comments out of the way, we get serious. No more vague comments. It's like therapy: But what did you really feel when you were reading Paz's poem, "Blanco"? Or, What is Varela talking about-- death? Oh, that's a theme-- how does she do it? Aha! A literary device-- let's take a closer look.
By the time we can identify literary devices, I think everyone in my class deserves a degree in psychology. I'm serious. What has happened is akin to standing under a group of trees in Central Park at the beginning of autumn and watching the leaves stir. Feeling the ripple through the oaks and the ginkos and as the day becomes cool and we shiver, realizing that something has happened in the park and that this something was caused by the wind. We felt it happen, we saw it happen even though we cannot see the wind, only the subjects of its movement-- leaves on trees, jacket sleeves, the banners on the Museum of Natural History. That is when reading becomes about feeling something happen, noticing what it was and when it was, and then identifying how the author made it happen. By the time students get to this point their reading (on the subway, on the bus) has changed. And their comments begin to change and to reflect what they notice, to be specific, to be locatable within the text: here, here, this is when we see the transition of Cortázar's protagonist between Paris and Buenos Aires. And here-- this is where Paz is talking about love-as-death. Exactly. And this is the point where simply talking about a book becomes critical thought, undressed, unencumbered, and ready to take flight.
Next: Is There Relevance Today To Cortázar's "La noche boca arriba" (The Night Face Up)? Discuss.